I’ve been part of the education system for 20 years. I’ve been on the administrative side in a private school, in the classroom in a public school, and in a district office as part of the leadership team. I’ve seen multiple angles of every situation a school system or school could face – celebrations of learning, tragedies where students lost lives, victory pep rallies for championships. I’ve had 20 fall breaks, 20 Christmas breaks, and 20 Thanksgiving and spring breaks. But I don’t think I’ve ever needed a break as much as I needed the one I’m currently finishing as I type this column.
By my recollection of the last two decades, this is my 21st fall break in my career. They weren’t always a week-long, but I couldn’t imagine this one being anything less than that. I’m tired. I’ve hit a wall. I feel like I’m using a sand pail to shovel water out of a sinking ship. I’m taking one step up and three steps back. My head hurts, my back hurts, and my mind is cluttered., I’m sure a lot of teachers have said similar things over the years, but my exhaustion isn’t coming from the classroom or even the school building; the lethargy has been seeping in for a while now, and only recently have I been able to pinpoint the source
My first five years in education were spent at USJ, where I was the Middle School Counselor. I helped coach middle school basketball and high school softball, too. Those years were some of my favorite ones of the last 20. The communal feel of that school was something I hadn’t entirely captured since then. I have a lot of good memories of that school, but something a parent said to me during my first year there two decades ago has been playing on a loop in my head for the last few weeks.
“You could do anything you wanted to do; you could make a lot of money, but you chose to go into education. That really means a lot to us as parents.”
This parent might have been angling for more playing time for her son, who happened to be on the team I coached, but he was a starter, so I don’t think that was her intent. I truly believe she was grateful that someone who could’ve made more money doing something else willfully chose to pursue a career in education. Her comment meant a lot to me then, and it’s honestly been sustaining me now.
After leaving USJ, I began teaching at Northeast Middle School. My first year there was in 2008, and my job was challenging in different ways than it was at USJ. I was in the classroom full-time for the first time, which was an adjustment. I was also teaching state standards that would be assessed on the year-end test, which was something new. But the support I had from my administrator and co-workers carried me through it. The support I felt in the community helped, too.
I spent every August through May at Northeast Middle School for the next decade or so. My co-workers felt like family. I taught under six different principals (Jimmy Bailey and Teresa Tritt will always mean a great deal to me) and five other superintendents, and I moved classrooms six times. Through all the change and transition during those years, I never once felt my chosen occupation in public education wasn’t valued by the greater community or the lawmakers in our great state. To my face, I was called a “rockstar,” “a public servant,” and my personal favorite – “a necessary worker.”
I fully realize that most people knew that teachers weren’t paid enough considering the work they did daily, so these verbose platitudes probably eased the conscience of whoever said them. I cynically brushed them off back then, but I’d take a little bit of that ass-kissing right now.
In the weeks leading up to this fall break, I could feel my mental space being increasingly cluttered. The mental energy it takes to keep a room full of 16-17-year-olds engaged in reading texts for an hour and a half is enough to deplete my brain’s fuel reserve, but what I was feeling was something more than that; I just didn’t know exactly what. At least, I didn’t realize until these last few days when my mind was able to compost the clutter and fertilize some of my thoughts.
Public education has somehow become a political lightning rod over the last few years – specifically in Tennessee. Governor Bill Lee has made it his mission to privatize public education under the guise of “parent choice” while simultaneously signing bills that have chipped away at the foundation of public education in Tennessee piece by piece.
From vouchers to CRT to the asinine third-grade reading retention law, lawmakers in Nashville (with Lee’s encouragement) have introduced and passed legislation that pulls resources from local education agencies (LEA) while simultaneously increasing the workload of classroom teachers and librarians with unnecessary censorship laws that require hours of inventory by school staff. Rather than supporting LEAs and educators, the majority of the General Assembly has tightened the handcuffs on district and building administration, thereby increasing the pressure on teachers in the trenches. The most recent and egregious example of this is the overreach of the Tennessee Charter Commission (TCC) ruling to overturn the twice-denied ACE Charter School in Madison County.
On October 5, a nine-member panel of commissioners – handpicked by Bill Lee – chose to ignore two separate denials by locally elected school board members of an ACE Charter School in Madison County. ACE presented two different applications to JMCSS, and each application didn’t reach the 30% threshold when it came to meeting the standards of a state-provided rubric used to assess the potential success and sustainability of a new charter.
During the hearing, members of the TCC – who had never set foot in a school in Madison County – derided the system for low standardized test scores. Of the panel’s nine members, only two were even tangentially connected to public education. Had they ever been in a classroom? No. Had they ever had to sit with a student who was upset about something that happened the night before they came to school? No. Do they even know that a standardized test doesn’t measure reading comprehension? Probably not, because no one seems to know that.
Before COVID, teaching was challenging. Post-COIVD, it’s a whole different animal. As this fall break week has unspooled in front of me, I’ve had time to process the stress and clutter I’ve been feeling; I’ve been able to sift through the grains of normalcy and extenuating stress-inducing circumstances. It’s the difference between acute stress and generalized stress.
My acute stress as an educator comes from what happens in the classroom and the building – the everyday stress of managing teenagers five days a week and hoping to God that they learn something along the way. The generalized stress as an educator, however, is something I’ve only experienced in the last few years. That stress has been harder to pinpoint but has felt like a vague cloud that hangs on the horizon – an ominous shadow draining the color out of everything else.
At some point in the last few years, public education and educators have been used and villainized in political warfare. Lies have been told, theories espoused, and conspiracies taken as blatant truths. In the eye of this disinformation hurricane, though, have been teachers working as hard as they ever have to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. This week, I came to the conclusion that being a political pawn in the war on education has finally taken its toll. The job is hard enough when you’re a good guy; it nearly becomes impossible when you’re the villain.
With the overturn of the denial of ACE by JMCSS, I hit my wall. There has been talk that Superintendent King is going to fight this, and I wasn’t sure what I thought about that at first, but through this week of processing, I know where I stand. I’m ready to fight, and I’m ready for someone to have my back as a teacher.
I don’t know how many rounds this will go, but I know I don’t want us to lay down and accept something as anti-democratic as forcing a charter school on a community whose elected representatives denied it twice. I know that nine people spread across the state don’t know or value our students as our community does. I know that we all want what is best for them and are all working as hard as we can to make sure our students have as many options available to them as they can when they leave high school.
Maybe a week of rest will do me good. Maybe, on Monday, I’ll walk back into my classroom with a renewed energy to teach The Great Gatsby. That’s my hope. Regardless of whether or not we fight this as a district, I’ll still be in room 221 at JCM working as hard as I can to teach my students. But, man, it would feel good to know there was a district behind me who was fighting for our kids and our school system.