First Person

The Values of Labor And Management

At the beginning of this school year in my second year of teaching special education, I spent some initial lessons introducing the concept of values and exploring three values that we would strive to uphold in the classroom: integrity, empathy, and respect. I elected to do this because I wanted to develop classroom rules collaboratively with my students — as opposed to simply unfurling my own pre-made list — and as I was planning for this, I realized that rules are developed fundamentally upon the values that one holds. I felt that these values were rich and could be explored in subsequent content areas, such as in discussions of characters in books (for example, we had fruitful discussions on how Edward develops empathy in the story “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane“).

I often find the debates that are ongoing in the education policy world suffer from a lack of explicit acknowledgement of underlying values, even as those debates are really just a fundamental clash of values. As I read articles heralding the decline in union power and calling for budgetary bloodletting in public services, I might posit that some values that the authors would hold are that of efficiency, expediency, and force as an agent of change. As someone who has been in positions of management, I can understand the perspectives that channel from such values. We seek immediate and replicable solutions to problems, to make systems run more smoothly and efficiently, and to increase performance and productivity.

But there is another value I inherited from positions of management as well that often seems to get left out in these meta-level debates: empathy. (Notice that this is one of my three classroom values?) Empathy embodies the essentials of working with other human beings. As a leader, you must practice active listening, you have to be able to model the behavior that you want others to emulate, and you have to be able to foster trusting and meaningful relationships if you want to motivate and inspire others.

This isn’t just something I’m making up, by the way. Read most any literature on management and notice the focus on interpersonal skills (as well as on intrapersonal). Motivating others and inspiring high performance requires strong abilities to develop relationships with others.

Doesn’t that make sense? Strange that this fundamental value inherent in leadership seems to so oft be lacking in those who seem to speak (or act) in the field of education from a business-minded perspective. As Diane Ravitch explains in “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” education leaders such as Joel Klein and Alan Bersin seemed to turn a deaf ears to their employee base as they rammed through reforms, as if this were effective leadership. Michelle Rhee has also most famously exemplified this style of leadership. Problem is, this is not effective leadership. Not in the business world, and most certainly not in the realm of education. At least, not in any sort of sustainable way. It might seemingly work for a few years — in that people conform because they have to —until the results start trickling in. Turnover will be high. Motivation will be low. And increasingly hostile rhetoric and a culture of mistrust will develop between labor and management.

The business and reform minded values of expediency, efficiency, and high performance are seemingly contrasted against labor and community activists, for whom the values of equity, civil rights, and quality of life take precedence. Though I don’t think we can accurately say that teacher unions are at all powerless nor voiceless (in New York, hardly so), they were formed to give voice to the powerless, and they continue to speak from a perspective of disenfranchisement; community activists similarly engage to counter the norms and dominant perspectives of those in power, whether management or policymakers.

I think we have to recognize that in any viable democracy, multiple perspectives and voices and values must necessarily come into conflict and seek to resolve their differences through the process of ongoing advocacy and dialogue. This is the messy and politically complex reality that we must undergo if we are to truly work with a diversity of stakeholders.

Let me bring all of this high level discussion of values back down to earth through an example of something trivial and mundane that occurred on my subway ride to work the other day (right after scribbling some notes down for this here post). As the train approached my station, I got up from my seat and wended my way over towards the door. A lady was standing at the corner pole with a large handbag jutting out, blocking my path between other passengers. I attempted to (gently) push past, as I assumed she was not getting off at my stop (generally, passengers give subtle body signals as they prepare to exit, such as gravitating into the space of the door). She called out calmly but warningly, “Hold on.” She let me know that she would be getting off, that she was ahead of me, and that she would not move. She advocated for her position. She spoke up. Thus informed of the situation, I then stopped where I was and waited my turn to step out the subway. I abdicated my own personal trajectory and needs to partner with her presence and needs. That’s the process of advocacy and partnership (I stole these two key words from Richard Iannuzzi in the latest issue of the state teachers union magazine, by the way). She spoke up, and I listened. Thus, we worked together to get to where we needed to go.

When dealing with a diversity of human beings, the path that is most expedient is in taking the extra time to establish meaningful relationships and trust. This is what makes for effective leadership, whether in the classroom or in the supermarket or in the office.

The values of management and labor do not have to be oppositional. We can operate more efficient and higher-performing schools by fostering trust (read Deborah Meier’s “In Schools We Trust” for more on this critical concept) and taking the time to build relationships, and most fundamentally by listening to each other and understanding where we all are coming from.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.