By JC Bowman
Executive Director, Professional Educators of Tennessee
It's the most wonderful time of the year — if you are a parent. For teachers, so much for the three-month vacation, huh? Most students are eager to get back to a schedule and see their friends. And for taxpayers, it is the announcement of a pending tax-free holiday. It is back to school time in Tennessee.
The truth is for most educators, public education has become a year-round activity. Even when not in class with students, they are pursuing professional development opportunities, working in their classrooms, and gearing up for the upcoming school year. While educating most people to a minimal level and a few people to a very high level was sufficient a decade ago, today's economy requires that all students receive a high quality education. The demands society has placed on our public schools have increased exponentially.
The needs of Tennessee teachers, paraprofessionals, administrators and all public education employees have also changed in the last decade. Educators deserve more respect. They need more information to be empowered, not less. They need a real voice in education issues that impact them and their students. Together, we must work every day to make our local schools, as well as our state, a better place for students to learn and for teachers to teach. Professional educators seek out evaluation and feedback to improve what they teach and how they teach it to improve student learning. But we must recognize that we may need different methods to assess student learning. Educators do not fear being held accountable for their own performance.
However, educators face extraordinary challenges and too often they must confront societal or cultural problems without the support of elected officials. Too many politicians give the impression that our schools are failing. Their political solution is more standardization, accountability and increased testing. Public education is not failing. Kay McSpadden, a high school English teacher, points out: "Our middle-class and wealthy public school children are thriving. Poor children are struggling, not because their schools are failing but because they come to school with all the well-documented handicaps that poverty imposes – poor prenatal care, developmental delays, hunger, illness, homelessness, emotional and mental illnesses, and so on."
The state has a dynamic Commissioner of Education in Dr. Candace McQueen, who has worked tirelessly to once again regain educator trust in state leaders. She has involved stakeholders in the process. And statewide test results confirm strong gains in high school and significant gains in grades 3-8 math. Commissioner McQueen has a difficult job, made more challenging by erosion of public support. McQueen is making every effort to make Tennessee a better place for educators to practice their profession, and for teachers to be recognized and rewarded. Tennessee is 1 of only 13 states that has increased K-12 state spending per student after adjusting for inflation. Tennessee has had the 8th largest increase in elementary and secondary state education expenditures compared to the rest of the nation. The national increase has been 4.5 percent, and Tennessee has grown 21.8 percent. Tennessee outpaces the national average increase in teacher salaries. The national increase has been 3.68 percent, and Tennessee has increased 5.47 percent. And going into the 2015-2016 school year our state has clearly turned the corner. We applaud her effort and are glad to work with her to restore confidence and to move the state forward.
Professional associations must work with school districts and the state to help enhance competence and confidence, build leadership and increase student achievement. Together, we can advance the profession by offering a modern approach to teacher representation and educational advocacy, as well as promoting professionalism, collaboration and excellence without a partisan agenda. For example, we choose to collaborate, not separate, which is a natural choice for a group that is member-owned and member-driven. This leads to the support and respect of stakeholders and policymakers. And we represent the priorities defined by our members — working educators who are passionate about public schools.
So often we focus on teaching, but it's learning that matters most. Rigorous and relevant learning experiences enable students to collaborate, communicate, think critically and solve problems. As Phil Schlechty says, "what we need are schools organized in ways that put the joy back into teaching and that do not confuse rigor with rigor mortis." Education can open doors to incredible opportunities that would have never been possible were it not for the education that one received while in school. With inconsistent and changing economic times, it is more important than ever for our nation's children to receive high quality education and training that will support children in developing the skills, the knowledge, and the integrity that will allow them to be responsible, contributing members of their community and ultimately gain employment with a sustainable living wage.
It takes everyone working together to improve public schools. And we must work with all stakeholders in public education, regardless of political party or perceived agenda. There is not a one size fits all solution, and no one person, one group or one political party has all the answers. We should all roll up our sleeves, as stakeholders and policymakers, to work and make public education succeed for all of our children. Our future depends on it.