published Wednesday, April 3rd, 2013

David Cook: Whatever it takes

Spent a recent morning at a local high school.

See if you can guess which one.

Between classes, there was order and discipline. More quiet than loud. When the tardy bell rang, hardly any students were left in the halls.

Those who were? School leaders approached them and spoke with a blend of kindness and sternness. Asked them to repeat the school's motto. Asked to see their hall pass.

Reminded them of the top three things that matter: education, education and ... education.

(I had heard the hallways used to be chaotic. Like a shopping mall, one person said.)

Visited a designated "data" room, where teachers — who collect data on student progress every few weeks — meet to share results on tests and assignments.

The head of school? After meeting with me, he shook hands with a graduate student who traveled from another state to interview him for her dissertation.

He swaps philosophy with some of his colleagues, and quotes freely from educational texts. He's got this vision for his school. Just ask him.

His favorite line: "whatever it takes." He tells the story of one teacher who, during her interview, used that phrase 16 times. He knew right then he would offer her the job.

Whatever it takes to get these kids to succeed.

Got a good guess on which school it is? Baylor? Signal Mountain?

Try Brainerd High.

Not long ago, I walked the halls, met teachers and spent a lot of time with new Principal Uras Agee. It was just the opposite of everything many of us picture Brainerd to be like (gang members sagging, broken windows) which means half the battle in local education is about perception.

How we perceive kids. How we perceive our schools. How we perceive teachers.

Here's another guessing game.

Take a guess at what our ever-disappointing legislators are considering as their newest sucker punch to Tennessee education.

They've already over-burdened teachers with evaluations. Wrestled with tenure. Chased the fool's gold of virtual classrooms. Ignored things that matter — later school start times, single-sex classrooms — to waste time on whether you can say "gay" in a classroom.

Now, they want to cut pensions.

Like a knife in the back to state educators, our legislators (whose side are you on?) are looking hard at a bill that would put more of the risk of our state's pension plan -- currently one of the best in the nation -- into the laps of teachers, whose state-guaranteed contributions would drop by about one-third.

They can recoup their losses, the state says, by investing in a 401(k)-style plan. In such a fragile economy, officials in Nashville say we have to stop risking so much on teacher retirement.

(Imagine a teacher saying: We're not taking a risk on these kids anymore.)

They say the plan would affect only those hired after July 2014.

Is that supposed to be good news?

We need the best and brightest teachers out there. Education reform cannot happen without that. Period.

So these young college grads, who already know teaching ain't gonna pay much, are still willing to work nights, weekends, holidays to sweat and cry and run the ink dry on every red pen on the block just to try and get your child on the right path.

(Take care of our kids, and also figure out how to retire on your own, too.)

We, in return, should honor the social contract that helps them put their feet up in retirement. Take that vacation without worrying if the money you spend will cut into your ability to pay for classroom supplies.

The message we ought to send?

Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to get the best and brightest here.

If we perceive education as something that matters, and teaching as work that is infinitely important, then that is what we'll do.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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Leaf said...

Kudos, David. Excellent article. You hit the nail on the head about how our state legislators view education. This war on education is having real consequences on the middle and lower classes and the future of our state. How are we to compete with Ohio - much less Europe - when we glorify ignorance and take the theory of evolution out of our science books?

April 3, 2013 at 3:08 p.m.
LaughingBoy said...

Expecting students to act like something when they're at school, instead of offering excuses why they can't act right, can't learn, can't graduate, what a novel concept.

April 3, 2013 at 4:57 p.m.
John_Proctor said...

The mouthbreathers in the state legislature are satisfied with simply not being Mississippi. How long TN will be able to continue to make that claim will be determined by how many more stupid things the circus clowns do to punish the middle class and reward their corporate masters. I will not be surprised when one of those mental midgets introduces legislation calling for the return of slavery.

April 3, 2013 at 9:18 p.m.
Rickaroo said...

Good article, David Cook. Brainerd High is an example of what could be accomplished across the board if we collectively focused our attention and resources on public education instead of frittering funds away on vouchers and entertaining the foolish notion that the free market is the magic cure for what ails us regarding education on a nationwide scale.

"I will not be surprised when one of those mental midgets introduces legislation calling for the return of slavery." - J_P

Nor will I. Most libertarians or teabaggers would not admit to wanting the return of slavery but they (libertarians, at least) have already made the statement, loud and clear, that the Civil Rights Act was an over-reach of the government and that if a particular state and its legislators should vote in favor of discrimination, allowing a business owner to refuse service to a black person if that owner so chooses, then he/she should be able to retain that "right." Libertarians think that states' rights trump all other rights, even civil rights. It is no stretch at all for them to blame the Civil War solely on the federal government for overstepping its bounds and in turn absolving the South for its egregious acts of secession. In a sense they are actually justifying slavery as it existed at the time because every southern state sanctioned it, and states' rights are sacrosanct in their view. Libertarians are as fanatical and irrational about their reverence for states' rights as they are about their unmitigated hatred of the very existence of the federal government.

April 4, 2013 at 3:07 p.m.
Lr103 said...

Nor will I. Most libertarians or teabaggers would not admit to wanting the return of slavery but they (libertarians, at least) have already made the statement, loud and clear, that the Civil Rights Act was an over-reach of the government and that if a particular state and its legislators should vote in favor of discrimination, allowing a business owner to refuse service to a black person if that owner so chooses, then he/she should be able to retain that "right." Libertarians think that states' rights trump all other rights, even civil rights. It is no stretch at all for them to blame the Civil War solely on the federal government for overstepping its bounds and in turn absolving the South for its egregious acts of secession. In a sense they are actually justifying slavery as it existed at the time because every southern state sanctioned it, and states' rights are sacrosanct in their view. Libertarians are as fanatical and irrational about their reverence for states' rights as they are about their unmitigated hatred of the very existence of the federal government.

The above is why never understood why some blacks have been champions and supporters of states rights. I actually once overheard a black radio talk show host actually say he supported states rights. Another time, a black running for political office say the same thing. I didn't know whether to fall out of my car laughing or crying and feeling sorry for the ignorance that both spoke without knowing the full significance of those to simple words, states rights, actually meant.

April 4, 2013 at 5:37 p.m.
GameOn said...

The good teachers I know are looking for other career options. They won't stay 30 years. Most get no respect from Central Office, parents, students, etc. They are tired of working 14 hour days and 8 hours a day on weekends to do a thankless job. They won't stay 15 years. The retirement situation has been resolved for the younger teachers. Doing 12 plus months of work in 9 months is worth getting the summer off. Thirty years ago, yes but not today. They have no time for their own children.

April 5, 2013 at 12:01 a.m.
timbo said...

With teachers it is supply and demand. There is an abundant supply and the demand is down. If teachers don't like the benefits and pay they can change jobs. When teachers become scarce, they will be paid more.

That is how the real world works. I know that teachers live in some other world but it is time that they faced economic reality. Their solution is to continue to raise taxes and pay them more, and more, and more....

We spend more on education than anyone in the world, yet our test scores are 17th in developed countries. Part of this failure is the teachers union and education lobby pushing for more and more and giving less and less results. In the real world less results mean less money.

Cook and the rest of the education mafia need to grow up.

April 5, 2013 at 3:04 p.m.
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