Building Bridges at Knox County Schools

I heartily endorse the Knox County Board of Education's recent evaluation of Superintendent Jim McIntyre as a "hardworking, dedicated, and effective leader for Knox County Schools."

But unless the breach that has developed between McIntyre and many teachers can be healed, his tenure and that of the school board members who support him could be jeopardized. Indeed, next year's election for five of the nine seats on the board threatens to become a referendum on whether McIntyre should be retained. And his foes will have the backing of a potent political power broker, Steve Hunley, who is bent of getting rid of McIntyre and his board supporters by any means.

The breach is a reflection of the fact that McIntyre's five years on the job have coincided with the period of most rapid change in public education the state has ever seen. Introduction of a much more rigorous curriculum, an entire new set of standards for teacher evaluation and tenure, and a new paradigm for student testing are all contributing to dramatic achievement gains. McIntyre has been in the forefront of all these salutary changes, but as an old saying goes, pioneers often get arrows in their back.

While transformative for students, these changes have been traumatic for teachers. Their grievances extend from complaints about the specifics of their evaluation standards and what many see as an inordinate emphasis on standardized student testing to a more generalized sense of feeling overloaded and under-appreciated.

To address them, McIntyre proposed, and school board chair Lynne Fugate has appointed, a "working group" consisting of the two of them, 15 teachers, and two principals. Creation of this group, which will report back to the board, was actually one of four McIntyre recommendations, including also a purportedly anonymous teacher survey, aimed at "letting them know that we are listening and making sure that we are responsive to their concerns."

How far that will go toward allaying them and averting an electoral crisis remains to be determined. But at the Dec. 9 school board meeting where McIntyre's evaluation and a one-year contract extension to 2017 were approved, there were at least some voices of encouragement. The president of the Knox County Education Association, Tanya Coats, was the first among some 30 teachers who addressed the board for a total of more than two hours. "By no means are we suggesting you give Dr. McIntyre a bad evaluation. Educators are fed up not with a person but with a process. Let us give Dr. McIntyre the opportunity to give his four recommendations time to settle and gain the confidence of teachers," said Coats, who is an instructional coach at Bearden Elementary School.

The spellbinder at the meeting, though, was Amy Crawford, a reading teacher at West Valley Middle School who happened to be the final speaker. Her concluding remarks were so compelling that I'm going to devote the rest of this column to them as follows:

"In order to be successful we must drop our spears (our offensive weapons) and our shields (our defensive weapons) and agree to a ceasefire. Why? I'll tell you why. It's because our most valuable resource is at risk of being collateral damage in this war between teachers and the administration. While we may have different ideas as to how best to meet their educational needs, it is imperative that we stop the ‘us' against ‘them' war of words.

"We must have the courage to abandon our belief that we are justified in this fight. We may be justified, but simply because we have the right to do something doesn't mean that doing it is right, especially when our rights result in decisions that are wrong for our students. We are their heroes. We have a sacred duty to do right by them.

"I ask you tonight to commit to establishing a shared vision for our students. ‘Us' and ‘Them' must become ‘We,' and we must capitalize on each other's strengths to ensure success. We, all of us, must pick up the same side of the rope and pull with all our might in order to provide every child the opportunity to succeed.

"I will close with a quote that reminds me of my role as a teacher. True teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross. Then, having facilitated the crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to build bridges of their own. Let's build some bridges instead of burning them."