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.”

© 2013 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 2

vicspencer writes:

Sadly, we are very poor in this area, and under the state laws the school boards and under them a superintendent is responsible for the outcome. If they cannot accept that responsibility, we would like to know how many letters they have written to our law makers and governors to change what prevents them from doing a more successful job. We would recommend that all interested parties read the 2012 OECD-PISA report published in December 2013. It is an excellent document covering the latest trends and success factors in the education results and practices of 65 countries (http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/...) with many points relating to what produces good results in teacher evaluations. We are not doing well in this report. We need to recognize that teachers enjoyed protections via tenure because of the poorest management skill levels in the central management of our school districts. A sound performance evaluation is a must and certainly the old system of observation a few times a year by one person was a very poor way to evaluate anyone's performance. Teacher-student relationships are very important, motivating students is very important, and student accomplishments compared before a course starts and after it finishes is very important. We could learn from other nations who are doing very effective teacher evaluations without a single evaluator's personal prejudice. Such professional evaluations make good sense and would be accepted by the teachers who well suited to teaching and are good, confident performers. Like in any profession, there are those who are well suited for it and those who are not. If some teachers are not happy in the profession, why not help them to find THE one for which they would be excellent and be happier. That would be the kinder and more professional thing to do. We don't do such psychological matching and helping for teachers. Other nations do and in private industry we do it. The best performance comes from people who are well matched to the profession and are happy in it.

Performance evaluations are a very important management tool. We created a teacher evaluation system that makes no management sense in a few areas and it drops the already low teacher morale further down. No one can be evaluated fairly based on objectives that they cannot have full control over. Yet at the same time, performance objectives must be measurable and they must start on top, at the board and superintendent level, because direction always comes from the top and there better be accountability on top first. Instead, boards and superintendents decide to give themselves vague objectives (there are actual examples on my website), and then they prepare their own performance reviews, giving themselves excellent ratings, give the superintendent a four year contract/guarantee, when the results are deplorable. This is not a positive professional move. Just think about this.

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vicspencer writes:

This is reality. Little Johnny is bad in school, the parent thinks that Little Johnny never lies, so the parent mistreats the teacher and the board and superintendent do not back the teacher AND do not give the teachers the authority to decide and act at the time of the offense. That in turn damages teacher authority. We better decide in every state what the goal of our school districts is, and stick to it with a firm hand. TEACHERS ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT RESOURCE WE HAVE ON WHOM THE FUTURE SUCCESS OF OUR CHILDREN DEPEND. WE CANNOT JUST REPLACE THEM. Some elected board members and superintendents do not seem to understand that. Money is NEVER among the top three reasons for low morale, yet we go to a money solution immediately, which never works. Those other top three reasons for low morale have to be fixed first. Fixing the top three reasons for low morale provides the quickest performance improvement - but you have to survey teacher satisfaction by an independent party and be willing to admit that you don't know some things well enough in management as well as you should and do something about it. "Humble pie" and honesty works. Then send people who manage to management training programs that are very good. Titles are not enough. Without this step nothing will work well enough. the major newspaper in Knoxville, Tennessee does not want to publish the truth about the education district's poor performance, a smaller local paper published this about the teachers' problems: http://www.metropulse.com/news/2013/n... to their credit.

Teacher morale is very low. People with low morale cannot do their best, and we really need them to do their best. US teachers have the longest classroom hour requirement in the world and are overloaded with paperwork. They do not have enough time to properly prepare. They do not get respect from students, parents and central management of the district alike. Teachers are both verbally and physically assaulted by students, and they have zero authority to decide the fate of the offending child...and the students see that the teacher has no authority so they can do whatever they want. Does anyone realize that this is how bullying behavior is encouraged? Doesn't anyone in education management or in state leadership realize what this does to the education of the entire class or school? These are severe management problems. Must be fixed ASAP not by individual districts but by state laws to establish standards across the state.

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