‘Class, We Have a Visitor Today…’

Trish Potts, a 6th-grade language arts teachers in Williamson County, got the chance to look Gov. Bill Haslam in the eye Friday and say, “It’s hard right now to be a teacher, because there’s a lot of teacher bashing going on.”

It was a friendly conversation, part of a breakfast talk between the governor and about a dozen teachers and administrators at Hillsboro Elementary and Middle schools, part of an ongoing effort by Haslam to meet with educators and ask them questions, rather than tell them about policy.

The teachers Friday got the opportunity to describe the rewards, frustrations and challenges they face. The discussion was cordial, and the educators seemed pleased to get the opportunity to interact with the governor.

But the friendly chat came with the background of major education changes being proposed in the state, including tenure reform by Haslam and an attempt to end collective bargaining rights for the state teachers union by the Legislature.

Haslam appeared to fully appreciate what he heard. He was inquisitive and engaging about issues the teachers face in the classroom. There didn’t seem to be an outright complaint in the room, but the teachers certainly gave Haslam information they felt he needed to hear.

“We’re not educating kids. We’re growing citizens,” Potts said. “We’re teaching them how to get along with each other. We’re teaching them social skills. We’re teaching them life skills, how to deal with life. Because of that, this is a cherished profession.”

Potts said it would be helpful if people understood that teachers are molding citizens and that the job is not just about test scores.

Jason Loudon, a 7th- and 8th-grade social studies teacher, put his finger on perhaps the greatest irony of the job.

“It’s the most gratifying job, but it’s the most thankless,” Loudon said.

Haslam appeared to agree.

Haslam also visited a couple of classrooms of young children and interacted with them. One of the first things he did upon arrival was to look at a special display where students had written on cards what they would do as governor if they had the chance.

One of the student ideas read, “I would try to lower job unemployment.” Another read, “I would change how many school days there are in a week.” Another, “I would help ones in need.” And one, “I would lower gas prices,” which Haslam definitely noticed and enjoyed, thinking about his former job in the Haslam family business, the Pilot Flying J Travel Centers that sell gas.

But the focus was on teacher feedback. Haslam heard teachers describe how much time they put into the job, how they felt some of the most valuable professional development time they know — and want more of — is to spend time with their peers and get ideas from them.

He heard about the importance of communicating with parents. He heard how some teachers are using new communication techniques like Twitter, but he heard that not all students have Internet access.

“It’s easy for those of us in policy roles to think we know the answers to everything,” Haslam told reporters after the meeting. “It’s easy to get caught up in theory or what you’re reading about in other places.

“It’s a very different world if you’re in the classroom and preparing to be in that classroom 60 hours a week. Education is the key to what we want to do, and I want to make certain I’m always talking to people who are actually hands-on doing that.”

Potts was one of the teachers who filled him in on the realities of the workload on a teacher.

“Most of us are putting in 10-11-hour days, six days a week,” she told Haslam. “I think the general public believes we get here at 8:30 and leave at 3:30. I don’t know a single teacher who’s ever done that.”

Loudon talked about the role teachers play in a student’s life. He said teachers may be the last best chance some students have to be productive, and he put that in perspective with teacher evaluations that are such a hot political topic.

“We’re the last hope. We’re the only avenue to reach a lot of these kids,” Loudon said. “None of that stuff is assessed.

“We’re held accountable by very rigid standards given the variables in play.”

Loudon said he didn’t know if the evaluation process addresses what is actually going on in the classroom.

“As the direction of the country goes further and further toward it being the end-all and be-all whether a teacher is a good teacher or not, I think we all feel threatened by that, considering how much time and heart we pour into the profession,” he said.

“The key to recruiting teachers is to be real with them on the front end, that it’s not all roses. The kind of satisfaction you can feel when you see a kid learn something is the best feeling in the world. It’s the best profession in the world. But when you’re attacked nationally, as you’re the enemy almost, it’s ‘You’re the one that’s keeping my child from learning,’ or ‘You’re not enough for my kid,’ ‘My kid needs more.’ ‘My school needs more.'”

Haslam did allude to the purpose of his tenure proposal, which includes the evaluation of teachers, which has been the subject of substantial debate in the Legislature.

“I think the vast majority of teachers are great,” Haslam told the group. “I want to make certain we do have things in place where we don’t have the wrong person in front of children every day.

“I understand why people are nervous about the evaluation system, because so much does ride on it. I guess I would argue that not having any kind of evaluation system and not using metrics to measure things would be the wrong direction to go. Our task is to figure out how to get that right.”

After the session as Haslam talked with the media, he elaborated on his tenure plan, which he wants to change from a three-year probationary period to five years. The bill has been passed in the Senate and will be considered next by the House Education Committee.

“Tenure was a bill we proposed because we think it’s important. Teaching should be treated like the profession these folks described,” Haslam said.

“We want to make certain we reward those great teachers, and that those folks who are working to get better, we’re acknowledging that. And then people that maybe shouldn’t be in the classroom, that we address that as well.”

In his discussion with teachers, Haslam was told how in such a litigious environment it’s not uncommon for parents to bring lawyers to meetings about their children.

Haslam was asked later about the current perception of teachers being widely vilified.

“It is a perception, some because of current political issues, but maybe even beyond that,” Haslam said.

“When we grew up, the teacher was right, and now the teacher is challenged all the time. There maybe is a societal view that teachers are people who can always be subject to criticism. All of us should be willing to hear the things we could do to be better, but I do think unfortunately our society has started to say that teaching doesn’t have to be treated like other professions do, and that’s just wrong.”