The Comish

State representative Rick Staples, with the TN commissioner of education, Penny Schwinn, held an “informal town hall meeting” at the Knoxville Arboretum and Botanical Garden at the end of August (8/28/19). I went because it was called a town hall meeting, but the only people there seemed to be other politicians, the Knox County Board of education, the press, and a handful of nonprofit organization leaders. And me, the only person affiliated with a teacher preparation program.

Commissioner Schwinn spoke about her background, her parents, and joked as she explained her vision for the children and youth of Tennessee. She reminded me of Arne Duncan but more fake down-to-earth than fake folksy (she is, after all, a Broad Center alumna). But she has a more appropriate background in education: her mother was a teacher, she was a high school teacher and an elementary principal. Label me a cynic if you will, but her history sometimes belies the lovely things she had to say.

And it was lovely. She acknowledged the massive safety net she grew up with, in contrast to her father, who was a police officer. She said that he was no proof that hard work would lift anyone out of poverty, that TN can do better, that TN is all about family. She spoke about the desires that all parents have, no matter their background. They want their kids to be happy, healthy, and to have a shot. They want schools to give their children something they can’t. “Can you take care of my baby while I work?” they ask. She spoke of the tremendous responsibility she felt to be taking care of “all Tennessee’s babies.”

At the meeting she shared a few concepts from her master strategic plan for the state. The plan will be about “educators and kids,” and she claims that the 35,000 comments she read basically say that people don’t want frills but “basics.” This is a loaded word in education, in case you’re not aware. What back to basics might look like in Tennessee today is unclear when we already have elementary science and social studies down to a few hours per week. She says the plan focuses on materials, support, and making teaching a profession that people are “clamoring to get into.”

I asked her how she planned to partner with teacher prep programs to achieve her goal. She relayed an experience she had teaching 180 high school students and only later realized she was an elementary person. So she wants future teachers to be in the classroom immediately to avoid such hiccups. She also talked about the importance of mentoring.

“I love Piaget and the history of teaching,” she said, “but this [teaching] is REAL.” She is a Teach for America alumna, which may or may not mean she intends to shortcut around traditional teacher preparation programs that teach what she apparently considers nonessential such as the history of education and developmental theory.

Neither being in the classroom early nor mentoring require traditional teacher prep programs. She talked about working closely with teacher prep programs to advance the profession, but she said nothing of ensuring that traditional teacher preparation programs in universities continue to exist.

She mentioned that there was a “teacher shortage,” and that it was likely to get worse in the next few years. It seems that her solution will be to reduce the time it takes to become a teacher. Increases in pay are not necessarily on the table: she said, “I can’t write a check for a billion dollars.”

I am all for reducing the opportunity cost of getting into teaching: all the tests and time are hindrances for folks that don’t have some wealth. But if the pathway to teaching excludes learning about the dozens of purposes fulfilled by public schools, if it focuses on “just getting to work,” if achievement continues to dominate the conversation about teacher effectiveness, fewer and fewer teachers will stick with the profession.


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