Monday, May 1, 2017

Taking your place at the big table

The first week of May is finally here.  It’s an exciting time to be in Kentucky with eyes around the world focused on the Bluegrass State and the running of the Kentucky Derby. 

The first week in May also warrants attention for another reason. It is Teacher Appreciation Week and the start of Teacher Appreciation Month – a time that should be celebrated on the highest levels, but is often overlooked.  So, if you will indulge me, I would like to talk about the greatest and most noble career of education.

I chose to be a teacher.  My mother, grandmother and uncle were all teachers.  To a certain degree, my mother had cautioned about becoming one. The pay wasn’t great and her generation worried a lot about the man in the family being the breadwinner and being able to provide for his family. 

My mother also made a point to say that one should only be a teacher if it is a calling, not because it was convenient or perceived as easier.  Suffice it to say it was my calling. 

I started college to be an ophthalmologist.  I was good in the sciences and I sort of had a point to prove I think. I had even made the comment that I would never teach. That began to change sometime in my freshman year. I remember wrestling with it to a point of being so uncomfortable that I thought I was having anxiety issues. I finally gave in to my calling and decided to go full throttle. I was headed toward a degree in chemistry, so I decided to keep that and minor in education.  When I finally told my parents, they were both thrilled and have supported me ever since. 

So why is education a calling?  Why should it be such a hard decision?  Well, it is a tough job.  Perhaps one of the toughest out there.  Our educators work way more than many other professions and get paid way less.  They are on constant display in the community. And when it comes to politics, education is like a football – everyone has a different idea on how to get to the goal.   

So why teach?  I will tell you why.  Education is the career that produces all others.  It is the moment that you see the light of comprehension in a child’s eye.  It is the moment you realize you are making a difference in the life of a child that saw no future.

In short, educators stand between knowledge and ignorance; I can and I can’t; the impossible and what is possible for each individual.  While educators would love more money, they realize education is an investment in our students. We may or may not realize the outcome. Some students will come up to you 20 years later in the grocery store and say, “Remember me?” Or they’ll send you a Facebook message that says thank you for caring about me when no one else did.  Then there is the student who leaves the note on your desk at the end of the school year that says, “You will never die.  You will live forever through the things you have taught me as I pass them along to my children and future students.”  

As educators, we see our work as a legacy, not a job. So, during Teacher Appreciation Week and all month long, I honor our educators.  Throughout May, the Kentucky Department of Education’s flagship publication, Kentucky Teacher, will be highlighting the amazing things teachers have done during the past year by revisiting some of our favorite stories. Make sure to thank important teachers in your life with the hashtag #thankaKYteacher on Twitter. KDE will be sharing these tweets throughout May.

During this month, I also challenge you as educators. You can choose to make your world as large as you want. You can choose to use your teacher voice for more than just getting your kids quiet. You can choose to make a difference in the bigger vision for education. But make no mistake, this is a choice.  

I have been asked many times over the past year and a half, how did a chemistry teacher from rural Georgia become a chief state school officer?  Well, in short I would say it is because I believed at all times that I was never just a teacher.  I AM a teacher.  

I never wondered if I belonged at “the big table” when it came to making decisions about and for my students’ educational needs.  As a teacher, I knew I belonged.  I chose to make my world big enough to understand it and to make it better for my students.  

So, Happy Teacher Appreciation Month.  Let’s make sure we all take a moment to appreciate our teachers.  Teachers, let’s make sure we take time to appreciate each other and the greatest and most noble profession, education.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Doing the Impossible for Kentucky Students

Spring is a time for new beginnings.  I hope that everyone has had a chance to get away or at least find a way to reenergize in preparation for the remainder of the school year. 
Over Easter weekend, I travelled to watch my son row for his university at a meet in Tennessee.  As I sat on the banks of the beautiful lake with incredible weather, my thoughts drifted to Kentucky’s next step in improving education for the Commonwealth’s students. 
Our new vision for Kentucky education is one that puts students at the center of our work, values the profession of education, and values the education of the whole child, not simply test scores.  Our vision values innovation, collaboration, and putting traditional academia and career technical education on equal footing as both prepare students for their futures. Our new vision values students’ ability to show evidence of proficiency in many ways. It values the growth of each student, the students’ readiness to transition from one level to the next, opportunity and access, and closure of the achievement gap. 
So by now you may be saying, “Oh here he goes again talking about the new accountability system.”  Yes, these values are built into the new system, and quite intentionally so. We approached the new system from a vision perspective, not compliance. If we are to move Kentucky education to a next level, we must think more broadly.
As we discuss our new vision for accountability, I have heard several say that people will focus only on what is tested or that accountability will make everything about compliance.  I acknowledge that many have grown into a compliance mentality. But, I simply cannot accept that we are doomed to continue in this way. 

Over the years, Walt Disney has served as an inspiration to me, and no doubt to many others.  One of his sayings is one of my favorite quotes of all time: “I love to do the impossible.” 

I have to believe that quality educators across the Commonwealth have been waiting for the chance to spread their wings and their minds and nurture their students’ futures. I believe that because I have seen Kentucky educators do this very thing for the past 25 years.  When presented with a new challenge, they rise to the occasion and so do their students.  Kentucky educators love to do the impossible!

The second thing Walt used to say was “Plus it!”  Whenever one of his “imagineers” would come to him with an idea that was already innovative, he would tell them to Plus it!  This would push them to think even bigger and work even harder.  They knew he valued them, they knew he counted on them.  I am saying that to all of our educators now.  We have a new vision, so Plus it! 

It is time for our students to experience innovation beyond what we have done before. It is time for our educators to know that I value them and their work.  It is time for our students to get more than they thought they needed.  It is time for us to know that if we work smart and not just hard, our students will fly to new heights.  It is time for the adults to get out of the way and use all our skill and tools solely for students.  It is time to Plus It and do the impossible for Kentucky students.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Expanding our world

I know many of you are on a well-deserved vacation this week.  I hope those of you who had spring break last week had a great week.  I got the chance to take a week off and spend it at the National Science Teachers Association meeting.  I know, that may not sound like much of a vacation, but it was.  My wife went with me and while I got to enjoy some time with science teachers, I also got some down time to spend with her.

While I was there, I tried to see every Kentucky science teacher I could who was presenting. Unfortunately, there were not a lot.  The ones I saw did a great job.  It was nice to see the examples of good science instruction that we have here in Kentucky showcased.

As I went through the program to find our Kentucky teachers, it dawned on me that we need to have more of our great teachers presenting and learning from other great teachers.  I then realized that this is most likely the same in most of our national organizations.  I know, as well as anyone, how tight funds are for professional development and certainly I know that attending a conference is never high on anyone’s list.

I also know that there is some well-deserved skepticism regarding teachers attending and fully maximizing the opportunity due to the poor choices of a few.  However, I would like to encourage all of us to find a way to present the work we do whether at the state or national level.  We can only improve if we are willing to make our world big enough to let others in.  Besides being an opportunity to connect to other professionals, conferences allow us to see ourselves as others do.
Kentucky has a lot of work to do in education.  There is no denying that.  However, we are still viewed as a leader in education in the country.  The only way to experience that is to get outside of the state.  I hope we will consider sharing our expertise.

On another topic, Sunday was Autism Awareness Day.  These children experience a disability that is not well understood by the general populace.  It is unfortunate we need a day to stop, recognize and raise awareness of this disease.  I say unfortunate because we should not need to raise awareness at this point in history.  These children are a special treasure in my opinion.  While they certainly have their challenges, they also tend to have hearts of gold and special talents as well.

I have recently had the opportunity to meet a twice-exceptional young man named Jack.  He is brilliant and probably has a better grasp on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) than many adults.  I would like all of us to pause a few minutes today and celebrate students like Jack and do all we can to ensure EACH child gets the education he/she deserves.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Standing with Courage

Courage is a trait and a value. It’s a value I have discussed before in this blog.
Today, I want to discuss a different kind of courage than the courage to do the right thing. I want to discuss the inspirational type of courage. It is the kind of courage that I have had the great opportunity to witness first hand and I would like to share it with all of you.
February 28 was rare disease day. It gave me a nice reminder of an incredible individual, Ashley Kurpiel. Ashely has Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP). Since she was a small child, her connective tissue, ligaments and even muscle have been slowly turning to bone. When she was little, her doctors did not know what she had and diagnosed her with cancer. They removed her right arm thinking that was the best course of action. Unfortunately it exacerbated the problem.
I had the pleasure to teach Ashley when she was in about 10th grade. She was bright, bubbly and eternally optimistic. Certainly, many people could have felt sorry for Ashley or any child facing a challenging disability, but I would encourage us not to. Ashley has had TV specials done on her, traveled the world, surfed, met thousands of people, and maybe her most enjoyable activity, she owns and drives a golf cart. She has worked tirelessly to bring awareness to FOP, be a mentor for others with it, and all along has kept that beautiful smile. How many of us get worn down with our daily lives and want to give in to despair? How many of us see the challenges ahead and cower?
I am inspired by Ashley. I am inspired to smile in the face of adversity. I am inspired to stand for what is right. I am inspired to be the voice for all of our children, but especially those who cannot use their own voice.
We all should have Ashley’s courage. We all should be inspired by her and the thousands like her that face each day with a vision for the future.
There is a lot of change going on in Kentucky right now; some exciting, some scary. I am going to choose to be like Ashley. I am going to choose to move Kentucky forward with courage and boldly make decisions that will give every student a chance for a great education. You don’t have to have a rare disease to have courage, you simply need to have the heart for it. Kentucky has the heart, as pointed out in a poem by Jesse Stuart, “If these United States can be called a body, then Kentucky can be called its heart.”
Thank you Ashley, for showing me what courage looks like, and reminding all Kentuckians that they have the heart to stand with courage in the face of change.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Show some love for our public schools

Back in the 1970s, there was a TV drama called Kojak.  The show’s star, Telly Savalas, was bald and almost always seen with a lollipop in his mouth. He loved them almost as much as he loved to solve crimes.  His ever present catch phrase, “Who loves ya baby?” was used to remind the people around him that he loved them and had their backs.

You may be wondering, why is the commissioner of education is writing about a fictional TV character from decades ago?  Well, let me be more specific. This week, I want to focus on love -- not the deep emotional connection one has for another human being, but love, as in admiration and appreciation for the good job our educators are doing. So, during this Valentine's Day week, let’s take time to show some love for our public schools.  

Our educators work hard every day to teach and provide environments in which our students can learn.  Our bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians provide care and safety to our 650,000 students each day. Kentucky continues to improve because of the dedication our educators and education shareholders have shown for more than 25 years. 

As an education community, we typically do not do a good job of telling our story.  We allow it to be told for us, and it is typically focused on how bad things are. To be sure, we have work to do.  Our achievement gap persists and we still have students performing well below their capability.  However, education is also the most complex of issues.  There are many factors that shape education such as school/district culture, socioeconomic status, preschool opportunity and many others.  There is no easy answer to solve the issues our teachers and system deals with on a daily basis -- if there was, I guarantee we would be employing that solution.

I do believe though that there is hope. Hope that a teacher provides each time he or she steps into a  classroom focused on providing each student an opportunity...hope that an administrator provides when they are focused on being instructional leaders.  Keeping faith in the system we have built, changing the things that need changing, and hard work will move the system and our students forward.

So, on this Valentine’s Day week, I ask our public schools out there, “Who loves ya baby?”  
Let me be the first to say, I do.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Thank a board of education member

January holds various meanings for different people. It is the beginning of a new year, a new legislative year, a time to refresh ourselves and I would argue our perceptions, and a time of hope. There is another aspect of January that many overlook, it is Local Board of Education Appreciation Month.

As I have stated many times before, it does not take a special month for me to appreciate our board members, or anyone else associated with the education of our students. Saying that, it is important to pause and recognize the work and commitment of our local board members in Kentucky.

Being a local board member is challenging. They have a tremendous responsibility. They have to make decisions on everything from how we ensure our students are fed to hiring the superintendent. They have to make difficult decisions that affect the lives and quality of education of students in their district and even hard decisions that affect the families and their taxes. They do not get to take a day off. They do not get the luxury of ignoring the community that elected them. Local board members have to make tough decisions, while also resisting the temptation to exert themselves and their own personal opinions into matters in which they have no place. Trust me, this is tough, but our best board members know how to work at a policy level to continually increase the level of quality of education for all students in the district.

At the end of the day, our local boards understand that they are there for students, not the personal interests of adults. Sure, there are some exceptions and unfortunately they get the attention. But, the vast majority of our board members are proud to stand with and for children. They are proud to take a stand to make hard decisions to give our students the best opportunity for a brighter future.

I call on all Kentuckians to thank their local board members. Even if there is a board member you do not agree with them, thank them for their time, service and dedication. They have earned your respect. I gladly give them mine. Thank you, local board members, for your service to our children.