If one subscribes to the old saw that for every person who complains, there are ten who wanted to but didn't, and another 20 who would if they knew how, then more than a few people are unhappy with what they're seeing and feeling in Sumter County.
Anonymous #1 writes,
Thank you so much for this public acknowledgement of what Sumter's educators are going through. One full semester has already been wasted on Sweet 16. Tax dollars and valuable time that should have been spent actually educating our students instead of practicing circus act audits. I pray that the school board will soon admit the error of their choice. The Item is obviously not interested in investigative reporting. Maybe The State or one of the Columbia TV stations will come to Sumter and start looking into what is going on. It's not pretty!
I didn't for a moment wonder why Anonymous didn't post under his/her own name. I've known many, many educators over many, many years who are bonafide experts in their subject areas and outright geniuses at teaching knowledge and skills to children, but who also have enough common sense to understand that life -- especially life in a small Southern community -- is a political matter, in the sense that people with power influence what power without power get to do. I felt precisely the same during my years in the classroom; it's a fool who invites the ire of a principal or a superintendent.
At the same time, none of us checks our expertises and our passions at the door when we get to work. We see, hear, smell, taste and touch what goes in in our classrooms, our worksites and our livelihoods, and we develop deeply-rooted opinions about these things.
After all, we didn't grow up in our communities, go off to college and earn degrees, jump through hoops to earn state certification and more hoops to keep certificates current, then subject ourselves to teaching and working in buildings of various quality, under circumstances of various stress, with children and parents who bring various challenges, in communities with various habits and traditions, all for nothing. Educators aren't missionaries or martyrs and shouldn't be treated as such, but we understand clearly that some things can be changed and others must be tolerated.
We value our profession and our livelihoods. So in the vast majority of challenging instances, we swallow our opinions or share them only with spouses and family.
Understanding these things, I didn't question for a moment that a reader chose to comment anonymously.
Anonymous #2 responded to the questions and answers I'd surfaced about the Broad Foundation and its influence on our public education system, because this correspondent has been pondering the same issues for a while. This writer, however, added more information to the dialogue.
Check out Parents Across America. They have many articles about the Broad Academy and the Gates Foundation and the havoc they have done to school districts nationwide. Teachers from Sumter have been asking for help since August when this was shoved down the throats and then were furloughed for 2 days at the start of school with the expectation that many would work over the weekend to catch up before students arrived. Teachers have been doing the research and sending the information out to people but the public and the board seem to want to put blinders on instead of dealing with the situation.
Furloughs to begin the year? Expectations that professionals would pick up the slack over their own weekends? And that educators themselves have been raising questions in hopes that someone would pick up on their concerns and address them?
From my earliest years, I recall hearing a successful man say that the secret to his success was this: He attended to the needs of his employees. Happy employees are productive ones, he said, and my young ears took that to heart. Conversely, I have seen in case after case since those days, unhappy employees -- men and women suffering real emotional pain over their work -- are not only less productive, but they're less healthy. They get less rest, and they burn out quicker.
I have, on occasion, seen these things happening and wondered if that result wasn't precisely what an administrator or supervisor desired from the start.
Anonymous #3 raised the specific issue of the school board's choice of the new administration, and he or she cast that choice as a "mistake." If that is a consensus view, it behooves the board to consider it. If a majority of diners concluded that a new chef and his sous chefs were turning out stomach-aches rather than satisfactory meals, the restaurant owners might reasonably revisit their personnel decisions.
Thank you for this article. It is urgent for everyone in Sumter, especially our school board, to realize that a huge mistake has been made. Virtually every decision made by this new administration has been hurtful to teachers and many decisions have made administrators' jobs more difficult. It is the students will will pay the price for this if something is not done to turn the tide. Sweet 16 has added unbelievable work and stress on educators, and no satisfactory explanation has been given to justify it. The reasons given simply do not hold water.
This correspondent introduced another couple of concepts: Administrators as well as classroom professionals have concerns and may be swallowing their opinions out of self-preservation. Does, in fact, this new instrument add "work and stress" to educators generally? And given that educators have long labored under tedious evaluation systems, is the addition of a new one justified?
The questions raised by these readers are not unreasonable.
Anonymous #4 hopes for a school board that is "logical and well-read." Would that all school boards were logical and well-read; some of them are. But this reader has apparently seen concerns brought before board members, or the board collectively, that haven't been given a full airing, or a reasonable response.
It would be nice if the School Board were as logical and well-read as you are. Unfortunately anyone who brings any of these concerns to the new Board is given lip service and rationalizations. Also, the attitude of some Board members is very condescending as if we lowly educators could not possibly understand the importance of such red tape as sweet 16 and all that goes with it. If we educators question decisions being made or those we fear may come, we are told we must not support public education. I believe that is a propaganda technique taught in our schools. The bottom line is that the constant micromanagement by the new district leaders is making this school year the most stressful year that many educators in Sumter have ever had to endure.
This is what I have observed and come to accept as gospel truth: No classroom professional or education support professional enters their profession to become wealthy. With that motive removed, I conclude that these choices of livelihood arise from a collision of passions for subject areas, for the practice of teaching children, and for the intrinsic motivation that comes with developing expertise over time. Few who despise teaching stay in the field; there are too many other alternatives to it. So to be told that one doesn't support public education because one doesn't support a particular board decision or policy is offensive to the sound mind. Such a machination is symptomatic of disease.
This reader surfaced another dangerous word: Propaganda. This is truly frightening; throughout history, propaganda has been the tool of unscrupulous powers to divide psychologically and to destroy psychologically. It isn't a word to be used lightly. So when an education professional uses it to describe circumstances occurring within the profession, I take this as a red flag, and especially so when I see on its heels the words "micromanagement" and "most stressful year...ever."
To the reasonable ear, these voices seem to represent a vast pool of untreated pain. Is there no one in Sumter able or willing to recognize this pain and move rapidly to alleviate it?
Anonymous #5 concludes that alarms haven't yet rung loud enough.
Our school board and public in general needs to wake up at the totalitarian structure that has been put in place. Our teacher forums are restricted now, people are silenced at board meetings, we are told we are not allowed to contact the State Department of Education, to "be careful" about calling our Board members because there WILL BE consequences, and it goes on and on. It sounds a lot like a "culture of fear and intimidation" the Atlanta teachers talked about. All the while, we have 2 new assistant superintendent positions that have not existed before (both making well over $100,000)and every teacher has been furloughed 4 days. Additionally, several district office personnel took a trip to China. Although I have heard that China paid for it (not sure if that is true), it still does NOT look good for our "leaders" to be galavanting in the Chinese countryside when we (the ones responsible for the actual instruction of students) are sitting home on a furlough day. True leaders understand you roll up your sleeves and take your lumps the same as your people have to...unless you have an elitist view of leadership like Eli Broad, Randolph Bynum, and other cabinet positions at our District Office.
Look at the words: "Totalitarian" -- which fits perfectly to the previous reader's "propaganda." "Restricted." "Silenced." "Not allowed to contact..." "Consequences." Is this Poland? A gulag? North Korea?
It seems clear that Kafka would have no difficulty acclimating himself to Sumter today.
And this reader raises a perfectly good question of budgeting: Expensive new positions at the district office, and international travel to China, while furloughing classroom professionals? It echoes Governor Nikki Haley's $180,000-plus junket to Hotel de Talleyrand in Paris while the state suffers double-digit unemployment. Perception is reality; what doesn't look good probably isn't good.
Anonymous #6 declares "chaos."
Honestly, a reasonable person has to ask, of South Carolina's several-dozen school districts, would many professionals say that their high schools are in "near total chaos"? In any such district where this would occur, isn't it reasonable to ask why a professional would conclude this?
The high schools in Sumter County are in near total chaos. The Sweet 16 system is bad enough, but the district has seen fit to silence, bully and intimidate anyone who dares speak out. Teachers are told, in no uncertain terms, that they are not permitted to speak to board members, nor can they address the district superintendent directly about anything. The district staff has told principals that suspension of disruptive students is not permissible. Students are running rough-shod over teachers and are grossly disrupting the learning environment for those who want to learn. School administrators will not back teachers up with effective discipline because they have been been throttled by the district admin9istration. Teachers are disheartened and suffer emotionally on a daily basis under the yoke of oppression under the policies of the new superintendent. District administrators routinely lie to teachers and school level administrators and then respond by intimidating any teacher who dares to research the facts that would counter the lies. Leadership is totally absent in this new district administration and the children and professional staff are suffering. The Sumter School District Board needs to face the music and end this debacle NOW. If not the Board, then local media and community leaders need to stand up and force a change. Silence on these problems in the school district on the part of the local newspaper is deafening. CHAOS is the only word in the English language to describe what is going on in Sumter.
Words matter, and these are painful words: "Silence, bully and intimidate." "Not permitted to speak." Building administrators are "throttled by the district administration." "Disheartened." "Suffer emotionally." "Yoke of oppression." "Routinely lie." These are words and phrases that would be perfectly applicable to life in a concentration camp; they shouldn't represent the observations of professionals in a school district in South Carolina in the twenty-first century.
And these two conclusions: "Leadership is totally absent," and "the children and professional staff are suffering."
Strip away the specifics, look only at the common language and themes employed by seasoned education professionals, and the reasonable person may conclude that pain is being felt, damage is being done, and no one is yet taking seriously these concerns.
Later anonymous comments refer specifically and generally to the note left by Graham Osteen, editor of the Sumter Item. Candidly, it was heartening that Mr. Osteen commented, because it means that he is aware, or is being made aware, of the concerns of Sumter's education professionals. I take him at his word -- and appreciate it very much -- when he writes, "I admire teachers and want them to succeed on every level." In this, Sumter's education professionals and Mr. Osteen have a mutual goal to work toward.
In his comment, Mr. Osteen made two suggestions that warrant additional emphasis. One is that, to paraphrase in part, solving problems or helping to bring about changes "will take speaking out publicly about problems in a specific way and letting the chips fall."
Anonymity as a tool for self-preservation in a small Southern community has already been mentioned. All of us can cite multiple examples of retribution for daring to speak up and out, even against blatant injustice. We are where we are. But nothing stops the Item from inviting readers to submit specific questions for its education reporters and editors to ask of the district's leadership. Does it matter that they are submitted anonymously? Such questions, invited and received at the Item's website or through some other venue, might have their answers posted at the same website. What harm is there in asking questions, even if the source remains anonymous? We're talking about our friends and neighbors, the people we see at the drugstore and the grocery store and in Sunday school.
Initiating such a practice would acknowledge that the Item has a tremendous power that individual classroom professionals -- even groups of such professionals -- don't have: The power of newspaper editors and reporters to hold public officials accountable for their decisions.
Of course, nothing requires this of the Item, but nothing prevents it. Indeed, it might lead to richer, fuller coverage and greater readership among educators.
Mr. Osteen's second suggestion is more powerful: "Wholesale change would require the election of a new school board, because the board votes are what ultimately matters.....if people feel strongly enough about the need for change, they will organize and vote for it...." His logic is crystal-clear, and it represents an invitation to do what Eli Broad has done with billions of dollars and a massive organization, which is to take control of the public education system.
Who could oppose having education professionals governing the education professions? Attorneys govern their own professions, as do medical professionals and others. Total up Sumter County's education professionals and their families, and parents of children enrolled in Sumter's public schools, and you likely get to an electoral majority. All that's needed are candidates and organized campaigning. Surely there are some knowledgeable retired educators who would cherish the chance to extend their service to their profession, and who understand first-hand the concerns of classroom professionals.
That is, of course, a direction to take for the long term. Meanwhile, how might we determine whether these few anonymous readers have made valid points, and if their perspectives represent a consensus view?
What about having a simple poll question posted at the Item's website and inviting all comers to answer: Should the decision to implement a complex new evaluation instrument, and the "audits" and related activities, be rescinded while parents, educators and board members seek input from the public -- through a series of town hall meetings and other venues -- to determine what new instrument, if any, is necessary?
Leaving such a poll open for a week would likely be sufficient.
No, there's probably no way to prevent someone from voting multiple times, but it certainly demonstrates that the Item is listening for input from educators and parents.
In the meantime, here's an invitation from Educating South Carolina: Educators, if you have specific questions that you wish the Item would ask of appropriate district leaders, elected or otherwise, feel free to post them here. Be brief. Be specific. Be respectful. We'll invite the Item to use them as, and if, it will.
Here's to fostering meaningful dialogue and seeking to help educators -- and students -- succeed on every level.