A (Former) Teacher's Story - And Response (2)

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Today is my retirement day from Hamilton County Department of Education. 

Should I go gently into that good night? Nope . . . here is my story. 

I love being a teacher. I love being a kindergarten teacher. My passion is teaching children to read and learn about numbers and counting. I love watching their little faces as they begin their journey in education. I want to be their first teacher in the educational environment because I want them to process all that they are learning through the lens of creativity and fun and excitement.

I want my students to be able to clean a pumpkin in the fall and plant the seeds and watch what happens.  I want my students to dress in different colors for “Color Week” and taste foods associated with each color.  

I want my students to grab their coats and run outside with me at the first sign of a snowflake falling so that we can catch the snowflakes on our tongues and dance around in the cold crisp weather.

I want my students to enjoy learning about animals when a little girl brings her pet weasel to school so that we can take turns holding the weasel and watching the weasel play with a cardboard tube, all while listening to the little girl tell us how she takes care of her own animal at home.

I want my students to listen to The Polar Express (I can hardly get through that last page – always have a lump in my throat) and then pretend we are on a trip to the North Pole with a snack of cocoa and candy nuggets, all while wearing our pajamas to school – and watching their eyes as they open a present with a silver bell inside.

I want my students to spend an entire day celebrating their 100th day of school by stringing 100 beads to make a necklace, mixing 100 snacks to make trail mix, hopping-skipping-jumping 100 times and folding our bodies to make the number 100! I want my students to exchange Valentines from boxes that they made at home with their parents.

I want my students to walk with me on a trail as we discover the first signs of spring and record what we see in our notebooks. I want students to watch and record as our class caterpillars become butterflies and rejoice with me as I release the butterflies into the bright spring sky – much like I have watched my students emerge from their little five and six-year-old selves and become “Ready for First Grade” . . . I have loved it all and so much more. 

And of course the academics – the reading, writing, arithmetic. That’s a given. We are in school. But somewhere along the line something happened and those things mentioned in my first paragraph have all become secondary to the reading, writing, arithmetic. We no longer are given the opportunity to learn through play, through fun, through creativity. We tell our students to sit at their desks and rotate on their own through “purposeful practice” centers while reading groups take up the majority of our day and the rigid schedule of a one hour math session cannot be cut short for any reason. No deviation from the schedule.

And testing!! Yes – testing in kindergarten – sometimes students are sitting in rows, facing forward with pencils they have barely learned to curl their little fingers around, folders used as “office spaces” so they can’t see a neighbor's paper – taking a standardized test as though they are in middle school.

When and why did all of this happen? What happened to the educational system?

When I see my former students – all grown up and smiling shyly and wanting to remember special things from our time together in my classroom all those many years ago – they don’t want to talk about reading groups or time spent taking tests. They want to talk about the plants we grew, dressing up for color week, the necklaces we made, dancing to the first snowfall, and letting our butterflies go. Those are the things they remember. 

As a professional educator with 18 years of experience – in first grade and kindergarten – I have seen the waves of what we are expected to teach go up and down, appear and disappear. One of the most distressing parts of what I have seen through the years is the disregard that the administration has for their most valuable resource – teachers. 

We are taken for granted. We are shortchanged with the amount of time in any given day to complete all the necessary tasks and therefore we take our work home with us. We spend hours upon hours setting up our classrooms to create a wonderful learning environment, investing our own time and money and energy – because if we want that – we have to provide it ourselves. We spend hours upon hours at home doing lesson plans and contacting parents and grading papers and completing report cards. Those are things that cannot be accomplished in the course of a regular school day, but those things must be done – so we do them when we get home and our families sit by and watch as we put our beloved profession and our wonderful students in front of our own families and their needs.Happens each and every day and every teacher knows this to be true. 

For myself, it has always been kindergarten. That is where I feel I have the greatest impact. My personality lends itself to younger children and I see myself as firm but fair in a gentle, loving manner. In front of an audience I am a mess, but in my kindergarten classroom – I’ve been told I “sparkle”!! And I love that.  But two years ago, after 16 years as a primary teacher, with hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars of my family’s money invested in my classroom, I was told mid-year that I would be moved to teach 4th grade.  I did not request the move nor did I want to change grade levels at that point in my career. But the principal at North Hamilton County Elementary – Jacquie Hauth -  was determined to move me and no amount of pleading, begging, letters to Superintendent Rick Smith – from former students, parents and teachers – could persuade her to change her mind so I packed up my classroom for storage and wondered where the money would come from to set up a 4th grade class.

I attended workshops and textbook presentations for 4th grade and it was during a math workshop that I heard about a kindergarten position that had become available – but it was after the transfer period for changing school and I wasn’t eligible to transfer. Then I was told I would be able to transfer because the school was an IZONE school – one of the five schools on the Tennessee state list of failing schools here in Hamilton County. A school with a high teacher turnover rate and because teachers at Woodmore received stipends for additional hours during the week, I would be allowed to transfer. After a phone interview with the principal – I was back in kindergarten – where I belonged. 

Last year was amazing. Our principal at Woodmore Elementary, Cheri Grant, understood that teachers needed to practice their craft and she was determined to keep our kindergarten classes small and she allowed us the creativity and freedom to . . . teach.  At the end of the year, every single kindergarten student was on or above grade level in reading and we had an exciting and wonderful year at Woodmore – at least in kindergarten. 

But changes happen and at the beginning of this school year we got a new principal and things changed – as they always do. We still had our small class sizes and were assured that with the success of last year that the small classes were beneficial. We started our school year and there were some challenging students right away, those little guys that haven’t yet adjusted to school and are going through being in school for the first time – all day – and wanting to be anywhere but in school. With my years of experience, this was all perfectly normal and I knew adjustments would take time. 

I did reach out for help from administration with things that I did not feel I could handle on my own or things I needed assistance with. Some days I received help, other days I was left on my own to do the best I could.  As “Color Week” came to kindergarten, we were on our 10th day of school – Blue Day – when I was called to the office to discuss how I handled students in my classroom. As a result of the meeting, I felt that I needed to take some time off of school to take care of myself. I was on an approved Medical Leave of Absence for the semester, with a return date of Jan. 2, 2017. During my Leave of Absence, I did not hear from anyone at school. 

Upon my return last Monday, I learned that since the kindergarten numbers were low, Mrs. Cothran, the new principal at Woodmore, had decided that the students who had been placed in different kindergarten classes when I left would remain in those classes. According to HCDE School Board Policy, certified teachers on a Leave of Absence for more than 30 days are required to have a certified substitute. This policy was not followed in my case.  

On Monday afternoon Mrs. Cothran informed me that the only position open to me at Woodmore would be a 5th grade position, available because the former teacher had turned in her resignation mid-year. I would be given one day to set up a 5th grade classroom and would begin teaching 5th grade on Monday the following week. After pouring my heart, soul, money, time, energy and system wide training into being the very best kindergarten teacher I could be, it took me about one second to realize that a move to 5th grade would not be possible for me and certainly wouldn’t be fair to the students. It takes years to get where I am as a professional educator and all of it was gone, in one decision. But I still held out hope that someone, anyone, would hear my plea and that Hamilton County would certainly be able to find a position for me that would utilize my assets - perhaps at another school. I still held out hope.  

I contacted Stacy Steward (assistant superintendent) and Dr. Kirk Kelly (acting superintendent), I received the response that Mrs. Cothran can make any changes and policies necessary that she feels will benefit her building and they agreed with Mrs. Cothran’s decision to offer me a 5th grade position. And that position was the only one available to me. My career as a teacher with Hamilton County came to an end when I went to Central Office and turned in my retirement paperwork for a retirement date of Wednesday, Jan. 4.

As I reflect on the reasons for my movement to an intermediate grade level – by both former principals, I do not believe it was because they felt I could do the job. Certainly I am certified K-8, but having spent all these many years perfecting my craft in the primary grade level, to transfer me out of an area where I clearly have been successful all these years was by intent. I believe the reason I was moved is so that I would quit or retire – because I am a challenging teacher.

I challenge the system that requires five and six-year-old students to continuously test and undergo useless assessments in order to have data for a system that changes practically each year. I challenge the administration with questions about why we can do some things in one school yet are prohibited from doing that same thing in another school, all within Hamilton County (use of Journeys as an example). I challenge with questions about the validity of using a writing program (Lucy Calkins) in some schools as the only writing program and other school are given an opportunity to use whatever program they choose. I challenge a system that requires me to spend my own money for supplies that should be provided by the school system. I challenge the need to spend evenings and weekends to complete the work from school that is impossible to take care of in the normal course of a day.

I challenge and challenge because I want answers to my questions. I challenge as an advocate for my students. I challenge because I want fair work practices in the school system. Yes – I am admittedly a very challenging teacher. 

So, my story has come to an end, like so many other teachers in Hamilton County. Like the teacher who transferred here from another state with her family, taught for a month or so but was so “challenging” that she elected to quit her job rather than submit herself to the constant bullying from her principal. Or the kindergarten teacher that was assigned to a second-grade position – midyear – because the principal hired another teacher for her position. She chose to leave and teach in another state.

Or what about the young girl that worked at a downtown school and could not take the constant disruptive behavior issues which were the norm in her school, so after years of study and mountains of student loans, she chose to work at a retail job in the mall instead of subjecting herself to another day in the classroom.  And there is the teacher that chose to work in a grocery store because he was “targeted” by his principal – for who knows what. Whatever the reason, he couldn’t take another day.

There are probably hundreds of stories like these but for the vast majority, there is nowhere else to turn because teachers depend on the paycheck or the insurance or they are closer to retirement than not and must keep the job. I was told by a Hamilton County Department of Education central office person (who shall not be named) that Hamilton County is hemorrhaging teachers and from stories I have heard across the district, I believe this is a true statement. Not to mention those that must take a Leave of Absence because they just cannot take one more minute of . . . this/. 

Finally, it’s not all gloom and doom. I do have several friends who lucked out in a building with a wonderful principal. I have several friends who – daily – are able to rise above what is going on around them and can teach to their hearts content, not challenging the system but going with the flow because there are just some people who are better at doing that than others. I’m so blessed to know a few of these teachers and their stories give me hope that at least in a few schools in the county, being a teacher is what it should be. Many of my friends have switched grade levels and been happy with their choice – because it was their choice and not a choice mandated or forced on them.  

As for me, I will now spend time with this wonderful guy I’ve had the good fortune to be married to for 32 years – Kenny Fleshman. He has been my rock throughout this whole ordeal and I value his opinion above all others. I will enjoy watching our four children continue to contribute to society by working, paying taxes and realizing their own American dream. I will spoil our three beautiful grandchildren because that’s what grandparents do.  As a 20 year United States Navy Veteran, I have been proud to have served my country and will now be able to take some time to help our nation’s veterans receive the benefits they deserve – in whatever capacity I can.

On a side note – I took an authorized leave of absence from my kindergarten position at North Hamilton County Elementary for two tours of duty to the Middle East (2008-2009/2010-2011) and when I returned my kindergarten position was still here for me.

I have been blessed with family and friends who love me, respect me and understand me. All I ever wanted to do from the time my first-grade teacher taught me to read – is to be a teacher. I am saddened that my time to teach in Hamilton County has come to an end. You can probably tell, I am not ready to give up this “calling” that I love so dearly. It was not of my own choosing; the choice was made by others for me. But I will continue to advocate for children – and for teachers – because I am challenging. 

Diana Fleshman 

* * *

Diana Fleshman,

There are still important changes needed to the education system in Hamilton County. My advice is that you run for the Board of Education with the intimate knowledge you have of why our schools are failing. From a political standpoint, your credentials as a teacher are enhanced by your military service. Don’t underestimate the power of your college degree coupled with your DD-214. We need more veterans in all positions in this community. 

Another point is that one of the best school board members we have had was a former principal. I do not know the details of his problem with central office, but his district had so much confidence in him they elected him to represent them on the school board. Granted, many use the school board as a stepping stone to higher paying elected positions, but he did not. He stayed on the school board until he decided to retire. God bless him, we need more like that. 

I sincerely thank you for your military service. We can use you in any of the local veteran organizations. Your history qualifies you for almost every one of those. Disabled veterans and their families, and also their survivors and dependents need compassionate volunteers working on their behalf. 

I do not know which district you live in. If in mine, I will vote for you. If not, I will contribute to your campaign. 

God bless you. 

Bonnie White 

* * * 

Sad. Our, so called, school system has run off one of the best teachers my girls had the pleasure of learning from. My boys needed, and will now miss out on, the blessing that Mrs. Diana Lusk Fleshman was in kindergarten for so many years. This is disheartening.

The school system is failing our children and there's nothing we can do, because I have personally been ignored, having five children, four which are currently in the Hamilton County school system. Our voices were not heard.

I'm so sorry that the very bullying they preach against, is exactly what these adults are doing on a whole new level. We love you and you are an amazing teacher. Thank you for loving my kids. 

Beth Lewis

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