David Cook: Whatever it takes

David Cook: Whatever it takes

April 3rd, 2013 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Spent a recent morning at a local high school.

See if you can guess which one.

Between classes, there was order and discipline. More quiet than loud. When the tardy bell rang, hardly any students were left in the halls.

Those who were? School leaders approached them and spoke with a blend of kindness and sternness. Asked them to repeat the school's motto. Asked to see their hall pass.

Reminded them of the top three things that matter: education, education and ... education.

(I had heard the hallways used to be chaotic. Like a shopping mall, one person said.)

Visited a designated "data" room, where teachers - who collect data on student progress every few weeks - meet to share results on tests and assignments.

The head of school? After meeting with me, he shook hands with a graduate student who traveled from another state to interview him for her dissertation.

He swaps philosophy with some of his colleagues, and quotes freely from educational texts. He's got this vision for his school. Just ask him.

His favorite line: "whatever it takes." He tells the story of one teacher who, during her interview, used that phrase 16 times. He knew right then he would offer her the job.

Whatever it takes to get these kids to succeed.

Got a good guess on which school it is? Baylor? Signal Mountain?

Try Brainerd High.

Not long ago, I walked the halls, met teachers and spent a lot of time with new Principal Uras Agee. It was just the opposite of everything many of us picture Brainerd to be like (gang members sagging, broken windows) which means half the battle in local education is about perception.

How we perceive kids. How we perceive our schools. How we perceive teachers.

Here's another guessing game.

Take a guess at what our ever-disappointing legislators are considering as their newest sucker punch to Tennessee education.

They've already over-burdened teachers with evaluations. Wrestled with tenure. Chased the fool's gold of virtual classrooms. Ignored things that matter - later school start times, single-sex classrooms - to waste time on whether you can say "gay" in a classroom.

Now, they want to cut pensions.

Like a knife in the back to state educators, our legislators (whose side are you on?) are looking hard at a bill that would put more of the risk of our state's pension plan -- currently one of the best in the nation -- into the laps of teachers, whose state-guaranteed contributions would drop by about one-third.

They can recoup their losses, the state says, by investing in a 401(k)-style plan. In such a fragile economy, officials in Nashville say we have to stop risking so much on teacher retirement.

(Imagine a teacher saying: We're not taking a risk on these kids anymore.)

They say the plan would affect only those hired after July 2014.

Is that supposed to be good news?

We need the best and brightest teachers out there. Education reform cannot happen without that. Period.

So these young college grads, who already know teaching ain't gonna pay much, are still willing to work nights, weekends, holidays to sweat and cry and run the ink dry on every red pen on the block just to try and get your child on the right path.

(Take care of our kids, and also figure out how to retire on your own, too.)

We, in return, should honor the social contract that helps them put their feet up in retirement. Take that vacation without worrying if the money you spend will cut into your ability to pay for classroom supplies.

The message we ought to send?

Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to get the best and brightest here.

If we perceive education as something that matters, and teaching as work that is infinitely important, then that is what we'll do.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.