Hamilton County Schools officials say social-emotional coaches should help with student behavior

Staff Photo by Olivia Ross / Howard School students talk to school board member Faye Robinson on Nov. 17 during a Hamilton County school board meeting recess. The board Thursday approved job descriptions for 76 social, emotional and academic development coaches, which the panel is considering hiring for next school year.

Hamilton County public school officials continue to lay the groundwork to hire 76 coaches to help students with social, emotional and academic development, as they have approved job descriptions for four new positions related to the effort.

The vote Thursday had the support of all school board members except Rhonda Thurman, R-Hixson. Officials say the coaches will provide assistance to students, staff and families to better manage student behavior.

"What we've consistently heard from teachers, from our community, and quite frankly, from this board, is that we're worried about student behavior," Superintendent Justin Robertson said Thursday.

The past two years have seen an uptick in unruly, violent behaviors in the classrooms, causing teachers to leave and parents to demand change.

In January, the district unveiled a new student-based staffing model that included an additional $25 million investment in wellness support staff.

"The staffing model, no one's talking about this, but the staffing model was a direct investment in trying to improve student behavior," Robertson said.

Hixson High math teacher Susan McCain spoke in favor of the staffing model and the new coaches Thursday.

"By all accounts, I'm a pretty good teacher, and this year, I'm not enough for my students," McCain said. "The regular trials and tribulations of high school combined with coming back to normalcy after a pandemic means I need a lot more support to help my students navigate their lives ... At the end of the day, I am a math teacher. I am a good one. But I am not prepared to help my students in the ways that they need. I desperately need another trained adult to help me help my kids."

Deputy Superintendent Sonia Stewart said in a previous interview that the coaches will work in many capacities, such as providing classroom relief in an instance in which a student is disrupting a lesson. But their overall role is much greater.

"They're not just a relief for classrooms," Stewart said previously in a phone call. "They're building the capacity of the entire school to respond in those situations."

The district has been calling the coaches SEAD coaches, which stands for social, emotional, academic development. But the term "social-emotional learning" is politically loaded and a concept that some Republican school board members campaigned against during last year's elections, the first in which candidates ran on a partisan basis under a new Tennessee law.

Board member Larry Grohn, R-East Ridge, and Thurman have both spoken against the effort in past board meetings.

Robertson said Thursday he would support a title change for the new coaching positions. He said the district should probably refer to the social-emotional and academic coaches as student support or student connections staff.

The superintendent said if it was the board's will, he would gladly change the job title of the new coaches because he believes the current one has become caught up in rhetoric.

Grohn pushed back on Robertson.

"My big question is, what morals, what virtues and what ethics and whose ethics are we going to teach in social-emotional learning?" Grohn said. "And how are we going to also impact our discipline issues, which you have stated many times, many of our schools have a severe problem with discipline. And I'd say, in my opinion, we're having that because of some of our restorative practices."

Robertson responded that officials could go back and forth on the issue, but it won't change the reality of the needs that students present to educators.

"Nobody can argue with that," the superintendent said. "Our kids have needs, and I understand it's not our responsibility to parent kids. It's not our responsibility to put clothes on the back of kids. But these are the needs our kids are coming with. So, what do we do? We turn our heads to them? And, quite frankly, if that's what this board wants, you've got the wrong people doing this work."

Board member Joe Wingate, R-Chattanooga, agreed with Robertson.

"We're overcomplicating this," Wingate said. "Teachers have to deal with what walks through the door every day, and what walks through the door every day, it's not going to get better ... I do think that so much of this was tripped up on verbiage. And I'm just done listening to the hypersensitive buzzwords that get thrown out there. I'll make the suggestion we absolutely change the name of this because, for whatever reason, people can't see the forest through the trees."

Board member Ben Connor, D-Chattanooga, made a motion to change the name, but board members ultimately decided it wasn't necessary.

"We have to recognize that our students are not walking test scores," board member Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountain, said. "We can't change what goes on at home, but we can provide resources at school to help them deal with what life is throwing at them."

Thurman said she voted no because if the number of adults and administrators already in the building weren't effective, she didn't think an additional person would make a difference.

"I don't really care what you call it," Thurman said. "If we're going to keep doing what we've been doing as far as behavior is concerned, nothing's going to change. I don't care if you hire five more people to do it."

While the coach job descriptions have been approved, the decision to hire them must still be voted on. That vote will occur when the board approves a 2023-24 budget next month.

'Satan's work'

Following the public comment portion of Thursday night's school board meeting, Moms for Liberty, a conservative parental rights group, passed out a small packet.

On the front was a photocopy of the book "The Politics of Education: Culture, Power and Liberation" written by Paulo Freire, with the words "Satan's Work" handwritten at the top. The next page featured a photocopy of the "Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice," edited by Joseph Durlak.

Both works had been referenced by Moms for Liberty Hamilton County Chapter Chairwoman Tonya Dodd as she asked Hamilton County school board members to vote against hiring the coaches.

The program "holds social emotional unlicensed character development and consciousness-raising of neo-Marxist marginalized statuses above all else," Dodd said Thursday. "Please do your research on neo-marxism and do not approve these SEAD coach positions."

As Dodd put it, those opposed to social-emotional learning consider it "Marxist activism posing as an educational tool" influenced by Freiren philosophy. Freire -- a Brazilian educator most famous for his books "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" and "The Politics of Education" -- believed that education was never a neutral process and it should link knowledge to action so students could change society.

According to the Freire Institute's website, a typical feature of Freire-type education is that people bring their own experience into the process.

"Freire Marxified the academy by making learning a process of liberation and consciousness-raising, not education and literacy," Dodd said Thursday.

The purpose of social-emotional learning is to raise awareness of whatever neo-Marxist marginalized social status someone falls under so they can become activists in the ideology of social justice, Dodd said.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.