After a tumultuous year for education in Hamilton County, a community of teachers, administrators, legislators and stakeholders from every part of the county gathered Tuesday night to do something hard — listen to one another.
In a Study Hall forum hosted by the Times Free Press, four experts in public K-12 education wrangled with some of the thorniest questions surrounding public schooling in Chattanooga, including how to best recruit and retain highly effective teachers.
For more information on the Study Hall forum, visit studyhallchatt.com. The forum will be broadcast on WUTC 88.1 FM at 8 p.m. Thursday.
The topic was painfully relevant after the release of a report last month showing 30 percent of Hamilton County's public school teachers are considered "least effective" by state measures, and many of those teachers are in predominantly poor and minority classrooms.
That statistic means the county has almost three times as many least-effective teachers as the state average, and twice as many as Knox County, Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools.
Forum members were blunt about the situation and the responsibility of educators to students who are falling behind.
"If the children aren't doing well, then we're not effective," said Edna Varner, senior adviser for the Public Education Foundation.
Varner said one of the best ways to measure a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom is to "look at the students" to see if they are engaged and learning.
She said teachers are often fighting an uphill battle against issues like hunger and a lack of support at home, but truly effective teachers will look at a struggling child and say, "Bring them on."
"We have kids in our school system who have been so beaten up by life, they deserve highly effective teachers," she said.
Brandon Hubbard-Heitz, a teacher at The Howard School, agreed with Varner that extenuating circumstances can often make learning difficult, adding that several of his students know people who have been shot in Chattanooga recently.
However, he said it was essential that schools build a "critical mass" of effective teachers and encourage school structures that will help support teachers who are often pushed to their limit with the demands of their jobs. They can't do it all alone, he said.
"Culturally, there's this myth of a teacher superhero. This one teacher that just changes everything for their students," he said. "Ultimately, successful schools aren't built around any one teacher or one person."
He pointed to the importance of recruitment and fair compensation to build that critical mass of teachers, but also said the city suffers from persistent problems of race and socioeconomic inequality that can cripple learning.
"We have to recognize that teacher quality doesn't exist in a vacuum," he said.
Zac Brown, assistant superintendent for the Hamilton County Department of Education, praised the efforts of teachers who he said do hard work on the front lines every day for their students.
"We have excellent teachers in all of our schools," he said. "I'm excited about the future of our county and district."
Ultimately, he said, a key to student success is finding the right people for the job and providing them the support they need to meet students at their level. He pointed to Hubbard-Heitz as an example of a teacher he had when he was principal at The Howard School.
"I knew he was effective because his students were engaged," he said.
For some people in the school system, one of the best moves possible to develop teachers is to learn from those like Hubbard-Heitz who are doing well. Jill Levine, chief academic officer for Hamilton County, said he could be an example.
"If we get other people into those great classrooms, we all learn from each other," she said.
Others echoed the concerns of teachers who say they're contending with forces outside of their control.
"I think it's a problem of poverty and inequity," said Sandy Norris, a former teacher.
But she said that reality never dulled her resolve to care for each child and their unique circumstances, even if they come to school exhausted or hungry.
"The playing field isn't always level," she said. "I think it's our job as teachers to teach all children."
Tuesday night's forum was hosted by the Times Free Press in partnership with the American Society of News Editors as part of ASNE's Tennessee's Tough Issues Forums.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.