Thinking out loud again . . .
An honest to goodness tragedy
Once upon a time (around 2009) there was this small southern county school system by the name of Cheatham County, and it wasn’t perfect. But it tried to provide the best possible education for its students. The people who worked at the board of education were sincere in their efforts. The principals and vice principals and counselors at the 12 schools—from elementary to middle and high schools—were sincere in their efforts. And the teachers—several hundred of them—were sincere in their efforts.
Many of these people were local people—some born and raised in the county. Having attended the very schools that they were now leaders and teachers in, they were particularly well suited to lead because they knew the people that they had grown up with and because they had a vested interest in the welfare of the county in which they lived.
As I said, things weren’t perfect (they never are), but the little school system had run fairly smoothly and successfully for many, many decades. It had weathered a lot of what the state department of education sent them and was working through the latest curriculum snafus and testing of its students. It was functioning as best it could under the circumstances (mandates from the state and the federal government and an ever-changing society).
Then for some reason, its six elected board members got the idea that it would be beneficial to bring some “new blood” into the county. So they hired a new director of schools from outside the county—a big shot from the state department of education. A person who knew nothing about the small county or its people nor did he care to know them (nor as it turns out, did he care about them). One would have thought that he would spend his first year getting to know the county, but no! Immediately, he began to make drastic changes.
The man that the board hired was a typical politician who began to hire many of his “own people,” people he seemed to have owed favors to, also from outside the county, to fill significant educational positions within the county. He made room for his former colleagues and buddies, regardless of their qualifications and often at significantly higher salaries than those they replaced.
It was as if he were playing jacks with the teachers and principals and vice principals and board of education employees in this small southern county, with their livelihoods and with their lives. As a part-time, job-share teacher, I was one of the first in his game to be forced out. I had wanted to teach for a few more years, but he immediately did away with all part-time, job-share positions. He didn’t even know who we were or what kind of teachers we were.
He continued his carnage for several more years. In his game, he would toss out the names of local school leaders and teachers to be laid off, moved, or replaced as if they were jacks on the county map. It was obvious that he was making room for his “own people.” And it appeared that he was following the advice of a few of our board members, some of whom seemed to have had long-time grudges to carry out or favors to repay.
This director of schools would make changes that didn’t make any sense, such as transferring or demoting long-time, beloved principals. For example, he took a long-time, successful K-4 principal and sent her across the county to be a high school principal! Several of the county’s principals and vice principals were placed back into the classroom. In such cases—and there were dozens of these cases of teachers, counselors, administrators, and board of education employees—it was as if he were setting people up to fail or trying to force them to quit. But those that stayed accepted their change of position and worked as hard as they knew how to do. For the good of the students.
Naturally, the people in this county were used to trusting their local leaders, so they were woefully confused. A fog of fear permeated the whole school system. People were afraid that they would lose their jobs. Most who spoke out about the situation had already been fired, demoted, or chastised.
Meanwhile, many of the teachers, like rats off a sinking ship, began to find themselves jobs outside the county. Then the director himself quit in 2012—much earlier than his contract with the board stipulated—and he named his temporary replacement—one of his political cronies—who was later hired permanently by the hapless board. Setting the county up for still further carnage. Luckily, many of those that that first director brought into the county are leaving!
That first director’s legacy to the small county was a scrabbled and scattered and scared school system, where speaking up against arbitrary decisions is anathema, where those still left in the system are just barely holding on to their sanity, where teacher and employee morale is depleted, and where decisions seem to have been made with little regard for the good of the students.
The county’s only hope is to reinvest in its own people—and to choose its leaders wisely—from the elected board up to its director of schools. Its only hope is to once again hire local leaders who will make wise decisions. It will take many, many years to undo the harm that has been done by this past board and that particular director of schools—many more years to undo than it took to destroy the small county school system—but it must be done—for the good of the students.