Shortly after stepping in as commissioner, I took on the challenge of visiting 10,000 teachers by the end of next school year to learn from and celebrate our Tennessee educators. Now, 51 schools, 3,619 teachers, and more than 4,000 miles later, I’m more inspired than ever by the work happening in schools across Tennessee.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit four schools in the Memphis area. The Memphis-area schools I visited represented a unique cross-section of different school management models – the Achievement School District (ASD), Bartlett City Schools, and Shelby County Schools’ Optional Schools and Innovation Zone (i-Zone). While the school management models were distinct, all of the schools I visited were led by passionate principals and teachers, who share a clear commitment to excellence in order to support and prepare their students.
While the recipe for student success varies from school-to-school and classroom-to-classroom, we know that parent involvement is critical. It is evident that the team at Aspire Coleman Elementary has placed high priority on engaging parents in every aspect of building school culture and fueling student learning. This is Coleman Elementary School’s first year as an Aspire Public School within the ASD, and already, their ability to meaningfully engage parents in decision-making and school operations seems to be a critical component of their positive culture. I was also impressed with how the Coleman team is utilizing data to inform instruction. I had a chance to speak with several teachers, including intervention teacher, Ms. Ullrich, about measuring student growth and tailoring intervention strategies, and I noticed strong intervention strategies happening in her classroom with Ms. Marturano. Kudos to Principal Ricciardi and his team of educators who have successfully established a positive school culture rooted in engaging parents and reflecting on data.
The next stop was Elmore Park Middle School, a part of Bartlett City Schools, where enthusiastic teachers made student engagement look easy – even in the final week of the school year. The depth of student engagement in classrooms through the integration of technology and experiential teaching methods was truly impressive. I observed Ms. Wetzel’s sixth-grade social studies students using iPods to look up QR codes to research ancient civilizations for a Document Based Questions (DBQ) activity, and I had a chance to see Mr. Farrell’s seventh and eighth-grade STEM students in an enrichment period building an amphibious tricycle. Students expertly shared that this was a tricycle with intertube-like back wheels that can operate on land and in water. I also visited Ms. Logan, a finalist for district teacher of the year, teaching her students critical thinking and communication skills through partner work that relied entirely on strong communication. It was a true pleasure to spend time with Principal Randall and his team of teachers setting the bar high at Elmore Park Middle School.
My Memphis experience continued with a visit to another first year school, Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, named in the honor of civil rights leader, Maxine Smith, who, among many accomplishments, helped organize the desegregation of Memphis public schools in the 1960s. This is one of Shelby County Schools’ Optional Schools with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics (STEAM). My visit to Maxine Smith STEAM Academy was led by a poised group of student ambassadors, who shared feedback with me about their teachers and school environment. A couple key themes surfaced in my conversations with the student ambassadors and with the teachers I visited. The first theme is their commitment to fostering positive student-teacher relationships. Students spoke glowingly about their teachers and administrators, including that they feel valued, supported, and challenged by the leaders at their school. I also heard from multiple teachers who love coming to work because they are inspired by their students’ desire to learn. My second takeaway was the focus on postsecondary readiness by preparing students with 21st century skills and mindsets. Classes are focused on empowering students through real-world problem solving experiences; as an example, after spending time in their school garden, Ms. Stroecker had her class determining measurements for a solution to kill the aphids on some of the plants. A part of their school pledge captures the tone I felt at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy from the moment I stepped in the building: “If we can imagine it, we can make it. We try once, twice, one hundred times, but we never give up.”
I ended my day with an encouraging visit to Sherwood Middle School, a Shelby County School within the district i–Zone, dedicated to helping historically low performing schools grow achievement. Sherwood Middle School is becoming a proof point of what is possible for student achievement. I had the opportunity to engage in an impromptu conversation with Ms. Williams’ sixth-grade English language arts students. They shared their favorite qualities of Ms. Williams and their opinions about the changes at their school over the past couple years. The students pointed out that their teachers at Sherwood hold high expectations for their behavior and their work. I witnessed this in action when I visited Ms. Johnson’s classroom where she was teaching ratios and proportions to a class of seventh graders who were enthusiastically participating in the class. Ms. Johnson and her students were on such a roll that I could barely interrupt for a picture. I also had a chance to solicit student advice for what I should be thinking about for education in Tennessee. Ms. Williams’ students recommended I ensure all students a) learn the fundamentals, b) can read well, and c) have the support they need to be successful. These sound like important priorities to me, too. Special thanks to Superintendent Hopson, his central office staff, and Principal Kelly for allowing me to visit Shelby County classrooms.
Seeing our educators in action over the past several months and hearing your feedback has shaped my perspective and is informing the strategic direction of the Tennessee Department of Education. I appreciate your honesty, courage, and insight, and I look forward to continuing the conversation with all of you.