Talking to teachers, students, and school administrators brings fresh eyes to the work that we do, the actions that we take, and how things are perceived by others.
These words from the department’s Chief Operations Officer and Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Airhart after she shadowed a Tennessee high school student for a day.
State education policies are rooted in the day-to-day operations of schools and the students that learn and grow in them daily. This is why Commissioner McQueen tasked each member of the department’s 20-person leadership team to go back to high school for a day and shadow a student. Individual members of the leadership team visited high schools in every setting: rural, urban, suburban, and everywhere in between. The schools were substantially different—some schools had thousands of students, others had barely two hundred. Some were focused on career and technical skills, others made college preparedness the goal. These schools couldn’t be more different from one another on the surface, but a closer look revealed their common traits.
While visiting, the leadership team verified what they already knew to be true: Tennessee schools are home to passionate teachers, committed administrations, and students that are ready to learn. However, each experience was unique, highlighting what we also know to be true: the daily experience of our students varies dramatically across the state.
Chief Academic Officer and Deputy Commissioner Vicki Kirk observed that, “the level of challenge the students experienced was great preparation.” While at a different school, the department’s Chief Research and Strategy Officer Nate Schwartz watched another scenario play out: “Students were filling their time with busy work that wasn’t going to pay off in terms of knowledge or skills. This felt especially difficult to watch because most students appeared to be ready to work.”
These observations bring to life disparities across the state. The department’s Executive Director of Content and Assessment Design Tammy Shelton asked students during her visit if they planned on taking AP classes during high school. Students responded by asking, “What is AP?” While Deputy Commissioner Kirk visited five AP classes with her host student during an eight-period day.
The Value of Extracurricular Activities
Going back to high school also challenged some of the leadership team’s beliefs about how to best invest students. Meghan Curran, executive director of district support, observed the positive effect of student involvement and realized how it could be applied widely. “My biggest takeaway was the importance of extracurricular activities for high school students,” she concluded. “While I still believe the focus should be relentlessly on academics, I now would also say that for many students the only way to accomplish that goal is by engaging them in the school community through an extracurricular activity that they love and that gives them purpose and a sense of belonging to the community.”
Chief Research and Strategy Officer Nate Schwartz said similar thoughts have lingered with him: “Following the visit, I spent a lot of time thinking about the influence of extracurricular activities, which dominated my conversations with students.”
Some Things Never Change
Although Tennessee schools are enormously different on the surface, these visits also confirmed that our students share so much in common. They are all striving towards excellence and preparing for their futures. And regardless of the school’s location or the course catalogue, some things about high school never change. Jayme Place, the commissioner’s chief of staff, described a moment from her visit that took place in the most nerve-wracking of school settings —the lunch room. “A sea of students filled the lunchroom and a bit of panic set in as I realized I didn’t know where my ‘friends’ were sitting,” wrote Jayme, as she described her experience. “Thankfully, despite losing some cool points for helping the old lady, my student stood up and waved at me emphatically. Relief set in as I realized I had found my people in the lunchroom crowd.”
These real life moments remind even seasoned educators how they can serve the department’s most important customer, the student. Above all else, this experience helped the department’s leadership team refocus on the goal of our schools: to assist each child in reaching their potential to the best of our ability.
Mike Herrmann, executive director of conditions for learning, summed up the necessity of this reorientation, concluding, “What is frequently absent is a sustained and coordinated focus on the whole child and the learning environment. The answer is not a new program or requirement; schools have lots to do already. Maybe the most important step is remembering that anytime we are thinking about improving our schools, we are thinking about interacting and growing individuals with unique needs.”