Talk with a Nashville public school teacher for five minutes, and the first thing that strikes you is the amount of commitment it must take in order to do the job right now.
The list of major obstacles for teachers is daunting: global pandemic, remote learning, the skyrocketing cost of living, a confidante of the governor assailing their education, Uvalde and school security issues, crushing poverty for some students, unfilled teaching positions, high turnover, and burnout. Toss in a payroll snafu by MNPS, in which many teachers were either not paid or underpaid at the beginning of the school year, and you begin to understand the incredible amount of stress teachers are under today.
The Banner invited three educators with different degrees of experience and expertise to talk about their experiences in detail: Quanita Adams, a math teacher at Pearl Cohn High School (17 years of experience); Kelly Ann Graff, an English language arts teacher at Thurgood Marshall Middle School (3 years); and Natalie Vadas, a special education English teacher at Murrell School (14 years). And in spite of their candor about the problems they face, all three emphasized how much they love their jobs and schools.
“This is not Metro bashing,” said Adams. “This is just coming from educators who are passionate about what we do. Because if we didn’t care, if we didn’t love our district, we just wouldn’t be here.”
In the first of two parts, these teachers describe their backgrounds, the staffing crisis Nashville and other school systems face, Gov. Bill Lee’s embrace of public schools critic Larry Arnn, how they afford to live in the city and the economic trade-offs they make. In the second part, they will answer questions about testing, teaching during COVID, Uvalde and guns in schools, and more.
So let’s start at the beginning. Why did you want to become a teacher?
Quanita Adams: Oh, you know, when you’re playing, and then you have all of your imaginary friends lined up and you’re teaching them all this made up stuff that you hear or that comes to your mind because I had really great teachers. And so I would mimic that at home with imaginary people. And I never thought that that’s where my career would take me. But when I finished college — I had a degree in psychology — my mentor said “You should be a teacher. If you’re a teacher, you’re always going to have a job.” And she knew my background. And she was like, I just want you to have stability. And so I’ve been teaching ever since I graduated from college.
Kelly Ann Graff: My middle school English teacher told me that I was going to grow up and be a teacher. And I was so mad at him. I was like, “I’m a punk. I’m an artist. That’s not for me.” But when I got into high school, I was working for the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory. I was teaching at their summer camps, and just seeing the students get so excited about something I cared so deeply about. And to just see how my passion and my excitement made them invested in Shakespeare as 10 year olds was really, really exciting. I want to do a job where I’m doing something for my community. And teaching just happens to be the skill set that I have.
Natalie Vadas: So I didn’t go to college originally to be a teacher. I went for communications, because I didn’t know what else to do. And then at one point, I started subbing and I said, “Well, I don’t hate subbing and I know how we treated subs. Okay.” And then I reflected back and I was like, “Oh, I had a big whiteboard in my room as a kid. I played teacher, and I made my sister sit there and I was always the teacher.” And that’s probably why she went to Notre Dame.
I fought it. But deep down inside, I don’t think you can become a teacher. I think you are a teacher. There’s something innate in you. If you are a good teacher, like you’re born a teacher, because it’s not like you can just teach English — you can teach whatever. I’m also good at teaching my friend’s kids how to cook or I’m really good at teaching them how to garden, like I can just teach skills. I can break them down. I don’t know if that’s because I’m also a special ed teacher. I’m very good at breaking down whatever task it is, even if I’ve never done it before. I’ve gone from teaching preschool special ed up to high school.
Natalie had a really interesting tweet, pinned on top of her timeline. She wrote, “A few weeks until school starts and the panic of not filling teacher positions is getting some tread. We all warned you. This has been coming for years, low paid morale, and getting thrown everything and then some on our plates. Are you listening now? It’s beyond a crisis.” Did MNPS listen?
Vadas: I’m waiting? I got a LinkedIn [notification] earlier, and it was like $14 to $34 an hour to fill these positions. It was just a recruiter to fill all these positions in the Nashville area, that was looking for a special education teacher. And I was like, “that number is offensive.” Fourteen dollars an hour to fill a special ed position? I have two master’s degrees, I wouldn’t sneeze for $14 an hour. And I think it’s just offensive on so many levels that you’re not seen as professionals, we’re not seen as people who are skilled at our jobs, not only as teachers, but then you add in the specializations, the other tests special educators do on top of it, the paperwork and the skills that we need to have because we have to abide by the law. And then, as you know, we have this group of parents that are like, “yes, we should be paying teachers more.” Then start advocating for that.
[Compared to other states] Tennessee is, I think we’re making 23 percent less than our similarly educated peers. I am more highly educated than most of my peers, but I can’t afford to go out to dinner. How sad is that? Fifty percent of my income goes to renting in what used to be a low income apartment duplex. Why? Why can’t I afford to live in places where I teach? I don’t want to live 45 minutes away, because we get back to school if we have events. What am I supposed to do? We’re just not seen as professionals and in what other profession would that fly? Is it because it’s typically a women-led profession? So I just find it all very offensive. And now they’re just like, “oh, wow, our class sizes are big. What should we do?” We told you and now they’re like, “oh, teachers are leaving to go to tech jobs.” Yeah. Because we can do all these things because we’re very talented people.
How is staffing at your school?
Adams: We have high turnover rates. We’re in 37208. And so whatever the news articles say about 37208 [Editor’s note: the zip code has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country], there’s an inequity in our school, like we probably have a 60 percent new staff. We have young, inexperienced, Teach For America teachers and our school, in the district, we’re in the bottom. Our students are slated to be “below basic” on all of their tests.
I’ve worked in lots of schools before in different counties. And when I came into Metro, it’s really heartbreaking to see the lack of care for our school and our students. They’re marginalized. Probably 98 percent African American. We don’t have an experienced staff. I am one of the most experienced people in the building. In terms of teaching in classrooms, we probably have three or four teachers that have 15-plus years. Everybody else, two to three years of teaching. And our students are supposed to do well on tests?
Classrooms are vacant. Of course, we get asked to take over other people’s classes when they’re not there, because my planning time isn’t valued as a professional. “Oh, you don’t have anything else to do. You can watch someone else’s class.” But I’m still held to an expectation of getting those scores up, making sure that the kids know how to read and write even though they’ve had new teachers for the last four years.
I want to speak to what Natalie said about, she can go anywhere to teach. And sometimes for women of color, that’s not true, because we’re going to be placed in schools where the kids look like us. And that’s hard for my career, you know, I have to tread a thin line, and I don’t do well with that. So this is supposed to be my tenure year. Now, I’ve been working at the school where our kids have been below basic for like four years ever since I’ve been there, I’m not going to be able to get tenure. So the district has to make a decision: Do I fire you or give you tenure? And that’s hard. That’s hard to say our kids are going to do well. Because I care about the community and look like the community. And because we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the experienced teaching staff. And we keep telling our kids they’re “below basic.” No, I think the practices that we put in place are below basic.
‘One of my co-workers worked in Nashville schools before, but is new to our building, new to the public school system. Teaching eighth grade, which we know is a challenge. He didn’t have a laptop, he didn’t have curriculum. He had no resources on his first day of teaching.’
Graff: This year, my principal made the goal to have every single teaching position filled, and he succeeded. When we opened, every position was filled — in so far as teaching staff. We’re still short support staff, which has just incredible ripple effects throughout the building. But we’re getting there. So this year, I had the pleasure of looping up with our students. So I taught seventh grade last year. And this year of teaching the majority of the same students in eighth grade — we historically have a hard time keeping eighth grade staffed at my school. So like last year, we had two teachers leave during the school year. And it feels like an honor and a challenge to be put on the eighth grade team.
One issue that I thought of when you were reading Natalie’s tweet is that the district knew that they were going to have to hire so many new people this year, because of all of the people who had to take early retirements because of COVID and who have passed away — I lost coworkers to COVID. And so they had tons of vacancies to fill. And yet there were teachers who were put into these positions who weren’t getting paid until Friday. [Editor’s note: MNPS has had issues getting new or transferred employees paid at the beginning of this year.] So I recognize that HR had a huge mountain of paperwork to get all of these new employees in but that is your job.
Vadas: Some still don’t have access to a lot of things right, especially special ed teachers. It’s illegal.
Graff: One of my co-workers worked in Nashville schools before, but is new to our building, new to the public school system. Teaching eighth grade, which we know is a challenge. He didn’t have a laptop, he didn’t have curriculum. He had no resources on his first day of teaching. And he didn’t get paid for a whole month.These are things that push teachers out. These are the reasons why teachers leave during the school year, because their basic needs are not being met.
Vadas: And then when you’re told you’re going to get your raise on July 1, people change their place of living. They may change their retirement allotment. And now they tell us it was supposed to happen this check or the next check, or maybe they don’t have answers. So now people are overdrawn on their accounts, taking on credit card debt, extra jobs. Right. So like, on top of that. They can’t tell us when we’re gonna get paid? So to start July 1, we did this [personal development course], we should get paid on that. And for some of us, that’s thousands of dollars difference between our steps.
We don’t get paid enough to begin with. And we keep touting like, Oh, “we’re the highest paying district in Tennessee.” That’s great. It’s like you’re winning the Toilet Bowl. It’s the Super Bowl but it’s still garbage. Like, yipee! We top out with a doctorate 25 years at, like, $84,000? Should we be excited and cheering that? No, it’s pathetic.
Graff: And also, one thing that Quanita was saying earlier is now that we’re the highest paying district in Tennessee, it is hard to go to other districts because that means taking a pay cut. You are stuck, also being a queer teacher in Tennessee, where we have state laws designed to get queer teachers fired and to isolate queer students into oblivion. At least I know I have the school board to support me if anything happens. But I can’t teach in a lot of places in Tennessee. I will be taking a pay cut, it’d be going back into the closet. It would mean having to be an inauthentic self in front of my students.
In a relatively short time, Nashville has gone from being one of the most affordable major cities to being a relatively unaffordable place to live. Do you rent or own? Where you live? Could you afford to buy a house in this market? Does that have an effect on hiring teachers and on your professional path?
Adams: So I’m a mom, too. And I rent. I thought just being a single mom, it would be so much easier, just for me to rent and no, I can’t afford it now. My goal has always been to give my kids a decent place to live. I remember how I grew up, and it was just always my goal: We’re never gonna live in the housing projects. That’s not bad. You know, people need that. But I have a goal. And I wanted to give my kids something. My mom got a Habitat [for Humanity] house. And I was like, I kinda want that, but I gotta do better. And we were finally able to get a nice three bedroom. It’s beautiful. I’m like, “OK, I’m making just enough money. This is great.”
It’s still a stretch, but then my rent goes up the same amount that my raise goes up. So when I renewed my lease, and then the insurance [from the school district] goes up. And, you know, I talked to my landlord, and I was like, “Hey, let’s not do that. Let’s not go up. Why is my rent going up?” And he said, “Well, we want to match the property around us now.” Well, this apartment complex has been here for 30 years. That one’s brand new. So you want me to pay 2022 prices for 1990s apartment features? That’s not affordable.
And so I felt like, “What am I working hard for?” Why did I set these goals for my children for them to feel like “Mom, are you struggling? Why teach? Mom, stop teaching. You’re smart enough to do a lot of things, Mom, why be here?” And it’s a passion that I have. I’ve been teaching for 17 years. And that is hard. And there’s not affordable housing, like I’m hanging on by a thread. So every time Metro says they’re gonna give a raise, and then you’re like, “Whoa, there’s some relief,” and then they wait. And you don’t know, and you don’t know what it’s gonna look like on your check. Because you don’t know if they’re going to raise insurance. And that is hard to make everyday living decisions when my check doesn’t match. It’s really hard.
‘I can’t even afford to have my own children if I wanted them. I mean, that’s the reality check that I’ve had to have myself. It’s exactly what you said. It’s hard that you have to choose between something you’re so good at and passionate about, and trying to afford to live.’
And we say affordable housing … affordable for who? What does that mean? How do you protect the citizens of Nashville, because what I see happening is we say “Metro teachers are the highest paid.” But if you’re pushing out the people who are already here, then who are you giving this money to now, who’s getting the highest paid? It’s not going to be me because I can’t afford to live here. If something were to happen to my kid, or my car would break down, it would not be a great situation for me.
And so I am concerned that I serve this community, I provide a service to our students. I stay after school for games, I get to school early to watch other people’s children, I don’t have time to watch my own children. But I cannot afford to live in the city, even though you’re asking me to take care of the children of this city.
Vadas: I can’t even afford to have my own children if I wanted them. I mean, that’s the reality check that I’ve had to have myself. It’s exactly what you said. It’s hard that you have to choose between something you’re so good at and passionate about, and trying to afford to live.
Because half of your paycheck, and then utilities and electric and food, is going to just the place you’re living in. And you’re just trying to take care of, you know, helping other kids. Our school is all these kids full of trauma. I got a job offer from a company and they were ready to hire me on the spot. But then I think of my kids that come from huge trauma backgrounds with these kids at Murrell. And it was like it was the first week of school. I just bonded with some of these kids that some of them come out of residential care. Some of them come out of such horrific experiences, and it’s like, I can’t walk out on them. Right now, I can’t be another person to walk out on them. I can’t do it.
So it’s just like something needs to happen. It’s like you said, there’s the haves and have nots here, but at some point something has to give because who’s going to teach these children? Who’s going to work at the coffee shops here? Who is going to answer the phones at the restaurant? Who’s going to run the city? Because they say all the time like these people in these high rises, they make money, they do jobs. I would love to know what they do and if they need assistants. I just don’t know.
Maybe I should move back [to New Jersey], but I can’t even afford to move back home. So I don’t know what the answer is. Something’s gotta give or we’re gonna all implode. And we’re just gonna watch it burn down or something. But at the end of the day, the kids still need to go to school. So I don’t know, it’s just very hard. And now you’re just sitting there, counting your pennies, and hoping to God …
Adams: It feels like there’s something easy to do. Give us a stipend for rent. Out in California, they build teacher communities, make that happen. In the meantime, make sure that we’re provided for. You’ve got money to build stadiums, you’ve got many to do lots of things.
Vadas: I can’t even imagine being a single mom, I can’t. I can’t. I don’t know how you do it.
Graff: I give all props to the single moms doing this as teachers because it’s me and my dog. And so many of our co-workers are single mothers.
Governor Bill Lee and Hillsdale president, Larry Arnn, were caught on video and received a lot of criticism for Arnn’s statement that “teachers come from the dumbest parts of colleges”. Do you feel like the governor supports teachers?
All three: No
Vadas: Isn’t Bill Lee’s wife, a teacher? Did I read that somewhere? [Editor’s note: Maria Lee was a third and fourth grade teacher and studied elementary education at the University of Maryland] So I don’t know what’s up with her when she sits next to him still. But I would love to invite Larry Arnn into my room and see if he thinks anyone can teach.
But to the point of where are we educating teachers? I think to some degree, that’s not incorrect.
But when you look at policy as a whole, like teacher colleges, for years, were pushing the readers and writers workshop framework, you have this whole way of teaching reading and balanced literacy. It was pushed everywhere. And this goes with Pearson, this goes with all the big publishers that get into the schools and push this narrative. And then the pendulum swings the other way. Now we’re in the “science of reading,” which is teaching them the spelling patterns, discreetly and distinctly teaching them, “This is the spelling patterns. This is the phonics behind it.” This is why you have to teach them how, where I actually picked up on it as a kid, you guys might as well. But if you’re not that natural person that will pick up on it as you go. You need to be taught in patterns.
And that’s why everyone’s like “these kids can’t read.” Yeah, because we never taught this huge chunk of kids that didn’t actually pick up on it. And that’s why our reading scores are so low. But if you look at it as a nation, yeah, they’re low. They weren’t doing it. We hadn’t been. But that’s because when you look at the curriculum that everyone pushed for so many years, that’s what they pushed. It wasn’t because of the teachers, it’s because of the Perasons or whoever pushed down on us. And that’s what we had to teach. It wasn’t that the teachers were doing a poor job, we had to teach what was given to us, because that’s what the district wanted, whether it was Nashville or wherever you were, that’s what we had to teach.
They keep bringing Teach for America and all these other programs, and then they complain about what they’re getting out of it. You kind of pulled them off the street. But it’s like, you’re just trying to fill bodies. And then you’re complaining about test scores and that they can’t read, like, what have you been doing for years?
Adams: They’re not talking about the craft of education, right, talking about the state’s investment in education. That’s how I looked at [Arnn’s comments].
Vadas: It’s more than just the state, it’s the nation at this point. It’s so underfunded. And it’s been for years. And now they’re like “Oh, no!” What do you think has been happening?
Graff: To me, it’s a piece of the de-professionalization of teaching, which is rooted in anti-intellectualism, classism and misogyny. To tell a field that’s largely working class women, that they are the dumbest people to come out of their college …
[Arnn] has a vested interest in the de-professionalization of education. He’s opening up charter schools, that he wants to staff with the cheapest staff possible. In this situation, it’s to make it as streamlined, as cheap as possible. They want schools to look like that in Tennessee, where they can do and say whatever they want and have no community accountability. It’s scary to me, it feels like private schools in the desegregation era.
Vadas: I’ve never been in a school [like Murrell] with so many people that have multiple masters degrees and doctorates.
Adams: We spend all of our money giving it to schools. We spend money to do our craft, that’s, you know, if I want to make a decent living, I get to take out a lot of student loans. I won “Teacherpreneur” [a program from the Nashville Public Education Foundation] And it was like $10,000. And I’m so sad to say, you know, that just provided a couple of months of relief.
Vadas: That’s why I did “promising scholars.” [Editor’s note: A summer program]
Graff: If you make it five years, you get to your next step raise, the economy has moved way past 2.4 percent [inflation].
Vadas: The cost of living [adjustment] needs to be at least 10 [percent]. At the end of it, our insurance has gone up nine.
Graff: I’m dipping into savings every single month. I’m in the red every month.
Vadas: What savings?