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 part one, these teachers talked about being priced out of Nashville, Gov. Bill Lee’s Hillsdale partnership and more.
In the part two, below, these teachers dive into how COVID and remote learning changed their classrooms, what schools miss by returning to the way things were pre-COVID, the tragedy in Uvalde and whether or not teachers should be armed.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress is commonly called the country’s report card. NAEP released a study a few weeks ago on the effects of pandemic and learning and found that the country had regressed in key areas or kids hadn’t hadn’t continued a progression like you normally would consider. What have you seen in your classrooms?
Adams: We just keep pushing people that don’t have what you’re expecting them to have. You just kept moving. We were supposed to take a break and figure out what needed to happen. And we were supposed to adjust in our curriculums and standards and our practices, we had an opportunity to do that. We could have done it in a safe place from our homes, we could have added professional development. I know that was new for everybody. Now, we just walked back into the exact same thing. There is no “What do we learn from [COVID]?” and “How do we move forward?” “How can we still give our students social and emotional learning support?” We just went right back into it and we’re still being held accountable. When you know, if we’re talking about loss, we lost time that we have really built something amazing.
Vadas: Okay, maybe they didn’t quite hit every math standard for the grade. What did we accomplish during virtual teaching? My experience was my students, who were special ed kids on a computer, learned tech skills or they [became] tech savvy. They can work in Word or PowerPoint. Before that they couldn’t function on a computer. These kids in kindergarten can navigate these computers and have these twenty-first century skills that parents don’t even realize they can do. And they’re just worried about meeting whatever standard. These standards are always unattainable. Do we realize that they keep making these tests so unreachable for these students? Because if they don’t make them that we can’t always reach them, who’s out of all this money? The big testing corporations. That’s why we’re never 100% proficient at anything. Is anyone ever?
‘Do I think we should have been back so soon? No. We were constantly being hit by quarantines. And that made it harder to keep students on pace with each other, when a student would have to isolate. I know we’ve moved on from that. And it’s still going on. I had COVID this two weeks ago. I got it almost immediately this school year. And I had to take a week off the third week of school, so I’m already behind on the curriculum for this year.’
Graff: All right, when we say learning loss, these tests are arbitrary. And, to me, that was insulting to have students come back into the building to take a test …
Vadas: Comparing apples to oranges.
Graff: One thing that also was illuminating to me, that I need to touch on, is just how my first year of teaching as a certified teacher was 2020. I worked as a resident teacher before that. And just how much superfluous work we have to do as public educators. Part of my job is to get to work, you know, be there at 8:30 a.m., and direct traffic in front of the school every day rain or shine. We do recess. We’ve got posts. We’re supposed to have a duty free lunch. But sometimes, to make that happen, I have to lock my door because students will find their way up to my classroom. And they want a comfortable place to be, because they know that our classrooms are those places. So they come seeking safe places.
[During COVID] I didn’t have to defuse fights, I didn’t have to prevent fights. I didn’t have to report possible escalations, I got to just focus on my craft as an educator. Like, what is the standard? What do my students need to be able to meet this standard? And how can I support them along that journey? And I was so blessed for that to be my first year and to come into the school building in February, already knowing my students also set me up well. Do I think we should have been back so soon? No. We were constantly being hit by quarantines. And that made it harder to keep students on pace with each other, when a student would have to isolate.
I know we’ve moved on from that. And it’s still going on. I had COVID this two weeks ago. I got it almost immediately this school year. And I had to take a week off the third week of school, so I’m already behind on the curriculum for this year.
The kids, from these last two years, what do you think the long-term effect is going to be on them?
Vadas: I don’t think there will be a long-term impact. Okay, so maybe they’re not reading at grade level in second grade? I think they will catch up, because I think they’re so much further ahead on other things. Do I think, if we’re talking about the big picture, were some kids left behind because they were lost, or because they didn’t have internet access? Yes. I don’t want us to forget there were some people left. There were some kids physically lost. Yes, that did happen. I don’t want us to forget about those students. Because that is a huge piece of the puzzle that we could not control. The nation could not control.
And I think when people are talking online, they’re like, “we should have just been back in school.” There was a global pandemic going on killing people. We also have rights as humans to be safe at work. That is a right. So like, yeah, you want your kids to be back. But like, there’s a huge, loud group of parents that said “you should have just been back immediately.” No, I would like to be safe at my work. I think I should be safe at work every day.
But I think there may be some impacts on social emotional, more than academic pieces. I think that has been a long time coming. I think when we moved first grade into kindergarten and second grade into first grade, we have made these kids into kids that don’t know how to share, how to talk to one another. There’s no reason that a kid needs to read in the first grade. No reason. And we’ve just made kids into kids that don’t know how to talk to one another. They don’t have to. There’s no social emotional piece. And now we’re trying to fix it on the back end, in fifth, sixth, seventh grade.
Graff: I feel like the social and emotional piece is very, where I’ve seen students like they’re really learning how to be in a classroom. Some students are now learning how to be a middle schooler.
My certification is in secondary English language arts. So, I’m trained on how to teach higher order thinking and critical thinking, critical writing analysis. I’m not qualified to teach foundational, right, like reading skills. But this has been a problem since before COVID. That’s not new. I think that’s a failure in teacher preparation programs. That we’re not preparing teachers for the reality of a diverse classroom. Diverse in the skills they are coming in with. Like, we know about scaffolding and making it like individualizing things, but actually teaching the skill of reading.
Adams: I think the human condition is to adapt. We can’t lose that Nashville does not look like Nashville did 10 years ago. We’re still humans, and we adapt. I don’t think we lost anything. I think we gained an opportunity to see something new. Like TikTok is hilarious. Facebook, we learn how to socialize. It’s just different. We learned that we are adaptive creatures.
Vadas: If we were just looking at formal school, they miss things, but look at all the other things they learned how to do. And like, part of our craft, when we’re allowed to do it … my high school students, we were on Flipgrid, we used to do science. One time, I asked them to go around their house and show me friction. And one of my students put his socks on and slid across his kitchen floor and videoed it. And then he put his sneakers on to try it. And then they shared it with each other. And it’s just like, we did these cool things.We got to be in each other’s homes. And they got to see my dog, they got to see my bedroom, they got to see the plant that was growing behind me. So it was actually a really cool experience. If you were the teacher that wanted to make it cool, the kids wanted to come to my class. But if you just wanted to try to make Virtual Teaching your classroom, it didn’t work. But if you wanted to make something awesome, my kids loved it. They had a great experience, and then their parents got to see it. Some really great things happened during it. But that’s not what anyone wants to volunteer. And it’s really frustrating when you read about it.
Graf: Imagine having 15 minutes of quiet decompression time [now] in between each class.
Adams: Oh, that was heaven.
Graff: And for students to be able to have that time to transition between like, “Okay, I was doing math. Now I’m shifting into English class.” Yeah. And instead of worrying about, “oh, no, am I going to run into that person in the hallway,” I had students be incredibly vulnerable. In online school, by being on the computer, their guard was down. And instead of putting on a performance at school, they were honest. And sometimes I even had to check in with students just being like, “Hey, are you comfortable? Like just so you know, like, there are 25 people in this team’s meeting right now? Are you comfortable continuing this conversation?” Because I was the only person who had my camera on, they felt like they were just talking to me sometimes.
They would come back and they would draw me pictures and write me letters and give me Mother’s Day cards when they were eighth graders when I didn’t even teach them anymore. But because we had that time and online school where we really got to know each other, and just be there for each other and check in on each other.
Adams: That’s a beautiful thing, especially when we talk about social-emotional learning. I get to see every child’s house. Now when we talk about all connecting and knowing their background, I’m not speculating. I’m seeing what’s happening. I’m not judging parents, but I can say hey, let’s try to get food for this family. You know, I can make a connection that doesn’t seem punitive, that being poor is not a crime. That is not a crime. Having to work all day is not a crime. I work all day. Sometimes I don’t get to see my kids before I go home and go to bed.
Sometimes I would say “I need everybody to turn on the cameras for 30 seconds. I just want to see your faces.” How powerful is that? It’s not judgment. And those are the pieces that we missed out that we went back to Little House on the Prairie mode. Everybody’s sitting here looking at the chalkboard and silent. I think we had an opportunity to do something different, like we’ve never done this before.
The kids in Uvalde went back to school last week. Did you ever think that active shooter preparation would be part of your job or be part of school life?
Graff: I was in high school when Sandy Hook happened. So like kindergarten, that happened? Yeah. I remember being in high school when these threats started out. So I think it always was part of my conception of what it is like to be a teacher. I was in first grade when 9/11 happened. I was in Maryland, close to DC. And, yeah, it’s just always been part of my concept of what it means to exist in a public school.
Vadas: I think it was really hard coming from up north. I think our school drills up there were more serious than when I moved down here, I had a very hard time. First time we did like the lock in/lock down. And I locked the room down. And they were just like, “we did a lock in which is different. You keep teaching.” I didn’t know there was a difference.
We had a drill last week, I was trying to stress to the students — dealing with behavior students, and you know, they’re like laughing — you never know if this is going to be real. And I’m very sad that this is our reality right now. I said, but we are going to act like every drill is real. I said we are not going to laugh through them because we are going to practice and get this right. Because on that day, God forbid this ever happens, I want you to know what to do. And we’re going to be prepared. I said I would protect you.
Adams: First, I want to just say that the ownership of these tragedies is on the person that does it. The person in Uvalde is the owner of the chaos and the owner of the hurt. I was very emotional, but it’s like, “how did this person get into school?” [laughs] That was my very first question. Because what we did was we jumped from this tragedy to talking about gun control. Wait a minute, hold on, let’s back up. How do you get into the school? Maybe we need to start closing the entrances.
I was at Overton, about 2006-ish, and one of our students had a gun. And he had another teacher in the room, and you cannot prepare mentally for that. I am not, you know, SEAL Team Six, I cannot prepare mentally for tragedy.
‘I don’t want to carry a gun. That [can be] accessed by kids like, right? That’s not what I want to do. I just want people to own it. I’m not trying to kill anybody. I just want to place blame where the blame is due and hold stiffer punishments.’
And only at that moment, you have some systems in place, we had practiced little things. And it was like, “We’re just gonna wait, we gotta wait this out. We gotta be safe.” That’s all I can offer. I couldn’t offer anything. I don’t have a gun. I don’t want a gun. I cannot offer anything, but to be here for you right now. And the kids say, “Would you save me? Would you protect me?” And my answer is, “I would do for you what I want somebody to do for my child, I want to make it home for my kids. I want my kids to make it home for me.” And I think that we lose focus of that.
Something that came up in the school board races this year was a candidate who came out in favor of arming teachers. Would you want to carry a gun? Do you think teachers should carry guns?
Adams: I don’t want to carry a gun. That [can be] accessed by kids like, right? That’s not what I want to do. I just want people to own it. I’m not trying to kill anybody. I just want to place blame where the blame is due and hold stiffer punishments.
Graff: I think about students who have a negative relationship with a teacher, and who are already afraid of a teacher, who already feel uncomfortable walking into that room. And imagine how terrifying it would be to walk into a space and the person in power in there is armed. And you know that the two of you butt heads. I want my classroom to be a place where students feel welcomed, where they feel excited to be, where they feel comfortable enough to let down their guard enough to be brave enough to learn to put themselves out there. And I feel like introducing a gun into that situation will do nothing to make my classroom a more supportive place. If the state wants us to have a productive classroom, introducing a gun is not going to make it a more productive place.
There are the procedures that my co-teacher and I had to sit down at the beginning of the year and come up with procedures for an active shooter. Like, yes, we have the school wide procedure, but how can we make it as safe as possible within our classroom? What’s going to be my job, what’s going to be her job? Where’s the safest spot within this classroom for 25 students? And these are awful conversations to have. They’re emotionally taxing conversations to have and then to have to bring a student who’s so upset, who’s so stressed out, sometimes I have to walk them through this safety procedure. I’ve got your back. Like I will do everything in my power to protect you And here’s the evidence of it, here’s what I am going to do. Because the students bring these fears to the classroom.
Vadas: Yeah, I mean, especially working with students with high trauma, behavioral issues — you know, having a desk thrown at me multiple times a week, not necessarily at me — we are de-escalators. We are trained to remove objects from hands, where I’m going to assume neither of you are [Adams and Graff agree]. And that’s part of my job, we are trained in a specific way to be able to put our hands on kids and remove objects, if needed, to contain them, if needed, safely for the benefit of ourselves and others and themselves. So factor in a gun that is completely opposite end of the spectrum of what we’re trying to do for their own mental health. It just is complete … What is that going to do? Also, if we have students who take things — which we do — what do you do, lock it up? Okay, how is that going to benefit us if I’ve gotta go unlock it.
Adams: The one thing that I concern myself with is I know that gun violence and police brutality and things like that I would worry for my child, I would worry for my little black boy. As he gets a little bit older, he’s not allowed to be upset. Is this a teacher that doesn’t see that? Oh, “he’s upset. I felt fearful for my life” [and used his gun]. That is not okay. I trust educators to do their job. But in this space, you have permission to harm my child. [Teachers] are not law enforcement — I mean, they don’t have permission — but you’re not law enforcement. You are going on feelings. But that thing is scary, for me and for my little black boy because what he faces on the street, I hope he doesn’t have to face that in the classroom.
Graff: In Knoxville, a SRO [student resource officer] killed an unarmed student in the bathroom. And the next day we had a drug and weapons search in my classroom where my like seventh grade students had to take off their hoodies and take off their shoes — their comfort items — and get searched by an SRO. And are you just seeing how vulnerable and scared they are? During these searches that disrupt my class, that dysregulate my students, that dysregulate me.
As Quanita was saying, almost all of my students are students of color. And their experience with an SRO, I think, is very different than a lot of white adult policymakers are assuming. So we assume that if we introduce SROs, if we arm people who are within the school, students will feel safer and will feel more comfortable. When really, they see their community members. They see people who look like them being murdered by police — who look like SROs. They look like police because essentially they are.