KINGSPORT — Although Friday was the third annual Straight to the Top conference, Sullivan County Director of Schools Jubal Yennie said the first two for the most part left out teachers.
Not this year.
More than 1,500 people, mostly Kingsport and Sullivan County teachers, attended Friday’s conference at the MeadowView Marriott Conference Resort and Convention Center. Past conferences were held at times teachers were not available in large numbers, including the summer. But Friday was not a student day for the city and county school systems, so teachers could attend the conference in the morning and have in-service at their schools in the afternoon.
Speakers gave teachers a pep talk of sorts.
“We haven’t had the people who do the work at the conference,” Yennie told the crowd. “People are our greatest resource.”
Kingsport Superintendent Lyle Ailshie thanked teachers from both systems for the “miracles” they work in classrooms every school day and said the conference, like education, is all about cooperation and collaboration.
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires,” Ailshie quoted from William Arthur Ward. He also shared an anonymous quote: “Teachers who inspire know that teaching is like cultivating a garden, and those who would have nothing to do with thorns must never attempt to gather flowers.”
Main speakers were 2007 Texas Secondary Teacher of the Year Nika Maples, who overcame back paralysis caused by lupus to become a teacher; Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the State Collaboration on Reforming Education; Warren Nichols, vice chancellor of community colleges for the Tennessee Board of Regents; U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.; and Dennis Bega, acting national director of regional operations for the Office of Communications and Outreach for the U.S. Department of Education.
Maples, who called teaching “the hardest job in the world,” urged teachers to find happiness in the moment and worry about educating children, not the focus on teacher accountability and student test scores.
All the speakers shared memories of teachers who inspired them.
“In school, greater teachers is what really moves the needle ... in student learning,” Woodson said, also citing statistics indicating 3 million U.S. jobs are unfilled because of a lack of skilled workers to fill them and that college graduates over a lifetime make an average of $1.2 million more than those with a high school diploma.
Nichols said under education reform at the higher education level, program credits earned in community colleges are transferable to state colleges and universities, period. He also urged teachers to reach out to the students who aren’t doing as well and touted community colleges as a cost-effective way to start a four-year education.
“I was that person in high school that you probably did not want in class,” said Nichols, a first-generation college graduate who began working at age 14 and graduated “in the top two-thirds” of his class of more than 900 in Texas. “I was that student pretty much voted most likely not to succeed.”
When his plan to fly helicopters for the military in Vietnam didn’t work out, he was referred to college.
Today in Tennessee, he said the Tennessee Complete College Act focuses more on graduates, not enrollment.
“It’s not so much about how many students start. It’s about how many students succeed,” Nichols said, adding that helping academically underprepared students is a huge job for 13 community colleges across Tennessee.
Roe also emphasized the need for cost-effective higher education, saying he got a college and medical degree with no debt upon becoming a doctor — something he said couldn’t happen today without rich parents.
He said his first school in Clarksville, Tenn., was a rural one-room facility with no indoor plumbing “but a great teacher.”
He also cited his parents’ faith and support and said teachers should be in charge of the classroom, not bureaucrats.
He said at Southside Elementary in Johnson City, he recently was told a first-grader would be held back because he missed 60 days of school, with a father in jail and mom who wouldn’t get him up for school. He asked how that was a fair reflection on the teacher’s evaluation.
Bega, who said he is “one of the bureaucrats Dr. Roe talked about,” said he, like public and private-sector employees, is being asked to do more with less and do it more quickly.
But he said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is working to help achieve President Barack Obama’s overarching goal of making the United States the top nation in number of college graduates by 2020.
Current statistics show America is 10th in the world — or 14th by some other measure — in the college completions by 25- to 34-year-old people.
With 25 percent to 27 percent of high school students dropping out before getting a diploma, Bega asked how many businesses would be satisfied with “one-third of customers not coming back to us.”
About 40 percent of U.S. adults have a two-year or four-year degree, and 30 percent to 40 percent of four-year college students need remediation even with a high school diploma.
On average in a ninth-grade class of 30 students, he said only 23 will graduate on time, 15 will enroll in post-secondary education, and nine will earn a two- or four-year degree.
Five core priorities are: to make education more affordable; raise up the teaching profession, including higher pay; align job training and education programs with work force development needs; protect formula programs for at-risk populations; and build on the momentum for education innovation and reform.
To reach Obama’s goal, Bega said, will require 8 million additional students to graduate college after high school. The 8 million would come from the students in first grade this school year.