Panel of Knox County educators discusses teacher concerns in school district

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – In response to crowds of teachers speaking out at several Knox County Board of Education meetings in recent months, WATE 6 On Your Side put together a panel of educators to discuss their frustrations.

The panel included three teachers: Lauren Hopson, Jessica McDonald and Vanita Williamson. The president of the Knox County Education Association Tanya Coats also attended, as well as Principal Jessica Holman and Superintendent of Knox County Schools Dr. Jim McIntyre.

WATE-TV invited Hopson, Williamson and Coats to join while the Knox County school district invited McDonald and Holman.

“There’s still this wall between the teachers and the administration and there shouldn’t be,” Vine Middle Magnet teacher Jessica McDonald said.

Breaking down that wall has been a common goal for the panelists. They agreed that one step in the right direction has been their engagement in the teacher working group, which is made up of educators from different schools who have met with McIntyre and the chair of the BOE to discuss district issues three times since December.

"We want to make sure that teachers do have the choice to make good decisions, good instructional decisions in their classrooms," Dr. Jim McIntyre said.

“No one held back, and no topics were off limits,” Karns Middle teacher and member of the teacher working group Vanita Williamson said. “Basically, everyone brought up the points they wanted to say. We don’t always agree with each other, but we’re adults and we say what we want to say, and we try to represent our friends and our colleagues.”

“It is the first time in my career in 12 years that I feel like people are listening,” McDonald said. “I am just so glad that they want to know what we think. Even if nothing came of it, we can all say that we tried.”

“This is an ongoing dialogue and it’s one I feel strongly that we need to get right,” McIntyre said.

The new teacher evaluations and classroom observations have been key discussion topics.

"I still think there's some skepticism that enough things are going to be changed as quickly as they need to be.," Lauren Hopson said.
“I still think there’s some skepticism that enough things are going to be changed as quickly as they need to be.,” Lauren Hopson said.

“I don’t know that anything we discussed in the teacher work group was news to [McIntyre],” Halls Elementary teacher and member of the teacher working group Lauren Hopson said. “I still think there’s some skepticism that enough things are going to be changed as quickly as they need to be.”

According to the Knox County teacher surveys, almost 70 percent of teachers said they don’t feel trusted to make professional decisions in their classrooms. Almost 49 percent said they don’t feel the district overall is a good place to work and learn.

Previous storyKnox County teacher survey shows teachers want more autonomy, trust

“I think there was certainly a theme around wanting to feel that we respect the professional judgment of our teachers,” McIntyre said. “What we wanted to do was try to address some of those concerns, but to be very clear, we weren’t going to compromise our high standards and rigorous expectations that we put in place.”

Hopson said a part of the problem is the lack of trust in district leaders.

“Dr. McIntyre, you had made the statement that you did not want to compromise the high standards and the rigorous expectations, and that was a quote that you had put into the last email that you had given us,” Hopson said to McIntyre. “That statement was bold faced and underlined and I took it personally as an insinuation that some of the things teachers are asking for would be lowering our rigorous expectations. I’ve spoken with many teachers in the last two days who have really been offended by that comment because to put that in such a bold statement, it really makes us think that you think the things we’re asking for are going to make our school system worse and that is just not true.”

“The reason that I emphasized that is because the work that we do is around educating our children and making sure they’re prepared for our future, and I actually emphasize that because I believe that our teachers agree with me on that point,” McIntyre said to Hopson.

"The changes are difficult," Jessica Holman said. "They're hard. Change is hard in general. They've been on a steep learning curve, but at the same time, they are in favor of the heightened standards."
“The changes are difficult,” Jessica Holman said. “They’re hard. Change is hard in general. They’ve been on a steep learning curve, but at the same time, they are in favor of the heightened standards.”

Jessica Holman, Interim Principal at Inskip Elementary and member of the teacher working group, said she agrees teachers are striving for those high expectations.

“The changes are difficult,” Holman said. “They’re hard. Change is hard in general. They’ve been on a steep learning curve, but at the same time, they are in favor of the heightened standards.”

“The benefits are not only going to be for the teachers, but it’s going to be beneficial for the students and the email is something I perceived as making sure it’s something we are striving for,” Knox County Education Association President Tanya Coats said.

“We want to make sure that teachers do have the choice to make good decisions, good instructional decisions in their classrooms,” McIntyre said.

“I think teachers would agree that we want high standards,” Hopson said to McIntyre. “There’s some kind of disconnect between what you’re saying and how teachers are taking it, and whether you’re sincere about those statements. So something needs to be done about that disconnect. I don’t know what the answer to that is yet, but something has to be done.”

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