Robert Costley: Listening Session by Governor and State Superintendent Unprecedented

Thursday, October 17th, 2019

 For Brian Kemp, it was January 16, 2019, two days after being sworn in as Governor of the great state of Georgia. Sitting in an interview with Shaddi Abusaid, journalist for the Marietta Daily Journal, he had the following words to say about the extent of state testing in Georgia schools:

"We have too many standardized tests," Kemp said. "I want to free them up from some of this testing ... One issue I've heard from parents and teachers alike is that we are spending more time teaching to the test than we are teaching our children. I don't think it's been beneficial." ( Marietta Daily Journal, January 16, 2019, "Gov. Kemp talks teacher raises, education funding, school safety")

The Governor's validation of concerns from teachers and parents about not only assessment, but also teacher salary, mental health needs for students, and school safety is an underlined theme we have heard often since his campaign in 2018, and it has continued throughout his first year in office.  And of course, it is obvious that these issues were burning strongly long before he took the oath last winter. Superintendent Richard Woods has spoken often in the last six years as well about his desire to better balance standardized testing in the classroom.

And now, it is ten months later. It's a warm, work-day Wednesday evening on October 9, 2019.

Six months have passed since Governor Kemp was able to lead and partner with legislators to bring home one of the most significant pay raises for educators in Georgia history-and also send to local communities unprecedented funding for school safety and mental health support for Georgia schools.

This October evening, the Governor's Office of Student Achievement and the Georgia Department of Education have invited teachers for a third statewide teacher listening session to sit down personally with state staffers, with the State Superintendent, and this final session, with the Governor himself.

This October evening, I watched the Governor walk in to a packed room of nearly 200 teachers at Georgia Gwinnett College after fighting rush hour traffic. He was stopped immediately by an educator in the doorway, and he took time to take a quick but warm camera pic with her.

Then he sat down, almost in symbolic unity, not only with his own staff from the Governor's Office of Student Achievement (GOSA) but with elected State Superintendent Richard Woods and his staff, a sight we had a snowball's chance in ATL of seeing in the eight years previous to his inauguration.

Then in the custom I have observed him follow multiple times previously, he sat down quietly and opened his planner and studied what I assume were notes about his upcoming remarks. The thing I noticed about that planner was that he often turned to it that evening in Gwinnett. When teachers spoke that evening, the planner was open and his pen was moving to record.

My recollection is that the entire room was given a quick courtesy advance orientation by GOSA chief Joy Hawkins that the Governor would be able to spend an hour with the session and would have to leave at 6:30 PM (though I believe he actually stayed another 5-10 minutes or so beyond that to hear a few additional comments).

After a brief introduction by Gwinnett school superintendent Alvin Wilbanks, the Governor addressed the group. I don't have the actual remarks available, but my recollection is that he took time to praise and thank educators in the state and of course celebrate the accomplishments of the previous session of the General Assembly.

And you can imagine the rest. The comments section from teachers was kicked off by Joy Hawkins, and she used state testing as a starting point for the discussion. Teachers in the room did what educators do. They told the truth; they feel there is too much testing in the classroom taking away from instructional time. But as a teacher myself, I noticed they shared their critiques with heart and with a tone of professionalism and partnership to and with those who listened intently at the head table.

Many anecdotal stories were told, not just about testing, but also about the importance of maintaining their retirement pensions through TRS and the importance of TRS for recruiting and retention in the years to come. They spoke of career education programs, social worker and mental health support needs, dyslexia, special education practices, and birth to five preparation for kindergarten.

One of the topics that was encouraged by Mrs. Hawkins was "What brought you to the profession of teaching?" And I was glad Governor Kemp was able to hear most of the responses to this topic because their answers are a good reminder to all of us what is at stake in K-12 education in Georgia:

If the passion for the profession of teaching wavers in this state or if we find it in ever diminishing short supply, we are in trouble. If we want to enjoy the golden eggs of a great education system, we have to take care of the golden geese on whom we depend: Educators.

My final take-way is this. These listening sessions are almost unprecedented, not just in the fact that GOSA and GADOE made them happen in the first place, but that they conducted so many of them. Before three teacher listening sessions this fall, GOSA and GADOE traveled to all 16 state RESA's to meet with system leaders.

I've never seen anything like this before.

While it is true that good governance and leadership means more than listening, it is also true that good governance cannot occur without it. And there have been some times in the last decade that many educators did not feel that ears were open in the Gold Dome.

In 2019, however, we have thus far experienced something we haven't felt in years: that leaders from many corners of the education story in Georgia are sincerely creating occasions to learn from each other and collaborate.  Yes, there is a lot of work left to do, and we will have to see what proof-in-the pudding policies will come from the listening tour.

But speaking as just one educator, I think 2019 has been a darned good start from which to build even more progress in the next year--if we work to sincerely use what we have learned...and we all keep listening in 2020.

by Robert Costley, Executive Director