Our Departure and a New Chapter

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I was twenty-seven when I started teaching. George W. Bush was the President, I had hair, and the Mariners playoff drought was only five years-long. I've been doing this long enough that when I started I had an overhead projector with a jar full of Vis-a-Vis markers in my classroom.

Teaching is my profession and I love its moments: first days, conferences, graduation, the staff meet-up after Homecoming. When I got into teaching, my goal was to have a positive impact on my community. To help create better, smarter students as well as neighbors. This is the origin the “Nerd Farmer” moniker.

I'm a grump, but I'm an idealist. When I co-founded Teachers United in 2011, one of the criticisms of the organization was that we were a gaggle of newbie, idealistic, pie-in-the sky teachers. I remember one commenter on an early Seattle Times op-ed I penned saying, “let’s see what you think when you’ve been in a classroom for a while.” The implication was that we would lose our idealism and passion for equity and justice. Well, here we are, bub.

This is my thirteenth year in the classroom. I’m proud of my work as a teacher. I think I've made an impact on my students and the city. For the last several years people have constantly (and annoyingly) asked me “what’s next for you?” The implication was that I should run for office (hard nah), become a principal (nope, nein, never), or do policy advocacy full-time (not for me). I pride myself on not having to please voters, foundations, or funders. If I don't need your vote or grant money, I don't have to soft-pedal my truth to you. I’ve always loved teaching. I’ve never wanted to lead a school or push paperwork. I just want to teach and feel like I'm being successful and fully supported in doing it.

By my reckoning, I have taught well over fifteen-hundred students in Tacoma. I’ve started my teacher tree: Alex, Ty-isha, Janelle, and Corey with AJ and several others on the way. That's the work.  The next generation is better than us. I see it everyday. I look forward to living in the world they and my students want to build. I think about this world often.

But it’s time for a change for me, a new chapter. I've shared my deep frustrations about the state of the teaching profession in the US elsewhere. I've worked at Lincoln for a decade. I love the school, the staff, and especially my students. But I realized at some point this year, that in order to stay in the classroom, I needed to do something different. One of the most consequential books I've ever read is called “Quitting America” by Randall Robinson. It's his story of leaving the US and relocating to Saint Kitts and Nevis. Frankly, given the state-of-affairs in the US, I'm not sure I want to break-up, but I do think I want to see other people for a while.

This summer Hope and I will move abroad. In August, we’ll be joining the staff of the American Community School, an international school in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. I'll continue teaching AP American Government and ninth grade social studies. For years, we've taught students to be global citizens, now I'm going to be one. That's kinda dope. We’ve already researched and adopted a new soccer team, Al Wahda FC.

My new colleagues at ACS

My new colleagues at ACS

Don't worry though, you’ll still hear from me. My Twitter Fingers ain't going nowhere, Nerd Farmer will continue (once we get settled), and I'll likely be writing more. You may see me again when President-Elect Inslee is putting together his Cabinet in 2021 (mostly kidding) or if the Seattle Sounders open a residency academy (deadly serious).

But for now, for me, it's time for a new challenge.

Excelsior.





A Tacoma Teacher Strike Reflection

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The strike is over and school starts Monday. When I got the email letting me know we’d reached a tentative agreement, I was so giddy I screamed to my wife “TA, TA, WE GOT A TAAAAAAAAA.” Words can’t describe how glad I am this is over. But, before I move on to my usual fall routines: learning names, custom handshakes, teaching about the Federalists vs the Anti-Federalists, and Friday Night Lights--I think it’s important to stop and take stock of what happened in our community.

Tacoma, thank you. Teachers owe the parents and community a massive debt. You had our backs! You brought provisions, you organized a 2,000+ member Facebook group, you told us to fight and keep our heads high. Every honk, every donut, every text was appreciated, and I thank you. You’ve always supported our schools through levy votes, voting for bonds, and random fundraisers (I mean seriously, wrapping paper?). But the support you showed during the strike went above and beyond and brought tears to my eyes, repeatedly.

We also need to thank the labor community. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, ILWU longshoreman, and pipefitters all came out and walked the lines. Teachers, if we don't return this solidarity when they need us--especially to the paras, school bus drivers, and food service workers who serve our students--shame on us.

To Tacoma’s students, we all owe you an apology. Adult issues kept you out of the classroom where you belong. That’s an injustice and there’s no way to spin that. There shouldn’t have been a strike. I found the last two weeks mind-numbingly frustrating because it was preventable. If the McCleary Settlement was done with transparency, rather than dead-of-night-last-second deal making, we wouldn’t be here. If a fair contract had been offered from the beginning of negotiations, we wouldn’t be here. If young teachers in our city felt valued and knew they wouldn’t have to pick-up side-hustles to stay in their apartments, we wouldn’t be here.

Lastly for the school board, we elect school board members not spokespeople. Canceling school board meetings, ghosting from social media, and responding to community members with auto-form replies is not the way for school board members to lead. The community didn’t vote for the district public information office, we elected you. If you don’t want to face an angry public when things are bad, perhaps elected office isn’t your calling.

This will be my thirteenth year of teaching. I have worked in Tacoma my entire teaching career. But, my mentor in the profession departed during this strike. I am still not over that. Despite reaching a contract agreement, I have lingering concerns about our ability to retain many of the great teachers we have. I want for Tacoma Schools to be the world-class system our students deserve, but nothing that happened over the last two weeks brought us closer to that.

I’ve heard from a lot of parents and community members. People are angry and we have to win their trust back. I often say in my talks that “teaching is relational.” Classrooms are places where if trust is absent, learning will be as well. For the sake of my students, I hope Tacoma Schools can spend this year rebuilding that trust.

I’m off to go lesson plan.

Our Rightward March into Oblivion on Guns

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I’m a gun owner. I bought my first gun in 2011, when I became a homeowner, after reading about one-too-many black folks being mistaken for burglars and killed by police in their own homes. I own a 12-gauge shotgun and a .40 S&W carbine. I enjoy going to the range and going away for my semi-annual dude trip, where we go trap and target shooting. Obviously, I’m not a gun abolitionist, but I think our current gun policy conversation borders on the preposterous.

NRA Spokesman Wayne LaPierre’s “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” might be the dumbest piece of propagandistic claptrappery to penetrate common parlance in my lifetime and is one of the clearest indicators of the drift into absurdity of the US gun debate.  

Like most Americans, I’ve watched in horror, the recent spate of mass shootings. Pulse Nightclub in Orlando: 49 dead, 58 wounded; the Route 91 Festival in Las Vegas: 58 dead, 851(!) injured; Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida: 17 dead, 14 of them children. Sadly and predictably, there will be more.    

This is a uniquely American problem. We are an outlier. We choose to let this happen.

A contributing factor to our current situation is the insular nature of American politics. Too few Americans travel abroad, consume international news, or have friends who live abroad. We don’t understand how preposterous and atypical our levels of gun violence are. We are literally the only developed nation where people are murdered with regularity using weapons of war. We are literally the only developed nation where the open carrying of guns is viewed as acceptable behavior. We are literally the only developed country in the world where the idea of arming teachers is being treated as a serious policy proposal (it isn't).  

One of my colleagues, Ms. Bockus, does a lesson in her AP Language class about the syntax of the Second Amendment (quoted in full for those unfamiliar): “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It is a complex sentence: several subordinate clauses and one independent. Certain folks in the gun debate focus on the “shall not be infringed” clause, while conveniently disregarding the “well regulated” portion of the Amendment. But, under any reasonable reading of the entire amendment it is clear: Americans have a right to bear arms and the government has the right to put reasonable limits on said right.  

But, reasonable policies that were passed on a bipartisan basis a generation ago are somehow considered radioactive in our modern politics:

  • In 1967, under the leadership of Governor Ronald Reagan, California passed the Mulford Act, banning open carrying of firearms in the state
  • In 1994, in a bipartisan vote, Congress banned the sale of new assault weapons. This ten year ban was allowed to sunset by Congressional Republicans in 2004
  • In 1999, following the shooting in Columbine, Wayne LaPierre came out in support of gun free zones in schools stating, "We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero-tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America’s schools. Period."

Our current gun policy debate, with the president proposing the arming of teachers, is a fundamental departure from common sense and historical trends and precedents. This is a recipe for more mass shootings. More extensive background checks, red flag laws, magazine capacity limits, and an assault weapons ban (grandfathering-in existing weapons) are examples of sensible policies that can save lives and make more sense than arming teachers.

We need to learn lessons from abroad and locales with lower rates of gun violence. We need our politicians to show courage in the face of the gun lobby. We need reasonable gun owners to speak out for sensible policy.  None of this is Earth-shattering, but it requires putting aside pride and getting out our political bubbles. The mass shootings are becoming more lethal; five of the ten most deadly US mass shootings have occurred since 2015. Our children deserve better than to inherit a broke, hyper-violent, dystopian Wild West. We can do better.

NRA Spokesman Wayne LaPierre’s “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun” might be the dumbest piece of propagandistic claptrappery to penetrate common parlance in my lifetime and is one of the clearest indicators of the drift into absurdity of the US gun debate.