Tennesseans must support teachers, even as leaders fail to defend them

July 11, 2022 7:00 am
Gov. Bill Lee during a Wednesday media avaliablilty in Nashville. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee during a Wednesday media avaliablilty in Nashville failed to refute Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Recently, I was shown a video by Phil Williams from NewsChannel 5 in Nashville, the city’s CBS affiliate. As I watched the recording of Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, I became infuriated.

This was not about charter schools or Hillsdale College. This was an attack on public schools, teachers, and colleges of education.

Arnn has a clear disdain for public educators. “Anybody can do it,” he said.

He had zero confidence in colleges of education. “They are the dumbest part of every college” and “teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country,” Arnn said.

He claims public education enslaves student, saying “The heart of modern education is enslavement.”

Arnn made unnecessary comments related to diversity. The public outcry has united Tennesseans from all corners of the state.

Arnn’s comments are reprehensible and irresponsible. What was even more hurtful than Arnn’s comments is that Lee sat there while educators, colleges of education, and public education were disparaged. Lee’s silence spoke volumes.

Lee then told the audience at the event being filmed that this “vision for educating children…is a vision that Tennesseans will embrace.”

I disagree.

Lee should know better. His wife, Tennessee’s First Lady Maria Lee, has a degree in education and is a former teacher and coach. In our state 83% of teachers are women. Teachers have the greatest impact on student achievement. Teaching is a science, an art, and a craft. It is not for everyone. Most people do not want the responsibility, stress, low salary or long hours. Parents do not want just anyone instructing their child.

Colleges of education are vital for teacher preparation and every child deserves an effective teacher in their classroom. Colleges and universities are key partners in developing and strengthening K–12 education. They must identify and recruit future teachers and graduate them as certified teachers to meet the licensure requirements set by the state. We need these colleges — and the new teachers they produce — now more than ever because veteran teachers are quitting the profession.

An attack by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn on public education was infuriating, but not as hurtful as Gov. Bill Lee’s silence while Tennessee’s educators and colleges of education were disparaged. At the end of the event at which Arnn spoke, Lee told the audience that this “vision for education children . . . is a visit that Tennessee will embrace.”

Prospective teachers must pass an entrance requirement, maintain a certain GPA, and pass an exit exam to become certified. Licensure is the function of the state and the gatekeeper to employment. The Tennessee Association of Colleges for Teacher Education stated, “Arnn’s divisive rhetoric undercuts efforts to recruit individuals into the profession during a time when teachers are desperately needed.”

Unlike most Tennessee colleges and universities, Michigan-based Hillsdale College avoids federal rules and regulations because they forgo federal aid. This makes an apples-to-apples comparison impossible, but Arnn and Lee want our tax dollars to open Hillsdale charter schools in our state, which seems hypocritical.

Even the Tennessee Charter School Center stated explicitly that Arnn’s comments “do not in any way reflect the views or opinions of Tennessee public charter schools, leaders, parents, educators, or operators.”

Educators or colleges of education are not the problem and they certainly are not “dumb.” Teachers contend with an array of student challenges, including substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods and schools with limited resources. This may be unfamiliar territory to Arnn and Lee.

Finally, we should embrace our diversity. America, like our Judeo-Christian heritage, is reflected by different ethnicities, genders, opinions, and experiences. Our Declaration of Independence reminds us we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights.

Public education is not perfect. The governance of public schools is a complex issue that includes different government entities at the local, state and federal levels. Attacking public education with words like enslavement and despotism is unjustifiable. Teachers do not create the standards, choose the curriculum or buy the textbooks. Educators teach students how to think, not what to think. We want parent engagement. In the end, we want all our students to succeed, wherever they are educated.

In a state as diverse as Tennessee, we should want citizens to learn to live and work together. We must also work together to educate all our children in Tennessee. Most importantly, we must support and praise our educators for being the tireless beacons that they are.



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J.C. Bowman
J.C. Bowman

JC Bowman is the Executive Director & CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee. He began his career in education in Tennessee public schools, where he taught high school social sciences and special education for thirteen years. He has been the executive director of Professional Educators since 2011.