My answers to the CEA questions

The Caledonia Education Association invited candidates for trustee on the board of education to appear in a video interview to respond to questions. They sent us their questions ahead of time so that we could think about our answers. I wrote up some notes to prepare. What I said to them in the video interview was pretty close to what follows here:

Why are you running for the Caledonia School Board?
  • Over the last several years I have asked myself how I can get involved and do something positive in my community.
  • I have been concerned about ways in which our society is becoming more divided, more polarized.
  • Public education holds us together. It’s an essential institution in a democratic society. Public education has been under attack.
  • At the same time, respect for expertise and education have eroded, and that translates into disrespect for educators.
  • I have tremendous respect for educators, education, and expertise, and especially for the role of public schools.
  • A public-school education can educate kids not only to make a good living but also to be good citizens.
  • I appreciate the education that Cal schools gave to my two children.
  • I want to help.
In your opinion, what are some of the biggest issues impacting the ability of school employees to deliver quality public education to students?
  • I worry about lack of support for teachers.
  • I worry about agitators spreading fear, doubt, and disinformation about curriculum.
  • The pandemic was obviously a problem: very hard to teach and learn under those circumstances; and some have tried to turn the pandemic into a wedge to divide the community into opposed blocs.
  • Finances are probably always a challenge.
  • I worry that it’s increasingly difficult to maintain high academic standards when the social and emotional well-being of so many students is challenged.
What is your understanding of the role that the Caledonia Education Association plays in providing the best educational opportunities for students of Caledonia?
  • CEA represents teachers. If they did not have an org like CEA, they would be in a weaker position both for securing fair wages and working conditions.
  • CEA also helps two-way communications between teachers and the community. This interview is a case in point. 
  • Generally speaking, CEA supports teachers, and teachers who have the support they need are better able to serve students. Teachers who are stressed and pressed and harried are not going to be able to teach as well.
  • So my position is that an org like CEA is in the business of strengthening our schools.
Describe your campaign plans and support. Do you have, or are you seeking, other endorsements?
  • I have donations from supporters that I will use to get my message directly to voters.
  • I have a website (https://ernest4calschools.org/) and a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/Ernest4CalSchools).
  • I have been attending school board meetings and occasionally speaking up in them.
  • I am asking teachers for their perspective.
  • I have met with longtime Cal residents to get their perspective.
  • Most importantly, perhaps, I have teamed up with two other candidates (Eric VanGessel and Mary Ann Timmer) to offer a nonpartisan, pro-schools, pro-kids, pro-teachers slate. 
  • I have completed a questionnaire that I hope will get me some favorable attention from the West Michigan Building Trades association.
  • I have not hitherto sought endorsements from high-profile local politicians.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle that our school district faces today?
  • Not sure whether finances or the cultural challenges are more serious. I personally feel better able to help with the cultural challenges. Eric and Mary Anne are good on both, but they both have serious finance expertise.
  • Finances: building and maintenance projects are running over budget.
  • Limited diversity is a question mark. My wife and I know a biracial family in the district that chose to send their kids to Kentwood schools because of what they heard about Cal schools.
  • Negative emotionality coming from some politicians and some people in the community. Negative messaging about teachers and administrators. Need to focus on all the positive things our students are doing with the support of our staff.
What are your top 3 objectives if elected?
  • Establish/maintain a culture of civility, mutual goodwill, productive collaboration, and positivity in school board meetings.
  • Enable constructive communications, good process, and intelligent decisions in board and committee conversations about curricula, textbooks, community values, and pedagogical best practices.
  • Promote well-rounded education, leaving out nothing: history, languages, literature, STEM, vocational education, music and other arts, physical education, character/citizenship/SEL.
Tell me about a time you were able to spend in a Caledonia school classroom. How was your experience?
  • When my son was in middle school I was in classrooms after hours to lead Odyssey of the Mind practices / meetings. So much fun. The kids were bright, engaged, and interesting.
  • Every time there was an open house, we attended to talk with teachers. We loved that.
  • I have attended many football games—fun community events.
  • Our kids got involved in choir, orchestra, theater. We loved attending those events.
  • I don’t remember being in a CCS classroom during a class session. As a school board member, I’d love to visit, if invited by teachers. I wouldn’t want to be a disruption.
If you were elected, how would you plan to be involved with Caledonia students, teachers, and their classrooms?
  • First, I don’t think school board trustees should interfere by injecting themselves into buildings, classrooms, and student-parent-teacher interactions.
  • But I would like to encourage administrators, teachers, students, and parents to talk with me, and I would like to get to know more of them. There’s precedent. I’m told that Sennis Atkinson visited classrooms in all the schools and was warmly welcomed. Bob Lilley also, I believe.
  • So if I’m invited into classrooms, I would be more than happy to accept. And I will want to attend sporting arts events when able.
In the last few years there has been an increase in discussion and questions as to “SEL” within our public schools and specifically within Caledonia schools. What is your understanding of SEL, how it is being used currently, and how it impacts students and teachers in our schools?
  • I believe in holistic learning–not just cramming facts into heads, not just training for jobs, but educating.
  • That includes character, in old-fashioned terms; in more current terms, it includes self-awareness, ability to “read the room”; it includes knowing how to recognize and deal constructively with your own emotions and others’. It includes knowing how to analyze situations and make good decisions. My understanding is that these are the aims of SEL.
  • I am in the process of learning about how SEL functions in CCS classrooms. My understanding from research summaries that I have read is that across diverse populations the impact of SEL is positive: students perform better in their courses and present fewer disciplinary issues, are less likely to be derailed by depression, despair, anger, etc.
  • I’m looking forward to a session in the near future with a CCS teacher who has agreed to talk with our VET team and has already supplied valuable links.
  • I understand that there are criticisms/objections to SEL from some Caledonia parents; I have tried listening to some of them, but I have not heard anything from them that seems to justify their negative attitude. I will keep listening.
With the reality of the national teacher shortage crisis, how would you plan to retain teachers in Caledonia?
  • We should provide the best pay and benefits possible.
  • We should make sure that anyone who commits to teaching in Caledonia is paid enough to be able to live well in Caledonia. 
  • But I suspect that for retention, morale may be as important as money.
  • Teachers need to know they are free to teach well,
    • they need reasonable class sizes and good curriculum
    • they need a protected clear space within which they can do their work of educating and caring for students without being harassed by negativity from unreasonable complainers or burdened with bureaucratic busy-work that doesn’t serve the goal of educating the children
    • they need to know that their administration will back them up when situations arise with students and parents
    • they need to know they are appreciated! All these things are preconditions for successful and happy teaching. My chief aim as a school board member will be to do everything possible to support the maintenance of those conditions.
  • The word needs to be out there, for people who finish a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in teaching, that the place you really want to land is Caledonia. (As I recall, I heard this from Eric—an excellent point, I thought.)
What are your thoughts on effective collective bargaining? 
  • In most large workplaces like schools, management has organization and money; it can speak with one voice, and with power.
  • If the workers—in schools, the teachers—can’t also speak with one voice, they’ll be at a distinctive power disadvantage.
  • Power imbalances tend to produce injustices, regardless of the good character of the individuals who have the power. 
  • So my thought on collective bargaining is that it’s the best way to produce outcomes that will be fair and will be best for both sides—and in the case of the schools, best for students.
  • My philosophy of negotiation comes from a brilliant little book called “Getting to Yes.” It’s all about finding win-win solutions, not win-lose solutions.
What are your views on vouchers and the privatization of schools?
  • Opposed to both. Public education is a pillar of democratic society. Everyone pays taxes to support the common good. You don’t get to withhold your taxes and opt out of police protection, fire protection, streets, highways, parks, government offices.
  • And you don’t get to withhold your tax dollars if you decide not to send your children to public schools.
  • To put it bluntly: you don’t get to suck money out of the public system to fund a rival system that is not required to serve the public.
  • When that happens, wealthier families do well, and poorer kids get stuck in schools that don’t have adequate resources. That’s a no-go.
What is your thought process when faced with making a controversial decision? Describe your communication style when faced with opposing opinions or controversial decisions.
  • I’m a biblical scholar and theologian, so if you ask me that question you get a biblical phrase: ἀληθεύοντες ἐν ἀγάπῃ—“truthing in love.” 
  • If someone disagrees with your idea, don’t take it as an insult.
  • If you disagree with someone else, don’t attack them personally.
  • If your opponent’s argument is weak or inappropriately expressed, help them strengthen it and put it in appropriate terms before responding to it.
  • But if the other side behaves badly: don’t run away, don’t withdraw, don’t return anger for anger, exaggeration for exaggeration, or sarcasm for sarcasm. Focus on the objective. Try to understand why the other side objects (if they are objecting rationally) or what is upsetting them (if they are reacting emotionally). Figure out what both sides need, and if possible, give everyone what they need.
  • But don’t compromise with falsehood, bad faith, selfishness, ignorance, or malice: call it what it is and keep pressing on.
  • When conflict looms, walk right into it—not blustering or threatening, but with resolve to find the best outcome for everyone involved.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the district?
  • What a great community! All the advantages of good schools without the disadvantages of a snob culture.
  • This district has people who commute to GR, people who work remotely, and people who farm. This is a strength.
  • A weakness is lack of other kinds of diversity: there are so many White people and so many people who claim a Christian identity that this district can be un-self-aware in these matters and unwelcoming (or at least perceived as unwelcoming) to people who are not both.
  • But, from my experience, the district has good administrators, teachers who care and go the extra mile, and many parents who engage constructively with the schools.
What are your thoughts on determining the appropriate classroom sizes/capping classes?
  • From my own experience in public schools, I have always thought 20 or 25 is a good class size, 30 is a maximum, and beyond that is not a good situation. I doubt that classroom technology has changed those numbers much.
  • But if the question is how to determine appropriate class size: my answer is, don’t ask me! Consult the current literature in education, and listen to teachers talk about their experiences in the classroom.
  • Optimum class size is going to vary with grade level and with subject. Follow the research.
Tell me about your thoughts on teacher wage increases.
  • If I were king of the world, schoolteachers would make as much as doctors, lawyers, and other comparably trained and dedicated professionals. So much is riding on their ability to educate our children well!
  • So instinctively and reflexively I’m going to want to say yes every time anyone proposes a raise for teachers.
  • The challenges are: I have learned in my work in the publishing industry that our society does not always value things of the spirit (I’m speaking broadly here of the human spirit–arts, ideas, imagination, innovation) as highly as I think we should. And I have learned that in any enterprise, it is absolutely essential to make sure that expenditures are not higher than income, because if that happens, someone else will step in and remake the whole system in a way that you will not like.
  • So I advocate for sufficient taxation to provide sufficient revenue for the support of education. But so long as funds are limited (which, realistically, they always will be) we have to watch the budget carefully to make sure that whatever funding is available is spent wisely, in ways that support the core educational mission of the schools. That certainly includes good pay for teachers.

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