Erin Jones: Teaching kids means teaching ourselves

Erin Jones, candidate for WA State Office of Public Instruction.

Erin Jones, candidate for WA State Office of Public Instruction.

By Tim Johnson/Cascadia Weekly

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Teaching kids means teaching ourselves—to be a more generous, more accommodating, more honest society, Erin Jones says.

With the funding of basic education deemed the highest priority of state policy makers, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) as advocate and champion of those goals may be the most important election this season. But beyond the questions of money, Washington’s public schools face unprecedented issues related to diversity and cultural, racial, ethnic and sexual identity as the state prepares its youth to take on a new (and perhaps more generous) century.

Erin Jones, who seeks to head the office, is the adopted daughter of two educators. She grew up in the Netherlands where her parents taught at the American School of The Hague. She speaks four languages: Dutch, French, English and Spanish. She attended Bryn Mawr College, where she earned a degree in comparative literature with a focus on the African Diaspora.

Later, she earned her teaching certificate at Pacific Lutheran University, where she specialized in teaching English as a second language (ELL). In 2007, the Washington Association of Foreign Language Teachers named her their most innovative teacher.

In 2013, she was selected as one of ten White House Champions of Change for Educational Excellence for African Americans for her work promoting educational excellence for African-Americans in the community.

Erin Jones stepped up to the role of superintendent of public instruction, but along the way she’s met with challenge and controversy.

Erin Jones: I’ve had people encourage me to run for probably the last seven years now. I wasn’t excited about it, based on how the office is currently imagined.

But what if we were to re-imagine the work of Superintendent of Public instruction, and do the work like we do in the school districts, where you are out from behind a desk? Even if you are a district leader, you spend only about 20 to 30 percent of your time in the office. You spend most of your time supporting staff, inspiring kids, training teachers.

What if the director of OSPI taught a class, once a month, across the state—kindergarten, first grade, 10th grade? What if we encouraged staff to get out of the building, out of Olympia, and really be present in our education spaces?

Thinking that way, I was finally able to imagine a job that made sense to me, that felt like work I valued and matched my skill sets—a kind of leadership that we haven’t seen in education. That thought excited me—a different way to lead in education.

I threw my hat in the ring.

We need to do education leadership differently. Too many administrators get caught up in the administration and “administrivia” that they’re no longer connected to students, families, communities and their teachers.

I’m not a politician. I’ve never seen myself as a politician. What I am is a lifelong advocate for a great education—supporting children and teachers and administrators and families.

That’s what’s been missing at the top level—somebody who can not only advocate at that level, but who understands what’s happening on the ground.

Cascadia Weekly: When you and I last spoke, you were working as an administrator for the Federal Way School District, which I believe is one of the most diverse—ethnically. culturally, linguistically—districts in the state. How did that experience prepare you for leadership in Olympia?

EJ: Yes, I have had to think about how to support so many different kinds of students—whether it’s refugee students or students with different religious backgrounds. We have students who must wear special headscarves. We have Muslim students who have to stop and pray several times each day.

How do we do that? It’s something our school districts have not had an opportunity to think about. How do we help teachers interact appropriately with those students; how do we help students think about how to talk to other students who may look different?

In that experience, I had an opportunity to think through, with principals, how we can do culturally responsible practice, but also how we can think systemically about equity—the structural practices we can put in place to make sure very student gets what they need, and that every teacher gets the kind of support that they need.

We need to move the needle on all of the state’s 295 school districts. That, I believe, is the work of OSPI. Part of that is policy, but the greater part is the day-to-day workings of schools and learning.

CW: McCleary: The issue of funding public education and the inability of the Legislature to make progress seems to have really worn down the current superintendent of schools, embittered him. Is there any hope this issue can be resolved?

EJ: Nope. [laughs]

I testified in the original case. I represented OSPI in 2011. Not a whole lot has changed since then.

The Legislature is coming up on a hard deadline, and I think they may get to part of an answer. I don’t believe they are going to come up with a full answer on how to fully fund basic education by the end of the 2017 session. It’s a $3 billion question. I’m not optimistic.

But there are a couple of things they need to solve, and I think they may be able to solve them.

For many districts, a levy cliff is coming. At the end of this session, the amount of money that school districts will be able to raise will be cut in half.

If the Legislature has not funded McCleary—which I do not believe they will—what will happen is districts will have to let lots of teachers go, and especially in our larger school districts.

If I can just advocate for one thing in that first 90 days, we’ve got to get the levy issue fixed, even if that means just freezing it where it is. No headway, but no loss.

That would give us another year to get this worked out, to help scaffold our priorities and leverage our resources intentionally.

CW: Have you insight into what is at root of this impasse? Can it really be the case that elected representatives in Olympia do not understand what the Supreme Court is sanctioning them to do? They have a constitutional duty to fund public education. Do they not understand that?

EJ: Right now we are so polarized. And that’s really dangerous, because it sets up an “Us Against Them.” So instead of focusing on what’s best for children, it is one party versus the other:

“I’m not going to move! It’s not about compromise.”

Well, I happen to believe the real solution to McCleary is compromise. What compromise means, in my opinion, is each party, each viewpoint, gives up something. No one group is winning, or can win here.

To do what’s best for children means all of us have to give up something—or we can’t say it is all about children. We say we care about children, but our actions don’t match that.

I think we need to own that.

In Washington state, we don’t really have honest conversations. We like to have politically correct conversations.

We end up not talking about what is really happening. We never get down to the root of problems because we are so busy worrying about being politically correct, we don’t ever have conversations about what it really means to serve everyone.

Until we get away from the PC, we’re not going to get down to what is right for children.

We as adults are going to have to make some sacrifices. That’s a hard conversation people don’t want to have.

Everyone on education panels point to Scandinavia, to the Netherlands, to Finland. My joke—it’s not really a joke, I guess—is we want Finland results without Finland investments. We want those outcomes, but we are not willing to invest financially in them.

CW: On the topic of political correctness, you lost the endorsement of The Stranger, probably the most influential publication in the state among young progressives. I read the open letter you published, expressing how it made you heartsick. What happened there?

EJ: I mentioned I was not a politician—I’m an educator—but one reality of getting into the political process is there are a million people who want you to answer questionnaires, and respond to a large number of blogs.

Vancouver, Wash., has a very conservative blog, and I responded to their questionnaire without taking the time—I will own it—to really consider where their questions were leading. I responded as the questions were asked, not realizing they were being asked in a biased way that would lead to certain conclusions.

One question was about a new sexual health curriculum, and I was asked if I was willing to teach children about being transgendered in kindergarten. And then, teaching detailed sexual orientation in fourth grade.

My initial response was, “I’ve raised three kids, and I’ve taught middle and high school, and I don’t know that it is developmentally appropriate to teach a 5-year-old about detailed issues of sexual identity.”

Not that it is not ever appropriate to teach those subjects. But it did not make sense to me—as mom, as a teacher—to talk about transgender issues with a 5-year-old.

And I do have concerns about teachers who have not been trained, who have had no dialogue or discourse on a very touchy subject, who are suddenly asked to teach a new curriculum.

That blew up. It’s been a learning experience for me.

People connect dots that are not meant to be connected. People made connections that because I am a Christian, because I am concerned about teachers teaching subjects they are not adequately trained to teach, that I am anti-LGBTQ. Which is absolutely not true, and hurts to the core of who I am.

In reality, the curriculum does not actually teach about being transgendered. It talks about gender identity in expression.

In kindergarten, kids are already experiencing bullying because, for example, a boy has long hair. And so we teach about being open to diversity.

CW: What has been the fallout from The Stranger’s retraction of their endorsement?

EJ: There came a point a few weeks ago where I considered walking away from the campaign, I felt so low. Unbearable things were being said about me on social media. But here’s what I have resolved from all of this:

If a public shaming allows me to become a better advocate for that community, then I receive it.

I will allow this as a gift to me to allow me to better serve. If it involves stripping down bare and starting again, then I strip down bare and start again.

Part of my life’s journey is to advocate for people who are marginalized. That is what I am committed to.

CW: Four years from now, where do you want public schools, public education, to be in Washington?

EJ: There are three things I want to do to reimagine in this work: Visions, Voices and Visibility.

I don’t believe there’s a clear vision for the state around what public education means. There is a conversation around, “Here’s what we fund.” Those are definitions for basic education, compensation, etc.

That’s not a vision, that’s a funding model.

We need to have a conversation about what excellent public education should look like in Washington. Here are our aspirational goals, here is our roadmap—our blueprint—for what great public education looks like. How should all the public education entities fit together and work together?

Without that clear blueprint, we will continue to have legislators write random bills that make no sense, and do not fit into any larger framework. We will still have teachers wondering what the heck to do to close opportunity gaps.

Second, voices.

We cannot continue to have the only voices at the table be lobbyists and legislators and bureaucrats from OSPI.  That makes no sense to me, and it is why we are where we are. People who are on the ground, who are being impacted by decisions, are never at the table.

A lobbyist cannot accurately represent what a classroom teacher is walking through every day.

I want to create a table big enough to have students, classroom teachers, working principals, community-based organizations with education goals, businesses, at the table as we craft this blueprint. East side, west side—north and south—we’ve got to represent the whole state.

Until we have new voices, we are going to continue to do the same work.

And finally, visibility—being visible out in the community.

I have to be out in the community, and let our teachers and our students know that I see them. I need to be out affirming.

But also, me and my staff, have to be out as treasure hunters, finding those best practices and celebrating them, telling the stories of what is working.

I think we’ve gotten really good about talking about what is not working, our failures. We have not done a great job of affirming the great work and replicating that. But you can’t do that based on data on a piece of paper. We have to actually get out. School happens in a context and an environment.

CW: If elected, you would be the first African-American woman to lead public education in Washington. Has that factored into your campaign?

EJ: To be honest, it has created a lot of interrogations.

I have a friend who observed, “Whenever there is a first—which you are, Erin—there is a hazing that happens.”

There are many people excited about having a black woman run, and progressive organizations that say, “We’re all about raising up black and brown people, and women.”

And what I’ve come to find is, yes, they say that, but only if you believe everything and say everything, do everything in a particular way, the way they prefer. But that’s not diversity!

“We want more brown people.” But the reality is, because I’m brown and because I walk a different path, my experience is going to be different from yours. I can’t be just a brown version of you.

This is a good conversation to have.

If you really want more black and brown people involved in politics, you’re going to have to look in the mirror and ask, “Do you really want more black and brown folks in politics?” Because diversity actually means difference. It doesn’t just mean different skin color.

Until we’re ready to admit that we actually want difference, we probably need to stop talking about diversity. We need to be honest with ourselves about that.

If we want things to be better, we need to have answers to these questions, these things we don’t talk about that are hurting us.