Author: Tierney Cahill, principal at Title I elementary school in Nevada. She is also the author of, "Ms. Cahill for Congress, One Fearless Teacher, Her Sixth-Grade Class, and the Election That Changed Their Lives Forever" (Random House, 2008).
Politics seem to have moved at a fast and furious pace over the past couple of years. The events that can happen in one week can been staggering and hard to believe. On Friday it’s often hard to conceive that an event that seemed monumental on Monday and would surely dominate the news cycle was practically forgotten and hardly a footnote by Friday, as multiple events lapsed it. As school leaders, we see where many of these issues land as they impact our school communities, including our staffs and their families.
Schools are the canaries in the coal mine for society; ask any school leader and they can give you examples of how immigration policy, the federal shutdown, the opioid crisis, the lack of affordable housing, the underpaid and uninsuredare impacting schools. Our students, their families, staff and the communities surrounding our schools are struggling with these issues and many more, to varying degrees, regardless of the zip code.
These issues are coming into the front office as families explain they can’t afford the housing in the area and are having to double up with another family. Grandparents are raising grandchildren due to incarceration, addiction, and, tragically, parents that have passed away due to their struggles with addiction. These grandparents often need help from the school’s food bank, and other wrap-around services. Many of these children are in a state of trauma, and their grandparents are doing their very best, but it’s a difficult job to take on a child in your later years. Unfortunately, too often the need is greater than the resources available. Ideally every school would have a social worker to assist families, but that is not always the case in every state. Trauma Informed Practices and Social Emotional Learning are certainly focuses around the country these days, however, the needs are great and often schools are short on the necessary funding to staff and deliver what is needed in every situation.
Teachers and school staff step up every day to nurture and educate every student that comes through the door. Yet, the teaching ranks are growing older and facing many personal challenges of their own. Many have aging parents that suffered devastating setbacks during the 2008-2016 recession and also have young adult children that are saddled with student loan debt and did not see the job offers leaving college from which other generations prospered. There are many teacher families that are living in multigenerational arrangements under one roof, trying to take care of each other. This stress weighs on teachers and para-professionals that are in that middle generation trying to take care of their aging parents and helping their young adult children find their way. In many states, teachers and para-professionals have not seen cost of living raises in the recession years due to budget cuts to keep up with inflation, putting them significantly behind similar professions. It is not surprising that major strikes have taken place across the country: Arizona, Oklahoma, Los Angeles Unified, just to name a few.
There are teachers and para-professionals working multiple jobs, and married to partners that are federal employees or serving in the military. These employees also carry a great deal of stress and the federal shutdown has been devastating. All the while, they are daily creating a better future for the next generation. Building leaders must have their ears to the ground to understand who on the staff is juggling what challenges and be understanding, offer support where we can, and be flexible.
Educators by nature are people that go into the profession to improve other people’s lives. These amazing people are selfless, giving, dedicated and willing to sacrifice for the greater good. Honestly, for the most part they don’t complain. Leaders need to be aware of compassion fatigue not only for their staff, but for themselves. When dealing with a great deal of stress and trauma it can become overwhelming and exhausting. A number of leaders across the nation have reported that they’ve seen an uptick in mental health issues with their staffs due to a tremendous amount of stressors. Self-care needs to be discussed and modeled. Starting a staff meeting with mindful practices, bringing in a yoga instructor, and sharing articles on self-care are strategies being done all over the country.
School leaders are crucial members of the community and know the pulse of what is going on. There are schools where attendance has been hampered due to ICE conducting raids in neighborhoods. Parents and students have been afraid to leave their homes when seeing ICE vehicles on the streets before school. Parents have reported being terrified that children may come home to an empty home, and therefore, keep their children home from school. By building trusting relationships with families, schools can create a partnership in which families can communicate their concerns and problem solve together. Schools are the hub of a community and should foster the networking that is responsive to the unique situations of each neighborhood. There are many school leaders in partnership with families and community outreach organizations set up health clinics, food banks, attend asylum hearings, walk groups of children through neighborhoods safely, and create extended day programs to meet the needs of the community. All of these efforts may not seem political, but undoubtedly education is always political.
There is no doubt that the political landscape has impacted the work of school leaders. It is challenging, it can be exhausting, at times bureaucratic, a bit frustrating and there are days it will break your heart. But it is also the most amazing and rewarding opportunity to know that every single day you walk in as the building leader you have the opportunity to set your intentions and choose: optimism, gratitude, to be fiercely positive. You can choose to fight for equity for ALL (knowing rigor IS equity), to build relationships and partnerships with each family, and to do all you can to assist teachers to do the same. Public schools are the mirror of society, and there are times the reflection is messy, but the work is what gives me hope.
Tierney Cahill is an award winning educator that inspires audiences around the country with her experience of running for Congress as a sixth grade teacher. She was dared by her students to prove that the average American can run, they believed only millionaires could run, Cahill agreed to prove this wrong. She took on this challenge despite being a single mother of three children and working multiple jobs. Tierney saw this as the perfect opportunity to give students real voice, turn learning into truly an authentic opportunity that was student driven, and allowed for deep learning and engagement. Her journey led her class to win the primary and lead the democratic nomination in Nevada.
Today Tierney describes herself as a lead-learner, she's currently the principal at a Title I high poverty, minority majority elementary school in Sparks, Nevada where she is dedicated to erasing the opportunity gap, providing student voice and authentic deeper learning experiences for all children.
Her book, Ms. Cahill for Congress: One Fearless teacher, Her Sixth Grade Class and the Election that Changed their Lives Forever,(Random House, 2008) is being developed into a feature film and has inspired a whole generation of teachers to become politically involved. Tierney leaves audiences inspired, excited and knowing they too can change the trajectory of their students' lives by empowering them.