Amy Cate was scared as she approached the November 2013 school board meeting. She wore a red jacket for strength, held a friend’s hand and kept on walking.
When she opened the door, she and her friends – fellow teachers who’d been planning this night for weeks – were relieved to see a sea of red: red shirts, red jackets, red sweaters, red scarves, red ties, red hats.
Red – the color that has been chosen by the BATS (Bad Ass Teachers), a national association of educators who oppose corporate education reform. It has come to symbolize teachers fighting back against the increasing demands of corporate education reform and its test-them-till-they puke emphasis on high stakes testing.
“We all walked into the meeting together, holding hands. We were scared to death – would we lose our jobs? But we were thrilled at all the red. It was a movement. It was a time when teachers were fed up. We knew we were being used and abused in a way that was not right. Given my experience with sales and management, I knew that you don’t treat people that way, not in the real world, and certainly not in government, financed with state and local and federal taxpayers’ money.”
Cate, who is the vice president of the Knox County Education Association, retired this week, winding up 24 years of teaching first through ninth grades over the course of a career that was interrupted by a 14-year hiatus. She taught at Whittle Springs Middle School from 1979-1991, then quit to take a job with a national company and worked her way up to regional management before the love of teaching called her back to the classroom in 2007. She spent the next five years at Sarah Moore Greene Elementary, then two years at Pleasant Ridge Elementary, two years at Dogwood Elementary and this year at Amherst Elementary, a year she calls “a blessing.”
Most of her transfers were at her request; the last one was an administrative transfer, which she said came after she had begun to openly rebel against the “cookie cutter” policies and practices of former Superintendent James McIntyre, who famously favored a high stakes testing regime.
“I was a victim of the McIntyre crap,” she said. “I spoke up. I spoke to County Commission. But I did most of my advocating behind the scene. I’m a one-on-one person, not like (KCEA president) Lauren Hopson (whose “tired teacher” speech in the fall of 2013 transformed teacher discontent into a movement).
“I didn’t know Lauren Hopson, but in 2013, I was trying to organize a group. When I heard her, I was like, ‘Oh my God, this woman speaks for me.’ Other groups have formed, across the state, but none as strong as SPEAK in Knox County.”
(SPEAK – Students, Parents and Educators Across Knox County – was organized initially by dissenting teachers, who were joined by parents and students and interested citizens. It has grown to 2,963 members).
“SPEAK came to fruition in my kitchen,” Cate said. “Amber Rountree announced her candidacy for school board in my dining room. I thought, if my neighbors only knew what was going on…’ When I saw ‘Hidden Figures,’ I thought that we were the civil rights movement for teachers and students in Knox County.”
Over a couple of election cycles, SPEAK helped elect a slate of pro-teacher school board members, and McIntyre, seeing the handwriting on the wall, resigned in 2015. Cate said other grassroots groups around the state have formed and are studying SPEAK’s methods.
“Sherry Morgan and Lauren have spoken in Nashville about how we flipped the school board and had a big role in who was chosen,” she said.
She’s still frustrated about some things – the high stakes testing (first TCAP, then TNReady) chugs on, despite years of not being able to process student scores before the end of the school year. Cate hates it.
“TNReady’s not ready and it ain’t never gonna be ready,” she quipped, citing the two weeks stolen from instructional time to take the tests, the months of preparation and the draconian procedures involved in administering it – teachers were not allowed to test students in the grade they taught, and were required to be constantly on their feet, watching the kids like hawks.
“I’m very much against standardized testing. It’s nothing but a snapshot of a child’s performance at a moment in time, and you don’t know what’s going on in that child’s life. Those scores should not be part of a child’s grade and should not be part of a teacher’s evaluation. A good teacher knows what their student can do forward and backward.”
Although Cate believes there is still work to be done, she has confidence in newly appointed superintendent Bob Thomas, and she wishes him well. She plans to keep paying attention, and will probably do some substitute teaching. But she doesn’t plan on shutting up.
“You’re considered a troublemaker if you speak the truth,” she said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat anything and I’m going to tell it like it is.”