Her name is Lauren Sorensen, a circumstance she credits to a most unlikely individual.
She was Lauren Hopson back in September 2016 when she met Phil Sorensen in Chicago at a National Education Association conference called “A Time to Learn.” The topic was standardized testing.
She teaches elementary school in Knox County. He teaches high school science in Lake Tahoe.
He spotted her first, as she walked across the foyer at the Embassy Suites while he was eating breakfast. He remembers staring at her, and for a hot minute he thought she was looking right back at him. She has no memory of that.
But she does remember the small-group discussion later that day when they got to talking. He told her that he was a BAT – the acronym for Bad Ass Teacher, a national group that is fiercely opposed to the evaluation regimen being shoved down the throats of teachers and students in school districts all across the country. She smiled, turned her phone over and showed him the BAT on the screen.
“You don’t just walk up to total strangers and tell them you’re a BAT, “ she said.
“BATs are the ones who have been pushing the union to be more progressive in their thinking. We don’t play nice, and if you tell just anybody you’re a badass teacher, people look at you weird – although if there’s an active shooter or a tornado coming your way, every parent wants their kid with a badass teacher. So why should it be any different when you’re trying to protect your students from predatory practices, toxic stress and developmentally inappropriate practices?”
They got in touch via Facebook during the subsequent months, and the relationship heated up fast. In April, they decided that they didn’t want to wait until the next NEA meeting to see each other again, so they decided to meet up in San Francisco.
The first night they dined at the Cliff House, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Next, they went to a science museum. Things went well.
“Best first date ever,” Lauren said.
After that, they found themselves spending three or four hours a day on the phone. Since they’re both science geeks, Phil made plans to fly to Knoxville in August so they could watch the total solar eclipse together (Tennessee was smack in the middle of the totality zone and afforded some of the best eclipse views on the continent). Lauren found a good viewing place, and Phil presented her with an engagement ring during the “diamond ring” effect as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind the shadow of the moon. Needless to say, things went well then, too.
Note: Back in October 2013, Lauren had no way of knowing what the repercussions would be the night she got mad enough and fed up enough and brave enough to stand up at a school board meeting and blast not only the board members, but also Superintendent James McIntyre and pretty much the whole state education apparatus in Nashville. She spoke eloquently of the stress that resulted from the never-ending cycle of testing, evaluation and homework that was being rammed down the throats of Knox County’s teachers, students and parents. She pronounced herself tired.
Somebody posted it on YouTube, and the speech went viral. Pretty soon it became apparent that she’d hit a nerve with teachers across the county – and beyond. Hundreds of red-shirted teachers (often joined by parents and students) were showing up for school board meetings and speaking their mind.
McIntyre, an avid proponent of the methods the teachers deplored, was the target of much of their ire. The following year, Lauren was elected president of the Knox County Education Association. The year after that, a new, teacher-friendly board was elected and McIntyre, who didn’t need a weather man to tell him which way the wind was blowing, vamoosed to a cushy new job with the University of Tennessee and a fat severance check before the new members were sworn in.
Last July, Lauren and Phil were married. A bunch of teachers attended the wedding.
It’s a commuter marriage for now, since they both have sons who are still in high schools in Tahoe and Tennessee. Once the boys finish up and get settled into college, Lauren will be moving west, and the future is wide open and waiting.
On this, her first Valentine’s Day as Lauren Sorensen, she thinks about how her life has changed as a result of getting politically active. She says that one unlikely person made all this possible.
“It’s the one thing that I can thank Dr. McIntyre for,” she said.