Strawberry Crest teacher Ryan Haczynski first caught the attention of fellow teachers and public education supporters in 2016 when he sent a list of concerns to Tampa Bay Times reporter Marlene Sokol about the Hillsborough County School District's mentoring program.
"Lesson learned," Haczynski laughed. "If you write something to a journalist, it could show up in the paper."
He became one of the public voices advocating against proposed changes for the mentoring program. When he spoke out at a school board meeting, he garnered the interest of more folks, including Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who encouraged him to write opinion pieces for papers across the state.
That seed has now grown into Teacher Voice, a blog and podcast that features people affecting education policy and provides Haczynski with a platform to express his views on his industry and the "politicization of education."
The teacher recently spoke to Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper about the state of public education, why he loves teaching and what parents can do to support his colleagues this week, which is Teacher Appreciation Week.
What do you love about teaching?
I think the first thing is just being around kids keeps you young. When I started teaching, of course, I was in touch with the pop culture. I watched Chappelle Show, the kids watched Chappelle Show. Now I'm 42, and they'll say, "You don't know who Carli B is?" Is that her name?
Cardi B, the hip-hop artist.
See, I don't even know the name. They'll say, "You don't know who Cardi B is?" I'm like, "I have no idea." The nature of how culture changes, how life changes — being in the classroom keeps you plugged into that, and I think it helps me stay young. That's definitely one thing I like. More than anything else, I think I fell into teaching because I'm what I call a learner's learner. To me learning is like a drug. Reading is like a drug. Everybody has an addiction and to me it's books, it's print. I enjoy reading, I enjoy learning. Now that I'm getting older, I think I'm really starting to appreciate Socrates when he said, "I know nothing."
There's a recognition and a deepening humility with being a teacher because as you get older — you felt confident when you were young — that kind of fades away and hopefully that's replaced with wisdom. I think ultimately at the end of the day — besides being around the kids because they keep me young, being a learner and being a good role model as lifelong learner -- the other aspect is I'm a people person. I like being around people. I like talking to people about ideas, issues.
Tell me about this Capstone class you're teaching in the IB program at Strawberry Crest.
Theory of Knowledge is a very unique course. Unfortunately, it's only offered to IB kids. I wish it was a course that anybody could take. It really teaches the kids how to think critically. It's not a straight epistemology class. We deal with a lot of current events and issues. Right now, the kids are doing a presentation where they take a real life situation and from that real life situation they extract what's called a knowledge question. ... It really forces the kids to think for themselves about knowledge. They start to recognize that knowledge is not something that's static, that it changes over time.
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Sounds like it's providing a key piece of education that we're sometimes told is missing: critical thinking
I would agree. Now that May is upon us, testing season is in full swing. Something that I've seen in my career change is just how we went from very few tests to many tests. When I first started teaching, we really had FCAT, and that was it. Now everybody takes SAT at school, PSAT at school, they offer ACT. On top of those national tests, they have all the EOCs (End of Course) and the FSAs. I think it's destroying education if I'm being completely candid. There's no time for developing those kind of skills.
The other part of my job is I'm the extended essay coordinator, so I also have to oversee each of these kids writing a 4,000-word research project. When I started teaching, we had kids do research and that has largely disappeared, with the exception of the AP Capstone and IB. They don't have as much time to do that.
What have you learned from doing Teacher Voice and the podcasts?
I've learned that unfortunately, education is incredibly political. Perhaps that's the most disheartening thing about it. My second post ever was called "Unintended Consequences." The post was really about the politicization of education and how I really wished it hadn't become so politicized. To borrow from Atticus Finch, education is the great leveler. He's talking about the courts, but I think education is that, in some sense. It's the underpinnning of a strong democracy and being a social studies teacher, that's important to me. I think everybody deserves a great education, and there are so many barriers that are put in place now: it could be socio-economic status, it could be legislative policy.
You said with all the legislative decisions and low-funding, teachers feel like the profession is under attack. Is that the hardest part of teaching?
Many teachers just get caught in the whirlwind of it all. At the end of the day, all these things that are happening outside of school only detract from our focus, which is the kids, the children in our classrooms, the ones we have to show up for every day. Teaching is not simply giving curriculum. The day after Parkland, for instance, driving to school, I said, "I'm just going to let the kids talk about whatever they want to talk about."
How do teachers maintain morale?
I'm wondering not if, but when — Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Colorado, West Virginia (teacher strikes) — I'm wondering when Florida will happen. I know that it's illegal to strike because of the 1968 walkout. The FEA has been very silent throughout this whole process. As someone who is involved in the local union, the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association, I wish we were doing more in terms of building awareness coming into the next election season.
One of the things I thought would be a simple activity would be have everybody wear "red for ed" during teacher appreciation week, and when parents and the community members ask, talk about the low funding. Arizona walked out and their per-pupil funding is $8,140 some odd dollars. Ours this coming year is $7,408, which is also behind inflation by a good $1,200 from a decade ago.
My younger son graduated from college last week with a degree in elementary education. If he was sitting here, what advice would you give him?
Even as few as four or five years ago, I actively encouraged students to become teachers. I do not do so anymore.
It is sad. I would never dissuade someone from the profession all together, but I would say don't teach in Florida, and if you're going to stay in Florida, do your homework. Make sure you're going to a place that is fiscally solvent. Pinellas just renewed their "Penny for Pinellas," they'll be okay. Orange (County) is okay. But the vast majority of school districts are really struggling. How can we be in this booming economy and teachers make so little money here in Florida and elsewhere?
What about beyond the funding?
The positive, idealistic side of me would tell your son, "Just follow your heart and do what's right by kids. Be a good role model. Be the best person you can be and be authentic." I think that's a huge thing. I know he's doing elementary, but high school kids, you have to be authentic. Teenagers, they smell fake from a mile away. I just go in there and from Day One, I am a nerdy weirdo. I just tell them buckle up. This is what it is. Kids are attracted to that. Especially teens, they want to look and see an adult who is not afraid to live out loud and be who he or she is. I'm glad your son is going into teaching. We need all the good teachers we can get.
It's Teacher Appreciation Week. What's the best way we can show appreciation?
I would say the best way they could show appreciation, parents especially, if you're not already volunteering in our schools, start volunteering — especially in our urban schools. We need all the help we can get. ... This week in particular, with the state of things in the nation, wear red as much as you can for the Red for Ed movement ... and to keep talking about school funding. It's not even about teacher salaries. That's a small part of it, but that's ultimately generated by the per pupil funding. We need a real investment in public education and people who care about education should be spreading that message, should be encouraging others to vote for pro public education candidates in the upcoming election cycle. More than baked goods or Starbucks gift cards or any of those things like that, the best way they can help teachers is becoming more involved with what's happening in public education across the state.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity. Contact Ernest Hooper at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @hoop4you.