Seeing Common Core from Central Office: An Interview With Leigh Anne Newton

Education has become a hot-button political issue in Mississippi. Given the gripes with Common Core and the growing support for a constitutional amendment forcing the legislature to fully fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, there is no shortage of issues to discuss. However, with some 33,000+ teachers serving half a million students, plus thousands of additional experts working in the field in non-instructional capacities, it seems curious to me how little attention is given to the opinion of actual education professionals about what they do. So I wanted to shine a light on what’s actually happening in Mississippi public education today, from within. This week, I talked to Lee County Schools’ Director of Student Services, Leigh Anne Newton.

IMG_3805First, I have to be honest: I am completely biased about Mrs. Newton. I think she’s a fantastic educator. She’s one of those wise old sages walking around in a younger woman’s skin- the kind of educator you’d hand-pick to be in your district’s central office making the decisions that affect your child’s future. I was lucky enough to work with her for four years in northeast Mississippi. And she comes from good stock; her mother Cheryl is a retired teacher who showed me the meaning of boundless wisdom and kindness, her sister Ginger a decorated math teacher at Saltillo High School. To be brief, Leigh Anne Newton was born to be a teacher.

But that’s precisely why I wanted to interview her about her role in Mississippi education. Hers is a voice that matters, and therefore should be heard. So I gave her the proverbial microphone. I didn’t know exactly what she’d say. On a personal basis, Newton shares many things in common with Governor Bryant and many of Common Core’s critics: She is a registered Republican and a dedicated conservative voice. Her Christian faith and family values are evident from her speech and the way she lives. She is a proud mother. She believes in protecting her children’s future. She is passionate about public education.

Newton was also one of the first educators in Mississippi to really delve into the Common Core State Standards.  When they were first adopted, she was one of the ones tasked with breaking them down so that others could understand.  While that early exposure has given her a deeper understanding, it also means she has had more time than most to grapple with and verbalize its shortcomings. Add to that her current position in a district central office, and not only has she seen the beast longer than most of us have, but she’s also seen it from more angles.

So I called her up to pick her brain.

When you talk to Newton, the one thing that jumps out almost immediately is that she is one educator who just flat out loves her job. She loves her home life too- you can see a shared joy on the faces of her husband, her daughter, and her son, that just warms any room they’re in. But she also loves to go to work. Every time I asked her about issues related to her day-to-day work, I never had to ask follow-ups, because she wouldn’t stop gushing and going into detail- in a good way.  Sure, when it came to the issues- to hot topics- I probed to get to the heart of her takes, but the conversation always seemed to come back to the work. She’s one of those folks for whom “work” is synonymous with passion.

For Newton, that passion began at Saltillo Elementary in a 2nd grade classroom.  Her teacher, Mrs. Roper, handed her the teacher’s edition to a classroom reader and let her sit in the big chair to lead the class.  From that moment, she was hooked. Oh, she flirted with psychology in college, and the idea of a “more glamorous job- one that made more money,” but in the end, she returned to her first love, education. Fast forward to today, sixteen and a half years into her career, and Newton has a nameplate above a door at the central office of Saltillo Elementary’s district.

 

Transitioning from classroom to board room


“So is an average day just running around crazy?”

“It is, and that’s what makes it so much fun.”


Knowing how much Newton loves life in the classroom, I couldn’t imagine her enjoying working at central office, far removed from interactions with the students she loves. However, as I found out, the line between official title and moment to moment excitement can be blurred, and Newton’s pretty skilled at drawing inspiration from all the contacts she makes.

My official title is Director of Student Services.

 She says “official” with exactly the same loaded inflection that sports commentators use when they say the words “on paper…”

I’m over everything that’s not curriculum or [special education].

And she’s not kidding. She’s the coordinator of services for homeless students (she’s the one who makes trips to Sam’s for the “socks, underwear, coats, gloves,” that Lee County’s homeless students need), English Language Learners, their GED program, the gifted program, gifted art, state testing, reading fairs, spelling bees- you name it; she probably has a toe in it. She even writes grants and assists in administrator evaluation meetings.

There were so many things that I didn’t know went on that I’ve had to learn.

This type of fish-out-of-water scenario might terrify some, but the way Newton describes it, she sounds positively juiced.

So is an average day just [you] running around crazy?

It is, and that’s what makes it so much fun… Like…I’ll answer the phone, and it’ll be a GED problem or question, and so I’ll work on that. I’ll hang up the phone and an hour later it rings, and it’ll be a gifted teacher, or a psychometrist that comes in with this question about testing this gifted child. It is something different all day now.

When discussing her plans for the upcoming spelling bee, she gleefully acknowledges the learning curve.

I’ve never done it… I’ve never gone to the district spelling bee. And now I’m in charge of it. I’ve got to get everything set up, making sure we’re following the rules…and I don’t even know the rules. Never done it before.

You hear confidence and anticipation looming in her voice. Learning is not just part of Newton’s job. It’s part of her life. She is the prototypical “lifelong learner,” and it shows up in the way she approaches challenges. Take, for example, one particularly significant challenge she was given after Mississippi adopted the Common Core State Standards.

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Newton is also a dedicated “cowbell clanger.”

 

Helping to develop MDE’s Common Core training


 “Grappling with something difficult is how we learn best.”


Newton was an exemplary Language Arts teacher for 16 years. With a national board certification and multiple Teacher of the Year honors for her work in her Guntown Middle School classroom, she had become one of the standouts of writing instruction in northeast Mississippi five years ago. When the Mississippi Department of Education needed six-day training series written for its official Common Core professional development, Newton was tapped as one of the four who wrote the middle school language arts training.

What was that like?

It was a very…how can I put it? It was a very trying time… It was three years ago, and Common Core was very new to me…

The more teachers you talk to, the more you get the feeling that eeeeverybody struggles with Common Core.

Grappling with something that is difficult is how we learn best, and [how] we learn the most, and so honestly those times- there were so many times- where… I was frustrated, and I was confused, and I didn’t understand, but I think that helped me grasp the standards of Common Core. …It was such a great demonstration of what I think Common Core is asking our students to do in Language Arts.

How long did all that take?

It was about a 12-14 month process.

She goes on to describe the lengthy process she and her three counterparts underwent, to pick out what was important from the Standards, to figure out how to condense the learning for teachers across the state, and ultimately to fine-tune the language in order to ensure the seminars communicated effectively to novice teachers and expert teachers alike. Their goal was basically to condense their months and months of struggling with Common Core into six days of effective, reliable 8:00 to 4:00 training.

Were you a fan of Common Core at the time?

You know, there was never a time that I was not a fan of it.

So you’re still a fan, even after all that?

Yes.

Newton’s enthusiastic response to Common Core hasn’t just lasted through her own difficulties grappling with it.  She also has seen firsthand her share of other teachers’ struggles, from the perspective of her central office work.

Seeing Common Core implementation from central office


 “You wouldn’t believe all the different levels.”


One widespread concern about Common Core from inside the world of education has been the lack of consistent implementation. Each district has had to make choices about how to spend training funds the past few years, and mixed signals from Jackson has resulted in a statewide patchwork of districts at varying levels of success. But according to Newton, it’s more extensive than that. Many singular districts have trouble maintaining consistent implementation within their own schools.

They’re seeing a lot of disconnect with different schools as far as how much training each school has received.

At one school, she says, one department of teachers, finding themselves behind their colleagues, frantically asked for central office’s help in getting up to speed.

Newton says her colleague summed up the dilemma. “We’ve been working on this for two and a half years, and we’re trying to train you in two hours.”

She goes on.

I know the curriculum people have gone into all the classrooms at all of the schools and just sat in to kinda see where each teacher was in their understanding of Common Core, and [my colleague] just came back and said, “you just wouldn’t believe all the different levels. You’ve got some that really seem to have it under control- not great but kind of have a grasp of it, and then right across the hall, the next teacher, you just wonder where have you been all this time? Because nothing you’re doing is aligned.”

This alignment- the district’s efforts to ensure that teachers are actually teaching to the Common Core State Standards- is being worked on across the state, but the gaps have presented a murky picture of what Common Core actually is. For example, Mrs. Newton describes a recent call from an irate parent:

I know we had a call about a month ago, from a parent, that his child… put that six plus six is twelve and he got it wrong. And he said, “What is this school doing? What is this school district doing, that six plus six is not twelve?”

Well, we didn’t know because…he couldn’t [even] remember the teacher’s name… I’m sure what it was, was he had to explain why six plus six was twelve and he didn’t, and so he got it wrong, or maybe the explanation was wrong. I’m sure there’s more to the story.

But parents don’t leave the conversation thinking about whether the assignment was properly aligned, what the actual learning goal was, or whether the teacher has actually had sufficient training to teach the material in the first place. The whole incident bypasses thorough investigation, gets packaged up in outrage against the system, and is tossed into the anti-Common Core threads on Facebook and Twitter.

 

Working with the Public: Messages and Misconceptions


 “The only people that really understand, and know the truth, are educators. And that’s sad.”


Many people in the media, the state government, and the public at large have been outspoken in their criticism of Common Core. Several, including our governor, wish to abolish the standards completely. I wanted to ask Newton about her thoughts on the public’s perceptions about Common Core, and how school districts respond to them.

Well, i know this question is laden with personal bias, because you’ve spent so much time in it, but what do you feel when you hear people wanting to just scrap [Common Core] completely?

Obviously that’s a sore subject for me, but my question is, ‘What would we go to?

This seems to be a common concern among Mississippi education advocates, as Governor Bryant and the “anti” movement have yet to suggest a real solution for replacement.  Instead, they seem to be assuming Mississippi education professionals will hash out something if left with no curriculum in place.

What I think we need to do, and probably what we should have done to begin with, is use these standards and give them a different name, because I think the word Common Core has become a polarizing name, for whatever reason. It’s become so political and I don’t know how it got to be that way.

It almost makes me want to laugh…The old frameworks were not that different. So if we scrap Common Core, what are we going to go to? I would figure that it would be something very similar.

Newton acknowledges that tackling the Common Core mathematics standards is a different animal, and that those standards are not quite as similar to what Mississippi had as the language arts standards are.  But Newton is of the Language Arts breed, so when you discuss replacing the standards in her area of expertise with roughly the same model, you start to see why scrapping her 3 years of hard work would be a sore subject for her.  I decided to ask what common ground there might be between the two sides.

If anything, what are people outside of education getting right about Common Core? Are they getting some things right?

Honestly I have not heard anybody that’s not in education-… no. I haven’t heard anybody getting anything right. I think they are believing lies. Or rumors… No, the only people that really understand, and know the truth, are educators. And that’s sad.

Is there something about their concerns that… is [valid]?

I do think that for parents to have buy-in, parents are going to have to be more educated on the truth and that’s where I think these schools are trying… they’re having outreach nights to parents. That’s a really good thing because I do understand… I’ve encountered this with my own children. When a parent is trying to help their child with homework…the parent’s sitting there thinking, “Well I don’t know how I’m supposed to do it, because that’s not how I was taught”

I do understand that, and that’s a very valid point.

It’s going to take the schools really doing a good job of reaching out to the parents and educating them.

I think it would be a great thing if they would actually have the parents come in during the day- during class time. Not even at night, but… sit in on a real lesson… and let them see. “This is how we’re using math manipulatives,” or… “This is what we mean by ‘How to show your work in math.’ ‘How is six plus six 12?” Let them see that demonstrated, and I think then, the way [Common Core] is viewed would be completely changed.

Quiet Leadership


 “I can do this for 20 more years.”


 

Newton’s got all sorts of ideas like these, but you kind of have to pull them out of her. I wasn’t kidding when I said she mostly wanted to just talk about her job. She’s not a politically motivated person. After I pressed her for her take on current events, I gave control of the interview back to her. I asked her if there’s anything we hadn’t discussed enough that she really wanted people to know about her, and she went back to her job.

I absolutely love my job. I absolutely love it…I spent 16 years in the classroom, and I loved my time in the classroom… but I’m getting to be an advocate for education. I’m still getting to be an advocate for teachers, and I’m still getting to work with teachers very closely. I’m at all the different schools every day. I’m getting to see how different schools do things. Things are done differently at different schools. I’m getting to meet different administrators, and see their way of leadership. So that’s been great… It’s really re-energized me…

I can do this for 20 more years.

That’s kind of the great thing about people in my profession, and it’s also a frustrating one for conflict hounds like me. Of course I just want to get at the story- the drama in following the trail of truth through the issues.  But people like Newton just want to quietly do their jobs.  They enjoy it that way.

But then again, that’s why I’m here- to hold up the microphone. The parents of Mississippi desperately need to better understand our teachers’ concerns.  Teachers need to better understand the dilemma our parents are in.  Thank goodness we’ve got some central office personnel in the magnolia state like Leigh Anne Newton, who understand both. We just need to quiet down and listen.

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