After months of listening to many female food services workers share in whispered tones their agony of working in an environment that has been described as being hostile to anyone with “thinking skills”; I finally realized the depth of those conversations when an email from a male supervisor hit the internet in December. It was not that I did not believe anyone but often times the stories shared would remind me of overhearing my grandmother and mother talk about work life in a rural community.
It was hard to digest that derogatory statements, intimidating attitudes, and a demeaning workplace atmosphere were alive and well in Nashville (a city I love dearly) and being openly discussed in the community that seem to look the other way. I would often ask, “If everyone knows about the plight of the food service workers, then why are we whispering about it?” My question was often met with blank stares but on one occasion an older woman said to me, “Child, the more things change, the more they remain the same”.
As many changes are being made to help improve the educational infrastructure at Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), maintaining good support personnel is an essential part of the foundation of a good school system. Food service workers are support personnel. They are not the principals leading the schools or the teachers in the classrooms who teach a child his or her ABCs but they are part of the village that influences and prepares students for a brighter future.
To have an unstable support personnel system undermines any short term goals or long term strategies to creating a healthier school system that will produce higher test scores and drastically improve graduation rates. When an email gives you a small glimpse of much bigger issues, MNPS leadership should hit the pause button and begin to dig deeper. When we are flying at 30,000 feet, one can easily mistake a dirt mound above ground to be hills that can be easily flatten by a bulldozer. In Tennessee, those hills can actually be entrances to deep dark caves.
As we learned in fifth grade, cave formations date back thousands of years. Many are veiled in darkness with acidic standing water while carbon monoxide permeates the air. Caves have tunnels that lead to other tunnels that lead nowhere. A school system should not be seen as a cave with endless nowhere leading tunnels by parents or the community who should be loyal supporters. Nor should educators and support personnel who work in the system see it as dark depressing cave-like atmosphere filled with administrators with toxic behavior.
As MNPS continue to look at various ways to improve the all-encompassing educational experience for all students attending public schools, parents and the community at large must take the time to become more educated on all matters surrounding MNPS. To continue to drag out employee disputes on issues like being able to file a grievance, to appeal a disciplinary action, or who will answer the phone on Mondays, takes time away from ginormous test scores concerns that makes one wonder if the students are learning from stone tablets. While at the same time, many of the buildings are beginning to look like caves forming right in front of you.
It came as no surprise that some believed that the media attention to the now infamous caveman email was an overreaction by hyper sensitive female employees to a harmless joke. In actuality, it was a delayed reaction for many food service workers who have watched MNPS for several years use intimidation and fear as the primary form of communication to over 700 women who make up the food service department.
Women are often known as society’s first teachers in life. The women in the MNPS food service department are mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, cousins, primary caretakers, neighbors, church members, Girl Scout leaders, football team moms, and lifelong cheerleaders of the family. They come from various socioeconomic backgrounds and throughout the district. The women in the food service department touch the lives of thousands of young people every day: at home, at the schools they work in, and in the neighborhoods and communities where they live. They can be influential in helping MNPS transition from a school system in crisis to a district with well-rounded students who score higher on tests and graduate from high school.
MNPS Mission and VisionWith so many deep caverns to climb out of, it is vital that MNPS build partnerships at every level in the school system, with families, and in the community. No one should be overlooked or devalued when looking for solutions to prepare our young people for "higher education, work, and life". It is going to take an entire village to help turn things around. MNPS may not have realized it yet but the “lunchroom ladies” are part of that village and are valuable in the community. Let us treat them with dignity in their work environments. Ultimately, the students being educated are the benefactors of improved employee relations at MNPS and the community will reaps the rewards for years to come.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools will provide every student with the foundation of knowledge, skills and character necessary to excel in higher education, work and life.
We embrace and value a diverse student population and community. Different perspectives and backgrounds form the cornerstone of our strong public education system.