In this episode, I interview the amazing Sharon McMahon. Sharon is a former high school government and law teacher who earned a reputation as ‘America’s Government Teacher’. During the historic 2020 election proceedings for her efforts to educate the general public on political misinformation. Because Sharon is known for answering rapid-fire questions on her viral Instagram, I’m asking her the top questions teachers have from this community about the government, history, and what to do if you’re being accused of teaching critical race theory.
Recap and BIG Ideas:
✨ While public education could benefit from several changes, lawmakers are more willing to take small incremental steps for change. Focus your efforts on an area that would have the most significant impact (like school funding).
✨ Legislators are more likely to act on an issue they know is important to their constituents. So, the more teachers who band together asking for change, the more political will behind the issue.
✨ If you’re looking for contract-specific changes, like class-size limits and salary steps, leverage your union’s support if you have one. Such changes are often implemented by the district’s school board.
✨ Tax-payer perception can hinder teacher raises. Therefore, decoupling school funding from local property tax can reduce income disparities and increase equity across school district resources, including teacher salaries.
✨ While there is no new round of loan forgiveness specifically for teachers, there are still traditional loan forgiveness programs for those teaching in qualifying districts.
✨ When addressing controversial topics in the classroom, focus on conflict de-escalation to open the door for productive conversations and build a relationship of trust and transparency.
✨ In today’s highly polarized society, it’s imperative teachers focus on explicitly teaching students how to speak with empathy toward others.
Listen to the episode in the podcast player below, or find it on Apple Podcast or Spotify.
How Teachers Can Advocate for Change
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Hi, Sharon, thank you so much for being here today.
SHARON MCMAHON: Oh my gosh, thank you for inviting me. I’m happy to be here.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Sharon, for any of my audience who are not familiar with you, do you mind giving just a couple second introduction to who you are and why you are such an expert when it comes to everything government?
SHARON MCMAHON: Well, I was a government teacher, a government and law teacher for many years, and studied those things at the graduate school level, of course. And have always just had a passion for learning about government, how government operates.
This has been a passion topic of mine since I was probably 12 years old. So, that’s really the genesis of how I acquired the knowledge that I currently have. But what I do on Instagram, and a lot of what I do on my podcast, is I just share fact-based nonpartisan information about what’s going on in the world and how the United States government can… how the United States government operates.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: So, your Instagram is what led me to asking you to be on here today. I followed you for a while just to learn a lot about how the government works.
You are constantly sharing a lot of information and what I really wanted to dive into is asking specific questions about how we can start to push for a change and advocate for a change because I’m sure you’ve seen in some news articles a lot of teachers are very unhappy with what is going on in the classrooms, in the school districts when it comes to funding. They have a lot of questions and I feel like sometimes it’s outside of our radar, what we can actually do to make a change collectively.
The very first question that I have is, who do you think teachers should reach out to in the government to start to advocate for the change?
SHARON MCMAHON: Well, there’s multiple layers of government that could be reached out to. There’s multiple layers of who you could actually talk to, depending on how your individual state is structured, etcetera. So of course, things like your local school board.
For many people, they are doing things like helping to create teacher salary schedules and they’re going to offer a teacher with a master’s degree versus a master’s degree plus 30. All of those kinds of things. So obviously, your local school district, your local school board, definitely has something to do with it.
I also think that we kind of overlook a lot of the state level people that are actually giving a lot of that money to the school board or to the school district. So, reaching out to the people that represent you in your state legislature, whatever that’s called in your state, the general assembly or just the legislature or the house, or whatever it is in your state.
People that represent you are the people who are able to then influence their colleagues in the state legislature especially if they know that this is an issue that is very important to their constituents.
If they suddenly hear from 1000 teachers in like a week, they’re going to be like, “Dang, this is an issue.” You know what I mean? So one of the biggest things I always tell people is that there is power in numbers and the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It absolutely does.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: So, that actually goes to the second question that I had. What’s the best approach to ask for a change? My heart wants to say salty because I feel salty, but my brain and my gut says to keep it polite and professional.
SHARON MCMAHON: Really, the best thing you can do is to try to get as many people in on this as possible. Rarely does one email fix a societal problem, right? This is a deep-seated societal issue that we are undervaluing education, we are undervaluing the teachers that spend all day with our children, and there’s a lot of reasons for that.
This is not going to be solved by one teacher sending an email. It is going to be addressed when there is enough political will behind the issue. And by political will I mean where lawmakers perceive that people are up in arms about something and something must be done.
One example of that political concept of political will is with the recent COVID stimulus bills where people got money deposited into their bank account, et cetera. There was a tremendous amount of political will to get that done.
It was widely popular with the American populace, wildly popular with people in Congress because they knew how hurting the American people were because of what was going on. Tremendous amount of political will, that thing was pushed through Congress very quickly because they knew that the people needed it and wanted it.
If it was one person writing a letter to their senator being like, “Hey, I’m really struggling over here,” that would not have the amount of change, that would not have the people pushing the ball up the hill, so to speak, as having a lot of people do it. One of the best things you can do is either join an organization that is already doing what it is that you want to advocate for, because a lot of times they have the infrastructure, knowledge, connections, know-how that maybe you as an individual don’t have.
So don’t underestimate joining an organization that fights for the type of change you want, but also consider being the leader in that situation. Consider being the person that makes five different email templates and passes them out to everybody at their school, everybody in their neighboring schools, et cetera, so that people have an easy place to start.
People do want to advocate for change, but sometimes it is difficult to like, “I don’t have time to look up that information, I have stuff… I papers to grade, I’ve lessons to plan, I have copies to make. I have children of my own.” So you make it really easy for them, maybe you spend an hour or two of your time researching who to send letters to, and then you make a number of templates for them to choose from so it’s not everybody sending the same letter.
That would have far more impact than just you picking up the phone or you sending an email.
Pick a Target to Focus On
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: What type of change do you think is realistic to ask for? Pay raises, class sizes? What do you really think we should start with, so that we’re not asking for too much?
SHARON MCMAHON: When you have a system that is broken, you just want revolutionary change. You want to be like, “We need the following 10 changes tomorrow.” But I would suggest… And again, as a teacher, I get that and I share that sentiment of why is this hard?
Here’s what needs to happen. I absolutely understand that sentiment and where it’s coming from. I would suggest that the concept of relentless incrementalism is probably going to be far more effective than revolutionary change. By revolution, I don’t mean we’re going to overthrow the schools, you know what I’m saying. Big changes to the way schools are structured.
First of all, humans naturally are somewhat averse to change. Teachers who are working in the system want it to change quickly and dramatically. But parents are a little bit… They like their kids school, they don’t want to see radical change. Lawmakers don’t want to be the person who is alone in standing up for something that is not popular because that hurts their chances of reelection, whereas they’re more willing to take smaller, more incremental steps.
So, one of the districts that I have taught in the past tied class size to teacher employment contracts. That actually was incredibly useful at reducing class sizes. It was written into teacher contracts, that if you were teaching just like an on level graduation requirement class at high school level, that you would not have more than 25 students in that class.
If you were teaching a specialty class, if you’re teaching band, obviously, you need more than 25 kids, but if you were teaching an upper class elective, you couldn’t have more than 32 kids. If you were teaching first grade, you couldn’t have more than 15.
So, that is one of those things that makes it incredibly hard for a district to backpedal on, right? If it’s in your contract. Pick a target. Seriously.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: So, pick a target and try to get it written into your specific contracts. And that might be something to leverage your union for if you are a district that happens to have a union.
But if you are not a district that has a union, that might need to be on the teacher level, they all work together and say these are our realistic but very clear demand for next year’s contract or else next year may look like this year.
SHARON MCMAHON: Everybody thinks we need smaller class sizes, right? There’s nobody who’s like bigger is better when it comes to class sizes. There is a sweet spot of we have enough students to do the activities and to have interesting input, but not so many that it’s just crowd controlled babysitting.
Personally to me, one of the biggest things that would have made a difference for me and my happiness as a teacher is having a manageable number of students. One year as a high school teacher, I had 180 students. And that was just too many.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah, I think one of the reasons why teachers burnout so quickly is you don’t realize it until you go into literally any other profession and you don’t experience it, but it’s the decision fatigue of 180 tiny little decisions every day, on top of knowing all the lesson plans, having to manage 180 people, grade 180 papers, our brains just don’t work that way.
SHARON MCMAHON: And it absolutely is exhausting. That year that I had 180 students, I would literally come home from school and fall asleep on the couch. I’m not even a napper. That’s how exhausting it was just from a brain perspective.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: And now you have 600,000 people asking you very hard questions on Instagram and you’re rapid fire answering them with ease.
SHARON MCMAHON: Well, it did offer me a training ground having 180 students did offer me a training ground for what I’m doing now.
Where Do All the Funds Go?
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I think that this is a great lead to my next question because when it comes to teacher class sizes, I think that that has to do a lot with funding and realistic funding for how many employees they can have. One of the questions that I got from my audience was bills include lines for money for schools, but it doesn’t seem like the schools ever have any more funds.
I’m actually reading that, I don’t know if it’s a question or just a grumpy statement. Is that accurate or is that just kind of our view of it from our end?
SHARON MCMAHON: Well, it’s definitely the perception that very few teachers are like, “Wow, class sizes have really become more manageable this year.” Does anybody actually say that? You know what I mean?
Some of this, of course, has to do with the fact that it is sometimes difficult to hire enough teachers in various subjects and in specific locations that even if you have allocations for the actual professionals that you may not be able to find them. I do think in some ways it might be useful if money was better earmarked if it was… If they did not have the ability to say, “Actually, we’re going to go ahead put in a sculpture garden instead of hiring five new teachers.”
Of course, I’m making that up. But it does always seem that things… The perception is “Why are you prioritizing that?” You know what I mean? Do you understand that the teachers in your building are the most important resource that you have?
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: From the point of view of someone who does work in education from a professional development point of view, I see that at the end of the year and I see schools and districts have extra funding for professional development that they’re just trying to spend. I believe that that’s probably the same case for textbooks as well.
Why wouldn’t they be able to actually take some of the money that was designated for textbooks or for professional development funds and actually give teacher raises with that fund? Do you have any insight into that?
SHARON MCMAHON: Well, they certainly could, but it’s the way that the funding bills are structured, right? It’s the way that perhaps, the estimates of how much this is going to cost to actually replace all the English books.
Perhaps those were overestimated, they got the funding for it, and then the bill came in less than they thought it was going to.
Then, because of the way government funding is structured in general, it’s difficult to just then take that money out of that pool and place it in another one. Really, the teacher raises need to come at the beginning and not with what’s leftover for textbooks at the end of the year.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: That leads to another question. Why does inflation continue to go up and other industries see pay raises, but teacher salaries always seem to stay a little bit more stagnant compared to other industries?
SHARON MCMAHON: Sort of that is the nature of being a government employee. Of course, people who are elected officials, it’s rarely popular for them to try to say, “We need more money, let’s raise taxes, let’s increase funding.”
That’s rarely a popular move with voters, but some of that also just has to do with the fact that school funding in most areas is tied to property taxes. In many locations, like in the state I live in, in order to raise property taxes you need to have the voters approve it. Those voter referendums can be challenging to push through some times, especially when you have a community that has a lot of older people, where they’re like, “I don’t have kids in school.”
I’m not saying that all older people don’t like schools, but it can be more difficult to convince people who are not… They don’t perceive a direct benefit from the current school system, or their perception is “The school is fine, what are you complaining about? The school is fine. Be quiet and do your job. You get the summers off, you get the summers off.” I feel like that’s a lot of their attitude.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: And even personal struggles from someone who knows that teachers need increases of salaries when I see it living in Los Angeles with property taxes, when I see it come up on voting, my heart votes the way that it has to, but I squirm a little bit.
SHARON MCMAHON: For sure.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Because it impacts me in multiple ways. Where is this even going to balance out in the end?
SHARON MCMAHON: I think a lot of times they fail to make to draw the direct line between if you vote for this, we will reduce class size by three students. Do you know what I mean? We just have this kind of nebulous concept of lower class sizes, but what does that actually look like?
They fail to accurately produce any kind of data that shows, “Wow, we’re at 35 kids in fourth grade and it really needs to come down to 30. If we approve this, then we can have that.” Instead it just seems it’s like this very, like, “I’m just going to… When does it end? I’m going to keep paying more and more and more and more and more money.”
One of the other districts that I’ve worked in, instead of having the local schools, have they’re being funded directly by property taxes, it was a county school system instead of a city school system. The county collected all the property taxes. There was no such thing as a voter referendum to approve property tax adjustments.
Sometimes actually, property taxes went down if the schools had a lower enrollment than they initially anticipated and they didn’t have the same budget request as they thought they were going to.
There were a couple of times where property taxes went down slightly, but the county collected all the money for the entire county, which meant the super rich parts of the county, the less advantaged portions of the county, and then it more equally distributed that money to the schools in the county, instead of having the city of X, which is more of a community that has lower socioeconomic status.
Instead of having it divvied up by small districts, small cities that can have sometimes adverse effects where we’ve produced this these systems around the country where if you live in a nice area, you have nice school. If you live in a less advantaged area, you don’t have schools that are as nice.
It’s kind of producing this almost to America’s scenario of did you grow up in an area that had “nice schools?” Or did you grow up in an area that had the, again, proverbial less nice schools?
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I, from my own experience of leaving teaching, I worked in two of the complete polar opposites from a very underfunded low income school. I think it was the lowest performing with students that were living in hotel rooms, homeless shelter students.
Then I moved to Los Angeles where I taught the gifted and talented program with student actors and for me, seeing the difference of how both of those schools functioned was very eye opening and also really sad to see even just the change in teacher pay from one to the other. I know some of that came with the cost of living but compared to other school districts in the same area of Los Angeles, I was still getting paid quite a bit more because of the cost of living around me.
That’s where teachers are going to try and push towards one type of school and take away and honestly, my heart was in the first school more. That last school district is what ultimately led me out. I didn’t feel the same connection with education there.
SHARON MCMAHON: Make sense. I get it.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I wanted to pivot a little bit and talk… there are some teachers who are concerned about whether or not they’re actually still qualified for teacher loan forgiveness, if that’s even a thing anymore.
It felt like there’s a lot of buzz around Betsy DeVos took it away or she’s not going to take it away. Then, people are really concerned and confused on what’s going on with that.
SHARON MCMAHON: There’s been a new round of loan forgiveness that’s not specific to teachers, but is specific to people who attended for profit colleges that perhaps defrauded them. There were hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loans for those kinds of schools wiped out.
So, if that ended up being you, where you maybe did a couple of years at a college that then went bankrupt, you could qualify for loan forgiveness. Of course, there are still teacher loan forgiveness programs, but only for teachers who are working in schools that qualify. It’s not for all teachers.
That can be a double edged sword. It can encourage some teachers to work at those schools in which they might be able to qualify for loan forgiveness, but it also that encourages them to leave as soon as that loan forgiveness is completed, and leave for what is perceived as greener pastures instead of having all teachers have this program available to a lot of teachers instead of just a small number of teachers.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Why wouldn’t it be just allowed for all teachers? I know you’re not the decision maker here.
SHARON MCMAHON: For sure. The thinking is that a lot of teachers, a lot of the public perception is you make $70,000 a year and you have summers off, that’s enough money.
There’s this public perception that “That’s enough money. I don’t make that much, why should you make more? That’s so much more than me?” And that of course, well, if you’re a teacher, you already know a lot of the flaws in that logic. That’s really their reason. Is that it’s a difficult sell to the average American who maybe doesn’t even make as much as a teacher does.
What One Single Change Would You Make?
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: If you could change one single thing about the education system, what would it be?
SHARON MCMAHON: It absolutely would be the way and the manner in which schools are funded. If I could wave a magic wand and then just suddenly teachers had the respect they deserved, sure I’d take that. It’s much more difficult to legislate what is happening in between people’s ears, right?
From a public policy perspective, changing the way schools are funded would absolutely change the game for a lot of teachers. If we changed the way districts, governments collected money for schools and allocated money for schools, if schools that were located in more economically disadvantaged areas have the same funding as the schools in the more wealthy areas, if we incentivize the best teachers to stay in the areas of greatest need, if we just…
There’s a variety of reasons why I feel like it’s important, but if we decouple local property taxes and school funding, that would be a very significant change.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Is that something that teachers should potentially start advocating for on a state level or is that one of those revolutionary things that might be too big to continue to ask for?
SHARON MCMAHON: It’s happened in other states. Like I said, it happened in a district that I taught in in Maryland, where schools are run at the county level. That would be a significant change for many states.
In California, in particular, I’ve taught in California as well. There are often separate school districts for secondary schools at a different school district for elementary schools in the same community. That’s a weird thing for people to wrap their mind around instead of having one school district for everybody. That could be an idea that maybe your local legislators have never heard before.
That may be an idea where they’re like, “You know what? Let’s study it. Let’s look into that and see whether that would really be a game changer for our state. What is the harm in asking for it, even though we have to accept that it’s not going to happen one month from today? What is the harm and advocating for the area of greatest impact?”
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Is this something that if all of the audience listening collectively even pinpointed a specific senator who’s very pro-teacher or constantly advocating for teachers, if they propose this type of solution and continue to push and talk about it, do you think that could help get it on the radar a little bit faster?
SHARON MCMAHON: Absolutely. Again, this might be an idea that a state legislator has never heard before. Maybe they are very pro-public school, but they have never been an educator. And so, maybe they don’t know.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: So, Lizzie Warren, if you’re listening, I hope you don’t mind me calling you Lizzie.
SHARON MCMAHON: Here’s the thing though, is that of course, most schools are funded… The vast majority school funding is done at a state level, on a local level, right? It’s not done at a federal level. Of course, the federal government is paying for a lot of special education funding.
This is something that states could change if they wanted to. I think if teachers actually provided their state legislators with some data about what it looks like to have schools that are decoupled from local property taxes, that could be a way to create change in a manner that is not as politically unpopular.
Students Deserve a Balanced Education
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: You’re giving me so much inspiration and hopefully everybody listening is also feeling inspired by this.
I did want to pivot a little bit and start picking your brain from a government teacher perspective for anyone who’s still staying in the classroom just to learn from you, what advice would you give any teachers who are facing backlash over critical race theory?
SHARON MCMAHON: Well, here’s the thing. Is that the vast majority of public school teachers already know that this is not a topic that we are like, “And now second graders, let’s dive into our daily CRT lesson.” You know what I mean?
We as teachers already know that that’s not a thing. And so, I really think instead of arguing, instead of being like, “You’re wrong. You’re wrong Mrs. Smith, you’re wrong. Here’s all the reasons you’re wrong.”
Even though they might be wrong, that’s not the most effective way to defuse a conflict. It’s not the most effective way to just tell somebody repeatedly how wrong they are. So, I think rather than just continually trying to prove somebody wrong, I would focus more on conflict de-escalation on making sure that they understand, “Listen, I have your kids’ best interests at heart, I absolutely love having your child in my classroom.
My goal is for students to get a balanced education. I want to make you feel comfortable with what it is that they’re learning in school, feel free to contact me if you ever have any specific concerns, et cetera.” The conflict de-escalation is probably more important than proving the point of how right you are and how wrong they are because that ultimately is not that productive.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Yeah, I listen to… Angela Watson has a podcast Truth for Teachers, it’s Episode 235 I noted down that’s wonderful for anyone who needs even more information about how to do so respectfully and help with kind of the dialogue between it because it is important to just have those, once again, salty conversations with your friends like, “Ugh, another one.” But keep it neutral with your parents because, ultimately, having that relationship with them is the most important thing.
SHARON MCMAHON: Yes.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Especially for your students. And being able to build that trust, I know it’s really hard and divisive right now, but building a relationship of trust and open communication with them, but in a place that’s setting some very clear boundaries, so that you don’t feel like you have to explain yourself because you use the word race in class or because the word equity came up.
SHARON MCMAHON: I love that.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: What history event are kids not learning about that you wish they would teach in schools?
SHARON MCMAHON: There are a lot. But again, I also understand as a social studies teacher that we have a finite amount of time, right? I get that, that we don’t have all the time in the world.
But I really feel like we need to be focusing on telling the story of America not just through the lens of wealthy white men. That there are a lot of people of color and a lot of women that helped make America what it is today. It doesn’t mean that we pretend that George Washington wasn’t real, you know what I mean?
It doesn’t mean that we ignore those kind of people and their contributions, but I really just feel like instead of saying we have to be teaching about the Tulsa race riots, instead of pinpointing a specific event, I just feel like overall, we need more women and more people of color.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I couldn’t agree more and I feel like that’s where people are struggling so much, even when it comes to what they are or aren’t allowed to talk about with current events that are making history. For example, do you think that Black Lives Matter, the movement, belongs in school discussions?
SHARON MCMAHON: Of course, it does. It absolutely does. I mean, if you were a teacher in 1968, are you going to ignore the assassinations of Martin Luther King and ignore the assassinations of both of the Kennedys and of Malcolm X just because it was politically divisive? That seems ridiculous today, right?
Of course, we’re going to talk about that. Of course, we’re going to talk about how you know that happened. It’s a lot more tender though, to talk about issues that are currently happening and to talk about something that happened decades ago. When things are currently happening, there tends to be a lot more sensitive feelings surrounding it.
I do think we have to be mindful of how we say things, how we phrase things, we have to be mindful of the fact that children are being raised in homes that express a variety of different viewpoints, but I don’t think we’re doing anyone a service by just pretending that an incredibly large social justice movement is not occurring. Ignoring that something is occurring doesn’t it make it not occurring. So of course, it does just like the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s belong to the classroom.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I think the hardest thing to do is to be empathetic for all students because you may have students in your classroom that you naturally start to lean toward, being more empathetic towards, whether or not you want to acknowledge that. But if you’re leaning way politically, I personally struggled with this.
I was teaching in 2016, and after the election year, I realized I had students who were very excited that their candidate won at the same time that I had students who were very nervous that their parents, their aunts and uncles who were living in Muslim countries were no longer going to be able to fly to America to visit them ever again.
Being able to express something happened, it’s a big deal, and let’s talk about it in a way that’s respectful to all of the students at the same time is one of the biggest challenges that teachers are facing this day.
Just taking a step back and feeling your own heart when you realize that you’re leaning one way or the other and alienating even the students that you may think have the advantage over the other students is something I think everybody needs to practice from time to time, which is very hard for my very liberal mouth to say.
SHARON MCMAHON: I think it’s important to teach students how to speak with empathy because that is something that even if we say as teachers, we need to have empathy for students whose political values are not the same as our own, it is true that we need to do that. 100%.
But also, if we do not explicitly teach students how to be empathetic towards one another and what empathetic communication actually looks like, then when we have those classroom discussions, those can end up having more of an alienating effect.
They can have a more polarizing effect. They can actually negatively impact students, even if you feel like, “Hey, I’m doing a great job as a teacher,” if what is coming out of other students mouths is harming people in your learning community, that is not having the intended effect, right?
So, it’s more than just checking your own feelings and your own words. It is about teaching what empathetic communication looks like and how you can still hold on to your closely held beliefs without demonizing other people in your learning community.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Do you think that teaching is political in nature? Why or why not?
SHARON MCMAHON: That’s a good question. I don’t necessarily view my work as a teacher in the same vein as I view the work that I’m doing now. You know what I mean? They are different.
Do I view my job as a teacher as like training social activists for the future? I don’t. I’m not saying that you couldn’t have that position if that was important to you, but that was just not the viewpoint that I held.
My view is more in the line of teaching is about helping students learn how to be critical consumers of information and teaching students how to be a useful member of their community. I suppose there are some inherently political ideas in some of the things that we… the concepts that we’re teaching.
Certainly as a government teacher, we talk about politics all day long, but I did not get into being a teacher because I viewed it as a political activity nor do I necessarily think that that was my primary role as a government teacher.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I couldn’t agree with you more. I feel like the majority of it isn’t. And then, more recently than not, it sneaks in from time to time where you have to touch the topics, but I 100% agree. What country do you think has the best education system?
SHARON MCMAHON: When people are looking at countries that do well on standardized tests, et cetera, you always look at some of the countries of Northern Europe like Finland. In those countries, one of the biggest differences of course, is that they’re very homogenous. Almost everybody that lives in Finland is Finnish. They have a shared common language and have similar culture, et cetera.
So, it is a little bit like comparing apples to oranges. I don’t know that we could be like, “We should just absolutely adopt everything that Finland does.” Because even though they have great scores on standardized tests, I think most educators in the United States would agree that standardized tests are not the measure by which we judge how well a school is doing.
A lot of American teachers are like, “Dear God, if we have to spend one more second on a standardized test… It just feels like we’re just constantly teaching to test. But one of the things that Finland does extraordinarily well is put their money where their mouth is, and pay teachers in a manner that demonstrates the respect they deserve in society.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: I saw it was close to what a doctor would make in articles.
SHARON MCMAHON: Yep, yep, it’s a well paid profession. And as a result, it attracts a certain caliber of individual. There’s that horrible phrase in the United States that, “Those who can do and those who can’t teach,” you know what I mean?
There’s this horrible idea that teachers are… they fall into it because they are not capable of doing anything else which, of course, is ridiculous. But when we consistently pay teachers so little and when we consistently provide them with such horrible working conditions, we absolutely are driving out the best and brightest.
In the private sector, if somebody said to you, you will be allowed to use the restroom two times per day, you know what I mean? That seems ridiculous.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: You’ve met your quarter, and here’s a fun size candy bar, I will allow you to wear jeans.
SHARON MCMAHON: Jeans. Oh, wow I’ve earned a jeans pass. Congratulations to me. We could sit here for another entire episode and talk about the ways in which the working conditions, forget the pay, the working conditions are in many ways, atrocious where teachers are being asked to do a job that they are not given any resources for.
In the private sector, if you were like, your job is to weld these car doors together and then you were like, “Okay, great, where are the car doors and what do I weld them with?” And they were like, “Well, that is all on you.” You know what I mean? That’s a ridiculous thing to think about in the private sector, but it’s all on you to provide all the resources.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: That’s also from a top down. I also have empathy, even though I’ve had some very poor working environments for administrators that are also kind of given the bus with no wheels on it to drive because they don’t know how to delegate.
They don’t know how to collaborate. They don’t have efficiency skills. They don’t have the leadership training that companies give their managers and their CEOs and the same sort of accountability and check ins and so it is a systematic problem where I think there’s a lot of shifting that needs to happen to start treating it like a highly qualified professional career, which is what everybody went into it to be, but it’s turned into something that you have to take what we give you because you love children and if you don’t take what we give you, you no longer love children.
SHARON MCMAHON: You don’t care about children, and you don’t care about your community.
Sharon’s Transition Out of Teaching
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: So great segue, Sharon. When did you know that it was time for you to personally leave teaching?
SHARON MCMAHON: I wanted to move away from where I was living in the DC area back to my hometown, which is where my family is.
When I looked into getting a teaching job in my community, I realized that they had, because of budget shortfalls, they had laid off over 300 teachers in the past couple of years. I had too much education and experience to even make the paper cut of who they might consider hiring should a position come open.
They were going to hire the cheap teachers, who are recent graduates, where they don’t have much education and experience or not as much as I have. So, they were going to be able to pay them $30,000 less than they would somebody like me. I knew it was time when my desire to be near my family with my family was greater than my desire to stay in the classroom.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: That is something that hasn’t really come up on the podcast before, but I started this project, I started kind of creating these resources to help teachers transition three years ago.
One of the reasons why was in my brain because clearly I can see the future, I thought someday there may be a lot of budget cuts and there’s no resources for teachers who are looking to transition on what types of roles they qualify for outside of the classroom.
I want to help if everybody gets pink slipped like they did, I think it was 2008 or something like that when everyone got pink slipped, I’m going to be that person, and I’m going to have the resources all built for them and then COVID happened and it was the exact opposite where everybody was looking just to leave. It’s important to remember that there are times in history not long ago that teachers are losing their careers or not able to find something due to budget cuts, as well.
When you started to reevaluate your identity, career identity, who you are, did you learn anything about yourself during that process?
SHARON MCMAHON: When I left the classroom I became an entrepreneur. I owned a business. As a teacher, it’s such a specific skill set, right? Teaching in a classroom is a very specific skill set. Can teachers take a lot of the skills they have learned and successfully apply them in the private sector or in other government roles? For sure.
I would hire a former teacher any day because their ability to make decisions, multitask, et cetera, is incredible. One of the things that I did learn is that I am capable of figuring things out even if I don’t have formal education on that topic. Teachers are so used to… For most of us there’s one path to success in being a teacher and that is via the formal education route.
We can’t just be like, “Listen, I’m a super gifted teacher, let me in the classroom.” We might be able to weasel our way in for an emergency, but we’re not going to be able to stay and you have to have gone to college, right? There’s just no path if you have not attended college.
So, teachers have this idea very ingrained in them that the only path to teaching is via higher education. Entrepreneurship doesn’t require that. I felt very kind of like, “Am I supposed to go get an MBA?” Kind of waiting for the permission of then you will be qualified to run a business. That is just not how a lot of the private sector works.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Do you feel like your teacher brain when starting your business, when working in your business, gives you shiny object syndrome a little bit where you’re like, “Now I want to learn all about search engine optimization, I need all about it.”
SHARON MCMAHON: 100%. As a secondary social studies teacher, you will have to be proficient in the seven different social sciences. Anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, sociology, we get to learn all of that and I remember in my teacher training program, I remember saying to my mentor, “I do not know everything that I am supposed to know.
I don’t know about all of the mummified people in South America. I don’t know about that!” You know what I mean? I remember feeling panicked that I did not know everything there was to know about anthropology and history and psychology and et cetera. It did create this need to continually educate myself. This need to be like, “I will learn everything about the mummies of Ecuador.”
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Well, you found a niche of an entrepreneur that allows you to do so and I think that that’s a great time to bring up, the Sharon Says So podcast.
So, for any of our listeners who are interested in learning more from you, do you want to share a little bit about your podcast, which is wildly popular and they are going to probably binge listen to immediately after this?
SHARON MCMAHON: That’s so nice. Well, the episodes vary between interviews with interesting people and sort of unknown stories from history or unknown stories of a person that maybe you are familiar with, but I’m going to tell you something that you didn’t know about them.
I have created this framework, like any good teacher, in which there is a different story that originates from a specific state. There is a story about Alabama and there is a story about Georgia and so that of course makes sense in my teacher mind that there needs to be a framework and that is not just ramped up because that helps people learn if they can understand the patterns of how this works.
DAPHNE WILLIAMS: Now, I feel you, you’re like that meme from I think it’s always sunny in Philadelphia, they use it where it’s a him and all the clip… Like the board behind him mapping everything out. They use it for like Steve Kornacki also showing a conspiracy theory drawing all the dots of outline of your episodes. This makes sense.
Well, Sharon, I am so, so excited that you have been on here. I feel like we went through so many different topics today. And I just am so excited for all the audience members to learn from you on your podcast. Thank you so much for being here.
SHARON MCMAHON: Oh, thank you. And thank you for the work you’re doing. There are so many fantastic teachers who need you. So, thank you for blazing the trail for the rest of them.
DON’T MISS THESE RESOURCES
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