I had several news organizations call and/or email for a statement on the departure of Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. I hastily put together my thoughts, and wrote:
“Professional Educators of Tennessee appreciates the contributions of Commissioner Candice McQueen. Commissioner McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the Department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the Department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward. We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy. These are incredible legacies to leave as she departs her critical role serving the citizens of Tennessee, and we wish Commissioner McQueen much success in her new role. We look forward to working with Governor-elect Bill Lee and offering input on a successor.”
That’s what professionals do. We issue statements and offer public comments about people and issues. There is a right way and a wrong way to do that task. In an era where we seemingly delight in lack of civility and negative tone of politics, we must take the high road. We are polarized as a country, not because we are afraid to discuss issues of substance, but rather we cannot talk to each other in a respectful manner. It’s easier for some to just be what my mom used to classify as “rude, crude and uncalled for.” In the end, we merely see who can be the loudest in the room, and end up talking over each other.
What does that have to do with a statement on the departure of a Haslam Cabinet official? Simple, it brings out the ugly. And I have seen some mean-spirited people critical of Commissioner McQueen, as she moves into the next phase of her career. Most of those being critical are clueless. To paraphrase Shakespeare, “In a battle of wits, they are unarmed.”
Tupac Shakur said, “Behind every sweet smile, there is a bitter sadness that no one can ever see and feel.” I spent time with Commissioner McQueen as more than a casual observer. Her heart and passion were always for the children and teachers in Tennessee. She fought battles which nobody knew about and which, despite the lofty title in front of her name, she had little control. While we didn’t always agree on every issue, it was always a discussion she was willing to have with me, as well as others. She made it a priority to discuss teacher issues with me regularly, and as needed as frequently as possible. That alone will always endear her to the teachers who were included in those discussions.
Candice McQueen is a woman of faith. That is an element that we need more of in public service. She didn’t wield her faith as a sword, but you knew that she was a believer in Jesus Christ. She had a preference for ideas over politics. She chose principle over popularity. She took ownership of a testing debacle, that she had inherited and didn’t even pick the people who oversaw it. She could have easily laid blame elsewhere. She chose not to do that. She wisely fired a failed testing company. She was not a seasoned politician. If you recall legislative hearings, she sat there and took valid criticism of a flawed system. However, that critique often crossed the line personally.
Candice McQueen symbolized the hope for a more decent and gentler public servant, willing to acknowledge faults in a system—and personally owning them. Whereas Harry Truman said, “The buck stops here,” McQueen also took ownership while at the same time working to correct the issues. (Much like building an airplane while at the same time trying to fly it.) She did this while remaining optimistic and energetic. From first-hand knowledge, I know she frequently started her work day before 6:00 AM and often finished it after 9:00 PM, even though she was a mother and wife. Commissioner McQueen will be missed.
As far as the next Commissioner of Education goes, I imagine it will be much harder to fill her shoes than most people realize. The next Commissioner must make sure she/he has direct access to the new Governor, with complete authority to make changes as needed. The Governor, not the Commissioner of Education, must fight the legislative battles. We need a true public servant we can also work with, who understands Tennessee and our educators.
The beautiful thing about legacies is that time is a fair-minded judge. I suspect that Candice McQueen, like Lana Seivers who served years before her, will be seen as a Commissioner who helped build a modern Department of Education which meets the needs of districts, educators, parents and children. Tennessee is moving forward in education, and we all should be proud of our accomplishments.
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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.