Shawn Joseph, Metro Director of Schools

By Arnett H. Bodenhamer, Sr.
U.S. Army, Retired

The latest verbal assault levied on Metro Nashville Public Schools Director, Dr. Shawn Joseph, is indicative of how far some people will go to disparage Nashville’s first African-American superintendent. Despite all of the very serious issues needing our community’s attention, we are now discussing Joseph’s playing of the first three lines of a popular song during a principals’ meeting. I refer to this latest brouhaha as “WhistleGate.”  

Joseph came to Nashville with impeccable credentials having earned degrees from three of the nation’s finest universities. He brought with him an unblemished reputation for being intelligent, collaborative and, most importantly, unequivocally and unapologetically focused on children. But somehow, Nashville, as this state’s ‘progressive’ capitol city, has conjured up a few whose actions and accusations seek to convince the rest of us Tennesseans that Joseph’s storied career, spanning more than two decades, is just a ruse. Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, how is it possible that a man who has received national recognition for his work in education and is lured to Nashville – the “Athens of the South” – because of those stellar credentials, suddenly lacks the experience and qualifications good enough for this failing district? Are we to be convinced that Joseph has now decided to just throw 20+ years of hard work down the drain? Umm, I don’t think so.

Unfortunately, the constant attacks on Joseph are part of a much larger problem in our society in which we have too many people masquerading as well-intentioned, race-conscious liberals who still hold people of color as suspect. These individuals, cloaked in a sense of entitlement, believe it is their duty to report African-Americans when and wherever they perceive transgressions. This situation is certainly reminiscent of recent cases in the national news in which blacks are called out for innocently going about virtually any and every aspect of their lives, including sleeping in a dorm, grilling at a park, or hosting a business meeting at Starbucks. 

Let me be clear, like any leader in this city, Joseph should not be immune from criticism; however, in this case, the incessant criticism and calls for reviews and investigations flung at him are unwarranted and a bit excessive. Joseph, as well as our Board of Education members, have a responsibility to manage our schools well, to help maintain the fiscal health of the district, and to make progress in student achievement. By all accounts, in the less than two years that he has been our director of schools, Joseph has met those expectations. There is evidence that points to successes in more engagement with our schools and the community, more grant funding, increased professional development for teachers, and improved student achievement, to name a few.

While we must “Blow the Whistle” on leaders and hold them accountable when they fall out-of-line, this latest incident about a rap song is “much ado about nothing.” Sadly, what these ridiculous accusations have done is to create division and to expose a darker truth. Joseph, who leads one of the nation’s largest school districts where the majority of students are of color, has encroached upon a traditionally “white space” in which lack of cultural and generational understanding has reared its ugly head. The facts are stark and show that despite the browning of our nation’s school districts, the vast majority of district superintendents remain white males. 

If some believe frustrating Joseph into leaving Nashville or replacing him as a result of daily accusations and inquests thinly veiled as “good board oversight,” is what will be good for this school system, then they might want to take a closer look at the progress we are making. We will not be better off in this city or state for losing this level of talent, and when it comes to education, we need to start asking some important questions in self-reflection – “Am I doing this because it is what is best for all children? Or am I doing this because it fuels my own personal interests and position of power?” 

The reality is that we are all watching and we will be making educated decisions that will ultimately be exercised at the voting polls. In addition, our children are watching and, unfortunately, they are witnessing adults behaving badly all across this city. We cannot reasonably expect them to be quality citizens, be respectful, and make good decisions when their examples are of elected officials who act out in ways that demonstrate irrational behavior, disrespectful dialogue, and uncompromising attitudes.  

So often we hear Nashville referred to as the “it city.” We know we have great people here and that there are varied opportunities which makes this an attractive destination for so many. We are becoming more diverse, and it is important that we not only tout that diversity but we practice it through sensitivity, tolerance and inclusiveness. We have to rise to a new level of appreciation for differences in thought, experience, and the culture of our co-workers, neighbors, and friends. The comfort and complacency in conducting business-as-usual will never work if Nashville truly wants to be a world-class city. We must have a collective vested interest in ensuring equitable access to opportunity and success for all students, including the most vulnerable.  

Mark my words; the public has grown tired of the whining, pettiness and bias. We say enough is enough. Let’s grow up and get to the business of moving Nashville’s school district forward.