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Christians should be ‘the first in line to engage for good’

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen on her faith, Common Core and the role of faith in public schools

As an educator, Candice McQueen has a long list of accomplishments. 

But the newly named commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education says one of her proudest teaching moments was when she helped her brother, Craig, learn to ride a bike.
“No one ever thought he would, but we proved them wrong,” says McQueen of her older sibling — a special-needs student who, she adds, has taught her as much as she’s taught him.
Education — and ministry — are in her blood. Shortly after her birth her family moved to Iran, where both of her parents taught at the Tehran American School for three years. 
Her mother, Brenda Hunter, later served as a teacher and principal for three Department of Defense schools at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. 
Her father, Nelson Hunter, was a minister for almost 45 years before his death in 2007. He taught college science courses for military personnel at Fort Campbell and served as an education director in two prisons and at a mental health facility in Tennessee. 
Long before she had her own classroom, McQueen taught students in an after-school program — and knew how to run a laminating machine and put up a world-class bulletin board.
A graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., McQueen taught in elementary and middle schools before returning to Lipscomb to train future generations of teachers. For six years she served as dean of the College of Education, also overseeing Lipscomb’s K-12 schools. She was senior vice president for one year.
In late 2014, at age 40, she accepted Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s appointment to his cabinet — at “a time when public schools have never been more debated in the state,” The Tennessean reports. One issue is the state’s implementation of rigorous Common Core academic standards.
Her husband, Andy, was a standout 3-point shooter for the Bisons basketball team at Lipscomb. Now a partner at a Nashville law firm, he serves as a deacon of the Hillsboro Church of Christ, where the couple worships with their two children, ages 11 and 8. 
Public education sometimes gets negative critiques from Christians — for not allowing prayer in schools and other reasons. How do you respond to the criticism? 

I think this criticism may be based on particular experiences they have had that were negative, but I have been fortunate to be surrounded with colleagues and friends that exemplify how to engage and support our public schools as parents, volunteers, faith-based institutions and nonprofits.  
All teachers and leaders in every kind of school need to know that they have community support in doing the important work of educating our youth. We all have a part to play in our schools, and I would hope that Christians would be the first in line to engage for good.  

What is the role of an education commissioner in Tennessee? How does it differ from a state superintendent of schools? 

In Tennessee, the commissioner of Education is appointed by the governor to join his cabinet and lead the Department of Education for the state. State superintendents often are elected, but the job is essentially the same. Different states have different structures.

Tell us about the biggest influences on your faith and your decision to go into education. 

I learned so much from my father — speaking skills, interpersonal skills, being passionate about your work, how to have a deep, personal relationship with your heavenly father, how to laugh and enjoy life. 
To this day, I can hear his many sermons in my head, and they continue to influence my decisions. 
My mother has been my inspiration and model of a Christian woman who lives out her faith in her profession. She can only be described as a positive ball of energy with a love for children and the profession of teaching. She worked with excellence every single day until the job was done. Her teachers loved her for her energy, excellence and humility.
I lived and breathed education every day of the year and loved to share in this experience with mom.  

Anyone else?

I would be remiss if I did not note that my passion for education also came from my relationship with my older brother, Craig. 
Craig was a breech baby and suffered brain damage at birth. He was always in special education at the public schools we attended in Clarksville (Tenn.). My mother was his fearless advocate and made sure he had high expectations in each and every school. She would always say, “Craig can do more than we think.” 
She was exactly right.  
I am amazed at what Craig has learned and can do despite the challenges he faces. My childhood was both about teaching Craig and learning amazing things I could have only learned from him. 
He has taught me about loving others and meeting them where they are while holding high expectations. He has taught me about celebrating all types of accomplishments. 

What is Common Core and why has it become so controversial? 

The Common Core state standards are basically learning goal outcomes for mathematics and English/language arts, created to show what every child should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. 
In 2009, the state school chiefs and governors that comprised the Council for Chief State School Officers and the National Governor’s Association coordinated a state-led effort to develop the standards to set college and career expectations that would be similar across state lines. 
The standards have become controversial for a variety of reasons.  These range from concerns about local control and federal intrusion to concerns about specific standards.  
In Tennessee, Governor Haslam is addressing concerns related to the quality and rigor of the standards by requiring a full vetting of the standards that were adopted in 2010. 
All Tennesseans have an opportunity to give feedback from now through spring 2015 before review teams of educators from Tennessee use this feedback to suggest changes.

You’re moving from a faith-based campus to a secular job. How do you see your faith playing a role in what you’re be doing? 

When your faith influences your personal decision-making and behavior, it can’t help but impact your professional life. 
Prayer was a critical part of my decision to accept this role — and it will continue to be so. 
I love God, and I love others. This won’t change.  

Filed under: Dialogue Features Headlines - Secondary

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