10 Questions with Rachel McCusker

MSEA’s recommended candidate for teacher on the State Board of Education on her background, priorities, and why she became a teacher

Educators have our first-ever opportunity to elect an active teacher to the Maryland State Board of Education to serve as a voice for educators and students. It’s so important for us to have a strong voice on the board — which currently has zero public school teachers. When the board makes decisions on issues like school discipline, testing, certification, evaluation, standards, and grading, we need to make sure that the perspective of classroom teachers is at the table.

MSEA is proud to support Rachel McCusker from Carroll County in this election. Rachel is a passionate public school advocate, former county teacher of the year, and will be a strong educator voice on the board.

Read our interview below with Rachel to learn more about her, and make sure to vote between November 10–17 at this link: https://vote.yeselections.com/msde.

Tell us a little about yourself. What and where do you teach and how long have you taught?

I teach K-5 vocal general music at Linton Springs Elementary School in Sykesville, Maryland. I’ve been teaching on contract since 1994, although I did some long term substituting before that. I think if you add up all of my teaching experiences, I’ve been in about 10 different schools across the county, so I’ve had a really good, broad look at education in a lot of different settings from Title I schools to high-income schools and everything in between.

Why did you become a teacher?

I became a teacher much to my father’s chagrin, because he wanted me to be a Broadway star — I did a lot of performing in high school. I came to him one day, and said, “Dad, I want to teach.” He looked at me like I was crazy, absolutely crazy, and he said “Why?” and I said, “Dad, I know I can make a difference.”

I had a couple of music teachers in particular that were just outstanding influences on my life, and I really felt like I could totally give that back to some kid somewhere along the line, because it meant so much to me to have that support system and those experiences. I was in my senior year in high school and I said, “I can do this, and I really believe I can make a difference.” And so my father said, “Alright, then go do it and do it well,” and so here I am. I can’t imagine having done anything else. I think it was one of the best decisions I ever made, because I think it’s where I’m supposed to be.

Teaching can be a draining job. What keeps you going and inspired?

It’s the kids that keep me going and keep me inspired. That moment when you see the light bulb go on and you know that they got it. Or the kid that comes to you to tell you about their day, or about their birthday, or to get some help because they know that you’re somebody that they can trust. It’s those experiences with children and building those relationships with children that really keep me going and really keep me inspired.

You were named Carroll County Teacher of the Year in 2015–16. What was that experience like?

I had no idea what an incredible experience that was going to be. The relationships that I built with these master teachers across the state were just amazing. You get to go all across the state, and see all these different schools and programs. We went out west and saw a program with Chinese immersion, so kids were in school, speaking in Chinese, and it was absolutely amazing.

We went to this tiny little school on Smith Island, and I think they had 10 kids, and it was the most amazing experience. They don’t have a music teacher — the teacher and principal is all one person, there’s maybe two people in the whole school who are teachers. So we all just dove in. I said that I was a music teacher and we did an impromptu music class.

It was just amazing to work with these people and talk about my craft with people that feel as passionate about it as I do. We’re still in touch now about what’s going on. It really was this eye-opening and empowering experience for me.

You’ve been involved as an activist for public education for years. How did you get started as an activist?

I got started the year I was named Teacher of the Year. Teresa McCulloh, the president of the Carroll County Education Association, reached out to me because she knew I had a bug-a-boo about testing because I’m a fine arts teacher. Across the state, we kept seeing the fine arts always being pushed back in funding and they were trying to add standardized testing into the fine arts in some parts of the state because of the idea that if we tested it, then it might be important and get funding.

So Teresa said, “Hey, MSEA is doing this campaign to reduce the amount of mandated standardized testing, would you be willing to get involved?” And I said absolutely. That’s how it got started. I found my voice, and I used my voice. I don’t know that I’d ever really done that before, and it’s incredibly empowering to go speak with legislators, to speak with other teachers, to stand at a press conference, and say your truth about what’s going on in schools and why it needs to change.

That’s where my advocacy started. I think it’s incredibly empowering and important because if teachers don’t advocate, and don’t put our voices out there, then nobody’s going to know what’s going on and they’ll all pretend that everything’s wonderful even when it isn’t. We can make it wonderful when we just raise our voices.

Why is reducing standardized testing so important to you?

It was just this really insane spiral that was going on with testing. My kids were in elementary school at the time that I got involved in activism and so they were sitting through test after test after test. I was on school leadership teams, and all we would talk about is the test, and how we were going to raise scores on the test, and oh my goodness, here comes a new test, and how are we going to get ready for the test.

Carroll’s teacher of the year speaks out on school testing
Carroll County’s teacher of the year was among educators and lawmakers from both parties who spoke at a press…www.baltimoresun.com

My kid got on the computer to try out the new PARCC test before it was released, so we could see there were going to be problems with it. It enveloped and engulfed everything we were doing, and that’s not why we’re here. We were teaching kids to take a test instead of teaching them to think, and it drove me absolutely up a wall as a parent and as a teacher.

Why did you decide to run for the teacher seat on the State Board of Education?

The more I thought about it, the more I thought what better way to give voice to advocacy. The rubber hits the road at the State Board of Education. I believe that one of the things I’m good at is in groups like that being able to say the things that need to be said in a way that isn’t overly threatening. I think that I’m pretty good at consensus-building, and I think it’s going to be extremely important on the State Board of Education.

The other reason that I thought I can do this is that I don’t have a very siloed view of education. For me, it’s not just about the music classroom. I look at education very systemically. I think it’s fascinating from a systemic standpoint, so when I think about it, it’s not just that one thing that’s important to me. It’s all of it that’s important and all of those pieces that have to come together.

If we don’t have somebody on the board that gives voice to the important things that are going on — especially now with Kirwan funding rolling out — this is going to end up being a mess, when it could be really effective. If you have someone there like me, who is willing to reach across and try to find consensus but at the same time is willing to say the hard things that need to be said in a way that isn’t threatening, then we might make headway in some important places. And as we make that headway, we can really make a difference for a kid somewhere along the way. It’s not going to be a cure-all, we’re one voice, one vote on a much larger board, but if we can reach across and maybe get to know each other, maybe we can make some inroads and make some good things happen. I think I could be that person to make those inroads.

Why is the State Board of Education important?

What they decide, we have to implement — whether we agree with it, whether it’s working, whether it isn’t working, it impacts to where we are in our schools. There’s nobody on the board right now who has worked where we are. So it’s really important that our voice is heard where the decisions are being made.

Advocacy in the legislature is important, and we are pretty good at that, but advocacy at the state board is harder because their meetings are only during the day. It’s hard to get to them and there’s only a limited number of people who can speak at their meetings. But what they do is so crucial and really sets the tone of what goes on across the state because what they decide influences what happens in the counties and ultimately what goes on in your classroom and worksite. So it’s crucial — crucial — that we get our voice in there.

What policies are most important to you to have a strong voice on at the state board level?

Clearly with Kirwan rolling out, we are going to have to make sure that this is a student-centered rollout. This funding formula and everything we’ve done with the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future must be aimed at creating a world-class school environment for students. How do we do that? Some really important ways to do that right now are teacher recruitment and retention. We need the best and brightest. We can’t be dumbing down our certification requirements and just trying to put people in front of classrooms. We have to aim some resources at making sure we can recruit and retain and that our teacher education programs and our colleges are really high quality.

We need to start taking a look at discipline from the trauma-informed perspective. Children are coming to us very, very differently than they came to us just 10 years ago. What I’m seeing kids coming into our schools with — the anxiety that they’re coming with, the traumas that they’re seeing, the amount of attention that they need and are craving — is very different. We are now in a time where curriculum, even for our youngest students, is very demanding and they’re not ready. They’re acting out because they’re overwhelmed. They’re overwhelmed with their lives, they’re overwhelmed with what’s happening in school, they’re not always getting what I think is developmentally appropriate instruction.

Discipline is going to have to be given a good hard look, and how we do it in a trauma-informed way. We need to address the school to prison pipeline in a trauma-informed way because it is a really bad problem that needs attention. We can’t just say there will be no suspensions in K-2 and that’s supposed to be a band-aid to make discipline better. You can’t just say, “here, do this,” without putting any supports — training, programs, and staffing — underneath it.

It’s going to be really important that as the teacher voice we say, “ok, this can work, and this is a really good idea, but we have to put supports under it.” I’m in a school with over 600 kids, and we have one school counselor. So it’s one thing to say this is going to address a problem as a policy, but if you don’t put the supports in place to shore up that policy, it’s going to fail. I would really want to look at how we implement policies and make sure that they’re supported.

I think expanding community schools is something we can do to really address these problems as well. We need support systems — families need support systems, and our families in poverty need support systems. Where are kids every day? In school. Where is the hub of the community? The school. So why aren’t we connecting the community resources and the school to the families to make sure they get what they need? That ought to be a priority.

Another focus for me is career and technology education. We should be invested in students as human beings, not just as these great academics because some kids aren’t bound for college. We should be putting more emphasis on career and technology training. When it comes to college and career readiness, we’ve forgotten the career piece. And when we talk about college and career ready, why not community ready? Kids need to graduate ready to be productive members of their community — coaches, people working in our civic organizations, people volunteering to help others in need. There are so many ways that kids need to be prepared to be a part of a community — not just what’s in it for me, but what’s in it for us, what’s in it for our society, and how can I strengthen that.

As we look at the rollout of Kirwan and the Blueprint for Maryland’s Future from a lens of equity, we should keep in mind that not every school system and not every kid needs the exact same thing. We have children who are living with a much higher set of needs than other children. World-class schools for everyone doesn’t happen necessarily with equality — it happens more with a lens of equity.

My lens is laser-focused on what is best for kids. Any policy that we look at needs to be laser-focused on what is best for students and what’s going to get them world-class schools. We’ve dropped to number four, we used to be number one. Let’s get back to number one by focusing on kids.

Is there anything else people should know about you or your candidacy?

In addition to being a teacher, I’m a mom with kids in the public school system. I have a daughter graduating this spring, and a son who’s a sophomore. So I have a few more years as a mom in the system, but then in another year or two my new grandson will attend Baltimore County Public Schools.

So while my kids may not see the impact of a whole lot of what I would do on the state board, my legacy is going to be felt by my grandson. That’s really important to me, because when he comes into the schools in five years, I want him to come into a system that has the supports that he needs and the supports that his friends need to succeed. I want him to walk out of school knowing that there are teachers who care about him and that there are administrators and community members who care and are invested in his success not only academically but as a human being.