Listening to Educators: An Interview With Summit Organizer Jay Hughes

By James Comans, Editor at MSEDBLOG

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Mississippi House Representative Jay Hughes (Oxford)

On July 22 and 23, educators and community stakeholders from around the state will converge at the Jackson Convention Center for the  “Summer Education Forum.” It is to be “a completely open and free zone for ideas, inspiration and appreciation” concerning Mississippi’s public schools. With keynote speakers, discussion panels, and breakout sessions on improving public education, the event has been planned, funded, and promoted by Oxford House Representative Jay Hughes.

Hughes has gained a reputation statewide for his outspoken support of public schools, and for his use of social media to provide voters with greater transparency in the legislative process.

Friday morning, I spoke with Mr. Hughes to work out the finer points of this momentous event (A download link for the forum’s full agenda can be found at the conclusion of the article). For the remainder of this post, direct quotations from Representative Hughes will be set apart and in bold.

A Forum for Ideas

A new conference the size of this summer’s forum doesn’t come from just anywhere. Representative Hughes was eager to explain the genesis of the project. According to Hughes, the conference started out as a 

way to gain feedback from Mississippi educators on legislation affecting them.

I sat in a house education committee meeting…I watched several bills passed out of committee without a single word spoken and no input from any teacher- any educator- anybody…I spoke with the chairman, and I said, “Why aren’t we asking the teachers and principals what they think of these things?” I just really think that a committee hearing ought to be held to get input.”

When Hughes found no support among the leadership of the committee, he took matters into his own hands.

I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be neat if we could conduct a hearing here in the Capitol, and invite teachers and principals in to solicit their thoughts…on ideas that would improve the quality of classroom instructional time, and ideas that wouldn’t cost any money, since the money seems to be the big battle right now.”

Crowd-sourcing for Input

Rep. Hughes reached out on social media to gauge interest, but encountered two problems holding the hearing in the Capitol: One, there seemed to be many more volunteers than the Capitol rooms would accommodate, and two, many teachers were worried about stepping foot in hostile territory.

I also had multiple private messages and emails who expressed concern and fear of speaking aloud as a teacher in the Capitol, or on public property- that they would be punished for it

That’s directly as a result of the various efforts to try to fine and punish teachers who practice free speech, even in their private lives.”

Jackson-26236So Hughes went off public land, and found a “nice, convenient place,” for the summit: the Jackson Convention Center. He gained “unconditional support” from colleagues like Representatives Tom Miles of Morton and Kabir Karreim of Lowndes County. As the conference evolved to include keynote speakers, panels, and breakout sessions, the “three to four hundred” attendees ballooned to a now standing room-only crowd of 1500.

It is a sold out event. We reached our fire marshal limit.”

Big Dreams for Small Communities

The event will be packed, but don’t let the grandeur of sellout numbers fool you. Rep. Hughes still has one simple, concrete goal in mind for the conference.

My goal is to take [information from the conference] with me and assimilate it in a manual of sorts, or a report, and provide that to every legislator, every senator…

[I’d] then go around to different school districts and go, “Hey, here’s what we learned from 1500 teachers. Try it!”

13590261_250558341997905_9020068223695530541_nHughes draws inspiration from his days growing up in south Louisiana, where his childhood principal developed partnerships with local businesses and municipal departments. One Friday a month, they would come in and grow relationships with the students.

At lunch they would have the police department or the fire department come in and cook, like, hot dogs and hamburgers for the students, and all hang out.

What an amazing community-building thing! Just little ideas like that. If we never really get out of our community, we don’t know what else there is.”

Hughes believes different communities in Mississippi may have solutions for each other, if they’d only get the chance to share.

A “Non-Political” Conference

12052013_Republican_Democrat_ScaleThough he knows all about being at the center of capital-city controversy, Representative Hughes insists the tone of the conference will stay politically neutral.

I couldn’t be more clear that this is absolutely, positively not a political event. We won’t use the word “Republican” or “Democrat.” We won’t use the word “supermajority.” We wont say “MAEP.” We’re there to learn about ways to improve classroom instruction without money.”

And the conference will be completely free to attend. Rep. Hughes and his wife are footing the bill for it themselves.  He sees it as a way to limit outside influence over the topics covered.

It’s not coming from my campaign funds. These are private funds of my wife and me…

We purposefully did not have any sponsors or solicit money from any source because we didn’t want anyone or any group to influence or control in any way the dialogue of what was going to be happening.”

…No disrespect to any group, but if we allowed MAE* to sponsor it they would dictate the agenda and there’d be people from MPE*  or MAPE* or MASA* [upset]. If we allowed MPE or MAPE [to sponsor], I mean- 

No matter who would’ve sponsored it there would have been some negative connotation.”

*Note: MAE stands for Mississippi Association of Educators, MPE for Mississippi Professional Educators, MAPE for Mississippi Association of Partners in Education, and MASA for Mississippi Association of School Administrators.

Jay Hughes speaks at a Mississippi District 12 representative candidate debate at the Oxford Conference Center in Oxford, Miss. on Wednesday, October 28, 2015.

But wouldn’t funding the conference give Hughes a large amount of influence over the topics? Hughes tackled that issue head-on by crowd-sourcing the content.

I hope you can tell by the topics. What I have done is I have solicited input through different groups and messaging- from teachers, administrators, principals, superintendents, and parents.

And the agenda, and the topics, and the groups, and the breakout sessions, were the result.”

Big Keynote Headliners


Educator Ron Clark

Once the conference grew to require the convention center’s large ballroom, Hughes looked to snag some big time speakers to thank the teachers for their input. Friday morning’s presenter, educator Ron Clark, is now a professional speaker at teacher conferences, famous for inspiring peers with his wit and wisdom.

What I wanted to do was reward the teachers… so many that were willing to come and share their thoughts and dreams and ideas was refreshing, but I thought, ‘Why not give them something?’

Though Clark’s name has been attached to some school choice reform movements, Hughes believes his early success in public schools is worth teachers’ attention.

Regardless of unique teaching methods and some kind of occasional choice regarding Ron Clark’s type of schools, he does inspire and motivate, and teachers love to see him.. and he was in the public school system. He was in Harlem Public Schools, Charleston Public Schools.”


Mississippi’s 58th Governor (1980-1984), William Winter

Hughes values public school experience. Saturday morning’s keynote speaker also knows a little bit about public schools. He will be none other than former Mississippi Governor William Winter, a legendary advocate for public education in our state.

I wanted to equally have somebody that people could connect with, but maybe on a different level. I just called him, told him what I was doing. He said, “Whatever it takes, put me down.”

For Hughes, the culmination of the different aspects of the event is exciting- the feedback from teachers, the free discussion of improvement for schools, and the keynote speakers motivating the crowd. He and his wife have funded it, he has worked to put it on, and he continues to promote it via social media. But it’s all worth the hard work for him.

The fact is I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I believe there’s no greater investment in the future- no greater investment I could make- than the future of our children, the education of our children…

I’m so thankful that I’m in a position to be able to do that.”

You can download the full Summer Education Forum Agenda here.

James Comans is an 8th grade science teacher in Southaven and contributor to MSEdBlog. His views are his own and do not represent the views of any other entity.

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