I Will NOT Lead My Students in Prayer and Neither Should You

As a public school teacher, I have a responsibility not to bully my students into believing as I do.

In fact, I go out of my way to respect their right to form their own opinions – to think, not just to accept what they’re told.

The US Supreme Court apparently has no idea how this works.

The six Republican members (I refuse to call them justices) paved the way for organized prayer in public schools by ruling this week in support of a high school football coach who lead his team in prayer on the field.

Anyone who has ever been in the minority knows that when an authority figure leads students in an activity, it is not optional – no matter what they say.

I know this from personal experience.

When I was in elementary school, I was one of a handful of Jewish kids in a building of mostly Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.

In December, the kids were preparing for a choral concert where we’d sing a slew of holiday songs.

I loved to sing and enjoyed Frosty the Snowman, Jingle Bells and all the other classics…

Except one – Silent Night.

I just didn’t feel right singing things like “Round yon virgin mother and child” and “Christ the savior is born.”

So when we practiced that song, I’d stop singing.

I’d enthusiastically belt out all the other tunes, but I just stood there when it was time for Silent Night.

I didn’t think it would make a difference. There were hundreds of others kids. No one would notice me.

But the choral teacher did.

She pulled me out of line and demanded to know why I wasn’t singing. I told her I was Jewish and didn’t want to sing that song.

She chided me for making everyone else look bad and told me to just move my mouth during the song so it looked like I was singing.

I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want people to even THINK I was singing things I didn’t believe.

It’s not that I really accepted Santa and his reindeer, either, but this was somehow different. I didn’t want my parents to go to the concert and see me participating in this farce. I didn’t want to be forced to go onstage and before everyone profess the opposite of all I had been taught – to declare myself other than what I really was.

But the other kids were right there listening to this whole conversation and giggling. It was yet another way I was being marked as an outsider, as different – so I gave in and did what she demanded.

In retrospect, I now know I could have complained to my parents and gone to the principal and we could have even taken the matter to court like the aforementioned coach.

However, when you’re a little kid in elementary school you usually just listen to what the adults tell you to do. At least I did.

It took me decades to get over it. Really.

Whenever that song would come on the radio or I’d hear it in a department store, I’d get all tense and upset. Like something had been stolen from me.

So it was with some trepidation many years later that I attended my daughter’s first winter concert when she was in elementary school.

It was with some relief that I noticed no holiday songs like Silent Night. They were all pretty secular and even multicultural.

And my daughter goes to the same district I went to as a child.

We’ve come a long way in the past three decades.

By and large, public school teachers today make an effort not to force their ways onto their students.

It’s a lesson I take to heart, myself, in my middle school classes.

When we discuss things – as you must in Language Arts – I encourage students to agree OR disagree with me or anyone else. Either option is okay so long as they try to explain why they think the way they do.

Moreover, I encourage them not to just speak but to also listen to what their classmates have to say and even be open to revising their original thoughts based on what they’ve heard.

And this includes discussions of religion.

When something Biblical or theological comes out of a book like “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “The Outsiders,” we give it our full attention.

I tell my kids that they can say or think whatever they want about it. If they want to talk about God or religion, that is fine. It’s just me who is constrained. I am not allowed to give them my own opinion on these matters.

Often I tell them that this isn’t necessarily what I believe, but I’ll propose one idea or another to get them thinking.

I remember one year my students were particularly interested in religion, and they complained that they couldn’t pin me down on anything – they couldn’t tell if I was religious or an atheist.

And that’s how it should be.

Kids have never been forbidden from talking about God or praying in school.

It’s just that teachers have been forbidden from telling them what to think or leading them in prayer.

Until now.

However just because an increasingly illegitimate Supreme Court makes a regressive ruling doesn’t mean teachers have to change.

Even if we CAN lead kids in prayer, that doesn’t mean we SHOULD.

I don’t plan on altering a single thing in my classroom, and I don’t think my colleagues should, either.

But there are 3.2 million teachers in public schools. There are bound to be some who will use this ruling as an excuse to give in to their worst tendencies.

So here’s what I suggest we do.

We should not coerce our students to do anything, but we damn well can and SHOULD pressure our colleagues not to indoctrinate their students.

Principals should give crappy assignments to teachers who break this taboo. Keep them away from students if at all possible. After all, they don’t belong in the classroom if they’re going to misuse the trust students have in them.

Teachers should give them the cold shoulder in the faculty room and at the copier.

Want to borrow my grammar unit? Not if you’re going to subject your classes to your faith and encourage them to follow along.

Consenting adults can do what they like on their own time, but this is public school.

When it comes to undue influence, inculcation and alienation of kids who are different, we cannot be bystanders.

We may not have dark money and Christian Nationalists behind us, but until we have a rational Supreme Court to overturn this decision or a Congress with enough guts to codify freedom from religion into law, teachers still have some modicum of power.

We should use it to protect our children.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Overturning Abortion Rights is Fascism – Pure and Simple

The US Supreme Court is a fascist organization.

Let me cut right to the chase to explain why.

This week the conservative majority (I won’t call them justices) overturned Roe v. Wade – the landmark 1973 decision that expanded access to abortion nationwide.

This is on top of decisions deeply wounding state’s rights to make gun regulations, to hold police civilly accountable for reading suspects their Miranda rights, and even the separation of Church and State in regard to public funding of parochial schools.

Let me be very clear – this is not about consistency based on legal precedent or interpretation of the law. It is ideology – pure and simple.

In the case of abortion, these four men and one woman did it because they wanted to. That’s all.

And they wanted to for a while now. They each lied to Congress during their confirmation hearings.

Maybe money exchanged hands. Maybe they were influenced by powerful pundits, politicians and ideologues.

But their rulings were certainly not based on logic. After all, in the same week they decided states CAN’T regulate guns but states CAN regulate women’s bodies.

This is inconsistent and irrational.

The right to an abortion is one of the most fundamental rights a person can have.

It is central to the very idea of personal freedom and autonomy.

And no argument based on the rights of the unborn can support this travesty of justice.

Look at the facts.

At the beginning of pregnancy, a fetus is nothing but a cluster of cells.

This cluster is alive but so is cancer. So are insects. So are bacteria.

Being alive is not enough to give it rights over-and-above the person these cells are clustered inside.

Electrical impulses in these cells do not constitute a heartbeat. Nearly every cell has such electrical impulses – the brain, muscles, organs, etc. That doesn’t make them separate organisms.

Your belief that a cluster of cells is a person is not a compelling argument for anything.

There are no facts behind it.

It is purely a matter of a faith.

There is no way to prove either position right or wrong. It is definitional.

It is purely something you believe without any evidence.

It is religion, and in a free society one person’s religion cannot compel someone of another faith or someone of no faith whatsoever.

Catholics can’t make Jews attend midnight mass before Christmas. Jews can’t make Baptists refrain from eating pork. Muslims can’t stop atheists from drawing cartoons of religious figures.

Doing so would be theocracy.

So using your belief as a justification to force people who do not share it to take that cluster of cells to term is a textbook example of fascism.

It clearly violates the First Amendment establishment clause of the Constitution. It forces others to be compelled by your faith-based claims.

Moreover, it violates a person’s right to bodily autonomy.

If you have a right to anything, it is to do whatever you want with your own body. After all, that is you at its most essential.

Without this right, you are the same as livestock or an enslaved person.

No one should be able to force you to do anything with or to your body that you don’t want.

Obviously that right has limits – for example if you intend to use your body to hurt or kill someone else.

But we’ve already established that a fetus – a glob of cells – cannot be assumed to be someone else.

Doing otherwise would be absurd.

So someone has beliefs about what’s happening inside your body. So what?

Imagine if some cult thought your kidneys have souls and must be kept inside you at all costs. Should they be able to pass a law forbidding you from removing one if it gets infected? If you want to donate it to save another person’s life?

They’re your kidneys. And that fetus is your cluster of cells. You can do with it what you want.

Eventually, if you let that cluster of cells develop long enough, it may become something else. It may become viable to live on its own and what almost everyone would agree is a person. But it is not a given at all that this conglomeration of tissue is one yet.

And your insistence that your beliefs about it must compel my actions violates my rights.

Moreover, this argument has been predicated on the believer in the personhood of a clump of cells acting in good faith.

In point of practice, we do not even see that.

The same people in favor of repealing a person’s right to abortion may be in favor of the knot of tissue developing through birth, but they do not support doing anything to help it once it has unequivocally reached personhood.

No universal healthcare. No universal daycare. No neonatal care. No robust education funding. And no protection against gun violence.

This shows that most people professing this belief in the personhood of something inside your body is pure balderdash.

It’s not about that mass growing inside a woman. It’s about the woman, herself – controlling her actions, making her bend to your will, making it harder for her to exercise her autonomy and benefit from her own economic power.

It is about upholding patriarchy. It is about subjugating women – especially poor women and women of color who are more likely to be impacted.

Make no mistake.

This is fascism.

Our Supreme Court is fascist.

And whether you are likely to ever have an abortion or not is beside the point.

Every woman, every man, every person is impacted.

We must fight this kangaroo court and the political power behind it.

We must make them regret such blatant autocracy and totalitarianism.

This is everyone’s fight.

Every PERSON. Everywhere.


 

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Doug Mastriano’s Rootin’ Tootin’ School Shootin’ Prevention Plan in PA

A teenage boy in a black trench coat walks down a school hallway.

A young girl abruptly turns a corner and is about to walk past when she stops and notices an oblong shape in his coat.

He pulls out an AR-15 and points it at her head.

She gasps. He smiles.

“Hold it right there, Patrick.” Says a voice behind him.

“Mr. Callahan?” The boy says starting to bring the barrel around.

‘Uh-uh. Stop right there,” says the voice shoving something in the boy’s back.

“I know what you’re thinking,” the teacher continues. “My homeroom teacher, Mr. Callahan, has a gun in his desk. Did he remember to bring it with him to hall duty? Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being it’s a 500 S&W Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”

Apparently this is how Doug Mastriano thinks school shootings can best be prevented.

The Pennsylvania State Senator and Republican candidate for governor plans to introduce a bill allowing school employees to arm themselves while on school property if they have a concealed carry permit and pass a firearms course.

Not gun control. Not stopping teens from buying assault weapons. Not keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Instead, arm the teachers. Arm the principals. Put a piece in the hands of Lunch Lady Doris. Maybe even the custodians will be packing heat with a bucket and mop.

This is not the kind of serious proposal Commonwealth residents deserve from a representative of the legislature or executive branch. It’s not the kind of serious proposal you’d expect from a grown adult. Heck. It’s not what you’d expect from a small child still unable to tie his own shoes.

School shootings are not action movie scenarios. They’re not run-and-gun video games. They’re not cops and robbers. They’re real life.

They’re the cause of elementary kids being decapitated by assault weapons fire.

They’re the cause of fifth grade bodies so unrecognizable they have to be identified by their green Converse sneakers.

They’re the cause of child sized coffins adorned with cartoon doggies and kitties – brightly colored friends to accompany little kids to their final resting places.

Mastriano’s suggestion would be pathetic if it weren’t so dangerous.

He thinks school shooters are attracted to places where they know people aren’t armed.

However, history proves him wrong.

The overwhelming majority of school shootings either involved armed police stationed at the school or police responding quickly thereafter.

Lest we forget, there were police officers on both the campuses of Robb Elementary School in Texas and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where shootings cumulatively took the lives of more than 30 students.

According to a 2021 JAMA Network study that looked at 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019, armed guards did not significantly reduce injuries or deaths during school mass shootings.

In fact, when researchers controlled for location and school characteristic factors, “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”

Put simply, school shootings are not rational activities subject to cost benefit analysis from the people contemplating doing them. Would-be shooters do not expect to come out alive. They don’t care if there is armed resistance or not. In fact, the presence of armed resistance only encourages them to bring deadlier weaponry – especially semi-automatic guns.

That’s why police in Uvalde, Texas, were too scared to go into Robb Elementary School and stop the perpetrator armed with an AR-15 – perhaps the most common weapon used in school shootings.

And when trained police are afraid, Mastriano expects better from school staff – teachers, secretaries, aides, and nurses!!!?

A similar proposal permitting the arming of school employees passed the state Senate in June 2017 but it died in a House committee. In the district where I work as a middle school teacher, we talked about the issue at a staff meeting.

The few people who thought it was a good idea and said they would gladly bring a gun with them to school are nice people – but they’re the last ones you’d want armed.

Moreover, we have a school resource officer who said he was not in favor of the measure because it would make things tougher for law enforcement responding to a shooting. It would make it that much more unclear who the shooter was and increase the chances of friendly fire.

It’s hardly surprising Mastriano is making such boneheaded proposals.

If elected governor, he also promises to cut public school funding IN HALF and make it harder for educators to collectively bargain for better salaries, benefits, and working conditions.

He is an extremist who wants to destroy public education in favor or charter and voucher schools, take away people’s freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies, discriminate against anyone with a different sexuality or religious belief and give away as much tax money as possible to private businesses.

Mastriano is either a fool who does not understand the issues or a patsy of the lunatic fringe of his party or both.

He wouldn’t arm teachers with books, funding or resources to teach – just guns.

He is an embarrassment to the people of Franklin County who elected him to the legislature and the Republican base who chose him to represent them in the governor’s race.

I know it’s trendy for the GOP to pick the candidate most likely to piss off the people across the aisle, but this isn’t a game.

Fools like Mastriano are going to get innocent people and their children killed – not to mention the suffering thousands will have to endure if his policies ever see the light of day.

He thinks the answer to school shootings is to turn the school librarian into Yosemite Sam.

If you vote for him in the general election, you will reap what you sow – misery and death.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

How Teachers Like Me Can Renew Ourselves This Summer

This school year was perhaps the most difficult one I’ve experienced in two decades in the classroom.

From constantly having to cover for sick or otherwise absent staff, to absorbing student traumas suffered in years of a pandemic, to increased student fights, social awkwardness and administrators demanding more paperwork and untried initiatives that get dropped for another fad next week…

It’s been rough!

Now that most K-12 schools have begun or are about to begin summer break, it can be hard to rest and renew yourself for the coming year.

To be honest, many teachers have already decided to leave.

At my district, more teachers have retired this year than at any time since I was hired – about 10% of the staff.

And some even quit in the middle of the year – something that hardly ever happens.

If things don’t change this year, it will be worse next year.

But for those like me planning on returning in the Fall, congratulations. You made it through.

Now what?

I don’t know about you, but I often find myself nibbled by stress and anxiety.

I try to sleep, I try to rest, but worry and hopelessness settle down on me like a shroud.

If you’re like me, you may need some help getting through it all.

So here’s a list of five things we can do – not just you, but me, too – that hopefully will help us rejuvenate ourselves somewhat in the next few months and set us up for a successful year with our students.

1) Be Present with Friends and Family

Teachers often live in their heads.

We’re always planning a new lesson or thinking about how to help a student or improve something from the year before.

But this is summer break.

It’s time to tune out and turn off.

You’re home and hopefully you can find some time to spend with friends and family.

Just remember to try to be there. Actually be there.

Don’t live in your head. Live in the moment.

Let the present open up in front of you and actually enjoy the things you’re doing.

Our professional lives often demand we sacrifice so much time with our significant others, our kids, and the people we care about. Now is the time to balance the scales and enjoy their company. And nothing else.

This can be easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.

2) Don’t Focus on Things You Can’t Change

There is so much going on in the world, and we’re teachers. We’re problem solvers.

We want to fix broken things, and there is so much broken out there. The news is often not our friend.

I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on. We do so at our peril. But we have to try to put it all in context.

We’re just people – individuals caught in nets of complexity. We can’t solve all these problems ourselves.

A horrible regressive monster is running for Governor in the Fall who would destroy your profession and endanger your child’s future. Got it.

The government still hasn’t passed any meaningful measures to keep guns out of the hands of school shooters. Got it.

Politicians are still attacking your profession, history, science, math and enlightenment values. Argh!

And they’ll still be doing it at the end of August.

Take a break from it all.

Worrying will not change anything. And it will all be there for you later.

Just try to focus your mind elsewhere – for a little while.

3) Let Go of Resentments

This can be really hard but important.

There are a lot of people who have probably said or done things that made your life difficult this year.

It could be that parent who screamed at you on the phone over an assignment their child didn’t turn in.

It could be an administrator who made another stupid initiative that makes him/her look good while increasing your work load but does nothing to help the students.

It could be a sincerely stupid politician accused with pedophilia and insurrection who thinks taking pot shots at teachers will win him votes from the lowest common denominator.

It could be… so many people.

Take a deep breath and let it go.

You don’t need that baggage weighing you down.

As Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said:

“Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.”

Leave that behind.

There will be plenty more next year.

4) Don’t Expect Too Much of Yourself

Often our harshest critic is ourselves.

We try so hard to be kind to everyone all year. This summer, be kind to yourself.

It’s break time. You don’t have to clean the whole house top to bottom. You don’t have to finally rearrange the utility drawer or any of a million other things that have been waiting around for you to get to them.

By all means, make those doctor’s appointments you’ve been waiting on. Buy a new pair of shoes. Cut the grass.

But if something doesn’t get done, don’t feel like it’s a failure.

You are allowed to simply do nothing.

Sometimes that’s the best thing we can do.

Be as productive as you want. Sometimes that helps alleviate stress, too – the satisfaction of getting things accomplished.

However, this break is not all about crossing things off your TO DO list.

It’s about rest and renewal.

Cut yourself some slack.

No one else will.

5) Remember Why You Got into Teaching

When you feel ready to turn your mind back to the job, try not to think of all the negative things waiting for you.

Don’t even let your mind rest on the uncertainties and anxieties ahead.

Focus on why you’re still a teacher.

You’re not chained to this profession. You probably had the chance to leave if you’d wanted.

Why did you get into education in the first place?

What are the things about it that you still love and enjoy?

For me, it’s nearly everything in the classroom, itself.

It’s interacting with students.

It’s helping them succeed and then seeing the look of joy on their faces when they do.

I love everything about my job – the subject I teach, the students, being there when there’s no one else.

It’s just all the stuff outside the classroom that I can’t stand.

I make a file during the year full of Christmas cards, goodbye messages from parents and students, positive emails, etc. During the summer is a perfect time to read through them and remember the good things.

At least, that’s what I try to do anyway.

So there’s my list. I hope you found it helpful.

Health, relaxation, calm. Be warned – I’m certainly no expert on the subject.

Remember the words of author Nakeia Homer:

“You are not lazy, unmotivated, or stuck. After years of living your life in survival mode, you are exhausted.”

Finding ways to recharge and renew is something I know I desperately need – maybe as you do, too.

Here’s hoping we can find the peace we need this summer.

The new academic year will be here before we know it.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Federal or State Legislatures May Raise Teacher Salaries so Schools Have Enough Staff to Reopen

What will we do when schools reopen and there aren’t enough teachers to instruct our kids?

People complain when there aren’t enough servers at restaurants or baggers at the grocery store.

What will they say in August if school buildings in many districts remain closed or the only viable option is online remote schooling?

Lawmakers at the state and federal level are taking the matter seriously with measures to increase teacher salary or provide one-time bonuses.

Alabama, New Mexico, and Mississippi have already boosted teacher pay, with Florida, Iowa and Kentucky potentially set to do the same. Meanwhile, even US Congress could pass a nationwide measure to heighten teacher salary and encourage educators to stay in the classroom.

After decades of neglect only made worse by Covid-19, we’re missing almost a million teachers.

And we only have about 3.2 million teachers nationwide!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And that’s on top of already losing 250,000 school employees during the recession of 2008-09 most of whom were never replaced. All while enrollment increased by 800,000 students.

Meanwhile, finding replacements has been difficult. Across the country, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.

So what are we doing about it?

Surprisingly, something!

Congress has at least one bill under consideration that would raise teacher salaries nationwide.

The Respect, Advancement, and Increasing Support for Educators (RAISE) Act would provide teachers with a minimum of $1,000 in refundable tax credits and as much as $15,000.

The more impoverished the school where teachers work, the higher the tax credit available to increase their salaries. The bill would also double the educator tax deduction to offset the cost of school supplies, and expand eligibility to early childhood educators.

The bill was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), John Larson (D-CT), and Mark Takano (D-CA). It is supported by a broad coalition of organizations including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).

Such a measure is long overdue.

Teachers are paid 20% less than other college-educated workers with similar experience. A 2020 survey found that 67% of teachers have or had a second job to make ends meet.

Why would you go into debt earning a four year degree in education and serve an (often unpaid) internship in the classroom just to earn little more than a fry chef or Walmart greeter?

Why enter a field where you can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas? Why volunteer for a job where you won’t be able to afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence?

Thankfully, Congressional proposals aren’t the only attempt to make teaching more attractive.

Some states have already taken action.

The Alabama Senate passed a budget that would raise minimum salaries for teachers with nine or more years experience. The raises would range from 5% to nearly 21%, depending on years of experience.

A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of experience would see their salary rise from $51,810 to $57,214. A teacher with a master’s degree and 25 years experience would see their pay rise from $61,987 to $69,151.

In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill that would increase base salary levels by an average of 20 percent. This advances minimum salary tiers for educators by $10,000 to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000. 

In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves signed off on an average increase of $5,100 that will raise educator salaries by more than 10 percent.

According to Politico, both Republican and Democratic Governors are proposing teacher salary increases or one-time bonuses as part of budget proposals and legislative priorities.

Even Governors like Iowa’s Kim Reynolds and Florida’s Ron DeSantis are promoting teacher bonuses while also stoking classroom culture wars. On the other side of the aisle, Kentucky’s Democratic governor Andy Beshear is trying to push through a teacher pay plan through opposition by the state’s GOP-controlled legislature.

Such measures are even being proposed in Pennsylvania. Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks) recently introduced Senate Bill 1211 to boost starting pay for teachers from the current minimum of $18,500 listed in state law. She proposes increasing it to $45,000 a year. However, the bill sent to the Senate Education Committee has several Democratic co-sponsors but no Republicans, making it doubtful it will progress anytime soon.

The main factor behind these plans seems to be the $350 billion in state and local recovery funds under the American Rescue Plan. These federal dollars have few strings attached and only about half of the money has been spent so far.

After decades of neglect, these plans may not be enough and they may not even come to fruition. However, at least lawmakers seem to understand the problem exists.

It’s gratifying that politicians finally seem to feel a sense of urgency here.

Because this problem didn’t spring up overnight and it won’t go away in a flash.

If we don’t do something to make teaching more attractive, the problem will only be compounded in coming years.

Not only are we having a hard time keeping the teachers we have, few college students want to enter the field.

Over the past decade, there’s been a major decline in enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs in education.

Beginning in 2011, enrollment in such programs and new education certifications in Pennsylvania — my home state— started to decline. Today, only about a third as many students are enrolled in teacher prep programs in the Commonwealth as there were 10 years ago. And state records show new certifications are down by two-thirds over that period.

And it’s not just classroom teachers – substitutes are even harder to find.

The shortage of substitute teachers has gotten so bad in 2021-22, it forced some schools across the country to temporarily move to remote learning. Even Pittsburgh Public Schools was forced to go to cyber learning on Nov. 29 because of a staffing shortage and a lack of substitute teachers.

And it doesn’t look to get better next year.

Last June almost a third of working educators expressed a desire to leave the profession.

According to a survey in June of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. So we don’t have enough teachers now and one in three educators we do have are ready to walk out the door.

What could we do about it?

In the long term, we need structural solutions to the problem:  

 Money

 Autonomy

 Respect.  

And in the short term we need: 

 Less Paperwork

 Reduced case load

 Dedicated planning periods

But don’t take my word for it.

A survey by the RAND Corp. reported that the pandemic has increased teacher attrition, burnout and stress. In fact, educators were almost twice as likely as other adult workers to have frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.

The CDC Foundation in May released similar results – 27% of teachers reporting depression and 37% reporting anxiety.

However, the RAND survey went even deeper pinpointing several causes of stressful working conditions. These were (1) a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, (2) lack of administrator and technical support, (3) technical issues with remote teaching, and (4) lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures. 

It’s a problem of exploitation and normalization. 

 Exploitation is when you treat someone unfairly for your own benefit. 

 Our schools have been doing that to teachers for decades – underpaying them for the high responsibilities they have, expecting each individual to do the work of multiple people and when anything goes wrong, blaming them for it. 

 We piled on so many extra duties – online teaching, hybrid learning, ever changing safety precautions – these became the proverbial straw that broke educators’ backs.  

There are things we can do to alleviate this situation – reducing nonessential tasks, eliminating unnecessary paperwork, refraining from excess staff meetings, forgoing new initiatives, letting teachers work from home on professional development days – anything to give them a break and an opportunity to heal from the years of overburdening.

But we also have to start paying teachers more.

Thankfully our lawmakers are taking this matter to heart and actually getting some results.

Hopefully this trend will continue until every teacher in the nation is adequately, equitably and sustainably compensated for the work done in the classroom.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is Still Relevant Because it Forces Us to Confront Ourselves 

 
 
Parris is peering into a crumpled paperback with a huge smile on his face. 


 
“Mr. Singer, I love this book…” he says.  


 
He stops, pauses and adds, “I hate what’s happening, but I love the book.” 


 
In my middle school classroom, that’s a pretty routine reaction to Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” 


 
My 8th grade students approach the climax and resolution with equal parts dread and delight.  


 
But it doesn’t always start that way. 


 
No book I teach has gone through a greater change in cultural opinion than “Mockingbird.” 


 
It used to be considered a bastion of anti-racism. Now some folks actually consider it to be racist. 


 
The story is about Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Most of the drama centers on their father, Atticus, who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, in court against trumped up charges of raping a white woman.  


 
Ever since its publication in 1960, people have tried to ban the book from school libraries and from school curriculum.  


 
And that’s still true today. However, this used to be the work of the far right. Today there are almost as many objections from the far left – though for very different reasons. 


 
For 50 years, the biggest complaints came from conservatives about the book’s strong language, discussion of sexuality, rape, and use of the n-word. Though today you’ll find almost as many on the left proclaiming that the book actually perpetuates the racial intolerance it purports to be against. 


 
Republicans have become more extreme than ever. They see any discussion of race as “Critical Race Theory” – a conflation of a legal framework not actually taught in K-12 schools with any substantive discussion of racial inequality. It’s really just a simple dog whistle to try and shut down any discussion of the racial status quo. 


 
Teachers have become accustomed to conservatives hyperventilating that discussing racism and prejudice might mean having to admit these things still exist and therefore requiring us to do something about them. They’re terrified their kids might come to different conclusions about the world than their parents, and instead of confronting their own views with the facts, they prefer to sweep reality under the rug to preserve the fictions underlying their ideologies. 


These sort of complaints are typified by the Biloxi Public School Board in Mississippi which in 2017 removed Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from its curriculum because, “It makes people uncomfortable.” 


 
What they don’t seem to realize is that the discomfort is part of the point. 


 
On the other side of the coin are people on the other pole of the political spectrum. Writers like Kristian Wilson Colyard don’t object to a discussion of racism and prejudice. They think “Mockingbird” doesn’t go far enough – or at least that the discussion it has is framed incorrectly. 


 
Colyard doesn’t think the book should be banned or removed from libraries, but instead insists it isn’t a good teaching tool.  


 
She writes


“Lee’s is not the best book to teach white kids about racism, because it grounds its narrative in the experiences of a white narrator and presents her father as the white savior.” 


While I think Colyard has a fair point of literary analysis, I don’t agree with her conclusion.  


At first glance, there is something strange about approaching racism through the lens of white people, but that doesn’t make it invalid. In fact, racism is a product of whiteness. In this country, white people are the ones doing it. Therefore, it makes sense to speak directly to and from the experience of white people. 


 Oppression, after all, is relational. It takes both the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor to fully understand it. And if we want to help end the cycle, it makes sense to show the oppressor how to bring that about. 


Moreover, the book sneaks up on its themes. There’s very little about outright intolerance on the first page or even the first few chapters. The idea creeps up on you as the narrator slowly becomes aware of the prejudices around her and the trial comes deeper into focus. 


As to the question of white saviorism, I think this is more often a buzzword than a legitimate criticism. White people are not heroes for attempting to put right something they put wrong. It is their responsibility, and seeing someone do that in fiction is a really powerful thing.  


Atticus doesn’t think he’s saving his client Tom Robinson. He doesn’t think he’s special for doing so. He’s doing what he thinks is right. Now Scout certainly views this through rose-colored glasses and lionizes him for it, but that’s a character’s point of view. It’s up to the reader to look at all this critically and come to your own judgement about it.  


Frankly, I think that’s one of the real values of the book. It provides a deep narrative, well told, for readers to examine and discuss very complex issues.  


 
If you think Atticus is given too much credit for what he does, that’s something you can discuss with other readers. I don’t see how doing so cheapens or hurts the cause of antiracism.  


In addition, the problem of centering the story on the white people is rectified by reading more widely in the literature. “Mockingbird” shouldn’t be the only book on the topic you read. To be well-rounded, you should read more from the point of view of people of color subjected to white people’s intolerance. And there are so many wonderful books to choose from – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” etc.  


However, teachers shouldn’t be made to feel like they’ve wasted an opportunity by using “Mockingbird” in the classroom – even if it’s the only book that year they read on this topic. There must be more opportunities in years to come. Racism and prejudice should not be a one-and-done topic in US schools. It is too important for that. 


In my classroom, this book is far from our first discussion of the issue.  


We talk about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. We talk about the 1968 Olympics Black power fist. We talk about Black cowboys like Bass Reeves. We talk about Bessie Coleman, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and so many others.  


When we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” – a book that almost entirely eschews the topic – I make sure to point out that the narrative takes place in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we discuss Black Wall Street and the massacre of Black people perpetrated by their White neighbors.  


And so when we get to “Mockingbird,” the discussions we have of the text is rich and deep. Students of color feel seen because of the book’s portrayal of the kind of racial injustice they experience in their own lives. Likewise, white students feel empowered to join in the struggle against it. 


When the verdict of the trial comes down, there are real tears and stares of disbelief.  


One of my students this year, Mya said, “I shouldn’t be surprised, but I thought it was going to turn out differently.” 


Me, too. Every time I read it. 


The book confronts students with the world as it is and challenges them to do something about it.  


White or Black, it holds up the reality of injustice and demands we take a side.  


And that’s why this book remains relevant and just as important today as it ever was. 


 

 

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Holtzman Resigns as MASD Superintendent After Questions Over Contract Shenanigans

For the second time in a year, McKeesport Area School Directors accepted the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman.

However, this time his resignation appears to be permanent.

At a special meeting in July of 2021, the board both accepted Holtzman’s resignation and then immediately gave him a new 5-year contract.

However, after months of controversy over the legality of the move, at last night’s special meeting, the board voted to let him go FOR REAL.

Holtzman has accepted a new position at Beaver Area School District, approximately 50 miles northwest of McKeesport.

His last day is June 30. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo will serve as Acting Superintendent immediately upon his departure.

The controversy stems from a move last year by the outgoing board to retain Hotlzman in McKeesport when he had been poised to accept a new superintendents position at Kiski Area School District. He resigned and was rehired at MASD in order to secure him a new contract with a competitive salary and years of service.

But this didn’t sit well with three board members (Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess) who walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order.

Then in January – a month after three new board members were sworn in following the election – the board voted 5-4 to look into whether Holtzman’s resignation and subsequent rehire were enforceable.

Lawyer William C. Andrews wrote a letter stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the Pennsylvania school code. The law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.

Holtzman’s own legal council, Mark E. Scott, wrote that the move was, in fact, legal and that it was common practice at other districts.

At a February board meeting where letters from both lawyers were read into the record, Holtzman offered to resign, then and there:

“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”

At the time, it was unclear whether the board could move forward with Holtzman at the head of the district or not.

Apparently Holtzman couldn’t continue to work with them.

A mere three months later, he put in his current resignation.


Holtzman’s tenure at McKeesport was fraught with controversy from the beginning.

He was hired as high school principal without any principal experience while his own father, Mark Holzman, Sr., was on the school board.

Before this, he had been dean of discipline at McKeesport’s vocational department for two years before taking a similar role at West Mifflin Area High School. However, he was mostly known in MASD for his years on the high school football team when he had been a student there (he graduated in 1997) and then at Syracuse University.

His family also had a close relationship with one of the most controversial figures in the Mon-Valley, Pat Risha. The late Risha, who had been a superintendent, himself, at McKeesport, West Mifflin and South Allegheny districts, could have opened many doors, and was heralded as a “power broker” in his obituary.

Holtzman was originally hired as MASD superintendent at a special meeting on March 29, 2017, at a salary of $140,000, according to minutes from that meeting.

His time as superintendent was rocky, to say the least.

The Covid-19 pandemic offered hard challenges for every district, but Holtzman often made decisions that put students and staff at risk, keeping buildings open during times of high community spread and often with mask optional policies. The result was hundreds of people testing positive for the disease who might not have otherwise.

The district offered a cyber option for students whose parents wanted to keep them safely at home during the worst of the pandemic. Many districts were able to provide live teachers from the child’s grade level to instruct through on-line services like Zoom. However, MASD used the corporate Edmentum program to provide academics. The problem is it wasn’t created for that purpose. It was created for credit recovery, not robust academics. As a result, the district cyber program was developmentally inappropriate, and full of typos and inaccuracies.

It was no better for students who came to school in-person. Thousands of children were unable to get to school because bus routes were cancelled daily over the last year.

Holtzman blamed the problem on a contract with bus company, PA Coach Lines, which didn’t have enough drivers and would cancel the routes just hours before the buses were set to arrive.

The district had to go to court to break the contract and just entered into a new 6-year contract with Krise Transportation out of Penn Hills starting next year.

Holtzman’s controversies predate the pandemic.

In 2019, he refused to allow 11 high school students to create a Black Student Union. He claimed his objection wasn’t due to the organization’s content  but the participation of one of the student’s mothers – Fawn Montgomery Walker who was running for McKeesport Mayor at the time and who is lead organizer of Take Action Mon Valley, a community action group.

The district eventually reached a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the students who had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district and Holtzman.

The students were allowed to create the club as long as no “non-school persons or entities” are named as advisors or participants of the club.

Not everything Holtzman did in the district was contentious.

He had a talent for getting donations from large companies.

Last year, he was instrumental in getting Comcast to provided 2,500 free laptops for students, teachers and staff in the middle and high school. The gift also included one year of free high-speed internet access for eligible families – services that can be extended annually. 

The news was broadcast live on NBC’s “Today” show.

Around the same time, Holtzman helped broker a partnership with The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation and MASD for investment in students at Twin Rivers Elementary School. The agreement is supposed to involve co-designing a new school model and wrap-around services for the community.

Here’s hoping MASD has success with Dr. Wanzo or whoever eventually takes the Superintendent’s position on a permanent basis.


 

 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

If You Don’t Support Gun Control, You Support School Shootings

I drove my daughter to school today.

She thanked me for the ride, I wished her a good day, and she toddled off to the middle school doors.

Her khaki pants needed ironing, her pony tail was coming loose and she hefted her backpack onto her shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

All I could do was smile wistfully.

Parents and guardians know that feeling – a little piece of your heart walking away from you.

Imagine what the parents of the 19 children who were killed yesterday at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, might have felt.

I wonder if the parents of the two adults killed in the shooting gave a thought to their grown children during what may have seemed like just another busy day at the end of the academic year.

We’re all so preoccupied. We tend to forget that every goodbye could be our last.

This marks the 27th school shooting with injuries or deaths so far in 2022.

It comes just 10 days after a shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., where 10 people were killed.

There’s hardly enough time anymore to mourn one disaster before the next one hits.

One would think we would have done something about these tragedies by now.

After all, they aren’t unpredictable. They aren’t inevitable. They’re man-made.

There have been 119 school shootings since 2018, according to Education Week, a publication that has been tracking such events for the last four years.

This only includes incidents that happen on K-12 school property or on a school bus or during a school sponsored event when classes are in session.

If we broaden our definition, there is much more gun violence in our communities every day.

According to The Gun Violence Archive, an independent data collection organization, there have been 212 mass shootings so far this year.

There were 693 mass shootings last year, 611 the year before and 417 the year before that.

Why don’t we do anything about this?

In Scotland 26 years ago, a gunman killed 16 kids and a teacher in Dunblane Primary School. The United Kingdom (UK) responded by enacting tight gun control legislation. There hasn’t been a school shooting in the UK since.

After 51 worshippers were killed in mass shootings at Christchurch and Canterbury in New Zealand in 2019, the government outlawed most military style semiautomatic weapons, assault rifles like AK15’s, and initiated a buyback program. There hasn’t been a mass shooting there since.

In Australia, following a 1996 mass shooting in which 35 people were killed in Tasmania, Australian states and territories banned several types of firearms and bought back hundreds of thousands of banned weapons from their owners. Gun homicides, suicides, and mass shootings are now much less common in the country.

This is not hard.

The rest of the world has cracked the code. Just not us.

Not the U.S.

Guns are the leading cause of death for American children –  1 out of 10 people who die from guns in this country are 19 or younger.

Firearm deaths are more than 5 times higher than drownings.

But still we do nothing.

There have been 2,032 school shootings in the US since 1970, and these incidents are increasing. We’ve had 948 school shootings since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

And those who were killed or physically injured aren’t the only young people affected by this. Since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, nearly 300,000 students have been on campus during a school shooting.

Imagine what that does to a child.

Imagine what it would do to an adult.

Since Sandy Hook, the only change in policy has been to have lockdowns and school shooter drills in our classrooms. Children have been instructed to throw books at would-be-attackers and cause a distraction so some of them might have a greater chance of escaping.

We’re told to buy bullet-proof backpacks, arm school teachers, and have gun-wielding police patrol our buildings – but our lawmakers refuse to do anything about the firearms, themselves.

The gun industry is making billions of dollars off this cycle of gun violence: mass shooting, fear of regulation, increase in sales. Repeat ad infinitum.

We’re told that gun control is useless because new laws will just be pieces of paper that criminals will ignore. However, by the same logic, why have any laws at all? Congress should just pack it in, the courts should close up. Criminals will do what they please.

We may never be able to stop all gun violence, but we can take steps to make it more unlikely. We can at least make it more difficult for people to die by firearm. And this doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all guns. Just regulate them.

According to the Pew Research Center, when you ask people about specific firearm regulations, the majority is in favor of most of them – both Republicans and Democrats.

We don’t want the mentally ill to be able to buy guns. We don’t want suspected terrorists to be able to purchase guns. We don’t want convicted criminals to be able to buy guns. We want mandatory background checks for private sales at gun shows.

Yet our lawmakers stand by helpless whenever these tragedies occur because they are at the mercy of their donors. The gun industry owns too many elected officials.

In short, we need lawmakers willing to make laws. We need legislators who will represent the overwhelming majority of the public and take sensible action to protect the people of this country.

What we need is real gun control legislation. We need an assault weapons ban. We need to close the gun show loophole. We need buyback programs to get the mountains of firearms off the streets and out of the arsenals of a handful of paranoid “survivalists”.

We don’t need anyone’s thoughts and prayers.  

We need action.  

And we need it yesterday.

At this point there is simply no excuse.

If you don’t support gun control, you support school shootings.


 

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Social-Emotional Learning vs. Classroom Culture 

 


 
A student accidentally drops her books in the hall.  


 
Another student stops and helps her pick them up.  


 
Then a teacher homes in on the two and gives the helper a little yellow card which can be redeemed for candy.  


 
This is what social-emotional learning (SEL) looks like in my school. 


 
Teachers instruct on proper behaviors and then reward students they see going above and beyond to achieve them.  


 
Here’s another example. 


 
A student at his lunch table is yelling and throwing food. Nearby another student is sitting quietly and reading a book.  


 
Then a teacher walks over and gives the quiet child a yellow card which can be used to enter a raffle for a special prize. He might win an Oculus VR game system or tickets to a baseball game.  


 
That’s social-emotion learning, too.  


 
Instead of just cracking down on the negative behaviors, we try to reward the positive ones.  


 
To be fair, it works to a degree.  


 
But most of the time, it doesn’t. 


 
The same kids end up with huge stacks of yellow cards and the rest get just one or two. Few students actually change their behavior. They just become virtue signalers whenever an adult is present.  


 
Moreover, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to not just instruct but to closely observe every student’s behavior and constantly give positive reinforcement to those doing what should be the norm.  


 
And that’s not even mentioning the frequent disruptions necessary to reward those children who can best navigate the system. 


 
But that’s only one way of addressing the problem of bad behavior.  


 
Especially now (most student’s first full year of in-person classes after the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic), students don’t seem to know how to interact.  


 
Snubs, insults and instigation seem to be their defaults ways of relating to each other. Some definitely need explicit boundaries and reinforcement.  


 
But it only goes so far in the halls, the cafeteria and during unstructured times.  


 
Inside the classroom is another beast altogether – as it always has been. 


 
Ever since I first started teaching more than two decades ago, it’s been necessary to work to achieve a classroom culture. 


 
The teacher has to expend significant time and energy with the students as a whole and each student individually to set up a mini-society where each member gets respect by giving respect. 


 
We try to set up the environment so everyone feels safe and involved, everyone is accepted for who they are, comfortable to be themselves and feels empowered to take the chances necessary to learn. 


 
It’s not easy, but it’s more about relationships than behaviorism. The reward isn’t something extrinsic – it’s participation in the classroom culture, itself.  


 
Both approaches attempt to do the same thing – create an environment in which learning is possible.

 
 
It reminds me of the famous quote by conductor Leopold Stokowski


 
“A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.” 


 
In the same way, you might say that learning in a group requires a canvass of positive behaviors or beneficial social interaction.  


 
This has always been the case, though today the concept has become elevated to buzzword status – SEL. 


 
It’s not so much a single program but a loose conglomeration of ideas that have been around forever. 


 
However, like so much about school these days, the work of teachers and students has become both monetized and demonized. 


 
For those on the far right, SEL is code for teaching kids how to think and feel.  


 
They fear leftwing teachers will instill the values of accepting LGBTQ people, different races and cultures.  Why that’s something to be avoided, I don’t know. Perhaps if you want your child to share your own bigotries, public school isn’t for you, no matter what you call the offending programs.  


 
However, for me the worst part is monetization.  


 
An army of corporate education consultants are looking for ways to give shallow professional development to teachers (at a cost to the district) and then run complicated programs from afar.  


 
This means: (1) testing students’ abilities in SEL, (2) holding teachers accountable for student behaviors, and (3) pretending educators are developmental psychologists.  


 
The problem with testing is multifaceted. First, it almost always comes down to more standardized assessments. Nothing is easier to measure but less accurate than multiple choice assessment created by psychometricians far removed from the reality of the classroom. Kids hate it, this wastes class time and makes the entire educational experience sterile and bland. 


 
Holding teachers responsible for the way 20 or more kids act at one time is ridiculous. Even parents with one or two children can’t control how they act – nor should that be the ultimate goal. School isn’t the military. It shouldn’t be about obedience. It should be about critical thinking and cognitive growth.

 
 
Finally, there is something incredibly unfair about expecting teachers who are already overloaded with jobs and responsibilities to suddenly become psychologists, too. Sure, we have some training in childhood psychology as part of our coursework to get our degrees, but we aren’t experts. We’re practitioners. We’re like auto-mechanics at your local garage. We can fix your car if something’s busted, but we can’t rewire the whole thing for greater efficiency. 


 
So when it comes to SEL, educators role should be focused and limited.  


 
We should be fully engaged in the creation of classroom culture.  


 
That is where we can have the greatest impact in the construction of our own interpersonal relationships with classes and students.  


 
When it comes to the way students interact outside of the class, teachers should be part of the planning process but the main responsibility of conducting it should be with administrators.  


 
And, finally, we mustn’t ignore the responsibility of parents and guardians.  


 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%.  


 
We must free parents from overwork and professional pressures so they can do more to teach their children how to interact with others.  


 
It takes a village to raise a child – a village that knows how to communicate with each other and respect each member’s role. 

 


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Public School Boards Need to Do Better at Embracing Transparency 

 


They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.  


 
So why do so many public school boards hide in the shadows?  


 
 
One of the shining virtues of public schools is the requirement that they be transparent and open to the public.  


 
And they are! 


 
But too often school directors do so in ways that are unnecessarily burdensome, equivocal or combative.  


 
Let me give you an example.  


 
I live in the McKeesport Area School District (MASD) – a community just south of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.  


 
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:  


 
“Preliminary Budget Information for 2022-23 School Year.”
 


 
I clicked on it and got this: 


 
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.


What the heck!?  


Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy? 


It’s not like I can even turn to my local newspaper to tell me about the district’s budget. With so many cutbacks in local media, our papers rarely even cover school districts anymore unless there’s a big story.  


If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.  


We should be able to do better than this. 


Don’t get me wrong. 


 
Authentic public schools are way better than privatized schools.  


 
They’re preferable to anything you’d find at charter or private schools that take school vouchers.  


 
And one of the biggest reasons why is this requirement of local control, self-government, and a free exchange of information between representatives and the community who elected them.   


 
Authentic public schools HAVE TO hold public meetings to conduct their business.  


 
They HAVE TO take comments from the community. 


 
They HAVE TO make their documentation available to the public.  


 
And except under extreme circumstances, they HAVE TO be run by elected school boards.

 
 
None of that is a given at charter and voucher schools. 


 
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations. 


 
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.  


 
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.  


 
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it. 


 
The same thing goes for school board meetings.  


 
Before I became a public school teacher, I was a journalist often covering public schools.  


 
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.  


 
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.  


 
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.  


 
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.

 
 
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.  


 
Now I know it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public who volunteer to serve as school directors to spend all night listening to rambling or incoherent comments. But these time limits are often way too restrictive – especially when only a handful of people actually turn up to speak.  


 
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.

 
 
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.  


 
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.  


 
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line. 


 
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.  


 
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.  


 
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked. 


 
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.

 
 
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.  
 


Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.  


 
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available. 


 
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.  


 
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic. 


 
It is so unnecessary. 


 
Things don’t have to be this way.  


 
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.  


 
After all, this is one of the major factors that distinguish authentic public schools from privatized ones.  


 
School directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do a lot to boost their own reputation.  


 
President James Madison wrote


 
 “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or­ the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”  


 
School directors should take this to heart. 


 
Public schools should not be shadowy corners for school directors to try to sneak through policies under the nose of stake holders.  


 
They should be shinning centers of the community. 


 
The sooner school boards understand this, the better it will be for the state of public education and the students, families and communities we are supposed to be serving in the first place. 


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