“We have learned that two High School students, two High School staff members, three Middle School students, six Elementary students and one Elementary staff member have tested positive for COVID-19. Close contacts have been identified and notified. Thank you.”
What does it all mean?
One thing’s for sure – we aren’t taking this pandemic very seriously.
Judging by the emails in the last week and a half, alone, there have been at least 60 people in my small western Pennsylvania district who tested positive for Covid. That’s 17 in the high school (10 students and 7 staff), 22 in the middle school (17 students and 5 staff), and 21 in the elementary schools (16 students and 5 staff). And this doesn’t include close contacts.
However, with the new CDC guidelines that people who test positive only need to quarantine for 5 days, some of these people are probably back at school already. Though it is almost certain they will be replaced by more people testing positive today.
I have a student who just came back a day ago who’s coughing and sneezing in the back of the room with no mask. And there’s not a thing I can do – except spray Lysol all over his seating area once he leaves.
I love inspiring kids to write. I love coming up with creative and interesting journal topics and poetry assignments. I love explaining the far out concepts – hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia. I love jamming to Blackalicious’ “Alphabet Aerobics,” sharing “Whose Line is it Anyway” videos and trying to write paragraphs to the melodies of Miles Davis.
I love reading books with my students – both together and separately. I love going to the library and helping them find something suited to their tastes – try a Ray Bradbury classic; maybe a new anime; and when you’re ready, a deep meditation by Toni Morrison. I love reading “The Outsiders” with my classes and experiencing Ponyboy’s story anew every year – feeling the highs, the lows, the losses, the victories. I love seeing the look on children’s faces when the realization dawns that they can no longer honestly say they hate reading, but only that sometimes it’s hard. I love catching them with a book in their bags or the same book on their desks being read over and over again because they love it so much.
This was an opportunity for them to grab a few hundred dollars to buy school supplies for their classrooms.
Can you imagine any other professional doing that?
Lawyers giving foot rubs so their clients can get an appeal. Doctors grubbing on a bathroom floor for their patients’ pain pills. Police squeezing into a cash grab booth to fund new bullet proof vests.
Nope. It would never happen because these careers are held in high esteem. And you can tell that based on their salaries and/or the resources provided to do their jobs.
It’s almost the poster child for why we shouldn’t ban books in the first place. The story is set in a dystopian society where everyone is raised to be the same and people are discouraged from questioning things or having deep feelings.
The book is most often challenged because parents don’t want their children to have to wrestle with its deep social criticism.
”Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.”
Nothing is graphic or developmentally inappropriate for middle schoolers, but the very idea of children thinking about S-E-X and challenging authority is enough to put it afoul of some censors.
Which is exactly why my students love it.
Too often teachers give students short passages taken from standardized tests where the only reason to read is to hunt for multiple choice answers. It’s dry, boring and meaningless to their everyday lives.
It’s a classic detective story where the characters try to discover why a young teen, Branwell, refuses to speak after his baby sister suffers a potentially life threatening injury.
The plot grabs readers from the beginning and students find themselves really invested in unraveling the mystery. But to do so they come face-to-face with topics ranging from family, divorce, death, bigotry, sexuality and exploitation.
For example, in Act II, scene 1, she mentions getting her period for the first time:
“There is one great change, however. A change within myself. I read somewhere that girls of my age don’t feel quite certain of themselves. That they become quiet within and begin to think of the miracle that is taking place in their bodies. I think what is happening to me is so wonderful… not only what can be seen, but what is taking place inside. Each time it has happened I have the feeling that I have a sweet secret… and in spite of any pain, I long for that time when I shall feel that secret within me again.”
My students often read over this passage without comment. I usually have to draw their attention to it and ask them what Anne is talking about before someone gets it.
You might be surprised at how freeing this kind of discourse is. Menstruation is a natural part of life for nearly half the population, but it’s something we don’t often talk about.
It’s not central to the story and Anne certainly goes into greater detail in her actual diary. However, even this little digression goes to further humanize her and make her relatable, especially to people like my students who are nearly the same age she was when she wrote it.
She becomes so much more than a victim. She’s someone we know – inside and out.
It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the 1930s Alabama who defends Tom Robinson, a black man, of a crime he did not commit. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer’s children who go from blissful naivety to uncomfortable understanding.
It’s still an issue, and I make sure not to have myself or any of the students read these parts aloud. We only hear it on an audiobook as we follow along in the text. And even this only comes after we discuss how hurtful that word is.
However, the language isn’t the book’s biggest sticking point today. It’s more often objected to these days on the basis of white saviorism. Critics complain that the narrative should be centered on Tom, the black man accused of the crime, and not Atticus, the defense attorney and his children.
By the end of the book, my whole class – regardless of race – is devastated by what happens to Tom and furious at the injustice he experiences. To be honest, that might not happen to the same degree in a book that signals its message right from the beginning.
In my classroom, the book allows us to discuss so many intersectional issues – gender, economics, belief systems, etc. Plus it gives my students more cultural capital than other texts would. Having read “Mockingbird” allows them to understand more and talk to more people than other more modern books.
It’s not my responsibility to make sure every room in the building is covered.
I never applied to fix the district’s supply and demand issues.
It makes it harder to do my own work. Beyond the increased stress of being plopped into a situation you know nothing about, subbing means losing my daily 40-minute planning period.
Grading student work, crafting lessons, reading IEPs, doing paperwork, making copies, filling out behavior sheets, contacting parents, keeping up with Google Classroom and other technologies and multi-media – one period a day is not nearly enough time for it all.
Even under normal circumstances I routinely have to do that just to get the job done. But now I have to sacrifice even more!
I’ll be honest. I often end up just putting off the most nonessential things until I get around to them.
This month, alone, I’ve only had four days I didn’t have to sub. That’s just four planning periods to get all the groundwork done – about one period a week. Not even enough time to just email parents an update on their children’s grades. So little time that yesterday when I actually had a plan, there was so much to do I nearly fell over.
When I frantically ran to the copier and miraculously found no one using it, I breathed a sigh of relief. But it turned into a cry of pain when the thing ran out of staples and jammed almost immediately.
I didn’t have time for this.
I don’t have time for things to work out perfectly!
So like most teachers after being confronted with the call-off sheet for long enough, that, itself, becomes a reason for me to call off.
I am only human.
I figure that I might be able to do my own work today, but I’m just too beat to take on anyone else’s, too.
Some days I get home from work and I have to spend an hour or two in bed before I can even move.
The way we mishandle call-offs is a case in point.
When so many educators are absent each day, that’s not an accident. It’s the symptom of a problem – burn out.
We’ve relied on teachers to keep the system running for so many years, it’s about to collapse. And the pandemic has only made things worse.
We piled on so many extra duties – online teaching, hybrid learning, ever changing safety precautions – these became the proverbial straw that broke educators’ backs.
And now we’re screaming in pain and frustration that we can’t go on like this anymore. That’s what the call-off sheet means. It’s a message – a cry for help. But few administrators allow themselves to see it.
They won’t even admit there is a problem.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard principals and administrators talk about the call-off sheet like it’s an act of God or a force of nature like a flood or a tornado.
No! This wasn’t unpredictable! This didn’t just happen! It’s your fault!
If there have been a high number of call-offs nearly every day for the past few weeks, it’s not a freak of nature when it happens again today! Administrators are responsible for anticipating that and finding a solution.
This is not a situation where our school leaders are helpless.
There are things they 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 us a break and an opportunity to heal from the years of overburdening.
According to the American Counseling Association, this is sometimes called the “cost of caring” and can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”
“Being a teacher is a stressful enough job, but teachers are now responsible for a lot more things than just providing education,” says LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, an organization that helps children and adults navigate trauma.
“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.”
This is an aspect of the job for which most teachers are unprepared.
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers felt comfortable addressing grief or trauma.
When I first entered the field two decades ago, I was taught how to design lessons, sequence curriculum, manage classes, calculate grades, etc. Never once did anyone mention that I would be standing between a hurting child and a world he is desperately trying to lash out against.
Most teachers aren’t taught how to help students who have experienced trauma. Nor are we taught how to handle the toll it takes on our own health and personal lives.
And unfortunately things are getting much worse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma. This includes abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances. And 35 percent of kids have experienced more than one type of traumatic event.
In class, these traumas can manifest in many ways such as acting out. However, they can also be more subtle such as failure to make eye contact, repeated foot tapping, etc.
Childhood trauma was not unknown before the pandemic, but it was much less frequent.
Last week at my school, a student in the hall pushed another student into a teacher’s back. The first student was trying to fulfill the infamous TikTok challenge of hitting a teacher, but he wanted to avoid punishment by being able to claim it was an accident.
This increase in negative behaviors can be directly attributed to the pandemic.
It is vital that people stop hurling stones and understand the increased burden placed on teachers’ shoulders. Not only that, but it’s well past time for people to get off the side lines and actually support educators.
We need time to talk with our colleagues about what we’re experiencing.
That’s not just gossiping or socializing. It’s necessary to function.
Educators need the ability to talk through what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling with other teachers coping with secondary trauma, according to Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the TREP Project, a trauma-informed curriculum for urban teachers.
“Reducing professional isolation is critical,” said Keels. “It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.”
However, this can’t be something teaches do on their own. This is an essential part of the job.
Part of our profession has become being put in harm’s way. We need the time to cope with that on the job with our colleagues.
In addition, this allows teachers to work together to develop coping strategies.
For instance, it’s never good to meet a student’s anger with yelling or fury of your own. Educators need to find ways to de-escalate and bring the tension down in the classroom.
Finally, it is essential that teachers are allowed the latitude to go home from their jobs.
By that, I don’t mean that teachers are held hostage, that any district forces their staff to stay in the building 24/7. I mean that many teachers find it difficult to go home and stop being teachers. We’re always on. We need time to turn off and tune out.
Educators often take mountains of work home, grade papers, call parents, etc. All on their own time.
Every district can accomplish some of it TOMORROW.
If we want to continue having teachers – I mean flesh-and-blood teachers with college degrees and hard won experience, not just technology, apps or a rotating cast of minders and babysitters – we have to take care of them.
They take care of our children.
It’s time we gave back what they need to get the job done.
It’s time we gave back the respect they deserve.
It’s time we gave them the opportunity to heal from the trauma of coping with our children.
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Today I was forced to leave my class of 8th grade students with a sub so an “expert”from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit could lecture me and the rest of my school’s English department in using DIBELS as a gatekeeper assessment for all students.
That way we can group the students more easily based on their reading deficiencies.
I literally had to stop teaching for THAT.
I was bopping around the classroom, reading students’ writing, helping them organize it, helping them fix their explanations and craft sophisticated essays on a short story.
However, you’d need a classroom teacher to explain that to you. And these are more business types. Administrators and number crunchers who may have stood in front of a classroom a long time ago but escaped at the first opportunity.
They look at a class full of students and don’t see human children. They see numbers, data.
My students are desperate for attention – any kind of attention – and will do almost anything to get it.
They’d prefer to be respected, but they don’t understand how to treat each other respectfully. So they aim for any kind of response.
To a large extent this is due to a disruption in the social and emotional development they would have received at school. But robbed of good role models and adequate consequences, they’re somewhat at sea.
We need a popular, national movement demanding action from our state and federal governments. However, in the meantime, there are several things our local school districts can do to stem the tide of educators fleeing the profession.
These are simple, cheap and common sense methods to encourage teachers to stay in the classroom and weather the storm.
However, let me be clear. None of these can solve the problem, alone. And even ALL of these will not stop the long-term flight of educators from our schools without better salaries and treatment.
1) Eliminate Unnecessary Tasks
The list of tasks an average teacher is expected to accomplish every day is completely unrealistic.
Think about it. Just to get through a normal day teachers need to provide instruction, discipline students, grade papers, facilitate classwork, troubleshoot technology, provide written and verbal feedback, counsel disputes, role model correct behavior, monitor the halls, lunches, breakfasts and unstructured time, meet with co-workers, follow Individual Education Plans, scaffold lessons for different learners and learning styles…
If we truly want to help teachers feel empowered to stay in the profession, we need to reduce the burden. And the best way to do that is to eliminate everything unnecessary from their plates.
That means no staff meeting just to have a staff meeting. No shotgun scattered initiatives that teachers are expected to execute and we’ll see what will stick. No reams of paperwork. No professional development that wasn’t specifically requested by teachers or is demonstrably useful.
I’m not saying we should tell teachers they don’t have to plan what they’re doing in their classes. I’m not sure how an educator could realistically enter a classroom of students and just wing it.
However, the process of writing and handing in formal lesson plans is absolutely unnecessary.
Teachers gain nothing from writing detailed plans about what they expect to do in their classes complete with reference to Common Core Academic Standards. They gain nothing from acting as subordinates to an all knowing administrator who probably has not been trained in their curriculum nor has their classroom experience teaching it.
For educators with at least 3-5 years under their belts, formal lesson plans are nothing but an invitation to micromanagement.
Parents need called. Papers need graded. Lessons need strategized. IEP’s need to be read, understood and put into practice.
All this can only happen within a temporal framework. If you don’t give teachers that framework – those minutes and hours – you’re just expecting they’ll do it at home, after school or some other time that will have to be stolen from their own families, robbed from their own needs and down time.
Every administrator on the planet preaches the need for self-care, but few actually offer the time to make it a reality.
Even if we could discover exactly how much time was necessary for every teacher to get everything done in a given day – that wouldn’t be enough time. Because teachers are human beings. We need time to process, to evaluate, to think and, yes, to rest.
I know sometimes I have to stop wrestling with a problem I’m having in class because I’m getting nowhere. After two decades in the classroom I’ve learned that sometimes you have to give your brain a rest and approach a problem again later from a different vantage point.
I need to read a scholarly article or even for pleasure. I need to watch YouTube videos that may be helpful to my students. I need to get up and go for a walk, perhaps even just socialize for a moment with my coworkers.
None of that is time wasted because my brain is still working. My unconscious is still trying untie the Gordian knot of my workday and when I finally sit down to revisit the issue, I often find it looser and more easily handled.
Not only will their work suffer but so will their health and willingness to continue on the job.
Some districts are finding creative ways to increase planning time such as releasing students early one day a week. We did that at my district last year and it was extremely helpful to meet all the additional duties required just to keep our building open. However, as the new school year dawned and decision makers decided to simply ignore continuing pandemic issues, this time went away.
If you take away their ability to do that, why would they stay?
4) Better Communication/ Better COVID Safety
Communication is a two way street.
You can’t have one person telling everyone else what to do and expect to have a good working relationship.
Administrators may get to make the final decision, but they need to listen to what their teachers tell them and take that into account before doing so.
This means setting aside the proper time to hear what your staff has to say.
Many administrators don’t want to do that because things can devolve into a series of complaints. But you know what? TOUGH.
It is your job to listen to those complaints and take them seriously.
Sometimes just allowing your staff to voice their concerns is helpful all in itself. Sometimes offering them space to speak sparks solutions to problems – and a whole room full of experienced, dedicated educators can solve any problem better than one or two managers locked away in the office.
However, not only do administrators need to listen, they need to speak.
When issues crop up, they need to make sure the staff is aware of what is happening.
Being a teacher should mean something to district leaders. And they should prove it in every thing they do.
The items I mentioned here go some ways to showing that respect.
Eliminating unnecessary tasks, not requiring formal lesson plans, respecting our planning time, better communicating and safety measures are all necessary to keeping your teachers in the classroom.
But they are not sufficient.
As a nation we need to change our attitude and treatment of teachers.
No profession exists without them. They create every other job that exists.
We need to start paying them accordingly. We need to start treating them as important as they are. We need to ensure that they have the time, tools and satisfaction necessary to be the best they can be.
No district can do that alone. No school director or administrator can do that.
But these are some ways you can start.
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This isn’t rocket science. If people refuse to work for a certain wage, you need to increase compensation.
But it’s not just pay.
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. That’s almost a third of educators – one in three – who plan to abandon teaching because of the pandemic.
Another survey by the RAND Corp. said the pandemic 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.
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.
I have to admit that’s what I’m seeing in the district where I teach.
We have had several staff meetings in the four weeks since students have been back in the classroom and none of them have focused on how we are keeping students and staff safe from Covid. In fact, administration seems happy to simply ignore that a pandemic is even going on.
We’ve talked about academic standards, data driven instruction, behavior plans, lesson planning, dividing the students up based on standardized test scores but NOTHING on the spikey viral ball in the room!
And these communiques willfully hide the extent of these outbreaks. For example, here’s an announcement from Sept. 13:
“We have learned that a Middle School staff member has tested positive for COVID-19. There were no close contacts associated with that case. We also have learned that a Middle School student has tested positive. Close contacts for this case have been identified and notified. Thank you.”
This announcement failed to disclose that contacts for the student were the entire middle school girl’s volleyball team. That’s 16-17 students who were all quarantined as a result.
Teachers are tired of this.
And I don’t mean palm-on-my-head, woe-is-me tired.
I mean collapsing-in-a-heap tired.
We are getting physically ill – even when it isn’t directly attributed to Covid, it’s from the stress.
There are so many teachers absent every day. We know because there aren’t enough subs, either, so those of us who do show up usually have to cover missing teachers classes between teaching our own classes and fulfilling our other duties.