Stop Transforming US Schools into Prisons in the Name of Security

You probably heard about the Texas mom who became Internet famous for posing as her daughter in school last week.

Casey Garcia, 30, was arrested after she was caught attending her 7th grade daughter’s classes while disguised in a hoodie, a mask and thick black glasses.

In a viral video she posted to YouTube, she said the stunt was a “social experiment” to “prove a point.”

“We need better security at our schools,” Garcia said. “I kind of feel that I proved it.”

“There have been one too many mass shootings,” she added, arguing that schools should have metal detectors and possibly ban backpacks.

However, most schools already DO have metal detectors, and the presence of these devices won’t stop a parent like Garcia from posing as a teen during a pandemic when students are often required to cover their faces behind masks.

Hopefully sometime next school year when more teens are vaccinated and mask restrictions disappear, no one will be able to take advantage of pandemic safety precautions to sneak into classes.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers should have caught Garcia last week long before the end of the day, but the El Paso parent did more to prove the necessity of smaller class sizes than additional security.

You can pay millions of dollars on new complicated and time wasting screening processes to enter the building, or you can simply have teachers responsible for fewer kids so they can actually give them all more attention. It’s less costly and would reap educational benefits along with improving safety.

The fact is, we already spend an awful lot on school security. And often those measures and the costs to enact them directly impede teachers ability to teach and students willingness to learn.

Let’s start with cost.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. You’d expect that we could afford to buy BOTH security AND education for our students.

However, in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

To put it bluntly – we’re cheap. Especially when it comes to children.

Correction: Especially when it comes to OTHER PEOPLE’S children.

Right wing pundits love to quote exorbitant figures of how much the US spends per student as compared with the rest of the world.

However, they neglect to mention (1) this money is spent unevenly so that we spend much more on rich kids versus poor kids, and (2) we spend that money on services in this country that most other nations do not.

One of those things is security.

It’s not that schools in Europe and other comparable nations don’t concern themselves with keeping students safe. But they typically don’t have metal detectors, armed police, and high tech security systems. While secondary entrances and exits tend to be locked, main entrances usually remain open and unmonitored throughout the day.

Nor do they have the same dangers as we do. In the US, there are more firearms – roughly 400 million – than people. Not true in other countries.

Moreover, even in other nations like Switzerland where gun ownership is high, they have comprehensive background checks that make it much more difficult for criminals or the mentally ill to get a hold of a gun.

In the US, we have a large population that is racially diverse, a history of social strife, runaway income inequality, and a crumbling social safety net. All of which, when mixed together, are a recipe for conflict.

Not so in most other countries.

Moreover, the way most European nations, for example, have addressed safety is completely opposite to the way we do it in the US.

School shootings were on the rise in Europe in the early 2000s, but instead of buying security systems to stop shooters from entering the building, most schools focused on prevention. They realized that the overwhelming majority of shooters were not interlopers from outside but were disgruntled students. So these schools invested in more psychologists, social workers and resources to help children navigate the turmoil of growing up. The result was an almost complete disappearance of shootings.

If you ask me, a similar investment in the US would have similar success. However, given the differences in our societies, I don’t expect it would solve all of our problems.

In fact, emphasis on security certainly hasn’t.

Since 2012, US schools spending on high tech security programs has increased by at least $3 billion – not counting the billions more spent on armed campus police officers — with very little research proving these measures are at all effective, according to the Washington Post.

In fact, there is evidence that these measures don’t work. A federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University, for instance, concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

But in the United States, when there’s an entire industry lobbying to take advantage of a crisis, that industry will likely be seen as the solution. It might not actually work, but at least huge corporations are making a profit. That’s often enough to justify spending more and more.

Security firms tout their products as the solution just as hammers scream we need more nails. Never mind that buying them will impede our progress and bankrupt us in the process.

Which brings me to education.

Even if heightened security was 100% effective against violence, it has a negative impact on learning.

No one wants to go to a prison for school.

Prisons are not welcoming environments. Children don’t want armed guards watching their every move. They want empathetic teachers and adults to help them understand their world.

This is especially true for low income and students of color. There is already a tendency among white faculty (and others) to criminalize their behaviors. In a punitive environment, this is even more so. Children become not something precious to be protected but the inmates, themselves, whose adolescent behaviors become the excuse for treating them like suspects and criminals.

Even preparing for violent situations can have negative impacts.

Active shooter drills – especially those from the ALICE Training Institute — do more to traumatize students than make them safer. The increasingly popular ALICE program teaches kids to physically confront gunmen under any circumstances. Consultants, school psychologists, safety experts and parents say this is dangerous and irresponsible.

“There is no research/evidence . . . that teaching students to attack a shooter is either effective or safe,” Katherine C. Cowan, spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, says. “It presumes an ability to transform psychologically from a frightened kid to an attacker in the moment of crisis, the ability to successfully execute the attack on the shooter (e.g., hit the shooter with the book or rock, knock them down, etc.) again in a crisis situation, the ability to not accidentally hurt a classmate, the reality that unsuccessfully going on the attack might make that student a more likely target of the shooter.”

However, the feeling that we are doing SOMETHING that we are at least preparing for a crisis is what keeps programs like this viable.

It’s also why Home Depot and Walmart market $150 bulletproof backpacks to parents. They may not actually help in a real life emergency, but they give the illusion of safety.

That’s what most of this really is – an illusion.

The fact is that the risk of being the victim of gun violence is low.  There are more credible risks traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports. But we rarely worry about those.

Moreover, the risk of being a victim of gun violence is the same in the US whether you’re in school or not. And it’s higher in this country than in most others. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that, among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by guns lived in the United States. Schools cannot solve that problem. We need sensible gun regulations and background checks in combination with measures for universal healthcare, racial equity and a reduction in income inequality.

However, our public schools are so often left to solve the problems our policymakers refuse to tackle.

If our teachers and administrators weren’t tasked with such a heavy burden and were actually given the funding and support they needed, perhaps they could better do the job of educating students.

That is the central purpose of public schools, after all.

Not gratifying parents to make points on the internet.

Not even security or profiting huge corporations.

It’s to teach kids.

We’d do best to remember that.


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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!

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

But that’s life as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and somehow get back to normal.

I come into the room every day and sit behind a glass barrier.

My kids either stumble in from the hall wearing masks (often below their noses) or they log in to Zoom and participate on-line.


It’s far from ideal, but we get things done.

Right now we’re reading the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The kids were reticent at first.

With the unreliable schedules of in-person vs remote learning, it took us months to get through our last text, “The Outsiders.”

Now we’re speeding through scenes of the play with each person required to read a part aloud.

The results have been amazing.

In any normal year, I have to stop the class at various points to discuss what’s happening in the play.

This week, the students, themselves, stop us with questions, comments, and more curiosity than I’ve seen since the pandemic hit last year.

It’s as if they’re starving to learn something, and this play is nourishing their hearts and minds.

I laugh because my first thought was to come down on the shouting out and side commenting until a deeper part of me realized this was all okay. They were on-task, if unrestrained.

It’s something, going from the near silence of a Zoom chat room with its black boxes instead of student faces to a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers getting excited by the lesson.

We’re having a great time as we discuss WWII, parental relationships, racism, dating etiquette, and Hitler’s genitalia.


(Hey! They brought it up!)

We only have about a month or so left of actual instruction time because the Biden administration is demanding we take standardized tests.

That’s weeks of class I could be teaching and they could be learning.

But whatever.

I’m tired of fighting for things that make sense in the classroom.

No one listens to teachers. That’s why I’m running for office.

I figure as a member of Allegheny County Council, people will have to listen to me. And I’ll bring all of the concerns of those around me out in the open, too.

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

As my students and I are racing to learn something in the classroom, the same folks who demand we waste that precious time on high stakes tests are also bemoaning kids learning loss.

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

“How many years and months are they getting behind because of this pandemic!?”

It’s like a flat Earther complaining that we need to build a fence around the planet’s edges so no one can fall off.

What these fools fail to understand is that there is no learning loss.

Comprehension is not a race. There is no one ahead or behind. Everyone goes at their own pace. And if you try to force someone to go more quickly than is best for them, they’ll stumble and fall.

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

These folks pretend that learning is all about numbers – test scores, specifically.

You need to hit this score before you’re ready for the next grade. That score’s required before high school. This one before college.

It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it with one question:

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

Okay. I lied. That was three questions. But you get the point.

Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

You can’t look into someone’s mind and see what they’ve learned and what they still need to know.

You can give a test that tries to assess understanding of certain subjects. But the more complex the knowledge you’re testing for, the more tenuous the results of that test will be.

And an assessment made by someone miles away who never met the person taking it is less accurate – not more accurate.

But let’s be honest, these learning loss champions are not really worried about children. They’re representatives of the standardized testing industry.

They have a vested interest in selling tests, selling test prep materials, software, etc. It’s just a pity that so many of our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are persuaded by their arguments (or the hefty campaign contributions that come with that persuasion).

So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make.

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

I’m just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I’ve never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.

But being in the classroom with kids day-in, day-out for all that time, I have observed some things about children and how they learn.

Most importantly – children are people.

I know that’s controversial, but I believe it to be true.

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this.

We should be providing them with kindness, empathy and love.

In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called “Late Work.”

If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn’t done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it.

As many chances as they need.

I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear.

It’s not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now.

Kids AND their parents.

I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve counseled in the last several months.

So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books.

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

The best things kids can do is go out and play.

Have fun.

Recharge.

The corporate testing drones will tell you that’s a waste of time. Our kids are getting behind doing things like that.

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

It is an independent study in whatever they are curious to discover.

Play is the mind’s way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that.

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

Taken moment-by-moment, there is more learning done during play than in any classroom. Because play is self-directed and driven entirely by curiosity.

I want all of my students to go play this summer.

And I want the children who will be in my class next year to have had a fantastic summer of fun and excitement.

That way they’ll come into the classroom energized and ready to learn what I have to show them.

They won’t be ahead. They won’t be behind.

They’ll just be.

And that’s my prescription for a productive 2021-22.




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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!

Want to Appreciate Teachers? Vaccinate Us Before Reopening Schools

This year I don’t need a free donut.

I don’t need a Buy One Get One coupon for school supplies.

I don’t need a novelty eraser or a mug with a happy saying on it.

I just need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before being asked to teach in-person.

You want to say you appreciate teachers? Great! Then provide us with a minimally safe environment to work in.

That is LITERALLY the least you can do.

Not a banner or an advertisement or even a sentimental greeting card.

Give us the minimum protections so we can meet the demands of school directors, administrators and the community.

Not a cookie. A Covid vaccine.

Not a demand that we teach in an unsafe environment or go look for work elsewhere.

Give us the tools we need to meet your demands without putting our lives at unnecessary risk.

And we’re not even talking about ALL the tools necessary.

Minimum 6 feet social distancing? Ha! You know you can’t fit all the students in the building that way!

Low rate of infections throughout the community? Ha! You don’t have the patience to wait for that!

Equitable funding with schools in higher income communities? The freedom and autonomy to forgo high stakes standardized testing? Not having to compete with charter and voucher schools that get to play by different rules skewered in their favor?

Ha!

Ha!

And Ha!

No, if you’re going to do the least thing possible – the absolute slightest, minimal, tiniest thing you could possibly do – make sure your staff has the chance to be fully vaccinated before thrusting us back in the physical classroom.

Many of us have been teaching online for months now. We didn’t survive this long just to be kicked out of quarantine when protections exist but are not yet available.

However, in many districts that is exactly what’s being done.

Though vaccines are slowly being rolled out, few school boards are waiting for staff to be protected before throwing open the doors and restarting in-person instruction.

Some districts never stopped in the first place.

So why the discrepancy?

Why have some districts remained open and why are others refusing to wait before reopening?

It’s not because they’re in communities with lower infection rates. In fact, just the opposite.

In most parts of the country, Covid-19 is on a rampage through our communities making people sick, filling up ICUs and graveyards.

More than 400,000 people nationwide have died already from the disease and many health experts expect that number to reach 500,000 before the end of February.

That’s about 4,000 people a day.

In my home state of Pennsylvania, infections are considered substantial if more than 10% of Covid tests in a county come back positive. As of today, that includes every county in the Commonwealth. In fact, our statewide average is 12.7%!

The danger is real and widespread. It’s just that some districts and communities care more than others for their teachers and the students they serve.

It’s not that districts that remain open to in-person instruction have avoided outbreaks.

My home district of McKeesport, located in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, has been open on and off since September 2.

According to the district’s own Website, out of about 3,000 students and 200 teachers, there have been 106 cases of Covid – 61 among staff and 45 among students.

That’s roughly 21 cases a month.

Keep in mind these numbers don’t include people quarantined or those who get sick and either don’t report it or don’t know it because they’re contagious but asymptomatic. If we added all the people impacted by the decision to keep the district open, the numbers would be much higher.

In any case, decision makers at McKeesport apparently think there’s nothing wrong if every month at least 21 people (adults and children) get the virus, risk their health, and potentially suffer life long consequences.

They don’t mind if having the schools open drives up the infection rate in the community.

They don’t mind if moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, even people with no kids in the district have a greater chance of getting sick because decision makers can’t be bothered to look out for the common good.

That’s not an example anyone should be emulating. It’s one we should be avoiding.

Don’t get me wrong.

It’s not that I don’t want to get back to the classroom. There are few things I’d rather do.

Teaching on-line is awkward and strange. Spending all day talking to blank boxes on your computer screen each one representing a child who may or may not be there at that particular moment in time.

Trying to find or recreate classroom materials and rethink how they can best be used in a virtual environment.

Troubleshooting technological issues, answering hundreds of emails and instant messages a day all while having to attend pop up virtual staff meetings that hardly ever deal with the problems of the day but are instead focused on how to return to an in-person method of instruction without ANY concern for the health and safety of the people who would have to enact it!

If people cared at all about teachers, they wouldn’t demand we do that.

They’d look out for us the same way we look out for their children every day in the classroom whether it be physical or virtual.

But where I live, teachers and other frontline workers aren’t even on the top of the list to be vaccinated. Even those at the top of the list can’t be seen because UPMC, the healthcare agency distributing the vaccine, is giving preference to its own office workers who do not come into contact with infected people.

You want to get kids back in school buildings? Talk to the people messing up the vaccination process. Don’t shrug and demand teachers take up the slack – AGAIN!

When I took this job it wasn’t to be a police officer or a soldier. I never volunteered to put my health on the line treating sick people in the hospitals.

I chose to be a public school teacher.

I mentor needy children. I inspire the dispirited, I stoke the curious, I enlighten the ignorant.

I don’t sacrifice my life because you can’t be bothered to provide the most basic resources possible I need to even attempt to do my job.

That’s not too much to ask.

In fact, it’s not much at all.

I’m not saying vaccines are a panacea.

Just because you take the vaccine doesn’t mean POOF you’re immune. It takes at least a month to reach full 90-95% immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require you take two doses (at least 21 or 28 days apart, respectively). The level of protection increases dramatically – from 52% to 95% – but you need both doses to get there.

Moreover, there are other more virulent strains of Covid out there. Preliminary studies seem to suggest that these two vaccines are effective against them, but only time and further study will tell for sure.

In addition, being vaccinated protects you, but not your unvaccinated family. You can still be contagious and bring the virus home with you – though studies suggest any disease you spread after vaccination would be of a much weakened form.

Even if every teacher who wanted a vaccine got one, the pandemic would not be over.

According to some epidemiological estimates, as many as three-fourths of Americans must become immune to COVID-19 – either by recovering from the disease or by getting vaccinated – to halt the virus’s spread.

However, recent polls suggests that 29% to 37% of Americans plan to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine – even some teachers.

So we can’t just allow educators to be vaccinated. We need to encourage everyone to get one. Otherwise, it may protect individuals but not the community.

Education is vital to ensure that everyone knows the risks and benefits of taking the vaccine and how to protect themselves and their children.

And if you want people to be educated you’re going to need some teachers to do it.

We don’t need a pat on the back or even a “Thank You” to get the job done.

What we need are the basic protections necessary to both meet your expectations and survive the endeavor to teach another day.

So stop the badgering and bullying.

Make sure all teachers have the chance to be fully vaccinated before returning to the in-person classroom.

It is the least you can do.


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.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

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!

Kids Are NOT Falling Behind. They Are Surviving a Pandemic

 
 


 
Everyone is worried about how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting children. 


 
And it IS affecting them.  


 
But so much worry is being wasted on the wrong things. 


 
Instead of agonizing about kids being put in danger of infection at in-person schools where the virus is out of control, we’re told to worry about academic regression. 


 
Instead of feeling anxiety about abandoning kids at home as outbreaks close their schools and parents still have to go in to work, we’re told to agonize over failing test scores.  


 
In nearly every case, the reality is papered over by concern trolls clutching their pearls and demanding we point our attention away from the real dangers in favor of papier-mâché boogeymen. 


 
It’s almost as if the rich and powerful don’t want us to solve the real problems because that would cost them money.  


 
Stimulus checks, rent moratoriums, universal healthcare, aide to small businesses – none of that is in the interest of the one percent. 


 
Better to persuade the rest of us it’s better to suck up our pain and that doing so is really for our own good. 


 
And one of the ways they do it is by crying crocodile tears over our children’s academics. 


 
Kids are falling behind, they say.  

Hurry up, Kids. Get going.  


 
You’re behind! 


 
You have to catch up to where you would be if there hadn’t been a global pandemic! 


 
Hurry up! We’ve got this time table and you’re falling behind! FALLING BEHIND! 


 
It’s utter nonsense


 
I’m not saying that kids are learning today what they would have learned had COVID-19 not spread like wildfire across our shores.  


 
But the idea that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed – that is pure fantasy. 


 
Let’s get something straight: there is no ultimate timetable for learning


 
At least none that authentically can be set by educators or society.  


 
People – and kids ARE people – learn when they’re ready to learn. 


 
And when they’re ready is different for every person out there. 


 
You can’t stomp around with a stopwatch and tell people they’re late. Your expectations are meaningless. It’s a matter of cognitive development plus environment and a whole mess of other factors that don’t easily line up on your Abacus. 


 
For example, many kids are ready to learn simple math concepts like addition and subtraction in Kindergarten. Yet some are ready in preschool. 


 
That doesn’t mean one child is smarter than another. It just means their brains develop at different rates. And it’s perfectly normal.  


 
Moreover, kids who live in stable, loving households who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, overcoming neglect or abuse, etc. have a greater chance of being ready more quickly than those trying to manage under a heavier load of problems. 


 
And if a child isn’t ready today, that doesn’t mean she’ll never be ready. 


 
The mind does not take ultimatums. You don’t have to fill up every shelf as soon as space becomes available. In fact, you could never fill it all up if you tried. There’s always more room – just maybe not right now. 


 
If a child doesn’t learn a certain concept or skill as soon as he or she is ready for it, that doesn’t mean he or she will lose out on that opportunity.  


 
Brains are flexible. They’re almost always ready to grasp SOMETHING. It’s just not up to society what those somethings are or when they’re achievable. 


 
That’s why Common Core Academic Standards were such a failure. They tried to map what schools teach like a train schedule, and then blamed educators when children’s brains didn’t match up with corporate expectations. 


 
The key is providing people with the opportunities and the circumstances that maximize the likelihood of learning. Not pedantically checking off skills and benchmarks. 


 
None of this is new. 


 
I am not putting forward a radical theory of cognitive development. 


 
Every teacher with an education degree is taught this in their developmental psychology courses. That’s why so many educational leaders don’t know anything about it.  


 
Policymakers rarely have actual education degrees. In fact, many of them have never taught a day in their lives – especially at the K-12 level.  


 
For example, Teach for America takes graduates from other fields of study (often business), gives them a couple weeks crash course in basic schoolology before throwing them in the classroom for a few years. Then they leave pretending to know everything there is about education, ready to advise lawmakers, work at think tanks, or otherwise set policy.  


 
Imagine how things would change if we expected our educational leaders to actually comprehend the field of study they’re pretending to steer. 


 
Meanwhile, people with 4-5 year degrees in education, like myself, have internalized things like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  


 
We know that learning is best achieved when a person’s foundational necessities are met. At base are physiological prerequisites like food, clothing and shelter as well as the need for safety and security. Then comes psychological requirements like relationships and self-worth. Once all these primary needs have been met, we can most effectively achieve academic goals. 


 
But for most kids the pandemic has been particularly hard on these primary needs. Food, shelter and safety are not nearly as certain today as they were just a year ago. 


 
Children’s physiological needs aren’t being met because their parents livelihoods are in jeopardy. And the very idea that children should be sheltered or kept safe is mocked by the economy first concern trolls demanding parents choose between their children or their jobs. 


 
They pretend to care about our kids so they can get us to do the very things that undermine our children’s safety. And it’s all somehow for our own good. 


 
In-person school, hybrid or distance learning? They don’t really care. 


 
The economy is what they’re really worried about. They want to keep it chugging along so they can continue siphoning profit off of the working class and into their pockets.  


 
And if they have any genuine concern for our children at all, it is merely that our kids get through the academic system and enter the workforce on time so that our kiddos can inject more money (more value) into the gross domestic product.  


 
We don’t need their disingenuous advice. 


 
Our children are suffering, but they’re doing as fine as can be expected under the circumstances.  


 
Yes, their educations have been disrupted by the virus. But a global pandemic will do that.  


 
You want to fix the problem, nothing short of ending the crisis ultimately will work.  


 
We can mitigate the damage, but marching kids into the classroom – sending them into a dangerous situation where they may get sick and (even more likely) bring the virus home to friends and family – will not help anyone.  


 
Schools are not daycare centers. In fact, we shouldn’t have to resort to daycare centers, either, when faced with a deadly airborne virus.  


 
Parents should be allowed (and encouraged!) to stay home and take care of their own kids. We should literally pay them to do so! 


 
These appeals to keep the economy running full steam ahead no matter the cost are nothing less than class warfare. And many of us have been brainwashed that we’re on one side when we’re really on the other.

 
 
Let’s get one thing straight: none of this means learning will stop.  


 
Kids are learning quite a lot, thank you.


 
They see us, adults, fighting over pandemic precautions like wearing face masks when in public. They see us denying science, calling the virus a fake as millions of people get sick and die. They see our President refusing to accept the results of the election. And sometimes they see the same people who should be keeping them safe sending them to school as if nothing is happening


 
The media mogul marketeers would be wise to fear the lessons this generation is learning about the gullibility of adults and the willingness of the ruling class to sacrifice the common folk.  


 
But even though much of the curriculum in 2020 has been unscripted, our schools still function.  


 
In fact, teachers are working harder than ever to provide some continuity. 


 
Where classrooms are closed, distance learning is taking up the slack


 
No, it will never be comparable to the quality of instruction you can provide in-person. But even the quality of in-person instruction is not the same during a pandemic. Hybrid models with necessary precautions of social distancing and mask wearing are, themselves, substandard.  


 
The best that we can do in most cases is learning at a distance.  


 
Will all kids respond?  


 
Absolutely not.  


 
They’ll do the best they can. And this will largely depend on the environmental factors in their homes.  


 
When you have children left to their own devices forced to navigate a virtual learning platform, they will inevitably hit roadblocks. They need their parents to help navigate the rough spots

Kids are just that – kids. They need adults to put them on a schedule, make sure they wake up on time, have breakfast, and hold them accountable for attending their classes – even if those classes are held on-line.

There’s a reason the kids with the best grades often have the most involved parents – parents with the economic freedom to invest more time into their children.

 
That’s something else the marketeers don’t understand. Most of the problems of Covid America aren’t that different from Pre-Covid America. It’s a matter of degree. 


 
Schools have always struggled to overcome the socioeconomic problems of their students. The only difference is that now we can’t just point to standardized test scores and blame it all on teachers.  


 
The problem is systemic. You can only solve it by changing the system, itself.  


 
A system that places dollars and cents over life and health will never be acceptable. And that’s what we’ve got. Still.  
 


 
So don’t buy the latest version of corporate school baloney.  


 
Our children aren’t falling behind.  


 
They’re surviving a pandemic.  


 
 
Fix the problem and they’ll be fine.  


 
 
Fix the system and they’ll THRIVE.  


 
 
But beware of know nothing policymakers who don’t have our best interests at heart. 


 
Pay them no mind and the only thing left behind will be them.


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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!

I Just Want to Teach, but My District Won’t Let Me Do it Safely

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

Therein lies the back to school nightmare I’ve been living through for most of the summer and fall.

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

Folks like me with pre-existing conditions are at greater risk from the virus than others.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

My doctors tell me that I am more susceptible to contracting the virus because my medications suppress my immune system. And that also means that if I do contract the disease, I will be more likely to have severe, life-threatening complications from it.

So what am I to do?

The western Pennsylvania district where I work, Steel Valley, is reopening next week with a hybrid model.

The United States recorded more than 98,000 coronavirus cases yesterday – the highest single day count since the pandemic began. Two dozen states – including Pennsylvania – are reporting their worst weeks for new cases — and none are recording improvements.

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

The district originally opened in September with virtual instruction for all students, and it was a huge success.

I taught my classes online, we’ve bonded and made academic gains I wouldn’t have believed possible with this model just a year ago.

However, starting Wednesday, about 60% of parents in my district have chosen to send their kids back to the buildings.

Of these, half the students will come in during the morning and half in the afternoon. Each will go through all their classes in 20 minute periods. On Fridays, the buildings will be closed and teachers will instruct virtually for half the day and plan during the other half.

The new reopening plan cuts instruction time by half and doesn’t meet parents need for childcare or certainly student safety. But it is better than being open 5-days a week and it provides the possibility of social distancing.

School directors said that this schedule was just a test to see if in-person instruction was feasible. They plan to reevaluate the measure in three weeks and decide whether to fully reopen in December or go back to virtual instruction for all students.

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

Being in the school building, being in the classroom in close proximity with tens of middle school students – especially during a time when COVID cases are surging throughout the county – puts my life in danger.

So I went to my principal asking if I could continue to teach online.

I documented my conditions, gave him doctors’ notes, and had my doctors fill out pages and pages of questions from the district’s lawyers.

In the end, my principal told me the district could not meet my request.

Administrators could provide some protections like a plexiglass barrier and take me off hall duty, but they couldn’t let me continue to teach remotely.

Certain teachers in grades K-5 have been given this option, but not secondary teachers like me. Elementary students whose parents don’t want them to return to the building will get full synchronous virtual instruction with a teacher through a video conferencing site like Zoom. Secondary students who do not return to the buildings will only get asynchronous assignments most of the week posted by their classroom teachers.

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

And I guess I can see where he’s coming from.

If administrators let me teach remotely, it’s possible enough students would return to the classroom that the teachers willing to return wouldn’t be enough to meet the load. My absence from the building might necessitate a substitute teacher to be in the physical classroom with students.

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

…I’LL STILL BE PAID WHEN I’M ON LEAVE.

It’s just that then I’d have to sit at home instead of teach my students.

So benching me doesn’t save the district any money.

In fact, it will cost the district MORE money for me to stay home, because I could still do everything they expect of me and more for the sizable number of students whose parents say they aren’t returning.

So I brought this up to my principal figuring he must have overlooked it.

But no. He said he knew all about it.

He said this is what the district’s lawyers were telling him to do so that’s what he was going to do.

I couldn’t believe it.

I went to school board directors I had developed a relationship with teaching their children, going on field trips with them, working with their spouses.

I got the same answer.

So here I am – being asked to choose between my life and my livelihood.

Go to work and risk everything – or sit at home burning my sick days and still collecting a paycheck.

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. Last year I also taught 7th grade.

So many of my students this year were in my class in the spring. We already know each other.

I’ve already built a rapport with them. I know what their academic deficiencies are and what they missed as we went to remote learning in March when Coronavirus cases were much fewer than they are now.

But more than that, I know what they like and dislike. I know their hopes and fears. I know what motivates them and what supports their individual learning.

I’ve seen tremendous growth the first 9-weeks of school and could really help them overcome the gargantuan hurdles that will be inevitable the rest of the year.

And that’s what I’d really like to do.

I don’t want to sit home collecting the taxpayer’s money when I could be making a difference in these young people’s lives. I don’t want to have to wait for an outbreak to allow me to continue my work.

Being benched like this makes me feel so worthless, and I’m not.

I’m a heck of a teacher! I’m Nationally Board Certified. I was nominated for the Champions of Learning Award from the Consortium for Public Education in 2018. I won the Ken Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award last year. In fact, the University of Arizona was going to fly me out to Tucson to accept the award but had to cancel due to the pandemic.

I gave a TED talk on education at Central Connecticut University in 2018. I wrote a book called “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” in 2017 and have written a nationally recognized blog since 2014.

Wouldn’t everyone be better served with me instructing my students rather than being thrown to the side?

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

I have people who care about me and whom I care about.

I have a wife and daughter.

I can’t roll the dice with my life or chance taking an infection home to my loved ones.

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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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!

 

The Student-Teacher Relationship is One of the Most Misunderstood and Underrated Aspects of Education

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When I came back to school for the first time since the Coronavirus closed the building, there were a pile of letters waiting for me in my mailbox.

 

I took them to my empty classroom and read the first one:

 

“Hello Mr. Singer, I just thought you should know that you are the greatest teacher I’ve had since Kindergarten all the way to my freshman year of High School and probably will remain that way forever. You always helped me with my work when I was behind and gave me extra time to finish it. Your class was the class I looked forward to every day. You were always a nice and funny man. Thank you for being there for me and everyone else in your classes. I’ll be sure to visit you after school every now and then…”

 

I picked up another:

 

“You have no idea how much I miss you… I quite miss our talks after class about video games, movies and musicals. As cheesy as it sounds, I always looked forward to them; especially during the days I was having problems with other students, your wise words always helped…”

 

And another:

 

“…we had fun times in your class. There wasn’t one non-fun day that we had because if we was going to have a bad day you made it better and way more fun. You also helped us a lot even when we didn’t ask for it. When people didn’t want to do our work, you got them happy and got them to do their work. Thanks for everything and thanks for helping me be a smarter kid.”

 

I felt a lump forming in my throat.

 

My cheeks were hot.

 

And why was my face wet?

 

I hadn’t expected any of this.

 

After a semester of distance learning, I’d come back to school to return all the materials I had hastily marauded from my own filing cabinets and book shelves.

 

I had stopped in the office merely as a matter of course.

 

With the school year at a close, I had gathered the odds and ends in my mailbox including this bundle of correspondence.

 

Now as I sat at my desk smiling, laughing and crying – experiencing each letter like a warm hug on a winters day – I remembered something Ms. Williams had said in an email.

 

She had assigned a thank you letter to her high school business classes. Her students had to write a formal thank you to a previous teacher. But that was all that was required. Who they wrote to and what they said was entirely up to them.

 

She had written to me months ago to let me know these letters were coming.
It was just bad luck that the assignment was due just as the global pandemic closed everything down so I was only reading them now.

 

Kids usually spend about 1,000 hours with their teachers in a single year.

 

During that time we build strong relationships.

 

While just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things.

 

Some policymakers will insist on limiting that relationship to connections that increase academic outcomes. Others advise a more holistic approach.

 

Both are backed by research.

 

A review of 46 educational studies concluded that strong student-teacher relationships are associated with positive outcomes in everything from higher student academic engagement, attendance and grades, better behavior and fewer suspensions to higher graduation rates. And this is true of both short term and long term effects and even after controlling for differences in student backgrounds.

 

However, many studies disregard everything but standardized test scores. That is the primary goal and arbiter of effectiveness. As such, in those cases the relationship they are looking for is much different than in those with broader aims.

 

A 2018 study from Arizona State University found a disparity in teacher-training programs that highlighted this difference.

 

Some programs prioritized an “instrumental focus” with students where teachers were encouraged to use personal information on students to get them to behave and do their work. The goal was compliance not autonomy or problem solving.

 

Other programs valued a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal was free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures.

 

Moreover, the study found that the differences in focus corresponded to where aspiring teachers were expected to get a job after the training was complete. The instrumental focused teacher prep programs invariably trained incoming educators for low-income and high-minority schools. The reciprocal approach was preferred for teachers preparing for wealthier and whiter students.

 

So once again the physical segregation of our children becomes “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” But while President George W. Bush used that famous phrase to demonize anyone who thought poverty and racism were barriers to achievement, it is actually a focus on test scores that is bigoted.

 

We expect teachers to care about their wealthy white students but merely manipulate their poor brown ones.

 
This just goes to justify my own reciprocal approach in the classroom.

 

Test-obsessed policy makers will tell educators to manage everything with a clipboard and a spreadsheet – for example, to increase the percentage of positive interactions vs negative ones in a given class period. But such a data-centric mindset dehumanizes both student and teacher.

 

The goal cannot be to maximize numbers whether they be test scores or some other metric. It has to be about the relationship, itself.

 

Teachers have to care about their students. All teachers. All students.

 

Or at least we have to try.

 

A little bit of empathy goes a long way. And not just to get students to jump through hoops.

You have to care about each student as a person.

 

The goal can never be a test score. It has to be self actualization.

 

Teachers have to help kids become their best selves. And the definition of what counts as your best self is largely defined by the student, his- or herself.

 

How telling that we implicitly understand this when it comes to high socioeconomic kids with lighter skin! How pathetic that we lower our sights when it comes to poor kids and children of color.

 

I teach mostly minority students in a low income school in Western Pennsylvania. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always fought against this prescription to see student relationships as instrumental to their outcomes.

 

And the results are evident in what they wrote to me.

 

“…now that I’m no longer in your class I’ve decided it was about time that I give you a proper thank you for all you did, putting up with me and dealing with me in class… You helped me learn how to write essays. But most important of all, for two years you made school fun for me again, which was something I thought was impossible.”

 

***

 

“…Everyday I was always looking forward to having your class because I knew that having your class would be thrilling. I miss having your class because you made me laugh and in return I made you laugh a couple of times.”

***

 

“…Being in your class made me enjoy learning and reading more. It was almost always something I looked forward to throughout my day. We were always learning about interesting topics and I was never bored in your class… Thank you for being the greatest teacher ever and a cool dude.”

 

***

 

“…I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”

 

***

 

“You were my favorite teacher because your class was always fun and we were always doing fun things and fun projects in your class and your class was never boring. You also taught us a lot of useful things… we’ve been using them so far this year. You were also never in a bad mood and always were positive in the morning so you always brought my energy up… I never looked forward to a morning class besides your class because I knew that we were going to do something fun.”

 

***

 

“…Your class was the only class that I got excited for because we always read good stories and did fun things… I also wanted to say I’m sorry for talking and disrupting the classroom when I was carrying on. I should have been paying attention to what you had to say and what you were trying to teach me.”

 

***

 

“It was interesting to have a teacher that wrote a book because not a lot of teachers write books. It was also interesting [you had a] TED Talk…”

 

***

 

“You have had some pretty good accomplishments in your life if I may say so. Like your book “Gadfly on the Wall”, and I have to say it’s a pretty good book. I read some of it and I get what you’re saying.”

 

***

 

“…middle school was hard for me. I had difficult days with tons of IXLS piled [on from other classes] but instead of you giving them to me you actually taught me by yourself. Also we were able to joke around a lot about books and just random things in class.”

 

***

 

“…you taught me how to write and put punctuation in my sentences and in my paragraphs. Coming into your class in the beginning of 7th grade I didn’t know how to read that good or consistent… My vocabulary and speech increased in your class.”

 
***

 

“…You always had a way to make the class fun or easy. Also you always had a way to keep me on track and prepared… If I didn’t have you for 7th and 8th grade I don’t think I would be able to handle 9th grade… I’m glad to of had you for two years because I learned double the stuff and was double ready for 9th grade. I’m doing well [now] because of you…”

 
***

 

“I wanted to write to you because you’re honestly my favorite teacher and you kept my spirits up. I had your class for two years [7th and 8th grade]; the first year I wasn’t sure how I felt about you but overtime I realized you’re pretty cool. I loved Socratic Seminars . They were a way to voice your opinion and that’s always fun… You helped me find a few of my favorite books like “The Outsiders”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “The Diary of Anne Frank” which my friends and I still mention to this day… I’m in the musical this year and… without you I don’t think I would have been able to build up the courage to try out… You made me the person I am today. You taught me to challenge things that are unfair and to treat people with respect.”

 
Those are just some of the highlights.

 

I think more than anything I could say, they prove the point.

 

But to put a cherry on top, I’ll add one last thing.

 

In my 8th grade poetry unit, we watch “Dead Poets Society.”

 

Last year my students threatened to reenact the ending of the film where the kids stand on their desks to honor Mr. Keating, their English teacher who taught them to think for themselves instead of being cogs in the machine.

 

On the last day of school, they did it, too.

 

I cautioned against it because I didn’t want anyone to fall and get hurt. But when the last bell rang and emotions ran high, I simply took the compliment.

 

A year later, they must have remembered the moment as much as I did because many, many of the letters weren’t addressed just to Mr. Singer.

 

They were addressed to “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

 

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I wrote each student a personal response and sent it to them via the US Post Office. For many this may be the first actual letter they’ve received.

 


 

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.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

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!

book-3