It probably wouldn’t show up on the test for 12-48 hours more. But since it was early, he wanted me to take Paxlovid – an anti-viral that can reduce the severity of symptoms and rid me of the disease in about a week.
So that’s where I am now – in the low security prison of my own bedroom.
My wife has to sleep in my daughter’s bed or on the couch.
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice.
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess.
The Pandemic Effect
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be.
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 finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.
Why Are Public Schools Important?
Because of what they are and what they represent.
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US.
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.
Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs.
We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.
In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.
That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it.
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate.
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?
You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community.
Which seems to be the norm in the physical school building these days.
You need to understand something.
Every time you take away a teacher’s planning period – whether it be to cover an IEP meeting, use a teacher as a security guard in the cafeteria, sending someone to a training or otherwise – you are reducing the quality of instruction that teacher is able to provide that day.
And if you do it for long enough, you can no longer fairly judge that teacher’s annual performance by the same expectations you would have under normal conditions.
You need to put an asterisk next to her name for the year.
Meaning this isn’t the best she could do, but this is the best she could do WITHOUT HER PLAN.
Imagine an actor going on stage without having the chance to practice the play? Imagine an athlete playing in the championship game without having the chance to warm up or watch tape. Imagine a pilot flying your plane without being able to contact the air traffic controller or plan the route from one airport to another.
But I know what the excuse will be: this is unavoidable.
There are just too many absences and not enough subs. And to an extent that’s true.
However, what are you doing to alleviate that situation?
Have you reached out to local colleges to find teaching students who would relish the experience of subbing? Have you reached out to retired teachers looking for extra pay? Have you lobbied the school board and the legislature for more money to pay subs and teachers?
The people who are left want to be in the classroom because we love teaching. However, with all the nonsense heaped on our shoulders, the job has become less-and-less about that and more preoccupied with ancillary concerns – paperwork, endless meetings where nothing gets done, useless trainings so some corporation can get paid, and outright babysitting.
When you take away our planning periods, we can’t do our best for our students. And that’s why we’re here! To give our best!
When you take that away from us, you take away a lot of the satisfaction of the job.
No one devotes their life to something to do it half-assed.
Quality of instruction is not an excuse for us. It’s not a cudgel or a catchphrase or a policy decision.
These are all things I’d done before in previous years with remote students. But it never came off like today.
They put up hand raising emojis to indicate they wanted to speak and gave some of the most thoughtful comments I’d heard from them all year.
They talked about the main character, Ponyboy, and his responsibility to save some kids from a burning church. And others argued that he had no responsibility – it was the adults who should have watched the kids more closely. Or they argued that Ponyboy losing his life wouldn’t have helped the trapped kids any. Or they argued that it didn’t matter whether they saved the kids but whether they were willing to put more good into the world by trying…
I was astonished. We laughed. We pondered. It was a lot of fun.
How did this happen on-line?
I think it was a combination of several factors.
First, this was a high interest lesson of a high interest text.
“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.
Description: The title says it all. Stop wasting teachers’ time by making us fill out paperwork that won’t help us do our jobs but will make administrators and principals look good. We make our own plans for ourselves. We don’t need to share with you a bunch of BS with Common Core nonsense and step-by-step blah-blah that will probably have to change in the heat of the moment anyway.
Fun Fact: Teachers in my building rarely say anything to me about my blog. But I got some serious appreciation on my home turf for this one.
Description: We talk about missing teachers, subs, aides, bus drivers, but not parents or guardians. We should. They are absolutely essential to student learning. I think there are a lot of good reasons why parents don’t participate in their children’s schooling, but they will never get the help they need if we continue to ignore this issue and throw everything on teachers and the school.
Fun Fact: So many liberals lost their minds on this article saying I was attacking parents. I’m not. If people were drowning, you would not be attacking them by pointing that out and demanding help fishing them out of the water. It is not “deficit thinking” to acknowledge that someone needs help. It’s authentic advocacy for both students and parents.
Description: It wasn’t just liberals who were butt hurt by my writing – it was neoliberals, too. Comedian Bill Maher actually mentioned my article “Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy” on his HBO show. He joked that I was devaluing the term ‘white supremacy.” Sure. These assessments only help white people unfairly maintain their collective boot on the throats of black and brown people. That’s not white supremacy. It’s melanin deficient hegemony. Happy now!?
Fun Fact: Maher’s assertion (I can’t claim it’s an argument because he never actually argued for anything) seems to be popular with neoliberals trying to counter the negative press standardized testing has been receiving lately. We need to arm against this latest corporate talking point and this article and the original give plenty of ammunition. My article was republished on Alternet and CommonDreams.org.
Description: Most of the world does not have competitive after school sports. Kids participate in sports through clubs – not through the schools. I suggested we might do that in the US, too. This would allow schools to use more of their budgets on learning. It would stop crucial school board decisions from being made for the athletics department at the expense of academics. It would remove litigation for serious injuries. Simple. Right?
Fun Fact: So many folks heads simply exploded at this. They thought I was saying we should do away with youth sports. No. Youth sports would still exist, just not competitive sports through the school. They thought poor kids wouldn’t be able to participate. No, sports clubs could be subsidized by the government just as they are in other countries. Some folks said there are kids who wouldn’t go to school without sports. No, that’s hyperbole. True, some kids love sports but they also love socialization, routine, feeling safe, interaction with caring adults and even learning! But I know this is a radical idea in this country, and I have no illusions that anyone is going to take me up on it.
Description: Republicans have a new racist dog whistle. They pretend white people are being taught to hate themselves by reference to a fake history of the US called Critical Race Theory. In reality, schools are teaching the tiniest fraction of the actual history of racism and Republicans need that to stop or else they won’t have any new members in a few generations. I wrote three articles about it this year from different points of view than I thought were being offered elsewhere.
Fun Fact: I’m proud of this work. It looks at the topic from the viewpoint of academic freedom, the indoctrination actually happening (often at taxpayer expense) at private and parochial schools, and the worthy goal of education at authentic public schools. Article B was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Description: I ran for office this year in western Pennsylvania. I tried for Allegheny County Council – a mid-sized position covering the City of Pittsburgh and the rest of the second largest county in the state. Ultimately, I lost, but these three articles document the effort.
Fun Fact: These articles explain why a teacher like me ran for office, how I could have helped public schools, and why it didn’t work out. Article C was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Description: These are terrifying times. In the future people may look back and wonder what happened. These two articles document how I got vaccinated against Covid-19 and my thoughts and feelings about the process, the pandemic, and life in general.
Fun Fact: It hasn’t even been a full year since I wrote these pieces but they somehow feel like they were written a million years ago. So much has changed – and so little.
Description: Pennsylvania Republican state legislators were whining that they didn’t know what teachers were doing in public school. So they proposed a BS law demanding teachers spend even more of their never-ending time giving updates. I suggested legislators could just volunteer as subs and see for themselves.
Fun Fact: So far no Republicans have taken me up on the offer and their cute bit of performative lawmaking still hasn’t made it through Harrisburg.
Description: When it comes to stopping a global pandemic, we need federal action. This can’t be left up to the states, or the counties, or the townships or every small town. But all we get from the federal government about Covid mitigation in schools are guidelines. Stand up and do your F-ing jobs! Make some rules already, you freaking cowards!
Fun Fact: As I write this, President Joe Biden just came out and said there is no federal solution to the pandemic. It’s not that I think the other guy would have done better, but this was a softball, Joe. History will remember. If there is a history after all this is over.
Description: On January 6, a bunch of far right traitors stormed the Capitol. This articles documents what it was like to experience that as a public school teacher with on-line classes during the pandemic.
Fun Fact: Once again, history may want to know. Posterity may have questions. At least, I hope so. The article was republished on CommonDreams.org.
Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups
This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look (like this one). Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:
Description: This is a postmortem on the 2020-21 school year. Here are the six policies that really weren’t working from social distancing, to cyber school, hybrid models, and more.
Fun Fact: I had hoped that laying out last year’s failures might stop them from being tried again this year or at least we might revise them into policies that worked. In some instances – like cyber school – there seems to have been an attempt to accomplish this. In others – like standardized testing – we just can’t seem to stop ourselves from repeating the same old mistakes.
Description: It seemed like a pretty easy concept when I first learned it back in civics class. Your right to freedom ends when it comes into conflict with mine. But in 2021, that’s all out the window. Certain people’s rights to comfort (i.e. being unmasked) are more important than other people’s right to life (i.e. being free from your potential Covid).
Description: Demands on teachers are out of control – everything from new scattershot initiatives to more paperwork to having to forgo our planning periods and sub for missing staff nearly every day. And the worse part is that each time it’s done, it becomes the new normal. Teaching should not be death by a million cuts.
Fun Fact: This was another in what seemed to be a series of articles about how teaching has gotten more intolerable this year. If anyone ever wonders what happened to all the teachers once we all leave, refer to this series.
Description: Teachers are leaving the profession at an unprecedented rate this year. So what do we do about it? Here are five simple things any district can do that don’t require a lot of money or political will. They just require wanting to fix the problem. These are things like eliminating unnecessary tasks and forgoing formal lesson plans while increasing planning time.
Fun Fact: Few districts seems to be doing any of this. It shows that they really don’t care.
Description: This is almost a poem. It’s just a description of many of the things I love about teaching and many of the things I don’t. It’s an attempt to show how the negatives are overwhelming the positives.
Fun Fact: This started as a Facebook post: “I love teaching. I don’t love the exhaustion, the lack of planning & grading time, the impossibly high expectations & low pay, the lack of autonomy, the gaslighting, the disrespect, being used as a political football and the death threats.”
Description: Policymakers and pundits keep saying students are suffering learning loss from last year and the interrupted and online classes required during the pandemic. It’s total nonsense. Students are suffering from a lack of social skills. They don’t know how to interact with each other and how to emotionally process what’s been going on.
Description: Imagine a world without teachers. You don’t have to. I’ve done it for you. This is a fictional story of two kids, DeShaun and Marco, and what their educational experience may well be like once we’ve chased away all the education professionals.
Description: How many times have teachers had to go to their administrators and school directors asking for policies that will keep them and their students safe? How many times have we been turned down? How many times can we keep repeating this cycle? It’s like something out of Kafka or Gogol.
Description: This was my first attempt to discuss how much worse 2021-2022 is starting than the previous school year. Teachers are struggling with doing their jobs and staying healthy. And no one seems to care.
Description: Being there for students who are traumatized by the pandemic makes teachers subject to vicarious trauma, ourselves. We are subject to verbal and physical abuse in the classroom. It is one of the major factors wearing us down, and there appears to be no help in site – nor does anyone even seem to acknowledge what is happening.
Fun Fact: This one really seemed to strike a nerve with my fellow teachers. I heard so many similar stories from educators across the country who are going through these same things.
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.
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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He is holding his gut and rocking back and forth in cries of wordless emotional pain as the rest of the class looks on in bewilderment.
Students from other rooms start to cluster around the door until a security guard makes them go away.
I close the door to my own classroom and try to settle my students down – but we can still hear him through the walls.
“Why don’t you make me!?”
Believe it or not, this is not what teaching middle school used to be like.
Eighth grade students were never perfect angels, but at least by then they used to know how to talk to one another. They could usually interact without constant sniping. They knew what was expected to get respect from each other and at least tried to do it.
But things have changed.
After 18 months of a pandemic, even when they aren’t infected with disease, children still are suffering tremendously from the effects of Covid-19.
Adolescents are dealing with higher rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and addictive internet behaviors.
When Covid-19 swept our shores last year, much of the benefit of formal education fell through the cracks.
Consistency went out the window. Many schools went to on-line learning or a hybrid model of in-person and on-line offset with increasingly common periods of quarantine.
These were often necessary to keep kids and their families safe – and in some cases still are. As a society, we could have done more to blunt the blow such as paying parents to stay safe at home as well as supervise their children, but economic concerns took precedence to human ones.
My students are not suffering from a lack of academics. They’re suffering from a lack of social and emotional development.
I teach Language Arts and, sure, my kids may not have been exposed as deeply to certain concepts as those who came before them. They may not have written an acrostic poem or read Dickens or had as much experience writing. But that doesn’t mean they’re deficient.
Teachers know this. That’s why we scaffold our lessons. We get to know our kids and where they are before we can gauge what they still need to learn.
My students may not have read the play they would have in 7th grade, but I can help them understand the components of drama when we read a play in the curriculum for 8th grade. They may not have written a particular type of poem last year, but we can still read one and understand it this year.
I was in and out of the hospital all last week and the district had great difficulty finding an adult to sub for me.
For two days they resorted to hiring parents from the community to watch my classes. I’m told that one of them reported to the office at the end of the day and promptly told the secretary not to call her tomorrow, that she was never coming back.
It’s hard for professional educators, too.
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers feel comfortable addressing grief or trauma tied to the pandemic.