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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Don’t Extend Kids’ School Day; Shorten Parents’ Work Week

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It’s rough being the parent of an American school student.

 
You often leave for work before your kids have even made it to school yet – and you get home long after they’ve returned.

 
When exactly are you supposed to parent?

 

Your kids have to get themselves to school. They have to get themselves home. And helping with homework, talking about their days, even setting a good example are all luxuries you have to pay dearly for with an ever-shrinking amount of time.

 

 

So what’s the solution?

 

 

For those of the think tank persuasion, the answer is more school.

 
Parents and kids schedules aren’t aligned? Well, align them then. Have kids in class from 9 to 5 just like their parents.

 
Not only will that make it easier for adults to take them to-and-from school, but it will prepare kids for the rigors of the adult world.

 

The neoliberal Center for American Progress, for instance, suggests that synching the school and workday would better allow parents to meet their obligations to their children.

 

This is especially true, they say, for kids in low-income communities where competitive grant programs could fund the initiative while also holding the money hostage unless their schools engage in more test prep as part of their curriculums.

 

It’s a terrible idea proposed by terrible individuals working for billionaire philanthrocapitalists.

 

The think tank is run by John Podesta who was chief of staff for President Bill Clinton and manager of President Barack Obama’s transition team – which tells you a lot about Democratic politics of the last several decades.

 

However, it does hold a kernel of truth.

 

The school and workday ARE out of step with each other.

 

This DOES cause problems.

 

Something SHOULD be done.

 

But the solution isn’t to lengthen the time kids are required to spend in the classroom. It is solved by reducing the amount of time their parents have to stay at work.

 

Think about it.

 

A LONGER SCHOOL DAY WOULD BE HARMFUL TO STUDENTS

 

Currently, most children attend school for six to seven hours a day.

 

If school started earlier or was in session later, we’d be forcing many kids to put in as much as 12-hour days – especially when you factor in transportation and after-school activities.

 

Students in rural areas or those who live the farthest from school would be the most impacted. Many kids get to school early for breakfast. So if classes began at 9 am, many kids would need to get to school by 8:30 am at the latest – that could mean leaving home by 7:30 am. If the school day ended at 5 pm, these same kids wouldn’t get home until 6 to 7 pm or later.

 

This would not lead to better academic performance or well adjusted kids. It would result in exhausted and burned out students. Some – perhaps many – would probably cut out after-school activities which would hurt their social, emotional and physical development.

 

Moreover, kids need time – free time – to discover who they are. They need time to spend with friends, build relationships and enjoy themselves.

 

 

They shouldn’t be forced to be adults before they are developmentally ready to do so.

 

And it’s not just me who says so. Youth advocate Vicki Abeles is sounding the alarm against the idea of a longer school day, too. Abeles, who authored Beyond Measure: Rescuing an Overscheduled, Overtested, and Underestimated Generation, wrote in The New York Times:
 

 

“Many of our children are already stretched to unhealthy breaking points, loaded down with excessive homework, extracurricular activities and outside tutoring because they’re led to believe high test scores, a slew of Advanced Placement classes and a packed résumé are their ticket to college and success. This has led to an epidemic of anxious, unhealthy, sleep-deprived, burned-out, disengaged, unprepared children — and overwhelmed and discouraged teachers. The key is creating a healthier, more balanced, more engaging and effective school day, not a longer one.”

 

Moreover, this is not what other high achieving nations do to succeed. Countries like Finland, Singapore, and China have SHORTER school days – not longer ones. They just try to make the most of the class time they have.

 

In fact, U.S. teachers already spend more time in the classroom with students than their peers in practically every other developed nation, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

 

Maybe instead of listening to think tank fools like Podesta, we should pay attention to educators around the world.

 

And this is to say nothing of cost.

 

Nine years ago, it took $10 million to lengthen the day at 50 Chicago schools. Each school got $150,000 just to pay for additional salary to compensate teachers for the extra time. The district projected that it would have cost $84 million to increase the program to all its schools.

 

But that doesn’t include the cost for additional electricity, maintenance and other utilities which is more difficult to estimate.

 

Who’s going to pay this extra money? We don’t even adequately fund the time kids spend in class NOW! We’re going to stretch tax revenue even further to increase those hours!?

 

This is the definition of doing more with less. More time, less quality.

 

SHORTENING THE ADULT WORK WEEK

 

It would make far more sense to cut parents’ time at work than to increase children’s time at school.

 

Adults already work too many hours as it is.

 

In fact, doing so actually makes adults better at their jobs.

 

That’s not just conjecture or wish fulfillment. It’s been tried and proven correct.

 

In 2019, Microsoft conducted an experiment at its offices in Japan where employees had to take every Friday off as a paid vacation day. The result was a boost in productivity of 40 percent.

 

 

In 2018, Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand trustee services firm, did almost the same thing on a trial basis. It had employees work four eight-hour days a week but paid them for five. Once again this resulted in an increase in productivity, but also lower stress levels and higher job satisfaction.

 

The idea of a 32-hour workweek (instead of the traditional 40) is gaining support. After all, much of our time on the job is wasted.

 

The average number of truly productive hours in an eight-hour day is two hours and 53 minutes, according to a survey of U.K. office workers. Human beings aren’t robots. We can’t just sit at our desks and work. We have all these pointless meetings, frivolous emails and phone calls, co-worker discussions, disruptions and distractions. Imagine if we didn’t have to waste so much time and could focus on other endeavors after putting in a few effective hours at the office. We could get things done and still have time to live our lives.

 

The five-day, 40-hour workweek is a relatively new invention. A century ago, it was not uncommon for people to work six ten-hour days with only Sundays off for religious worship. Then Henry Ford started giving his autoworkers more time off to create leisure time – so they might have reason to actually buy the cars they were making. It became common practice throughout the country in 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law was meant to improve conditions and pay for manufacturing workers – and it did that. However, that doesn’t mean it was the be all, end all. We should continue the trend to shorten the workweek even further.

 

In fact, this is what people expected would happen – that work hours would continue to shrink over time.

 

 

In 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that the working week eventually would be cut to 15 hours. He figured that by 2030, people would have far more leisure time as their material needs were met.

 

However, the trend changed in the 1970s as Americans started spending more – not less – time at their jobs. This also coincided with the weakening of labor unions, corporate downsizing and demanding more from employees for decreasing wages and benefits.

 

Now the US and Korea lead the developed world in long workdays. Americans average 1,786 work hours a year, which is 423 more hours than workers in Germany and over 100 hours more than workers in Japan, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

 

CONCLUSION

 
These long hours take a toll on our health and well-being.

 

It’s telling that instead of realizing that adults need fewer hours on the job, policy wonks try to convince us to make our children shoulder the same burden.

 

It reminds me of Max Weber’s thesis in his seminal “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” In the book, the sociologist and economist argues that underneath our economic values lies an abiding belief in a Puritan work ethic. The value of work is given a religious and ethical fervor far beyond what it gains us monetarily.

 

Perhaps we need to take a step back from these unconscious and toxic values to see what is really in the best interests of individuals and families.

 

It is far past time to shorten the workweek for adults.

 

That would give us the time we need to be better parents to our children, allow us to be more present and available for them.

 

It would be far better for families to spend more time together learning and growing than to throw that time down an endless bin of empty industry.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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Teachers Are More Stressed Out Than You Probably Think

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When I was just a new teacher, I remember my doctor asking me if I had a high stress job.

 

I said that I taught middle school, as if that answered his question. But he took it to mean that I had it easy. After all – as he put it – I just played with children all day.

 

Now after 16 years in the classroom and a series of chronic medical conditions including heart disease, Crohn’s Disease and a recent battle with shingles though I’m only in my 40s, he knows better.

 

Teaching is one of the most stressful jobs you can have.

 

You don’t put your life on the line in the same way the police or a soldier does. You don’t risk having a finger chopped off like someone working in a machine shop. You don’t even have to worry like a truck driver about falling asleep and drifting off the road.

 

But you do work a ridiculous amount of hours per day. You lose time with family, children and friends. And no matter how hard you work, you’re given next to no resources to get it done with, your autonomy is stripped away, you’re given mountains of unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork, you’re told how to do your job by people who know nothing about education, and you’re scapegoated for all of society’s ills.

 

Not to mention that you’re expected to buy supplies for your students out of your own pocket, somehow magically raise student test scores but still authentically teach, convince parents not to send their children to the local fly-by-night charter or voucher school and prepare for an unlikely but possible school shooter!

 

Oh! And the pay isn’t competitive given the years of schooling you need just to qualify to do the work!!

 

 

That causes a mighty amount of stress.

 

 
One in five teachers (20%) feels tense about their job most or all of the time, according to an analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in England. In similar professions, only one in eight feel this way (13%).

 

 

But those are conservative estimates.

 

 

A representative survey of more than 4,000 educators conducted in 2017 by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Badass Teachers Association (BATs) found even more stark results.

 

Educators and school staff find their work “always” or “often” stressful 61 percent of the time. Workers in similar professions say that their job is “always” or “often” stressful only 30 percent of the time.

 

That kind of tension among teachers has consequences. More than half of educators reported that they have less enthusiasm now than at the beginning of their careers.

 

One respondent commented:

 

“This job is stressful, overwhelming and hard. I am overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, questioned and blamed for things that are out of my control.”

WORK LOAD

 

 

The most obvious cause of teacher stress is the workload.

 

 

Though the details vary slightly from study to study, the vast majority highlight this as the number one factor.

 

 

The NFER study concluded that teachers work longer hours than people in other professions though a less number of official days. This is because of the school year – classes meet for about 9-10 months but require far more than 40 hours a week to get everything done. In fact, teachers are putting in a full years work or more in those limited days.

 

 

For instance, an average American puts in about 260 days at work a year. Teachers average 70 less days but do the same (or more) hours that other employees put in during the full 260 days. But teachers are only paid for 190 days. So they do roughly the same amount of work in a shorter time span and are paid less for it. The result is a poor work-life balance and higher stress levels.

 

 

But exactly how many hours do teachers routinely work? It depends on who you ask.

 

 

The University College London Institute of Education estimates that one in four teachers works 60 hours a week or more – a figure that has remained consistent for the past 25 years.

 

 
According to NFER, teachers work an average of 47 hours a week, with a quarter working 60 hours a week or more and one in 10 working more than 65 hours a week.

 

 

Four in 10 teachers said they usually worked in the evenings, and one in 10 work on weekends.

 

 

Both of these studies refer to British teachers but estimates are similar for teachers in the United States.

 

 

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reports that teachers in both countries are among those who work the most hours annually. The average secondary teacher in England teaches 1,225 hours a year. The average secondary teacher in the United States teaches 1,080 hours a year. Across the OECD, the average for most countries is 709 hours.

 

Finally, a study focusing just on US teachers by Scholastic, found that educators usually work 53 hours a week. That comes out to 7.5 hours a day in the classroom teaching. In addition, teachers spend 90 minutes before and/or after school mentoring, tutoring, attending staff meetings and collaborating with peers. Plus 95 additional minutes at home grading papers, preparing classroom activities and other job-related tasks.

 

And teachers who oversee extracurricular clubs put in an additional 11-20 hours a week.

 

 

No matter how you slice it, that’s a lot of extra hours.

 

 

According to the NFER study, two out of five teachers (41%) are dissatisfied with their amount of leisure time, compared to 32% of people in similar professionals.

 

This is a prime factor in the exodus of trained professionals leaving the field in droves, sometimes miscalled a teacher “shortage.”

 

 

It’s why one in six new teachers leave the profession after just a year in the classroom.

 

 

 

SALARY

 

 

Another contributing factor is salary.

 

 

Teacher pay in the United States (and many other countries) is not competitive for the amount of training required and responsibilities put on employees.

 

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, teachers in the United States make 14 percent less than people from professions that require similar levels of education.

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

 

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According to a report by the Center for American Progress, on average teachers with 10 years experience only get a roughly $800 raise per year. No wonder more than 16 percent of teachers have a second or third job outside of the school system. They simply can’t survive on the salary.

 

They can’t buy a home or even rent an apartment in most metropolitan areas. They can’t afford to marry, raise children, or eke out a middle class existence.

 

 

BACK TO WORKLOAD

 

 

This mixture of refusing to pay teachers what they’re worth and expecting them to do more-and-more with less-and-less is unsustainable.

 

 
Today’s public schools employ at least 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by at least 800,000 students.

 

So if we wanted our kids to have the same quality of service children received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

That’s how you cut class size down from the 20, 30, even 40 students packed into a room that you can routinely find in some districts today.

 

 

The fact that we refuse to invest in our schools only increases the workload of the teachers who are still there. They look around and see students in desperate need and have to choose between what’s good for them, personally, and what’s good for their students.

 

 

THAT’S why teachers are working so many unpaid hours. They’re giving all they have to help their students despite a society that refuses to provide the necessary time and resources.

 

 

And make no mistake, one of those resources is having enough teachers to get the job done.

 

 

RESPECT

 

 

For a lot of teachers, the issue boils down to respect – lack of it.

 

 

Teachers are expected to do everything and then denigrated when they can’t accomplish miracles every single day.

 

 

The fact is teachers are extremely important – the most important in-school factor for student success.

 

 

However, that doesn’t make them the most important factor in the entire learning process.

 

 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004).

 

Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components.

 

 

The people who know teachers the best—parents, co-workers and students—show much more respect for teachers than elected officials and media pundits, many of whom rarely set foot in a classroom, according to the 2017 BATs and AFT Quality of Work Life Survey.

 

 
While educators feel most respected by their colleagues, they also indicated that their direct supervisors showed them much more respect than their school boards, the media, elected officials and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. A total of 86 percent of respondents did not feel respected by DeVos.

 

 
Most educators said they felt like they had moderate to high control over basic decisions within their own classrooms, but their level of influence and control dropped significantly on policy decisions that directly impact their classroom – such as setting discipline policy, performance standards and deciding how resources are spent.

 

 

“This lack of voice over important instructional decisions is a tangible example of the limited respect policymakers have for educators,” the report concluded.

 

 

Sometimes this lack of respect leads to outright bullying.

 

A total of 43 percent of respondents in the public survey group reported having been bullied, harassed or threatened at work in the last year. Of these reports, 35% included claims of having been bullied by administrators, principals or supervisors, 23% by co-workers, 50% by students, 31% by students’ parents. Many claimed to have been bullied by multiple sources.

 

 

This is a much higher rate of bullying, harassment and threats than workers in the general population.

 

 

I, myself, have experienced this even to the point of being physically injured by students multiple times – nothing so serious that it put me in the hospital, but enough to require a doctor’s visit.

 

 

And to make matters worse, one-third of respondents said that teachers and faculty at their schools did not felt safe bringing up problems and addressing issues.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

Teacher stress is a real problem in our schools.

 

 

If we want to provide our children with a world class education, we need to look out for the educators who do the actual work.

 

 

We need to drastically reduce the workload expected of them. We need to hire more teachers so the burden can be more adequately sustained. We need to increase teacher salary to retain those already on the job and to attract the most qualified applicants in the future. We need to stop blaming teachers for every problem in society and give them the respect and autonomy they deserve for having volunteered to do one of the most important jobs in any society. And we have to stop bullying and harassing them.

 

 

As a nation, our children are our most valuable resource. If we want to do what’s best for the generations to come, we need to stop stressing out those brave people who step up to guide our kids into a brighter tomorrow.

 

 

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Like this post? I’ve 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!

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