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.
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It’s not my responsibility to make sure every room in the building is covered.
I never applied to fix the district’s supply and demand issues.
It makes it harder to do my own work. Beyond the increased stress of being plopped into a situation you know nothing about, subbing means losing my daily 40-minute planning period.
Grading student work, crafting lessons, reading IEPs, doing paperwork, making copies, filling out behavior sheets, contacting parents, keeping up with Google Classroom and other technologies and multi-media – one period a day is not nearly enough time for it all.
Even under normal circumstances I routinely have to do that just to get the job done. But now I have to sacrifice even more!
I’ll be honest. I often end up just putting off the most nonessential things until I get around to them.
This month, alone, I’ve only had four days I didn’t have to sub. That’s just four planning periods to get all the groundwork done – about one period a week. Not even enough time to just email parents an update on their children’s grades. So little time that yesterday when I actually had a plan, there was so much to do I nearly fell over.
When I frantically ran to the copier and miraculously found no one using it, I breathed a sigh of relief. But it turned into a cry of pain when the thing ran out of staples and jammed almost immediately.
I didn’t have time for this.
I don’t have time for things to work out perfectly!
So like most teachers after being confronted with the call-off sheet for long enough, that, itself, becomes a reason for me to call off.
I am only human.
I figure that I might be able to do my own work today, but I’m just too beat to take on anyone else’s, too.
Some days I get home from work and I have to spend an hour or two in bed before I can even move.
The way we mishandle call-offs is a case in point.
When so many educators are absent each day, that’s not an accident. It’s the symptom of a problem – burn out.
We’ve relied on teachers to keep the system running for so many years, it’s about to collapse. And the pandemic has only made things worse.
We piled on so many extra duties – online teaching, hybrid learning, ever changing safety precautions – these became the proverbial straw that broke educators’ backs.
And now we’re screaming in pain and frustration that we can’t go on like this anymore. That’s what the call-off sheet means. It’s a message – a cry for help. But few administrators allow themselves to see it.
They won’t even admit there is a problem.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard principals and administrators talk about the call-off sheet like it’s an act of God or a force of nature like a flood or a tornado.
No! This wasn’t unpredictable! This didn’t just happen! It’s your fault!
If there have been a high number of call-offs nearly every day for the past few weeks, it’s not a freak of nature when it happens again today! Administrators are responsible for anticipating that and finding a solution.
This is not a situation where our school leaders are helpless.
There are things they can do to alleviate this situation – reducing nonessential tasks, eliminating unnecessary paperwork, refraining from excess staff meetings, forgoing new initiatives, letting teachers work from home on professional development days – anything to give us a break and an opportunity to heal from the years of overburdening.
According to the American Counseling Association, this is sometimes called the “cost of caring” and can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.”
“Being a teacher is a stressful enough job, but teachers are now responsible for a lot more things than just providing education,” says LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, an organization that helps children and adults navigate trauma.
“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.”
This is an aspect of the job for which most teachers are unprepared.
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers felt comfortable addressing grief or trauma.
When I first entered the field two decades ago, I was taught how to design lessons, sequence curriculum, manage classes, calculate grades, etc. Never once did anyone mention that I would be standing between a hurting child and a world he is desperately trying to lash out against.
Most teachers aren’t taught how to help students who have experienced trauma. Nor are we taught how to handle the toll it takes on our own health and personal lives.
And unfortunately things are getting much worse.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma. This includes abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances. And 35 percent of kids have experienced more than one type of traumatic event.
In class, these traumas can manifest in many ways such as acting out. However, they can also be more subtle such as failure to make eye contact, repeated foot tapping, etc.
Childhood trauma was not unknown before the pandemic, but it was much less frequent.
Last week at my school, a student in the hall pushed another student into a teacher’s back. The first student was trying to fulfill the infamous TikTok challenge of hitting a teacher, but he wanted to avoid punishment by being able to claim it was an accident.
This increase in negative behaviors can be directly attributed to the pandemic.
It is vital that people stop hurling stones and understand the increased burden placed on teachers’ shoulders. Not only that, but it’s well past time for people to get off the side lines and actually support educators.
We need time to talk with our colleagues about what we’re experiencing.
That’s not just gossiping or socializing. It’s necessary to function.
Educators need the ability to talk through what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling with other teachers coping with secondary trauma, according to Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the TREP Project, a trauma-informed curriculum for urban teachers.
“Reducing professional isolation is critical,” said Keels. “It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.”
However, this can’t be something teaches do on their own. This is an essential part of the job.
Part of our profession has become being put in harm’s way. We need the time to cope with that on the job with our colleagues.
In addition, this allows teachers to work together to develop coping strategies.
For instance, it’s never good to meet a student’s anger with yelling or fury of your own. Educators need to find ways to de-escalate and bring the tension down in the classroom.
Finally, it is essential that teachers are allowed the latitude to go home from their jobs.
By that, I don’t mean that teachers are held hostage, that any district forces their staff to stay in the building 24/7. I mean that many teachers find it difficult to go home and stop being teachers. We’re always on. We need time to turn off and tune out.
Educators often take mountains of work home, grade papers, call parents, etc. All on their own time.
Every district can accomplish some of it TOMORROW.
If we want to continue having teachers – I mean flesh-and-blood teachers with college degrees and hard won experience, not just technology, apps or a rotating cast of minders and babysitters – we have to take care of them.
They take care of our children.
It’s time we gave back what they need to get the job done.
It’s time we gave back the respect they deserve.
It’s time we gave them the opportunity to heal from the trauma of coping with our children.
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