Students and Staff are Catching COVID at School. What Does That Mean? 

 
 
Everyday people catch Covid-19 at my school


 
Sometimes you can only tell by the vanishing students and teachers or the everyday need to sub for staff members mysteriously absent for days or weeks in a row.  


 
Sometimes a student will stop by the room to tell you she’s leaving and will be quarantined for the next five days.  


 
Sometimes a fellow teacher will cough and sneeze their way through hall duty and then disappear for the next week or so.  


 
But always, ALWAYS the emails and phone calls: 


 
“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.  


 
Gone is any attempt to keep people from getting sick


 
No mask mandate. No vaccine mandate. No random testing to see if anyone even has the disease.

 
 
Now it’s a constant game of chicken between you and a global pandemic. 


 
Will you beat the odds today?  


 
Given enough time and high infection rates, you probably won’t. And no one seems too worried about that.  


 
We’re acting like this virus is just a cold. People get sick. They convalesce at home. They come back. No problem.  


 
But that is just ableism.  


 
The consequences of getting sick vary from person-to-person.  Some people have symptoms that last for months. Others have permanent damage to their hearts, lungs or other organs.  


 
And someone like me who is triple vaccinated but immunosuppressed because of existing medical conditions could have severe complications.  


 
That’s why I’m afraid. I don’t know if getting sick will mean the sniffles, a stay at the hospital or the morgue. 


 
And no one seems to care.  


 
In fact, nothing seems to make anyone do a thing about the dangerous conditions in which we’re working.  


 
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.  


 
The imperative seems to be to keep the building open at all costs. It doesn’t matter who gets sick, how many get sick – as long as we have one or two adults we can shuffle from room-to-room, the lights will be on and school directors can hold their heads high that they weren’t defeated by Covid.  


 
The daycare center – I mean school – is open and parents can get to work.  


 
But this isn’t the number one concern of all parents. Many are keeping their kids at home because they don’t want them to get sick.  


 
We have a Catholic school right next door. It’s closed and classes have moved on-line.  


 
Don’t get me wrong. I hated teaching remotely on and off during the last few years. But safety is more important to me than being as effective as I can possibly be.  


 
When the Titanic is sinking, you get in the life boats and don’t worry that doing so might mean you won’t dock on time.  


 
Somewhere along the line in the past few years we’ve come to accept the unacceptable: 


 
We’re not in this together. 


 
I don’t have your back. You don’t have mine. 


 
When it comes to a disease like Covid – you’re on your own. 


 


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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!

Don’t Blame Teachers for Covid Quarantines and Closures

 
This week the US reported more than a million Covid-19 cases in one day – a new global record! 


 
As this latest surge in the pandemic hits, schools all over the nation are closing up again and returning to on-line classes.  


 
People everywhere are wondering if teachers are to blame


 
Here are some things for school directors and administrators to consider:  


 
 
If you don’t require all students and staff to wear masks – don’t blame teachers. 

If you don’t regularly test students and staff for Covid – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require all students and staff to be vaccinated – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If your classrooms are not well ventilated – don’t blame teachers. 

If you force staff to come into the building for professional development and don’t allow them to attend remotely – don’t blame teachers.


 
If you don’t provide K95 masks to all students and staff – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you didn’t devise a schedule to keep students socially distanced – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t deep clean each classroom and other student spaces between classes – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If you don’t have lunches outdoors or in some other extremely well-ventilated space – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require a negative Covid test before sick students or staff can return to school – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If students and staff have steadily been getting sick for weeks and you’ve done nothing to prepare – Don’t Blame Teachers. 


 
 
In short, if you haven’t done everything you can do to prevent an outbreak sweeping through your school and your community – DON’T. BLAME. TEACHERS.  


 
BLAME YOURSELF. 


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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 Same People Who Think Antiracists Have Gone Too Far Think Standardized Testing Hasn’t Gone Far Enough

Some folks are fed up with modern anti-racism.

Why?

For one, all this focus on equity has made it harder to support standardized testing.

That’s a big problem for these folks.

They think that if being against discrimination means also turning against something as obviously innocuous as fill-in-the-bubble tests, maybe it’s today’s brand of anti-racism that has to go.

However, most of us probably don’t see this as a difficult choice.

High stakes testing – like racism – is one of those really bad ideas that just won’t go away.

Since 2001 unless their parents actively opted out their children, standardized tests have been forced on all public school students in 3-8th grade and at least once in high school.

The scores have been used to judge students, teachers, schools – everything except the corporations who make and score the tests and then sell remediation needed to improve failing test scores. Good money if you can get it.

Low test scores have been used to justify closing schools in poor and minority communities, narrowing the curriculum in those communities to just the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and increasing racial and economic segregation through charter schools and voucher programs.

Most people can see it’s a scam and a racist one to boot.

In the United States, standardized testing was invented by eugenicists trying to prove white Europeans were better than darker skinned immigrants and thus deserved a privileged position in society. This is no hyperbole – in the early 20th Century they were literally used to justify the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of mostly poor, brown-skinned people.

And today the scores still routinely fail Black and Brown people while passing whites thus barring many people of color from graduation or college entrance.

However, describing such a state of affairs as “racist” has been criticized by a self-described anti-woke backlash.

People as diverse as Fox News correspondents, old school neoliberals and contrarian progressive academicians have taken arms together to fight against what they see as an overstatement of the degree of racism present in modern America and an attack on free speech.

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, has long been an apologist for standardized testing and included his decades old arguments defending the practice in his new book, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

Tony Norman, a columnist at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, writes that McWhorter is:

“…an old-school Black progressive who doesn’t hide his disdain for white liberals and what he considers their Black enablers in academia and the culture. He argues that the anti-racism movement of the “elected” is more performative than intellectually serious and that the white allies who provide the shock troops at universities and street rallies are just as gross as white supremacists because their virtue signaling hides their condescension.”

Ultimately Norman concludes, “I agreed with so much of what the writer had to say about specific hypocrisies of white saviors while disagreeing with much of its premise.”

As a white person, I make no judgment on McWhorter’s overall thesis because I don’t feel qualified to do so.

However, as a classroom educator with more than two decades experience teaching mostly poor and minority students, I feel qualified to address the issue of testing.

After all, I have proctored hundreds of these assessments, seen their impact, studied the history and spoken with hundreds of people of color who oppose the tests and a few like McWhorter who defend them.

The linguist’s main argument can be summed up as follows.

Excusing people of color from the tests because they generally score lower is mere pity. People of color don’t need your pity. Give them the tools necessary to pass the tests like everyone else.

In 2014 he wrote:

“Is it the moral thing to exempt black and Latino kids from the serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children, instead of making an effort to prepare them for it?”

However, McWhorter seems to be missing the point.

Critics of standardized testing do not think the tests should be a “serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children.” It should be abolished altogether.

First of all, testing should not be about competition. It should be about assessment – telling who knows what, not judging who is worthy of what social and economic position later in life.

Second, it’s not just Black and Brown children who are hurt by the testing. It is ALL children.

These test are not unfair just to students of color. They are unfair to the poor, people from non-white cultures, the neurodivergent, and others.

The very term “standardized test” means an assessment based around a standard. It privileges the kinds of questions white students are more likely to get correct. After all, that’s how test questions are chosen – not based on the quality of the question but on whether the majority (i.e. white people) get the questions right and the minority (i.e. people of color and others) consistently get it wrong.

It’s not just about knowing math. It’s about knowing the cultural terms, shared experiences and assumptions the math question is embedded in.

McWhorter sees nothing wrong in this. He thinks people of color simply need the tools necessary to pass the tests even if that means being taught to respond as a white person would and to make the same linguistic assumptions and have the same cultural knowledge as privileged white people.

I think it’s kind of sad that in McWhorter’s view Black people would have to engage in such a radical and complete double consciousness or more likely give up their own uniqueness and assimilate as much as possible just to be considered the equal of a white person.

However, another thing he doesn’t seem to understand is that even if he got his wish and the playing field were level giving all children the same chances on the tests, it wouldn’t change a thing.

Standardized tests are bad at their job of assessing student learning – even when all test takers are white.

These exams are made up of multiple choice questions. This is not the best way to determine whether learning has taken place on complex topics. How a linguist could ever suppose even the most rudimentary subtleties of meaning could be captured by a simple A, B, C and D is beyond me.

Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Chomsky… all just so you could choose between a narrow set of prewritten answers!?

That seems to be McWhorter’s position because he criticizes proposed remedies to the problem:

“And yet it is considered beyond the pale to discuss getting the kids up to speed: Instead we are to change the standards—the current idea is to bring GPA, performance on a state test, and even attendance into the equation as well. What an honor to black kids to have attendance treated as a measure of excellence. What’s next, rhythm?”

However, it’s not a matter of adding ridiculous or insulting data to the mix to make Black kids look better. It’s about adding enough data to give a clear enough picture of a student’s learning.

At best a standardized test is a snapshot of a student’s learning. It shows what a student answers on a single day or even two or three. By contrast, grade point average (GPA) is made up of student assessments (informal, formal, formative and summative) over the course of 360 some days.

By that metric, alone, you should expect a GPA to be more accurate than a standardized test.

Whether you take other things into account like attendance, poverty level, per pupil spending at the school, etc. – that would just give more information.

It could be argued that some of these things are necessary and some irrelevant. But to consider standardized tests as the ne plus ultra is patently absurd.

In fact, if I were using a metric to accurately assess student learning, I would not include standardized testing at all. I would look at many of these other measures like GPA instead.

Standardized assessments are not being used because they are effective or accurate. They are a money-making scheme that victimizes those groups society doesn’t care about – the poor, people of color, English language learners, etc.

It is yet another system that enables and promotes white supremacy.

But don’t just take my word for it. Look to Black thinkers like Jesse Hagopian, Dr. Denisha Jones, Dr. Yohuru Williams, Jitu Brown, and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi who have spoken out against standardized testing. Look to the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement which have called for an end to standardized testing. Look to the Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, who have never wavered in their opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

These tests are not just immoral because they’re racist, but they’re bad at the act of fairly assessing.

And part of the reason for that is their embedded prejudice.

An assessment that unfairly singles out certain groups not because of their lack of knowledge of the subject being tested but their different enculturation and lack of similar opportunities as the dominant culture can never be a good assessment.

But even if they didn’t do that, they would be like using a pencil to eat soup.

The systems of our society matter. Using the right tool matters.

Whether we call an appreciation of these facts being “woke,” “antiracist” or anything else does not.


 


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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!

Gadfly’s Top 10 Articles of 2021 – Shouts in the Dark

I work very hard on this blog.

It’s not exactly easy to fit in so many articles – 53 so far this year – between teaching full time.

And I’ve been doing it for 8 years – since July 2014.

In that time, this site has earned 2.3 million hits – 218,603 just this year.

I’m proud of the work I’ve done here.

I haven’t changed the world, but I’ve been heard. Occasionally.

As a classroom teacher, that’s really what I’m trying to do. In my everyday work, few people whose grade I’m not calculating actually listen to me. And even then it’s not always a given.

I want to believe my words have an impact – that policymakers read what I write and consider it before offering new measures and revising old ones.

But as time goes on, I wonder if any of that actually happens. These days my writing feels more like a shout in the dark than anything else.

At best, from the comments I often get on my articles (and the fact that 14,887 people have signed up to follow my work), it seems at least that I am not shouting alone.

We are all yearning to be heard.

These are the cries that most of us seemed to have in common this year:


10) Top 6 Administrative Failures of the Pandemic Classroom

Published: May 22


 Views: 3,014


 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.

9) Why Does Your Right to Unmask Usurp My Child’s Right to a Safe School?

Published: Aug 17


 Views: 3,151


 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).


 Fun Fact: This was republished in CommonDreams.org and discussed on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

8) Stop Normalizing the Exploitation of Teachers 


Published: Nov. 26


 Views: 3,716


 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.

7) Top Five Actions to Stop the Teacher Exodus During COVID and Beyond


Published: Oct. 7


 Views: 5,112


 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.


6) I Love Teaching, But…


Published: Dec. 20


 Views: 5,380


 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.”

5) My Students Haven’t Lost Learning. They’ve Lost Social and Emotional Development  


Published: Sept. 30


 Views: 6,422


 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. 

Fun Fact: This idea is so obvious to anyone who’s actually in school buildings that it has gotten through somewhat to the mass media. However, the drum of bogus learning loss is still being beaten by powerful companies determined to make money off of this catastrophe.

4) You’re Going to Miss Us When We’re Gone – What School May Look Like Once All the Teachers Quit


Published: Feb. 20


 Views: 9,385


 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. 

Fun Fact: This is one of my own favorite pieces of the year, and it is based on what the ed tech companies have already proposed.

3) The Teacher Trauma of Repeatedly Justifying Your Right To Life During Covid


Published: Jan 16


 Views: 9,794


 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. 

Fun Fact: It may not be over.

2) Teachers Are Not Okay


Published: Sept. 23


 Views: 14,592


 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. 

Fun Fact: My own health was extremely poor when I wrote this. I was in and out of the hospital. Though I feel somewhat better now, not much has changed. This article was republished in the Washington Post, on CommonDreams.org, and discussed on Diane Ravitch’s blog.

1) Teachers Absorb Student Trauma But Don’t Know How to Get Rid of the Pain


Published: Nov. 10


 Views: 40,853


 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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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 Endless Humiliation of Teachers


 
 
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield used to joke that he got no respect. 


 
For this punchline to work today he’d probably have to be a teacher. 


 
Because few other professions are less appreciated. 


 
A viral video making the rounds on social media shows South Dakota educators scrambling to pick up $1 bills in a hockey game sideshow.  


 
This was an opportunity for them to grab a few hundred dollars to buy school supplies for their classrooms.  


 
Can you imagine any other professional doing that?  


 
Lawyers giving foot rubs so their clients can get an appeal. Doctors grubbing on a bathroom floor for their patients’ pain pills. Police squeezing into a cash grab booth to fund new bullet proof vests. 


 
Nope. It would never happen because these careers are held in high esteem. And you can tell that based on their salaries and/or the resources provided to do their jobs.  


 
But teachers… We seem to have a perpetual “Kick Me” sign taped to our backs


 
We’re underpaid given the years of schooling necessary for employment. 


 
We’re given huge classes and few supplies. (In fact, we’re expected to buy pencils, books, tissues – whatever our students need.)  


 
We’re scapegoated for every social ill in the country but whenever it comes time to find solutions, we’re ignored completely in favor of tech billionaires many of whom dropped out of school and “earned” their fortunes based on loans from rich parents or corporate welfare.  


 
But somehow WE have to grovel on the floor to scrape together enough money to take care of other people’s kids. 


 
It makes me want to throw up.  


 
I can almost hear the reality show TV producers queuing up to make pitches for their next project.  


 
“How about this? Teachers trapped in the woods have to take each other out with paint guns and the last one gets a new set of textbooks!” 


 
“What’ll we call it?” 


 
“How about The Hungry for Education… er… Games?” 


 
“I’ve got a better one. We have high school biology teachers compete for a chance to pay off their student loans by answering trivia questions about marine biology…” 


 
“Yeah and we could call it Squid… er… Game?” 


 
“Try this one on for size. Teachers competing in a marathon to win a HEPA filter to reduce Covid-19 in their classrooms …” 


 
“Ooooh! We could call it The Running… er… Man?” 


 
I’d say this is post-apocalyptic humor but there’s nothing post about our pandemic world.

 
 
The disrespect for teachers has been a fact of our society for decades


 
The University of Pittsburgh made headlines recently for bringing back its undergraduate teaching program. For the last 30 years the school only offered masters or higher teaching degrees. But now that so few college students are entering the field, the university thought it made sense to entice them with the relatively lower cost of undergraduate classes.  


 
To which I thought – yeah but who is going to apply? 

Who wants a job that requires you to be a rodeo clown?

Who wants to have to mortify themselves in the Circus Maximus?

“Are you not entertained!?”


 
“Come one, come all – to be underappreciated, underpaid and overworked!” 


 
“Hurry! Hurry! HURRY to proctor standardized tests for poor students and be judged by their low socioeconomic test scores!” 


 
“Gather Round! Gather Round! The one! The only job that takes a genuine calling to help kids learn and makes you so miserable you’ll run away screaming!” 


 
Undergraduate classes won’t be enough. 


 
We need structural solutions to the problem:  


 
Money


 
Autonomy


 
Respect
 


And in the meantime: 


 
Less Paperwork


 
Reduced case load


 
Dedicated planning periods


 
But the problem goes deep.  


 
We live in a country where a significant percentage of the population is skeptical of the value of education.  


 
They don’t want anyone to challenge their preconceptions about race, religion, economics, politics, science, history! No wonder they hate teachers so much! 


 
We might inspire their kids to have an original thought!  


 
We might light the flame that would burn down a different path, and if there’s one thing these people hate, it’s difference.  


 
The worst thing in the world for some folks is raising kids that aren’t carbon copies of their example.  


 
So why not degrade teachers at every opportunity?  


 
Why not have them panhandle for cash instead of funding their classrooms? 


 
Why not have them hustle and scrounge to make their jobs even slightly bearable? 


 
Why not have them beg, borrow and steal for the slightest fraction of economic viability?  


 
Because the less attractive we make the job, the fewer people who’ll apply.  


 
As a society that suits us just fine. 


 
Humiliating teachers is about avoiding humiliation. 


 
For those who refuse to be educated. 


 
 
 
 


 

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!

School Sports are Overwhelming Academics. Time to Kick Them Out

  
  
The United States is obsessed with sports in ways that other countries are not.  


  
Nowhere is this more apparent than in our public schools.   


  
Crucial hiring decisions are often made based – not on how they will impact academics – but on how they will improve the school’s athletics program.   


    
US districts spend exorbitant amounts of their budgets staffing, managing, transporting, insuring, and promoting their sports teams.   


  
And millions of students are unnecessarily injured every year with the risk of life-long health consequences while also being encouraged to be less empathetic and hyper competitive.  


  
This may sound hard to believe, but it’s not this way in the rest of the world.   


  
Most countries don’t have school sports teams at all, and even those that do rarely compete with each other.   


  
In places like Finland and Germany, kids play sports in local and national clubs. These clubs identify and train children from an early age to become athletes – especially in soccer, which is much more popular there.   


  
Even Canada follows this practice with hockey. Young athletes don’t play for their high schools; they play for one of three national hockey leagues – the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League or the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.  


  
Schools in these countries still have physical education classes. Students still exercise and play games including sports during the day. However, the schools don’t organize extracurricular teams that play matches against each other transporting students far and wide.  

 
  
The way we do things in the US – combining athletics and academics under one roof – ends up making each undertaking enemies.  


 
Kids are unnecessarily injured in the games and indoctrinated in an ethic of dominance. In addition, sports programs gobble up limited resources meant for the classroom, and incentivize bad decisions that prize athletics over everything else.  


 
  
Let’s look at each in turn:  

  
1)    Injuries  
  
  

School sports began as a way to keep kids safe.

About 120 years ago, schools were not involved in organized athletics.


  
Around 1900, if children wanted to play sports, they did so in pickup games wherever they could – in parks, fields and alleys. However, these were chaotic affairs rife with cheating that often degraded into brawls.  


 
It got bad enough that adults thought organizing sports in the schools would be safer for all involved.  

However, after more than a century, these games, themselves, have become a source of injury.  


 
“High school athletes suffer two million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations each year,” According to Youth Sports Safety Statistics.  


 
Perhaps the most dangerous are concussions. These are especially frequent in contact sports like football where athletes bump or smash their heads or bodies into each other. Even with protective equipment like helmets and pads, such collisions can cause traumatic brain injuries that can alter the way brains function for a lifetime.  


 
An estimated 300, 000 sport-related traumatic brain injuries occur annually in the United States, according to a 2007 study by the Journal of Athletic Training. There is some evidence that the number may be even higher today.   


  
In fact, sports are second only to motor vehicle accidents as the leading cause of traumatic brain injuries among people aged 15 to 24.  


 
During the 2005-06 season, high school football players sustained more than half a million injuries nationally, according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children’s Hospital. While football easily incurs the highest risk, even sports like soccer and baseball are responsible for thousands of injuries to adolescents between the ages of 10 to 14 every year.  

 
 
And that’s only the most obvious danger. It doesn’t even include increased steroid use, fighting during games, hazing violence, excessive training, verbal abuse, and failure to provide proper care during important matches.  


 
Competitive extracurricular sports can be dangerous to young people’s health. It is certainly valid to question whether schools should be involved in such practices incurring liability and potentially harming their own students.  


  
 
 
  
2)  Warrior Mindset  


  
And then there’s the question of whether school sports are healthy for our minds as well as our bodies. 


 
At the turn of the 20th Century, schools started organizing their own teams because they wanted to not just keep kids physically safe, but provide a healthy alternative to the kinds of activities they might be lured into on the streets. Based on the Victorian ideal of “Muscular Christianity,” sports was considered something wholesome that would district American children (especially boys) from social ills like gambling and prostitution.   


 
However, even then it was a manifestation of the period’s xenophobia. 


 
In the early 1900s, the US had just admitted a surge of European immigrants. Some people were worried that immigrant children would overrun the kids already here. Physician and poet Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. described this class of American-born kids as “stiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth.” It was suggested that organized sports would help them become as brawny as those just coming to our shores. 


 
So the driving motives behind the creation of school sports were bigotry and fear.  


 
Sadly, not much has changed in the intervening years. 


 
Sports culture creates understandings of the world and self that are not entirely healthy in a democratic society. 


 
For instance, an emphasis on competition instills the ethic that it is the outcome – winning or losing – that is most important. As kids become adults, this informs the way they frame ethical choices. Moreover, it dampens empathy. You’re discouraged from caring about members of the other team and encouraged to be hostile to anyone considered an other. Even teammates are only worthy of care in so much as they help you win. There is always latent competition because there is a constant danger that one of your teammates could take your place. 


 
Moreover, sports do not value critical thinking or individuality. You listen to your coach or team captain or whoever in the hierarchy is above you. Questioning authority is discouraged. Instead, you’re impressed with the duty to follow and accept the decisions of those in charge. 


 
These values would be more helpful in the development of warriors or soldiers – not democratic citizens. We need people who value tolerance, discussion, justice, caring, and diversity of ideals – exactly the opposite of what organized sports instills.  


 
The world view promoted by organized athletic competition is not healthy for our students. 


 
 
  
3)  Expense   


  
However, even if school sports didn’t hurt kids physically and mentally, they cost a ridiculous amount of money! 


 
On average, American schools spend $100 billion on sporting events and more than $56 billion in catering for food and beverages every year.  


  
About 8 million high school students participate in sports annually – roughly 3 million girls and 5 million boys.  


However, this is actually a minority of students, only about 42%. That’s because it often costs parents an additional fee for their kids to play on school teams – between $670 – $1,000 a year. This includes sporting registration fees, uniforms, coaching, and lessons.

Contrary to popular belief, ticket and concession sales do not generate a profit for most high schools. They often don’t even cover costs.

This is true even in colleges. According to the NCAA, among the 65 schools in Division I, only 25 recorded a positive net generated revenue in 2019.


   
 
Costs to districts are hard to quantify but significant. 


  
Football is easily the most expensive high school sport. Consider that many football teams have half a dozen or more coaches, all of whom usually receive a stipend. And some schools go even further hiring professional coaches at full salaries or designate a teacher as the full-time athletic director. The cost of new bleachers can top half a million dollars – about the same as artificial turf. Even maintaining a grass field can cost more than $20,000 a year. Not to mention annual expenses like reconditioning helmets, which can cost more than $1,500 for a large team. To help offset these costs, some communities collect private donations or levy a special tax for initiatives like new gyms or sports facilities.  


 
There are so many costs people rarely consider. For example, when teachers who also serve as coaches travel for game days, schools need to hire substitute teachers. They also need to pay for buses for the team, the band, and the cheerleaders. And that’s before you even take into account meals and hotels during away games. Even when events are at home, schools typically cover the cost of hiring officials, providing security, painting the lines on the field, and cleaning up afterward. 


 
They often end up spending more per student athlete than they do per pupil in the classroom. 


 
Marguerite Roza, the author of Educational Economics, analyzed the finances of one public high school in the Pacific Northwest. She and her colleagues found that the school was spending $328 a student for math instruction and more than four times that much for cheerleading—$1,348 a cheerleader.  


 
In an age when school budget cuts are the norm, spending on academics is shrinking just as spending on sports is increasing. Athletics is increasing by up to 40% every year. Meanwhile, teachers are furloughed and academic programs cut as school budgets haven’t even returned to the level they were before the Great Recession. 


 
One wonders – can we afford school athletics? Wouldn’t it be better to spend school budgets on learning – something all students participate in – rather than something that only benefits a fraction of the student body?  


 
 
  
4)    Decision Making  


 
The cost of school sports isn’t measured just in dollars and cents but in the kinds of decisions administrators and school board members make for the sake of athletics – regardless of how it impacts academics. 


 
People are often hired for important school positions based on their sports credentials even when their jobs are supposed to be mainly focused on improving student learning. 


   
This is especially true where I live in Western Pennsylvania.  


  
In my home district of McKeesport, when our superintendent, Dr. Mark Holtzman, was hired, he did not have any proven track record of scholastic success but had been a football star when he was a student here.   


  
Likewise, the district where I work as a teacher, Steel Valley, hired Eddie Wehrer as superintendent without any degree in education but experience as a football coach.   


  
And until recently, the biggest district in the region, Pittsburgh Public Schools, had a former NFL player, Dr. Anthony Hamlet, as superintendent.   


 
The same goes for principals recommending new staff. 


Sometimes administrators will lower their standards and recommend a less qualified applicant if he or she has experience as an athletic coach.  


 
Whether they’ll admit it or not, the prospect of a winning season for the football team is often prioritized over new textbooks, smaller class sizes or other improvements. 


 
The act of running for school board is often seen as a way to have greater control over district athletics. Go to most local school board meetings and you’ll hear much more discussion of various teams and extracurricular activities than academic programs.  


 
Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, we saw many schools reopening against the recommendations of county, state and national health organizations because of the needs of sports. The teams couldn’t get back on the fields when school buildings were closed and classes on-line. Moreover, they ignored safety concerns for players who would by necessity come into close contact and could not realistically practice social distancing or masks wearing.  


 
This is partly because American sports is big business.  


 
National organizations like the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball recruit most of their players from colleges who recruit most of their players from K-12 schools. It’s a lucrative system with billions of dollars in profit on the line.  


 
If students get an excellent education, that’s seen as a personal benefit to them, alone. But if a student athlete gets signed to a sports contract, that enriches the team and the corporation orders of magnitude more than the athlete.

Schools bask in the reflected glory of successful athletes, teams and programs. Grown adults who are too old to participate, themselves, take vicarious pleasure in these successes.  

I understand that this is a very controversial topic.  

There is a small minority of students who benefits from school athletics and even come to school primarily just to participate in sports.  

However, the negatives far outweigh the benefits.  


I think it’s time we begin considering separating sports and schools. 

Students who want to participate in such activities can do so through private athletic clubs just like kids all over the world.

  
And before I’m criticized as being anti-sports, consider that such a separation would benefit both endeavors. Students would have more time and resources to focus on learning, while athletes could concentrate more on their chosen sport and train all year long instead of just during a certain season.

I have no illusions that anyone will take my advice. Sports are way too entrenched in American schools and our elected officials can’t even seem to find the courage to enact obvious reforms like gun control, repealing charter schools, ending standardized testing and funding schools equitably.

However, if we really want the best for US children, we should give them what kids the world over already have – schools separate from organized sports.  


 

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I Teach Banned Books   

  
  
If you want people to do something, forbid them from doing it.  


  
As a middle school language arts teacher, that’s always worked for me.   


  
Many of my students are reluctant readers.  


  
If a text is longer than a Tweet or a YouTube description, most of them would rather skip it.  


  
And when it comes to books, many of them wouldn’t intentionally crack one open under any circumstances.  


  
Unless you tell them not to.   


  
Unless you point out a specific book on the shelf and say it’s off limits.   


  
Unless you open it up right in front of them before quickly snatching it away and saying, “Oops! I forgot! We can’t read that one!”  


  
So most of my curriculum is made up of banned books.  


  
The Giver, Silent to the Bone, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird – all forbidden in one place or another.   


  
Just not in my district.   


  
In fact, my school board has included each of these books on the approved reading list.

  
  
That doesn’t mean I have to use them.  


  
Language Arts teachers like me have a few different options at each grade level. And some of us actively avoid the more controversial texts to keep out of trouble.   


  
But not me.   


  
I go right for these taboo, prohibited, and oh so naughty books – for very good reasons

 

The Giver

  
Take “The Giver” by Lois Lowry.  


  
It’s almost the poster child for why we shouldn’t ban books in the first place. The story is set in a dystopian society where everyone is raised to be the same and people are discouraged from questioning things or having deep feelings.  


  
The book is most often challenged because parents don’t want their children to have to wrestle with its deep social criticism.  


 
When it first came under fire, Lowry responded thusly


 
”Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.”  


 
 
However, not everyone is willing to let children think through these issues themselves – and what a bundle of issues Lowry presents! 


 
In the plot, she mentions sex, infanticide, suicide, starvation, and euthanasia.   


  
Nothing is graphic or developmentally inappropriate for middle schoolers, but the very idea of children thinking about S-E-X and challenging authority is enough to put it afoul of some censors.  


  
Which is exactly why my students love it.   


 
Too often teachers give students short passages taken from standardized tests where the only reason to read is to hunt for multiple choice answers. It’s dry, boring and meaningless to their everyday lives. 


  
That’s why they enjoy books like “The Giver” so much. This isn’t just for a grade. It’s reading something worth taking the time to consider, something that gets under their skin and makes them want to think.  


 
They’re at an age (12-14) when they’re starting to find their own place in society and struggling to understand adult issues like reproduction and romantic attachment. Making these topics explicit and being able to talk through them in the safety of the classroom can be liberating – and worth the effort to decode.   


  
That is – if you accept that children are little human beings who deserve the chance to consider these things aloud.  

Silent to the Bone

  
And speaking of adult issues, there’s the other comprehensive novel I teach in 7th grade – “Silent to the Bone” by E. L. Konigsburg.  


  
It’s a classic detective story where the characters try to discover why a young teen, Branwell, refuses to speak after his baby sister suffers a potentially life threatening injury.   


  
The plot grabs readers from the beginning and students find themselves really invested in unraveling the mystery. But to do so they come face-to-face with topics ranging from family, divorce, death, bigotry, sexuality and exploitation.   


 
It’s not about finding textual details to satisfy the number crunchers at Data Recognition Corp. or NCS Pearson Inc. It’s about getting textual to better understand what happened in the plot and why. 


  
Again the narrative is written for middle school readers but the concepts get them thinking and enthusiastic.  


 
As we come to the big reveal, I’ve had students turn to me with huge smiles saying they can’t believe we’re actually reading about this stuff in school.  
 


In an age where they usually communicate with emojis, I’m just glad that they’re reading. 


 
It can get uncomfortable, but by the end I definitely feel like I’ve reached them.

The Diary of Anne Frank


  
Speaking of uncomfortable, one of the hardest books I teach in 8th grade is “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

  
 
It’s not that the text is so difficult, but as a person of Jewish ancestry, I find it personally harrowing to relive this story every year.  


 
The plot centers on Anne, a historical Jewish girl in 1940s Amsterdam who with her family and others hid from the Nazis before eventually being captured and dying in a concentration camp. 


 
Like most teachers, I eschew the actual diary for the play version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.  


 
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine why this book would be banned. After all, it’s a true story of the Holocaust written by one of the people who lived it.   


  
However, there are an increasing number of people in this country these days who want to deny that the Holocaust even happened or claim that it was exaggerated. It’s hard to do that with a witness staring you in the face – even if that witness is just the book she left behind.  


  
Usually the text is challenged not on the basis of its plot so much as its sexual frankness. Not that there is much sex going on with people hiding above a factory in WWII. But the character of Anne is so real, she writes about everything including what it’s like to become a mature woman.   


  
For example, in Act II, scene 1, she mentions getting her period for the first time:  


  
“There is one great change, however. A change within myself. I read somewhere that girls of my age don’t feel quite certain of themselves. That they become quiet within and begin to think of the miracle that is taking place in their bodies. I think what is happening to me is so wonderful… not only what can be seen, but what is taking place inside. Each time it has happened I have the feeling that I have a sweet secret… and in spite of any pain, I long for that time when I shall feel that secret within me again.” 

 
  
  
My students often read over this passage without comment. I usually have to draw their attention to it and ask them what Anne is talking about before someone gets it.   


  
You might be surprised at how freeing this kind of discourse is. Menstruation is a natural part of life for nearly half the population, but it’s something we don’t often talk about.   


 
It’s not central to the story and Anne certainly goes into greater detail in her actual diary. However, even this little digression goes to further humanize her and make her relatable, especially to people like my students who are nearly the same age she was when she wrote it. 


 
She becomes so much more than a victim. She’s someone we know – inside and out.


 

To Kill a Mockingbird

 
The most challenged book I teach is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.  


 
It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the 1930s Alabama who defends Tom Robinson, a black man, of a crime he did not commit. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer’s children who go from blissful naivety to uncomfortable understanding. 


 
In the past, people used to object most often to the book’s language since it makes liberal use of the N-word.  


 
It’s still an issue, and I make sure not to have myself or any of the students read these parts aloud. We only hear it on an audiobook as we follow along in the text. And even this only comes after we discuss how hurtful that word is. 


 
However, the language isn’t the book’s biggest sticking point today. It’s more often objected to these days on the basis of white saviorism. Critics complain that the narrative should be centered on Tom, the black man accused of the crime, and not Atticus, the defense attorney and his children.  


 
What makes this particularly troubling is the critics have a point. If the story is about racism, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the target of that racism?  


 
They suggest the book be replaced by more modern novels that center such a narrative appropriately – something like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (itself, a frequently challenged book). 


 
However, in the final analysis, I disagree.  


 
As good a book as Thomas’s is, it just isn’t as well-written or multifarious as Lee’s.  


 
Thomas reveals a lot about racism and the fight against it in today’s world, and her book is certainly worth reading. But it is a mistake to think that racism is only about people of color. White people are the cause of racism. White people have a responsibility to tear down the systems of white supremacy.

By the end of the book, my whole class – regardless of race – is devastated by what happens to Tom and furious at the injustice he experiences. To be honest, that might not happen to the same degree in a book that signals its message right from the beginning.  


 
“Mockingbird” starts quietly. It doesn’t even appear to have anything to do with racism at the beginning. We slowly get acclimated to this world, this time and place before prejudice creeps into view and surprises us. 


 
In my classroom, the book allows us to discuss so many intersectional issues – gender, economics, belief systems, etc. Plus it gives my students more cultural capital than other texts would. Having read “Mockingbird” allows them to understand more and talk to more people than other more modern books. 


 
If they haven’t already, when they go to the high school, they’ll read novels centered on blackness. Their education and discussion of this issue would be incomplete without them. But I don’t think we need to stop reading such a classic as “Mockingbird” that was, itself, part of the civil rights movement.  


 
In any case, the school board has not approved any similar texts at that grade level. If I put aside “Mockingbird,” it would mean not discussing the issue at all. I think that would be much worse. 


 

Conclusions

So this is how I teach. 


 
I know there are some adults out there who would rather my students not read these books.  


 
I know some grownups would rather my kids not think about these things and not come to their own conclusions.  


 
They’d rather children be seen and not heard – like furniture.  


 
But my students know it, too. And they’d rather be treated like actual human beings – even if that means… yuck… reading.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’d much rather decision makers put no restrictions on which books students can and cannot read. Even trash like Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” shouldn’t be forbidden. I make sure to tell my students that it’s readily available in the library but not recommended.  

Children should not be restricted to only some ideas. They will come into contact with all kinds as they grow older. They need the skill to sort through them and decide for themselves their value.  

In my experience the bigger threat isn’t prohibition, it’s indifference. 

 
As Ray Bradbury famously said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” 


 
Focusing on banned books helps me keep reading real and relevant in my classroom.  


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.

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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!

Stop Normalizing the Exploitation of Teachers 

 

Nearly everyday I get to school only to be confronted by the call-off sheets


 
Pages and pages of people who aren’t coming in to work – and the substitute teachers assigned to take over their classes.


 
Yikes, it’s a long list today.

I see Mrs. K is still out. She was sobbing in the faculty room last week. Wonder what that was about.

Rumor has it Mr. C was rushed to the nurse to have his blood pressure taken after his face turned beet red in the middle of his last class yesterday. Not a shock that he’s missing.

And Ms. P’s out again. I can’t blame her. If one of my students attacked me, I’d have trouble coming back, too.

My eyes pour down the names of absent teachers and present substitutes only to find the one I’m dreading – my own.

I’m expected to sub for Mrs. D’s 8th period – again.

Great.


 
Too many kids I barely know stuffed into a tiny room. Last time there was almost a fight. Will they even listen to me this time?

I have my own classes. I shouldn’t have to do this.


 
But that’s exactly what’s expected of teachers these days.  


 
If your colleagues are absent and there aren’t enough subs, you have no choice. You have to fill in somewhere.  


 
Normally, I wouldn’t mind all that much. After all, I AM being paid for doing the extra work. But day-after-day, week-after-week, for months on end – it’s exhausting.  

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.

Not to mention it’s my only chance outside of lunch that I can go to the bathroom.  


 
And now I don’t even get that! If I’m going to do even the most basic things to keep my head above water, I have to find the time somewhere – usually by stealing it from my own family


 
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.

And my health is suffering.  

I’ve had more trips to the emergency room, doctor’s visits, medical procedures and new prescriptions the beginning of this year than any other time I’ve been teaching.


 
It’s a problem of exploitation and normalization. 


 
Exploitation is when you treat someone unfairly for your own benefit. 


 
Our schools have been doing that to teachers for decades – underpaying them for the high responsibilities they have, expecting each individual to do the work of multiple people and when anything goes wrong, blaming them for it. 


 
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.

These are just the short term solutions – the things that don’t require money or political will


 
However, most administrators refuse to do any of it! They refuse to even admit there is a problem.  


 
They’re happy to just let teachers keep picking up the slack


 
That’s what I mean by normalization.  


 
It’s taking a bad situation and redefining it as usual, typical and expected. 


 
It’s like saying “This is the way things are now. This is school. This is our new baseline.”  


 
However, it is not sustainable! 


 
We cannot continue to apply the old model of public schooling to the problems we have today. It didn’t work before the pandemic and now it is frayed to the breaking point.  


 
When the first wave of Covid-19 washed over us and many schools went to online learning, leaders promised we’d rebuild back better when they finally reopened. 


 
This was the perfect chance, they said, to change, to reform the things that weren’t working and do all the positive things we’d wanted to do for years.  


 
Even at the time I thought it was rather optimistic to the point of naivety. Time has proven me correct.

 


 
Since schools have reopened, there has been no rebuilding back better. We’ve been forced to accept things worse.  


 
Teachers were already trickling away from the profession before Covid-19 was even discovered. Now they’re running away in droves.  

Standardized tests were always poor assessments of student learning. Now we’re encouraged to spend every minute teaching to those tests to overcome the bogeyman of “learning loss.”

Poor and minority students often suffered more traumas and insecurities than their wealthier and more privileged peers. Now after as much as two years of online learning, student trauma is the norm. Kids lack the basic social skills needed to communicate without fighting and they’re taking out their frustration on their teachers.

It’s a raging dumpster fire. And few people in a position to take action have the courage to do so.

Few are even brave enough to admit the dumpster is on fire.

Teachers cannot be exploited forever.

Even we have our limits.

We want to be there for students and their families, but we can’t do that if we’re sick and suffering.

We are a renewable resource but we need renewed.

If society is not willing to do that, there will be none of us left.

The call-off sheet will stretch to the horizon and there will be no one there to take our place.


 

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!

Where Are the Parents? The School Shortage We Ignore 

Our public schools are suffering from crippling shortages. 


 
Classroom teachers, substitute teachers, special education aides, even bus drivers are hard to find. 


 
But of all the essential personnel who have gone missing, the group with the largest impact is the one we least want to mention – parents. 


 
I’m a middle school Language Arts teacher.  


 
Every year I look forward to parent-teacher conferences.  


 
I gather samples of student work, journal entries, drawings and grade reports. I put out a row of chairs in the hall so people have a place to sit if they have to wait for one group to finish before they can see me. And I write in big, bold, colorful chalk on the board, “Welcome, Parents!” 


 
Then I sit at my desk trying to stay awake as the hours creep by in my empty classroom. 


 
Where are all the parents?  


 
Seriously. Where did the moms and dads go? Where are the grandparents, the older siblings, the guardians, the primary or even secondary caregivers? 


 
On Parent-Teacher Day, they must be somewhere, but they’re not here.  


 
We typically have a section from noon to 3 and one from 5 to 8 pm so that people with various schedules can come in.  


 
And every year it’s the same. Only about 20-30% of my students’ parent or guardians usually visit me on these days – and that’s after the promise of bonus points if they come in! 


 
Even then it’s most often the parents of the kids with the best grades who show up. It’s the parents of kids who say “Please” and “Thank you,” the kids who smile when you walk in the room, the kids who want you to hang up their drawings on the bulletin board.  


 
The children who are struggling, the ones who don’t know how to behave and look at you out of the corner of their eyes expecting pain and negativity – their parents rarely show up.  


 
And it’s these bruised and battered kids who are in the majority. 


 
Where are their parents? 


 
They’re missing. Gone. Poof. 


 
We saw this when schools went to on-line learning at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.  


 
Teachers would turn on their Zoom links to give lessons to their students only to find many of the kids vanished.  


 
These kids usually were there when school was in-person. But on-line they were MIA. And even if they were technically present, they often hid behind a turned off camera and didn’t hand in their work


 
Why?  


 
At school, the teacher was there to make sure these kids took care of business. But at home there simply was no one to hold them accountable. No one to get them up, feed them, and make sure they were online when classes began, ensure they paid attention and did their work.  


 
That’s why so many kids were absent or otherwise failed the online experience.  


 
Granted this kind of cyber learning is developmentally inappropriate for most K-12 students – certainly those up through middle school. But with the proper parental support, most children would have done much better.  


 
It just wasn’t there.  


 
Now let me be clear about one thing – I am not blaming anybody here.  


 
It is not my intention to pass judgment on anyone.  


 
As a parent, myself, I know from experience how difficult the job is – especially during a global pandemic.  


 
But we have to face the facts. As a whole, parents were the weak link in the chain. And it didn’t start with Covid – they have been the weak link for decades. 


 
Teachers can’t go to every student’s home and be caregiver as well as educator. The fact that so many children are struggling with basic socialization skills after as much as two years of online schooling goes to show how much of the responsibility for raising children has rested on schools and teachers.  


 
This year many students don’t know how to talk with each other without instigating a fight. They constantly pick on each other, demand respect they aren’t giving and are starving for any kind of attention they can get.  


 
Without daily in-person contact with teachers, many children have become socially awkward and need to relearn the basics of interpersonal interaction. That’s how much we’ve come to expect teachers to be co-parents from year-to-year. 


 
Let me stop again and clarify that I am not talking about all parents.  


 
Many parents go out of their way to be present in their children’s lives.  


 
They get their kids up for school, make sure they eat a nutritious breakfast, ensure they catch the bus or get a ride to school, make sure they do their homework after the day is over and establish a healthy bedtime.  


 
But this should be the norm, not the exception.  


 
I know how hard it is to do. Waking my daughter up every morning often takes a stick of dynamite. And getting that girl to eat a healthy breakfast is a battle I often lose. But her mother and I make darn sure she does her homework and we even sit down with her to help it get done. And weekday bedtimes are religiously adhered to – no one wants a cranky, fussy child the next morning. 


 
However, it’s easier for us because we have certain advantages.  
 


Class, privilege, wealth, upbringing, social status all conspire to give us a boost.  


 
My wife and I don’t have to work more than one job to make ends meet, for example. It would probably help if we did, but neither of us has the wherewithal, and we get by.  


 
But many folks are not so lucky.  


 
They DO have to work multiple jobs. They have work schedules that are less in tune with the school day. They can’t be home to wake up their kids and send them off. They can’t be home when kids are dismissed and don’t have the time to help with homework. Some barely have the education, themselves, to be of much assistance.  


 
Disadvantaged parents often had bad experiences with school when they were students. So they don’t instill the importance of education to their kids. Nor do they prove good role models since they often don’t read for pleasure, speak in the dominant vernacular or respect teachers.  


 
All this has tremendous effects on the education children receive. 


 
In fact, many academic studies have shown that the most important factor in the education process isn’t the school or teachers – it’s the parents. 


 
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 just 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. 


 
Study after study conclude that students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, have better attendance and social skills, and adapt well to school.  


 
According to the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), the most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are the extent to which families create home environments that encourage learning, communicate high yet reasonable expectations, and become involved in the children’s education at school.  


 
Moreover, when parents are involved, the performance of all the children at school tends to improve – not just the academics of kids with involved parents. The more comprehensive the partnership between school and home, the higher the student achievement.  


 
Put simply – parents are vital to good learning.  


 
But our society doesn’t do much to allow parents to parent. 


 
To some extent, the pandemic is making things worse. 


 
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.   


 According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.   


 
This is wreaking havoc on kids support systems.  


 
But an even larger problem is economics.  


 
When schools went online, employers could have allowed more parents to work from home so they could be there for their children. However, profits were more important.  


 
Even in non-pandemic times, employers need to provide more time and resources for parent
s. There is too much demand for overtime hours, increased productivity and very little family leave or other such services.  


 
I truly believe that most parents want to be there for their children but feel like they can’t due to the stresses and strains of work
.  


 
We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Much of the labor we force people to do is strictly unnecessary. It’s there just to justify our economic system. If we reordered things around people instead of capital, parents could more easily be involved in their children’s educations.  


 
This is fundamentally the problem with all the educational shortages we’re seeing.  


 
These are symptoms of an economic failure
. We can continue to prop up this faded machine or create a world that values life over profit.  


 
But we pretend this isn’t true. 


 
We’ve been trying to run our schools as if parents weren’t that important and then throwing all the blame on teachers when parents don’t show up.  


 
This has to stop. 


 
It’s time to admit how important parents are to their children’s educations and then provide them with the tools necessary to be parents. 


 
It’s time to include parents in the circle.  


 
It’s time to expect them to show up. 


 
Because we can’t continue educating their children without them. 


 

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Teachers Absorb Student Trauma But Don’t Know How to Get Rid of the Pain

 
 
Today a middle school student said he hated me.  


 
He told me to go F- myself.  


 
He wrote all over his desk.  


 
He shouted insults at the other students. 


 
He asked to be sent home.  


 
He said he wished he was dead.  


 
He asked to see the school counselor.  


 
I let him. 


 
And this was all in one 42 minute period. 


 
By the time the bell rang for the next class, I was exhausted.  


 
I was worried about my student. I wondered how I could help


 
But I could barely stand up. 


 
I wiped at my eyes. They were unaccountably filled with tears. My hands were shaking.  


 
I didn’t have time for this now. I had to put on a smile and welcome in the next class. 


 
Perhaps there would be time to feel all this later. 


 
Incidents like this take a tremendous toll on educators. 


 
We’re highly trained adults, but people forget – we’re human, too.  


 
When someone unexpectedly yells at you or gets in your face, you feel it. 


 
This is especially true when it’s a child. 


 
When a student is crying out in pain and that pain manifests itself as negative and violent behavior, it impacts you. 


 
We end up absorbing it all like a sponge.  


 
But what do we do with all that poison once it’s over? 


 
Psychologists call this experience vicarious trauma


 
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.” 


 
Vicarious trauma affects teachers the same way it does students


 
The brain emits a fear response releasing cortisol and adrenaline which, in turn, increases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, followed by a rush of emotions.  


 
The biological response can display itself in mental symptoms such as anger, headaches, or even physical ones like missing staff meetings, lateness to work or avoiding certain students or situations. 

You want to know why classroom teachers are taking an increasing number of sick days lately? Dealing with vicarious trauma is a big part of it.


 
“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.  


 
Since returning to the physical classroom after months or more of on-line learning, many students are having a difficult time readjusting. And some show signs of compounded emotional trauma. 


 
The student who exploded today is a prime example. 


 
Clearly something may have happened to him. 


 
A few years ago he had been an A student. He was academically gifted. But when we went to on-line classes to protect against Covid-19, he disappeared.  


 
Only to come back like this. 


 
As a classroom teacher with two decades of experience, I know that when a student acts this way, punishing him won’t help. He needs support coping, but that’s easier said than done. 


 
I need help coping with HIM! 


 
These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact kids well into adulthood with higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems. 


 
And it affects their teachers, too. 


 
Since schools have reopened, many kids don’t seem to know how to interact without teasing, goading or tormenting each other. We’re seeing children scream at each other in class over things as simple as finding a pencil. There are more frequent fights, vandalism, bullying, cyber bullying and even attacks against teachers.

 
 
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. 


 
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID.  


 
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.  


 
No wonder kids are having trouble with self-control! Their support systems are in tatters!  


 
With fewer role models at home and less time in the classroom over the last year and a half, kids are suffering. And that’s not just anecdotal. The facts back it up. 


 
The CDC reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.   


 
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC.  


 
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of the pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.   


 
The increase in student trauma and the lack of additional supports is undoubtedly contributing to the speed at which teachers are leaving the profession. 


 
We want to help our students but many of us feel ill-equipped to do so. And it’s negatively affecting our own health.  


 
As we are constantly attacked in the media for everything from teaching an accurate history of America to failing to meet every need our students have, many educators are throwing up their hands and moving on. 


 
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 can’t do it all alone.  


 
For example, one of the most important things teachers need is time.  


 
This is time untethered to students, time without classes to teach or papers to grade or paperwork to fill out or even duties to perform.  


 
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.  


 
However, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, either. Investing in high quality professional development for trauma-informed practices and enacting them school-wide would also be incredibly helpful. As would an influx of professional counselors, social workers and psychologists who are actually trained to deal with these situations.


 
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. 


 
There needs to be a demarcating line between our professional and personal lives. And the district, administrators, school directors and parents need to respect that line. 


 
Teachers cannot be there for children if they do not have time for themselves and their families. 


 
And these are really just the tip of the iceberg.  


 
Teachers need higher salaries, lower class sizes, and above all – RESPECT.  


 
Accomplishing all of this will not be easy. But I’ll bet every district can accomplish SOME of it.  


 
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. 


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!