What I Don’t Want My School to be Like this Covid Year

I’m going to confess something.

I don’t like wearing a mask.

For a few hours on Halloween it’s fine, but trying to teach middle schoolers through a piece of fabric for 8 hours a day is no one’s idea of professionalism or efficacy.

You know what else?

I hate getting shots.

When they put that vaccination needle to my arm, I had to turn my head away and think about something else. Both times.

But guess what?

I did them.

And I am still WILLING to do them again.

If teaching in 2021-22 requires wearing a mask and even getting a third booster to the Covid vaccine, I’ll do it.

You know why?

Because I am an adult.

Even if we have to go back to teaching students completely on-line (which I don’t want to do), I’ll put on my big boy pants and do it.

It’s not optimal. It causes problems for working parents, but it’s better than the alternative if infections continue to rise.

I’m not saying I like it.

I’m not saying I want to do any of this, but we have to deal with the world as we find it.

I don’t want to have to teach during a pandemic, but that’s the world we’re living in.

That’s the world we’ve MADE.

Time to face it.

After a summer where not enough people chose to get vaccinated, Covid-19 cases are on the rise again. And now we have the new more contagious delta variant that can even infect and be spread by those who got the shot.

We had a chance to turn things around in June and July. Frankly, we blew it.

Restrictions were lifted too early. Safety precautions continued to be politicized. Folks just pretended it was over.

All we had to do was be cautious and get our Fauci ouchies.

Not enough of us did.

So here we are.

I’m going to be honest with you.

I don’t want this school year to be as bad as last year.

The last year and a half has been a nightmare for classroom teachers like me.

We were teaching remote, then in-person, then BOTH at the same time! Social distancing was erratic because there just wasn’t the space, some students were chronically absent, kids and adults got sick every week but the authorities could never seem to admit anyone might have caught the disease at school…

I watched my district and most of those around me fail at almost every level.

And just when we looked to the government for support, we were told to waste whatever class time we were able to scrap together on another meaningless standardized test.

It was a year that left me feeling blamed for things beyond my control and silenced from the decision making process.

I felt unsafe, subordinate, impotent and neglected.

And I don’t want to do that again.

It’s no wonder that one in four teachers might not return to the classroom this year according to a survey given at the beginning of 2020 by the Rand Corporation.

Research from Education Week published this week had similar findings. According to Lora Bartlett, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Santa Cruz, 20 percent of teachers either have already left the profession or are actively seeking employment elsewhere.

Most years teaching has an 8% attraction rate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. 

Educators like me are simply sick of being ignored, scapegoated, deprofessionalized and or actively obstructed from doing our jobs.

But we didn’t make this situation.

We didn’t create Covid-19. We didn’t ignore the warnings that it was coming here, we didn’t dismantle the pandemic task force, didn’t shirk our duties to put adequate safety precautions in place, didn’t make compliance entirely voluntary, didn’t prioritize economics over public health or a multitude of other things that lead us down this deep, dark rabbit hole.

We’re dealing with the situation, and frankly the rest of the country needs to do the same.

We need universal masking in schools.

Not suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We need government mandates, and the fact that some states have mandated exactly the opposite just goes to show that some lawmakers aren’t grown up enough to do the job for which they were elected.

Magical thinking may get you re-elected, but it could also get me and my family killed.

Time for serious solutions.

While we’re at it, we need to require vaccinations for all eligible adults and children going to school in-person. Otherwise, we can find a remote option for them.

Because if we don’t, there are only two likely alternatives – a remote option for everyone or a steady increase in Covid cases in school. The former isn’t good and the later is just not acceptable at all.

We need frequent testing to see if anyone in the building has the disease – and NO I’m not talking about contact tracing. Anecdotes from people who unequivocally have the virus about who he or she may have come into close contact with is not good enough. We need blood tests – hard data.

Speaking of which, every district should have to prove they’ve been able to adequately circulate airflow in the buildings with HEPA filters and other equipment. If they can’t, the federal government should write them a check on the spot. Make them accountable for how they spend it, and make them accountable if they DON’T get the job done.

I know, I know.

This is America and no one can tell me what to do.

Wrong.

We live in a society, not the old West.

We already have a plethora of rules people have to abide by – even list of vaccinations you already need to be enrolled in school – mumps, measles, rubella, polio, etc. Just add Covid-19 to the list.

And grow the heck up.

Too many people can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

Too many people have bought the myths and legends about what it means to be an American.

That’s why they’re having conniptions that teachers might actually be including the history of racism in their history.

We’re a country that couldn’t exist if white settlers didn’t first steal the land we’re living on from native peoples. We’re a country founded by mostly slave holders.

You think that’s not an important part of history because you believe our own bull crap propaganda.

And that’s why you don’t have the mental acuity to deal with real problems like a global pandemic.

When this whole Covid thing began, many of us hoped when it was all over we’d have changed things for the better.

We thought they’ll have to change the old way of doing things just to survive this mess, so maybe when we put it all back together, we can put it back together better.

But the reality is, we couldn’t even figure out how to change things enough just to survive this.

In the United States, about 630,000 of us haven’t survived it – more than our soldiers who died in World War II (405,000), the Vietnam War (58,000) and the Korean War (36,000) combined.

I don’t want more people to die.

I don’t want more students and staff to get sick in schools.

I don’t want us to have to go back to remote instruction.

I don’t want this school year to be as bad or worse as the last year and a half.

And I’m willing to make sacrifices to make sure these don’t happen.

I’m willing to wear a mask all day in school and require others to do so, too.

I’m willing to be vaccinated (again if necessary) and make sure everyone eligible is, too.

I’m willing to do all these things I don’t want (and more) in order to make sure worse things don’t happen.

That’s the choice we’re left with today.

And if enough people aren’t grown up enough to make it correctly, we need to make it for them.

Or else we’re all choosing to let the worst come to pass – again.


 

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Muzzling America’s Teachers with a Ban on Critical Race Theory is What Orwell Warned Us About

I first read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984” while in high school almost a decade past its titular date.

At that time, it didn’t seem to be a prediction. It seemed to be a description of life in the Soviet Union.

I never would have guessed that it could be a warning of what the public school system could become in this country if Republican lawmakers have their way.

Far right legislators have proposed bans on so-called Critical Race Theory in at least 20 states that would muzzle classroom teachers from discussing racism and other “controversial” and “divisive” topics or risk being disciplined, fired or facing other legal consequences if they don’t obey.

It is an attempt to legislate history.

These lawmakers are working to control information and let politics – not facts – be the guiding principle of what gets accepted in our chronicle of the past.

Those of us who’ve read “1984” have seen this before.

The text is set in Oceania, a state where the government controls the media, education and even people’s thoughts.

The main character, Winston Smith, works at the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites history to match the party line – whatever it is this week.

For example, at a “Hate Week” demonstration near the beginning of the story, people are gathered to cheer their country’s alliance with Eastasia. However, when the speaker abruptly declares that Eastasia is the enemy, people quickly crumple up their banners and acknowledge that Eastasia was always the enemy and they must have been mistaken to think otherwise.

The prospective ban on Critical Race Theory is strikingly similar.

Politicos are trying to erase the United States’ troubled history of systemic racism, gas light any discussion of its current existence and otherwise stifle and control any topic that goes against their party line.

It’s a policy enshrined in page after page of the most famous description of totalitarianism in modern literature.

Let’s take a closer look at some key passages.

TRUTH

‘”There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”‘

Central to the book is a belief in objective truth.

No matter what we think or say, there are facts out there in the world.

For example, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of people were kidnapped from Africa, forced into slavery in the American colonies and exploited in the production of tobacco and cotton. Any denial of that fact, any minimization of the degree of dehumanization in it, is a rejection of reality.

Sanity is our adherence to that reality. Psychological well being is the attempt to bring our thoughts and ideas about what was and what is in line with these facts.

Moreover, doing so is the definition of freedom, itself.

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

If we take away an individual’s right to try and square the reality of the world with their internal ideas about it, we take away all of their freedoms.

One must come to an understanding of the world. It cannot be handed down. It must be the result of observation and understanding.

In short, it is a product of education. We’re taught the facts, but it is up to us to make sense of them.

If the facts are obscured from us or if they are misrepresented, our freedom is impinged.

REWRITING HISTORY

“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present…”

In direct opposition to the idea of objective truth is the mutability of history.

To some extent it is completely natural. Over time we come to new understandings. We discover things that had been accepted as facts were misunderstood.

For example, it was long accepted as true that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Now we realize that not only wasn’t he the first European to come to these shores, the idea that he “discovered” anything is incoherent. You can’t “discover” lands where people are already living. More over, given the details of pillage, rape and violence in his own journals, Columbus’ accomplishment should be viewed in far less positive terms than it has been up to this point.

Ideas change and we must keep up with that changing understanding.

However, the danger is when that change is NOT the result of new information or recontextualizing what we already knew. It’s when we allow history to be dictated by politics.

“And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”

This idea is essential to the work Winston does at the Ministry of Truth. By rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, the Party maintains its authority.

This is the goal of the proposed bans on Critical Race Theory. One political party is attempting to stop the freedom of history based on facts and replace it with history based on whatever is in the best interests of that party maintaining power.

Whitewashing the history of slavery as less exploitative and more mutually beneficial to both the white owners and black enslaved peoples helps to reduce the impetus to contemporary reform in the systems of racism maintained in this country since our failed Reconstruction. Likewise, representing Columbus as a hero and adventurer instead of a murderer and tyrant helps justify similar actions today.

Or as Orwell puts it:

‘”The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware they are oppressed.”‘

EDUCATION

Much of the book is focused on how fascist regimes control thought. And primarily this is done through education and the media.

“Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

That’s a kind of education. Replacing what is known with whatever the Party wants to be known.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

If you don’t have the words to express an idea, it’s incredibly difficult to have that idea. We do, after all, think in language.

For example, the definition of “Racism” has shifted over time to mean more than just prejudice or discrimination against a person or people based on their race or ethnicity.

It is now more commonly understood as prejudice plus power – racial prejudice, AND social power to codify and enforce this prejudice into an entire society.

This is what is meant by Systemic Racism, a concept at the core of this fight. Much of the battle against Critical Race Theory is really an attempt to stop this concept of racism from becoming widespread and codified through our school system.

It is an attempt to keep the original definition of racism, to stop people from seeing systemic racism by refusing to accept its reality through control over speech.

Yet the movement, itself, is based on redefinitions and insinuations.

Critical Race Theory is not a concept taught at public schools. It’s a decades old legal framework. It’s about how laws function to create and maintain social, economic, and political inequalities.

It’s as much a part of K-12 public schools curriculum as torts, contract law or civil forfeiture. Which is to say, not at all.

However, the GOP is using it because they think it sounds scary. It’s a self-created boogeyman to incite the Republican base against a nebulous and ever changing idea of what they take to be liberal indoctrination.

As Orwell wrote:

‘”It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”‘

And that’s what we have here. The destruction of words, the destruction of Critical Race Theory from its actual meaning into a trigger point.

It is about insinuation instead of talking about Republican grievances of what this so-called liberal indoctrination is head on. Because if they were to discuss the issue openly, it could never be proven. However, to imply, to hint, to whisper avoids the ability to disprove.

It is Newspeak, the fictional language of Oceania where simplified grammar and restricted vocabulary limit the individual’s ability to think and even articulate certain facts or concepts.

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

But what is the difference between what Republicans are doing with these bans and the naturally evolving course of history? If education is the process of forming an individual’s ideas and thoughts, how is any of it ever free?

Consider this. Orwell describes the goal of education in Oceania:

‘”Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”‘

That is not the goal of our current education system.

We do not want students to be handed down information and simply accept it even if it doesn’t make sense.

Teachers strive to get their students to interact with information, to look at it critically.

And that is the important point – CRITICALLY.

At some point even in Oceania, everyone comes across different ideas, concepts that you may not have considered before or may have actively rejected.

What do you do when this happens?

Winston is expected to believe what the Party tells him to believe. And even in the USA we often act as if being confronted with this reality is the worst case scenario for students. It is the end of the world if they are confronted with a different point of view.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is essential that they be confronted with opposing views so that they can think critically.

That is the purpose of education.

Not to tell students what to think, but to give them the tools to think.

It is up to each and every student to come to their own conclusions.

Educators should give them the facts and even expose them to varying concepts about the facts.

But it is up to the individual student what to do with them.

This makes some parents and politicians uneasy because it treats students as human beings with freedom of choice.

Such freedom is not allowed in Oceania, and if Republicans have their way, it will not be allowed here, either.

We must preserve academic freedom for both students and their teachers.

It is absolutely essential.

Otherwise Orwell’s book will be less a warning than a guide.



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For Teachers, “Silence of Our Friends” May be Worst Part of Pandemic

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
-Martin Luther King Jr

Teachers want a safe place to work.

But in 2020 that is too much to ask.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic rages out of control throughout most parts of the United States, teachers all across the country want to be able to do their jobs in a way that won’t put themselves or their loved ones in danger.

In most cases that means remote instruction – teaching students via the Internet through video conferencing software like Zoom.

However, numerous leaders and organizations that historically are supportive of teachers have refused to support them here.

The rush to keep classrooms open and thus keep the economy running has overtaken any respect for science, any concern for safety, and any appeal to compassion.

Many Democratic lawmakers, school directors, union leaders and even public school advocates have repeatedly turned away, remained silent or promoted policies that would continue to put educators in danger.

Thankfully, some districts have been accommodating, worrying about the safety of children as well as adults.

But many others have refused to go this route even demanding educators with compromised immune systems and other increased risk factors either get in the classroom and teach or seek some sort of financially burdensome leave.

Affected teachers often wonder where their union is, where their progressive representative, where the grassroots activists who were willing to organize against charter schools and high stakes testing.

Answer: crickets.

As a result, more than 300 U.S. teachers and other school employees have died from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

In New York City, alone, 72 school employees died of the virus, according to the city Department of Education.

And since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has refused to collect data on how the pandemic is affecting schools and school employees, this count is probably woefully under-representative of the full tragedy.

About 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from the Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In my own Western Pennsylvania community in the last few weeks, we buried high school employee Terri Sherwin, 60, of Greater Latrobe School District and elementary school employee Dana Hall, 56, of Jeannette City School District.

The assertion that children cannot get the disease, which was popularized by the Trump administration, has been proven false.

More than 1 million kids nationwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics .

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms but are still capable of transmitting the virus to others. This – along with the lack of a national database – makes it incredibly difficult to accurately trace the source of an outbreak through the schools.

However, in November the CDC quietly removed controversial guidelines from its website promoting in-person learning, and instead lists it as “high risk.”

“As new scientific information has emerged the site has been updated to reflect current knowledge about COVID-19 and schools,” a spokesperson said.

Yet there has been no subsequent change in the policy positions of most lawmakers, school directors, union leaders or education activists.

A prime example of this is New York City’s plan to reopen most schools to in-person learning at the beginning of this month despite rising infection rates and an average of more than 2,000 new cases a day.

The plan has the full support of most teachers unions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said the plan “combines the best of what we have learned nationwide during COVID about how to keep staff and students safe and how to instruct young kids.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) agreed.

He said:

“We are supportive of a phased reopening of schools in other neighborhoods as long as stringent testing is in place. This strategy – properly implemented – will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic.”

The plan is predicated on a bogus statistic that kids aren’t getting sick at school or spreading the virus from there, that only 0.2% can be traced back to school buildings.

But we know that contract tracing is inadequate. We know people are getting sick. Hospitals are filling up. People are dying.

Why aren’t the unions standing up more for their employees here? Why is the request for a safe work environment too much?

Answer: politics.

With President-elect Joe Biden about to announce his pick for Secretary of Education, few union leaders have the courage to go against the party line and disqualify themselves from consideration.

Biden’s plan right now seems to be keeping the schools open with an influx of cash.

Former President of the National Education Association (NEA) Lily Eskelsen García hasn’t said much recently on the issue to my knowledge.

But she was unafraid to contradict President Donald Trump before the election.

She appeared on CNN and challenged Trump to “sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”

In late April, she took to Twitter saying the NEA is “listening to the health experts and educators on how and when to reopen schools — not the whims of Donald Trump, who boasts about trusting his gut to guide him. Bringing thousands of children together in school buildings without proper testing, tracing, and social isolation is dangerous and could cost lives.”

In an interview in May she said:

“The stakes of doing it wrong is that someone dies. It’s not just that someone doesn’t graduate or someone doesn’t learn their times tables — someone could die.”

I wonder what she would say today – and why she hasn’t spoken out as vocally.

In my neighborhood, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey has continually asked districts to follow state safety guidelines.

“The health and safety of students, staff, and our families must be our top priority,” Askey said. “We call on all school district leaders to follow the state’s guidelines to protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities.”

However, state guidelines are pretty weak. They suggest mask wearing and that districts close when community infection rates are high. But districts can choose to keep buildings open if they promise to follow safety guidelines to the best of their ability.

Gov. Tom Wolf originally issued an order for all schools to close and go to remote learning last March. However, state Republicans challenged his authority to do so and their position was upheld in court.

Since then, Wolf has issued tons of guidance but not much else.

I assume Wolf would say he hasn’t done more because his hands are tied.

I assume Askey would say the same.

But such platitudes taste like ashes in your mouth when faced with the everyday reality that almost everyday the state is breaking its previous record for Coronavirus cases. Today we had nearly 13,000 new cases and 149 deaths! Yes, that’s just today!

Will their hands still be tied when daily cases reach 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

The decision about whether to keep buildings open to in-person classes or go with remote instruction has mostly been left with school directors.

And their decisions have been all over the place.

These are not public health officials.

These are not people used to making life and death decisions.

They’re used to deciding whether to remodel the library, buy books from this or that vendor or declare Friday a holiday because the football team won the state championship.

I don’t mean to diminish what they do.

Some have been going above and beyond every day to ensure the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

But far too many pay lip service to that idea while making sure their local business gets to keep operating with employees who don’t have to sit home with their children.

And these are people from the community. How many times have teachers called them to let them know how their kids were doing in class? How many times have teachers gone with them and their kids on school field trips? How many times have teachers accepted invitations to graduation parties and school board meetings?

We should be on the same team, but too many school directors are far too willing to sacrifice our lives and safety to safeguard their own bank accounts.

When will school directors admit the cost is too high? How many staff have to get sick? 20? 50? 100? How many have to die?

However, as much as the silence and disregard of lawmakers, union leaders and school directors hurts – it is the reaction from many education activists that stings the most.

When our schools are attacked by charter schools and voucher schools, we organize and fight it together.

When high stakes testing unfairly labels our children and is used to defund and loot our budgets, we organize and fight together.

No matter what the issue – the school-to-prison pipeline, Common Core, racist discipline policies, value added teacher evaluations, runaway ed tech – we’ve come together to fight as one.

But suddenly when it’s an issue of teachers vs. the economy, our allies go silent.

They’re afraid remote learning will lead to more ed tech solutions, that it will embolden parents to enroll in charter or voucher schools, that it will hurt student learning. And to be fair there is reason to fear.

However, instead of standing together and fighting these new challenges as they come (as we’ve always done) many of our activist allies have abandoned us.

They champion articles about a non-existent consensus that it’s safe to reopen schools. They champion the work of a discredited economist over epidemiologists and virologists. They side with the same neoliberals and corporate education reformers we used to battle together.

Or they simply remain silent.

That’s the one that really hurts the most.

One day this pandemic will end.

One day – I hope it’s soon – it will be safe to return to the classroom and begin again.

But the wreckage of the virus will pale in comparison to the damage we have done to each other and our relationships.

Coalitions may crumble and fall.

Trust may disappear.

And the way forward – if any will be left – may be much different than it was only a year ago.

No one who refuses to defend your right to life is your true ally.

We won’t forget who spoke up and who remained silent.


 

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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 Everyday Exhaustion of Teaching During a Global Pandemic

Teaching is one of the few things in life that is not concerned with now.

It is essentially about the future.

We put all this time and energy into helping kids learn. Why?

Not so that they’ll be able to do anything today. But so that they’ll be able to do things tomorrow.

Sure they may be able to read better or solve math problems, but the reason we want them to know that isn’t so much about what they’ll do with it as adolescents. It’s how those skills will shape the people they grow up to be.

It’s an investment in their future and ours.

We take a bit of today and invest it in tomorrow.


And during a global pandemic that can be especially hard.

The west is on fire. Storms are threatening our southern coasts. Police brutality is out of control and bands of neofascist thugs are given free rein to beat and murder protesters. We’ve separated immigrant families and put their kids in cages. The President has lied to us, disparaged our troops, bragged about breaking countless laws and the government is powerless to stop him. Our political system and social fabric is coming apart at the seams. And everyone from the average Joe to the lawmakers who represent him can’t get up the gumption to take precautions against the killer virus that has already put more Americans in their graves than every war since WWII.

You look at the raging dumpster fire around you and wonder – how do we invest in the future when we aren’t sure there will be one?

I’ve had students in my on-line class for only two days so far.

And it’s been great.

They show up in record numbers smiling and ready to learn.

We talk, they tell me about their summers, and I remember how much I love teaching.

But I had to fight almost every day from June through August just so the school building wouldn’t become an incubation center for COVID-19 and classes could be conducted through the Internet.

I’m not saying it was all me that did it, but I fought and worried and cajoled and wrote and begged and did everything I could think to do. And it very nearly didn’t happen.

Summer is supposed to be a break after the stresses of a long school year. And 2019-20 was perhaps the most difficult year I’ve ever had teaching.

But 2020-21 has already promised to be much more challenging.

After all, when you have to fight just for the safety of your children and yourself as a prerequisite to everything that happens in your class, how much strength is there left for actual teaching?

My district has committed to being on-line only through September, so the fight continues month-by-month.

Where are the local newspapers that would have reported on each school district as people test positive for the virus and others are contact traced? We closed most of them and downsized the newsrooms of others to make up lost advertising revenue.

If you’re not a supersized district serving millions, they only report on bed bugs, poorly trained security guards or whatever public relations statement the superintendent released today.

So we trudge on in silence just hoping to get through the day.

And what days they are!

Teaching on-line is a heck of a lot more work.

You’ve got to plan for just about everything. You put the assignments on Google Classroom and set up the Zoom meetings and make your handouts into PDFs and try to digitize your books and figure out how classroom policies designed around a physical space can be revised for cyber space. You answer countless questions and concerns, videotaping your lessons for those who can’t be there in person. You try to make things interesting with new apps, new software, new grading systems, new approaches to the same material you’ve been teaching for over a decade.

And it never ends.

By the time the day is supposed to be over, the emails are still rolling in, the assignments are still being submitted, administrators are making pronouncements, and you haven’t even finished all the things you have to do to get ready for tomorrow yet.

When is there time for my family? When do I have time to make dinner or check on my own child’s progress in her own online experience?

What’s worse is that when things go wrong, I’m afraid to bring them up for fear that some decision maker long removed from the classroom will simply shoot from the hip and end on-line instruction.

We had all summer to plan how to do this better, but we spent all that time diddling about WHETHER we should teach on-line or not. We should have just bit the bullet and worked on improving the quality of instruction instead of putting all our chips on the gambit that it wouldn’t be necessary.

Now – as usual – it’s all in the hands of everyday classroom teachers. We’re left to just figure it out.

And we do!

Part of me really enjoys it!

I love finding new ways of doing things and seeing if they’ll work out better. I’m excited about seeing how my students will react to a Bitmoji classroom or a new Kahoot or this video or not being hassled if they keep their cameras off in Zoom.

I know on-line teaching can never really hold a candle to in-person instruction. But that’s not an option right now. And pretending like reality is something different than it is will do no one any good.

But just saying something positive about cyber schooling gets the technophobes coming down on you.

They’re so scared that online teaching will replace real, live educators that they can’t admit of any positive qualities to the new normal.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with them. I fear that, too. But it’s a war we have to wage later. Just like the election.

Biden is not great on education. Trump is worse. So we have to support Biden while we prepare to fight him in January. And that’s IF we can both defeat Trump at the polls and somehow avoid a constitutional crisis if he refuses to leave the Oval Office willingly.

Everything is one fight after another. We have to win this battle before we can wage the next one.

No wonder we’re so exhausted.

Everyone is worn out, but no one more so than classroom teachers.

We’re caught at the crossroads of nearly every conflagration in America.

I sit here on a Sunday afternoon and my bones feel like boulders under my skin.

I sleep like a beaten boxer – all bruises under the sheets.

But I’ll wake up on Monday, make myself a cup of tea and trudge back to my computer screen ready to begin again.

Because despite it all, there is a core part of me that still believes.

I still believe in the future.

I still believe in teaching.

I still believe my students are worth it.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

I picked up another:

 

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

 

And another:

 

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

 

I felt a lump forming in my throat.

 

My cheeks were hot.

 

And why was my face wet?

 

I hadn’t expected any of this.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

During that time we build strong relationships.

 

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

 

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

 

Both are backed by research.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Or at least we have to try.

 

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

You have to care about each student as a person.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

***

 

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

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 

***

 

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

 
***

 

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

 
***

 

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

 
Those are just some of the highlights.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

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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!

book-3

 

 

The Internet is NOT the Best Place for Kids to Learn After the Coronavirus Pandemic

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If the Coronavirus quarantine has taught educators one thing, it’s this.

 

Online learning is not better than in-person schooling.

 

After all these years of corporations throwing apps at us and well-meaning administrators providing us with devices and philanthrocapitalists pumping billions of dollars into ed tech first academic schemes, we can all see now that the emperor has no clothes.

 

When schools nationwide are closed to stop the spread of a global pandemic and learning is restricted to whatever teachers can cobble together on sites like Google Classroom and ZOOM, we can all see the Imperial scepter blowing in the wind.

 

The problem is that this is only clear to parents, students and teachers.

 

The people who get to make ed policy decisions are as blind as ever – as witnessed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s tone deaf insistence that his state reimagine schools with the help of billionaire school saboteur Bill Gates.

 

But the rest of us – you know, those grounded in reality – can see the problems with remote learning staring us in the face.

 

Most importantly, the Internet is not a conducive environment for learning.

 

I don’t mean that learning can’t take place there.

 

You could learn in a fox hole while being shelled by enemy forces. But if your content extends to something more complex than “Duck” or other survival tactics, this may not be the best place to learn it. After all, environment plays a key role in knowledge acquisition.

 

Moreover, different people learn things better in different circumstances. And, contrary to our current education policies that view children as stakeholders or consumers, they are in fact people.

 

There are some children who learn better online than in a brick and mortar classroom. But these kids are few and far between.

 

In general, the younger the child (both physically and psychologically), the more important it is that he or she be given the opportunity to learn in an actual classroom.

 

Why?

 

It really comes down to who controls the environment.

 

In a classroom, the teacher decides most everything about the physical space and what possibilities there will be. She places the books, hangs the posters, sets the lighting, displays student work, etc.

 

In a virtual environment, the space is defined to a small degree by the teacher, but it is mostly determined by the ed tech provider and the open world of the Internet.

 

In short, teachers have much more control over physical classrooms and can remove distractions.

 

Online, educators have very little control over this.

 

LINE OF SIGHT

 
For instance, in my physical classroom, if I wanted to see what a student was doing, all I had to do is walk up to him and look.

 

I controlled what I see, and hiding things from me was difficult.

 

Online, if I want to see what a student is doing (let’s say on a video communications platform like ZOOM), I have little control over what I see. The student is in control of the camera. If it is pointing at the student or placed so as to hide certain behavior or even if the camera is currently on or not is not in my control. Students are empowered to hide anything they want, and there’s not much I can do about it.

 

When teaching online, I’ve had students texting on cell phones, playing video games on computers, having side conversations with friends in their bedrooms, playing with pets – and trying to hide this with the way they display themselves on camera.

 

I’ve had kids mysteriously turn off the camera or point it away from their faces until I ask them to switch it back on or swivel it back to themselves.

 

DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

 
When I first started teaching online a few weeks ago, one of the most powerful tools at my disposal seemed to be the mute button.

 

If several kids weren’t hearing me because of side chatter, I could simply mute everyone and fill the blessed silence with instruction.

 

However, I soon discovered that this is deceptive.

 

Just because you don’t hear the students, doesn’t mean they aren’t talking. Some kids use the online chat stream to continue side chatter. Others forgo that entirely for text and Facebook messaging.

 

What’s worse, it’s often hard for the teacher to even know whether anything she said is actually being heard.

 

TOO MUCH CHOICE

 
One of the great strengths of online learning is that it gives students an incredible amount of choice. But that is also its greatest weakness.

 

I can give assignments through a file sharing site like Google Classroom and let students complete it at their own pace.

 

The problem is that kids (especially young kids) need their pace monitored.

 

You can’t give them too much time to get something done because many will procrastinate through the deadline.

 

In my physical classroom, I would often give an assignment and then provide at least some time for them to start it. The idea was that even if they don’t finish it with me, they are more likely to complete something they already began.

 

However, online it is completely up to them when to do an assignment. They are responsible for their own time management – and that’s a skill we, as educators, struggle to teach them.

 

As a result, most students don’t get these assignments done on time – if at all.

 

Even when they do the work, I’m bombarded by a slew of submissions around midnight or the early hours of the AM.

 

HOW TO ASK A QUESTION YOU DON’T KNOW YOU HAVE

 

 

Then there’s the question of… well… questions.

 

In my brick and mortar classroom, if a child was unsure of something, all she had to do was raise her hand and ask. Online, there are multiple ways to communicate with me – kids can send me an email, message me or verbally ask me something during a video chat.

 

The problem is that sometimes they don’t know they’re confused.

 

In my physical classroom, since all students are working on an assignment together in that same time and space, I can go from desk to desk and see how they’re progressing.

 

If they’re getting something wrong, I can correct it in real time. I can give suggestions and encouragement even before the work is done.

 

Online, I’m mostly limited to commenting on the final project. If a student didn’t understand the directions – and didn’t even understand that he didn’t understand the directions – I don’t know until the work is done.

 

This presents a problem. Do I explain the error and ask him to to do the work all over again? Or do I explain the error but accept the work for what it is?

 

I’ll admit, I usually do the later.

 

STUDENTS M.I.A.

 

 

Which brings me to mysterious absences.

 

I don’t mean kids who don’t show up to video conferences – though there are many of those.

 

I mean kids who for all intents and purposes appear to be there in ZOOM and then suddenly disappear never to return that day.

 

They could have a device or Internet issue. And if this happens every once in a while, it’s understandable. But what about kids who do this all the time?

 

If your iPad isn’t charged one day, I guess things happen. But if it isn’t charged everyday, that’s a problem. Your problem – one you need to solve.

 

I know every district is different in this regard, but my school provides every student with devices and even WiFi if necessary. Even in the physical classroom, using devices always came with a chorus of whines about them not being charged.

 

Once again, we’re putting this responsibility on students and families. In the days before distance learning, we could question whether that was fair. In the Coronavirus dystopia, we have little choice but to do it.

 

However, this brave new world even makes an issue out of bathroom breaks.

 

In the brick and mortar classroom, kids would ask to go to the restroom and then be sent one at a time. Online some kids just turn off their camera or leave it idling on an empty seat or the ceiling. It is next to impossible to tell whether these breaks are genuine or even to estimate their duration.

 

Some students are gone for the majority of the meeting. In a world where video conferences are few and far between, is it so much to ask that you use the restroom BEFORE going to ZOOM?

 

INVADERS

 
But let’s not forget unwanted guests.

 

These platforms require students to know a dedicated Web address and sometimes a password to get in.

 

Yet these are children. They sometimes share these security measures with people who were not invited.

 

Even in my physical classroom, sometimes students not on my roster would try to get in to talk with a friend or even just sit in on my amazing lessons. I could stop them at the door and send them on their way.

 

Online, some sites like ZOOM give me similar power, and others like Kahoot (a game based learning platform) do not. Even when every person entering has to be approved by me, all I see is the name they’ve given their device. If an enterprising stranger wanted to rename their device to that of one of my students, I probably wouldn’t catch it until they were in.

 

There have been several times when someone with one of my students’ names got into a ZOOM meeting, but either refused or couldn’t turn on their camera. I had no choice but to boot them out.

 

On some sites like Kahoot, there is no video. I had no idea who was signing in – I just saw the name they input.

 

So sometimes I had two students with the same name. Or I had let’s say 8 kids in the class but 9 kids were signing on to Kahoot.

 

It’s maddening!

 

ASSESSMENTS AND CHEATING

 
Now let’s talk tests.

 

I don’t like tests. I think they can too easily become cruel games of “guess what the testmaker was thinking.”

 

But they are a necessary evil to judge what information students have learned. Moreover, a creative teacher can design them to reduce the regurgitation of facts and increase critical analysis backed by facts.

 

In a physical classroom, teachers can monitor students during test taking. Online, they can’t. So there’s always a question of cheating.

 

Every scrap of information in human history is available somewhere online. If students try hard enough, they can find the answer to any question with a deft Google search.

 

However, to be honest I don’t think I’ve had too much trouble with this as yet. My students either don’t care enough to cheat, cannot figure out how to do so effectively or have too much self respect.

 

Or maybe I just haven’t caught them.

 

In the physical classroom, I had several students try to pass off others work – essays or poems – as their own. But I haven’t assigned anything so ambitious through distance learning yet.

 

CONCLUSIONS

 
Perhaps that’s why it drives me nuts when policymakers and media types make statements about what an overwhelming success this has all been.

 

Teachers and districts have tried their best. Students and families are giving their all. But this experiment does not demonstrate why we should all embrace distance learning once the Coronavirus pandemic is under control.

 

It shows why we MUST return to the brick and mortar classroom as soon as it is safe to do so.

 

Reimagining school will not require more ed tech.

 

It may require much less.

 

Kids need to be in the presence of physical human beings in a real environment with their peers to maximize their learning.

 

We need smaller classes, equitable funding, desegregation, social justice, wide curriculum, and an end to high stakes testing, school privatization, science denial and anti-intellectualism.

 

But more than anything, we need policymakers who are willing to listen to and include the people on the ground when making decisions that affect us all.


 

 

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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Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-4

Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

book-1

NAEP Test Scores Show How Stupid We Are… To Pay Attention to NAEP Test Scores

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Brace yourselves!

 

America’s NAEP test scores in 2019 stayed pretty much the same as they were in 2018!

 

And the media typically set its collective hair on fire trying to interpret the data.

 

Sometimes called the Nations Report Card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test is given to a random sampling of elementary, middle and high school students in member countries to compare the education systems of nations.

 

And this year there was one particular area where US kids did worse than usual!

 

Our scores went down in 8th grade reading!

 

To be honest, scores usually go up or down by about one or two points every year averaging out to about the same range.

 

But this year! Gulp! They went down four points!

 

FOUR POINTS!

 

What does that mean?

 

Absolutely nothing.

 

They’re standardized test scores. They’re terrible assessments of student learning.

 

You might as well compare the relative body temperatures of randomly selected students and wonder why we aren’t bridging the body warmth gap with the somber hummingbird! I mean it has an average  temperature of 114 F! And the best we can do is a measly 98.6 F! Why won’t enough kids get a fever for America!?

 

If test scores have any meaning at all – it’s parental wealth. Rich kids tend to score higher than poor kids. That’s partially because of the inequality of resources each receive, but also because of racial, cultural and economic bias embedded in the questions.

 

So the NAEP shows us what any study of parental income would show. America has a lot of poor kids and underfunded schools.

 

Thanks, NAEP! There’s no way we could ever have figured that out without you!

 

But having this information come to us via test scores allows us to deflect from the real problem and instead continually blame the victim.

 

Why can’t these poor kids from impoverished schools score as well as kids from richer countries with more well-funded schools?

 

I can’t imagine!

 

Typically politicians used the results to push their pet policies.

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos used the scores to wash her hands of the entire public education system. I know – isn’t her job to safeguard public schools? It’s like a zoo keeper complaining that the penguins aren’t bringing in enough visitors and then refusing to feed them.

 

DeVos proposed we improve test scores by cutting $4.8 billion from public schools in 2020 and instead pumping $5 billion to a tax credit school voucher scheme that props up private schools.

 

I know that sounds dumb, but before you judge her, realize she also proposed cutting federal funding for afterschool programs, teacher professional development, student support and enrichment programs.

 

So there.

 

Education Blogger Peter Greene claims that this move is based on a reading comprehension problem the Education Secretary is having, herself.

 

She says that the NAEP results mean that 2/3 of American students read below grade level. However, Greene points out that she is conflating two different things – grade level proficiency and NAEP proficiency.

 

Here’s what the NAEP wrote:

 

“The NAEP Proficient achievement level does not represent grade-level proficiency, but rather competency over challenging subject matter. NAEP Achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution.”

 
Which kind of begs the question of why we need these scores in the first place.

 

There is much clearer data out there.

 

A study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that 29 states spent less per student in 2015 than they had before the Great Recession.

 

And the federal government has done little to help. Since 2011, spending on major K-12 programs – including Title I grants for underprivileged students and special education – has been basically flat.

 

According to the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, today’s public schools employ at least 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by at least 800,000 students.

 

So to ensure our students had the same quality of service children received only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

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

 

If we looked at realities like these instead of test scores – which at best provide us data at several removes – we might actually be motivated to reach solutions.

 

For instance, the U.S. is one of the only countries in the world – if not probably the ONLY country – that funds schools based largely on local taxes. Other developed nations either equalize funding or provide extra money for kids in need. In the Netherlands, for example, national funding is provided to all schools based on the number of pupils enrolled. But for every guilder allocated to a middle-class Dutch child, 1.25 guilders are allocated for a lower-class child and 1.9 guilders for a minority child – exactly the opposite of the situation in the U.S.

 

If we want to compare the US to other countries, this is a perfect place to start.

 

But a focus on test scores obscures the differences.

 

Virtually all of the top scoring countries taking these exams have much less child poverty than the U.S. If they had the same percentage of poor students that we do, their scores would be lower than ours. Likewise, if we had the same percentage of poor students that they do, our scores would go through the roof! We would have the best scores in the world!

 

These scores just mirror back to us our child poverty rate – that more than 1/3 of our students live below the poverty line and more than half of public school students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

 

But this myopic focus on standardized tests also blinds us to the ways our system is superior to that of many other countries.

 

We do something that many international systems do not. We educate everyone! Foreign systems often weed children out by high school. They don’t let every child get 13 years of grade school (counting kindergarten). They only school their highest achievers.

 

So when we compare ourselves to these countries, we’re comparing ALL of our students to only SOME of theirs – their best academic pupils, to be exact. Yet we still hold our own given these handicaps!

 
This suggests that the majority of problems with our public schools are monetary. Pure and simple.

 

At least House Democrats passed a Labor-HHS-Education funding bill to increase public school funding by $3.5 billion. Even if it were somehow passed by the Republican controlled Senate, that’s a drop in the bucket after decades of neglect – but it’s something!

 

It’s certainly better than DeVos who claims that funding somehow doesn’t matter for public schools – only for her pet charter and voucher schools.

 

A 2018 review by Northwestern University found that in 12 out of 13 studies increased spending had a positive effect on student outcomes. And that result has been verified by studies since then in California, Texas, Wisconsin and other states.

 
Money makes a difference.

 

Money spent on students – not more testing.

 

So why the drop in this year’s 8th grade reading scores?

 

Who knows? It could be a spike in the rate or effect of child poverty in the middle school years.

 

It could be the impact of decades of high stakes testing on middle school curriculum – narrowing what is taught and muscling out authentic instruction.

 

Frankly it doesn’t matter because the data is suspect.

 

Standardized testing will never give us an accurate picture of what is going on with our students or our schools.

 

And until we, as a society, finally realize that and focus on things that actually matter, we will continue to fail the only test that matters – how well we provide for our children.

 

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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Teachers Are More Stressed Out Than You Probably Think

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

That causes a mighty amount of stress.

 

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

 

 

But those are conservative estimates.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

One respondent commented:

 

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

WORK LOAD

 

 

The most obvious cause of teacher stress is the workload.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

SALARY

 

 

Another contributing factor is salary.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

Sadly, it only gets worse as time goes on.

 

Teacher salary starts low, and grows even more slowly.

 

 

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

 

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

 

 

BACK TO WORKLOAD

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

RESPECT

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

Sometimes this lack of respect leads to outright bullying.

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

Teacher stress is a real problem in our schools.

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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The Absurdity of Standardized Testing: Caught Between Prediction and Assessment

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Standardized testing is truly absurd.

 
It’s both a prediction and an assessment.

 

You take a test to determine what you’ve learned and that will in turn predict what you will be able to learn in the future.

 

We hardly ever do this anywhere else in life.

 

We don’t measure babies’ leg muscles to predict whether they’re ready to walk. We let them do what they do, possibly with some encouragement and positive models of locomotion, and they do it.

 

There are cognitive and developmental benchmarks we look for, and if children don’t hit them, we provide help. But no further prediction is necessary – certainly not based on artificial markers put together by corporate interests.

 

In most situations, predictions are superfluous. We just assume that everyone can learn if they so desire – unless something happens to make us think otherwise. And whether someone actually learns something is demonstrated by doing the thing, itself.

 

The only time we link prediction and assessment so closely is when the consequences of failure are irreversible – like when you’re going solo skydiving for the first time. If you jump out of an airplane and don’t know how to pull the ripcord to get your parachute to work, you probably won’t get a second chance to try again.

 

But most things in life aren’t so dire.

 

The world of standardized testing is very different. The high stakes nature of the assessments are what ramp out the consequences and thus the severity.

 

Testing looks at learning like two points on a map and sets up a gate between points A and B.

 

In order to cross, you have to determine if you’ve passed through the previous gate. And only then can you be allowed to progress on to point C.

 

But this is wrong on so many levels.

 

First, you don’t need a test to determine which point you’re at. If Point B is the ability to add, you can simply add. If it’s the ability to write a complete sentence, you can simply write a sentence.

 

There is no need to fill out a formal multiple-choice assessment that – depending on the complexity of the task being considered – is completely inadequate to capture the subtleties involved. The task, itself, is enough.

 

Imagine if you were testing whether someone had learned how to drink a glass of water. You could just give them a cup filled with H2O and see if they can gulp it down. Or you could have them sharpen their number 2 pencil and answer questions about how their throat works, their digestive and excretory systems and the chemical composition of agua – all answers predetermined to A, B, C or D.

 

Observation of a skill, we are told, is not enough to determine success because it relies on the judgment of an observer. A standardized test replaces the observer with an impersonal, distant testing corporation which then assesses only predetermined markers and makes decisions devoid of any situational context.

 

This is done to remove observational bias but it doesn’t avoid bias altogether. In setting up the markers and deciding which elements of the task are to be assessed (or in fact can be assessed in such a distant manner), the testing corporation is inserting its own biases into the process. In fact, in any assessment conducted by human beings, this would be inevitable. So going through this maze of perceived objectivity is really just a matter of subterfuge meant to disguise the biases of the corporation.

 

Second, assessing people in this way is extremely unnatural because very few fields of knowledge can be divided and subdivided into two or more discrete points.

 

When writing a complex sentence, for example, you need to know not just spelling and grammar but logic, handwriting, subject matter, colloquialisms, literary devices, and a plethora of other cultural and linguistic artifacts.

 

Moreover, there is not always a natural progression from Point A to B to C. Sometimes A jumps directly to C. Sometimes B leads directly to A. Sometimes A leads to Z.

 

Knowledge, skills and human cognition are far too complex a web to ever hope to be captured by such a reductive enterprise. But by insisting that we make this complexity fit into such a small box, we end up depriving people of the right to move on. We say predictive models show they aren’t ready to move forward and so we bury them in remediation. Or we deny them access to important opportunities like advanced classes, electives, field trips, extracurricular clubs or even post-secondary education.

 

Third, this emphasis on knowledge as discrete bits of information or skills (often called standards) leads to bad teaching.

 

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

 

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

 

A focus on standardized testing or even trying to educate in a system where these tests are attached to high stakes, results in an increase in item teaching. We often call it teaching to the test.

 

I’m not saying that item teaching is always bad. But curriculum teaching is to be much preferred. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

 

So when we find students who have made dramatic improvements on standardized tests, we often don’t find equal improvements in their over all knowledge or ability.

 

Test scores are often a false positive. They show students have mastered the art of taking the test but not necessarily the knowledge or skills it was meant to assess.

 

They are more like trained circus animals who can jump through flaming hoops but would be lost in the wild.

 

That’s why certain computer modeled artificial intelligences are able to pass standardized tests but would fail preschool.

 

These reflections have troubling implications for our system of standardized testing.

 

The false curtain of objectivity we’ve set up in our assessments may also be hiding from us what authentic learning is taking place and it may even hinder such learning from taking place at all.

 

Any sane society would halt such a system with these drawbacks. It would stop, regroup and devise a better alternative.

 

To continue with such a pedagogical framework truly would be the most absurd thing of all!


 

 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

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