Category Archives: dilemmas of teaching

“We Can Only Hope” (Terence Freeman)

Freeman is an English teacher at Lawton High School in Lawton, Oklahoma. He has taught 14 years at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and 26 years at Lawton High School. This story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. Freeman is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

Hope was on my mind in the summer months leading up to this academic year. I hoped the school had plans and funding for sanitizer, cleaning liquids, paper towels, masks, teacher testing and more; hoped that I and my students would remain healthy; hoped that I could still have the personal relationship with students that enables learning to happen.

I will remember Hands. During Week 2, I took my classes to the library, where the district fulfilled its promise to provide every student with a Chromebook. I now had the option of having students read from a website or from a paper textbook. Call me old-fashioned, but there’s nothing like the heft and texture and tangibility of the printed text.

Yet I worried about students in successive classes touching the same books. So I went on Amazon and ordered three large boxes of nitrile gloves. I’ve placed a pair for every student in a baggie with her or his name on it, and the baggies are stored in separate boxes in the classroom. The students enter the room, wipe down the desks I have sprayed with liquid cleaner, wash their hands with sanitizer, grab the assigned baggie, put on the gloves, grab the book on the desk, read and at the end of class put the gloves in the baggie and the baggie in the box. A terribly makeshift solution, but one that’s been enthusiastically received and executed by the students. They and I each do what we need to do — that’s the can-do spirit of an American.

I will remember Obstacles. Two-thirds of our students elected in-person education. Some technical adjustments were relatively easy — cold breakfast in the classroom, wiping down desks before each period, sanitizing hands, distancing between desks. Masks were harder — not the wearing, but the communication.

On the first morning of school, gloved and masked, I helped do a security check of students’ backpacks/bags/purses before passing the students on through the metal detector. All of the students were masked, and I quickly realized how important our faces are to communication, to the recognition of emotion. A cheery greeting from me, if I got a response at all, generated a reply whose emotional content was muffled, distant, cold. I have had the same experience in class. Conversations involve both hearing and observing, and the masks impede the observations. I and my students have needed to work harder to emote through our eyes and voices.

I will remember the Probe. In Week 3, I took advantage of a free coronavirus test offered by the state’s health and education departments. I made my appointment the day before, showed up 10 minutes early and was the second school employee at the location. The testing equipment beat me to the scene but, unfortunately, the nurses did not. Teacher after teacher arrived at the room, and we milled around in the hallway, awkwardly chattering and trying to maintain social distance.

Thirty minutes after my arrival, two nurses arrived — one female, one male. In due course, I was seated before the male nurse, who proceeded to make a minute-long speech that I understood nothing of — these masks are truly a pain. The insertion of the probe was uncomfortable, the nurse’s count to five unnecessarily slow and the aftermath a slight burning and a watery eye. I high-tailed it back to the classroom and beat the first of my 18 students by about 30 seconds. I used a Kleenex to dab the watery eye — one must maintain one’s image, after all. A result came the next day: “Not Detected.”

I will remember the Extra. On the third day of school, I learned that my Advanced Placement students would have the option of getting a virtual education. I tried hard to find a magic bullet, but the programs and technology suggested to me over the summer would, I came to believe, only allow me to offer a significantly limited version of the in-person curriculum I have developed over the years. So I have found myself trying to construct that limited version (at the moment, for eight students) while at the same time conducting the in-person version. In essence, I feel as if I am being tasked to be two teachers — me and Extra Mini-Me.

So there it is — my first weeks at school. Hands. Obstacles. Probe. Extra. H-O-P-E. I am reminded of the poet Basho: “Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” We can only hope.

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“I’m Hopeful for a Better Tomorrow” (Justin Lopez-Cardoze)

Lopez-Cardoze is a seventh-grade science teacher at Capital City PublicCharter School in Washinton, D.C. He has taught for nine years.

This story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. Lopez-Cardoze is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

It was the first day of school with students. After eight years of first days, you would think I would feel calm and confident on my ninth. Honestly, each year it gets harder to manage the nerves. You want to do things right; you want your students to like you and say, “This class will be incredible.” On those first days of the last eight years, the moments felt so magical. I would see new faces, bright smiles, goofy personalities and nerves suddenly disappearing. It felt right.

But my ninth first day? I felt uncomfortable. I’m used to hearing and seeing students interacting with each other when I’m presenting on the first day, but in the world of Zoom, all you hear is yourself against multiple tiles on mute — and that day, most of the tiles were blank backgrounds with names. I didn’t hear a laugh. I couldn’t observe body language. What once felt like joy in my classroom quickly turned into emptiness.

I found myself seeking guidance from my principal that afternoon. I felt defeated, but in a unique way, which made me feel like even more of a failure. Last year, I was named D.C. Teacher of the Year, the first Latinx teacher to win that award. Folks were reaching out, asking me to share my expertise and perspectives from all over the District and country. I felt like I was on top of my teaching career. And now, after my first “Day One” in a distance learning program? I felt like a loser. I felt like I couldn’t be the teacher I had worked so hard to become.

I told my principal, “I feel like a first-year teacher again, only worse.” Her response stuck with me. “It feels worse because you have built years of what has worked well for you,” she said. “You have the background, and you have the experience. You have the expectation. Ignorance was bliss for you on your first day on the job several years ago. Now, you’re trying to live up to that expectation when the world has changed so drastically.”

So do I change my expectations? Do I lower them? Do I overhaul everything for the sake of adjusting to the pandemic? My principal told me to keep my expectations high in magnitude and low in rigidity.

“Create a bigger picture to discover the avenues that strive towards the high expectations your students deserve,” she said. “And select those paths as the decisions you will make as a teacher for your students at this time.”

I listened. And 18 instructional days later, I have realized this advice has transformed my students and me into agents of optimal learning. My outstanding co-teacher, Danielle Fadare, and I have helped each other broaden our scopes to provide meaningful and fun instruction.

Did we teach our students how to read a procedure with scientific tools and chemicals this year? No. But we did a demo on making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while students learned how to co-write detailed procedures in groups to control every move I made to create one.

Did students use compound microscopes to view outdated slides in person? No. But they have learned how to use a virtual platform provided by a local university to investigate cellular structures using a 100X objective lens — a level of magnification that most compound microscopes in K-12 schools don’t have.

For the longest time, I viewed distance learning as limiting my quality of instruction. I thought, “Well, I won’t be able to do this because it just won’t be the same through Google Hangouts or Zoom.” It turns out I was right. It won’t be the same. But I had a choice. Should I accept those limits or should I embrace the potential and leverage my creativity to create promising outcomes? I have chosen the latter.

Is everything perfect? Absolutely not. And there’s a long way to go. There will be lots of magical moments and wins, with lots of failure. But I’ll fail with the intention of finding a different path to follow.

And the kids are excited to be back. Many of them are already super tech-savvy. They’re turning their cameras on. They’re laughing. One thing that I noticed today is that when I dismissed kids to their next class, many wanted to stick around and just talk to me. Not for anything academic . . . just to talk. As crazy as this sounds, I feel like I can relate to my students more than I ever have in my entire career. I’m learning with them. I’m growing with them. I hope we can build trust for one another throughout this time. And I’m hopeful for a better tomorrow.

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“Welcome Back, Teach” (Jessyca Mathews)

Mathews is an English Teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan. Her story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. She is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

The massive rumbles of thunder surprise me from my sleep. With heart racing, I turn over to look at the time. It’s only 4:30 a.m. I could try to sleep for another hour and a half, but my mind has other plans. As I sit up and look out the window, I gaze at the dark, mysterious sky.

I am exhausted, but I must start my day because it is time for the inevitable. I must report to the Factory today.

I begin a ritual that would soon be my daily routine. I take a hot shower. Brush my teeth. Put on ChapStick. Find clothing with many pockets. Display makeup just on my eyes. The mask will cover the rest of my face.

I investigate my survival bag to make sure I have the required items: hand sanitizer, masks, face wipes and at least two bottles of water.

As I zip my bag, the memory of last year’s school bag comes to my mind, and I smile. Then it was filled with purple pens, gifts for co-workers and first-day prizes for students. I always loved playing games with them on the first day.

But that won’t happen this year. Teaching will be online for the foreseeable future.

I reach inside the medicine cabinet for the thermometer and take my temperature.

It can’t be over 100.4. Lastly, I complete the Factory’s required health assessment form online to “prove” I don’t have the Illness.

My “Good for the Soul” soundtrack plays on my car radio, but I ignore the tunes. There is too much worry about entering the Factory to enjoy the irony of Beyoncé, telling me to “Get in formation.”

After driving through rain-drenched streets, I arrive and park in the front parking lot. Before entering the Factory, I pause to watch other co-workers.

With her head hanging low, one worker walks with a slight limp as she begins her path to the front door. Another co-worker sits in her car. Her eyes are closed, and her body is still. This meditation must be her moment of peace, even if it is just this brief minute. I do not interrupt her.

Others lurch out of the dark shadows of cars and trucks, reaching for their faces to veil their noses and mouths. The coverings also suppress the lips that usually express greetings of “Welcome back” to start the previous years.

After meeting my new intern, Anna, who stands alone in a puddle-filled parking lot, we join the others. We trudge inside the Factory to start this new line of work and existence in education.

Nothing is like it was before.

The workers cannot meet as a whole group due to the Illness. Half of the staff are sent to the cafeteria and half head to the auditorium. We can’t even join as one to start the school year. There is no unity anymore.

Anna and I are sent to the auditorium to receive further instruction. Once we enter, we hear the directions:

Sit five seats apart!

Sit every other row!

Sit facing forward!

There are slight sounds of squeaking seats as each worker follows the directions. There is limited talking. There are no happy conversations about children and escapes that happened this summer. The Illness took many things. It also took away the usual noise and excitement that happens when we start another school year.

Just one year ago, teachers of all grades gathered in this space. There were laughter, hugs and well wishes to have another successful school year. But the tone has changed. Most sit and stare, their eyes filled with nervous tension, confusion and worry. We soon hear a noise from the speakers. The Leader is prepared to begin.

The Leader appears on a large screen and I fight to pay attention to my new directives as the anxiety creeps into my soul. The Leader’s message is quick and direct and we are sent to our working spaces. The Leader’s statements do not comfort me, and nothing in returning here makes me feel like I matter.

There are no lights on in my hallway. Figures of co-workers move like apparitions haunting abandoned buildings, each disappearing into their classroom. I panic at the drab ambiance of my working space. It makes me think of all the things that will not be there with me to start this school year.

No students. No conversations. No light. Will there be joy?

Today, there is only darkness and the soft click of my door closing to start this new year of dystopian teaching.

I shall teach children on screen from the Factory.

I whisper to myself, “Welcome back, teach . . . ”

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Confessions of a Reformer (Part 5)

This series of posts is called “Confessions of a School Reformer,” a book I am now writing. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 describe my entry into classroom teaching beginning in 1955 and ending in 1972. So this post continues Part 4.

The King assassination

On April 4th, the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis (TN) where he was supporting sanitation workers’ demands for higher wages and better working conditions triggered explosive anger across the country. Civil unrest broke out in over 100 cities across the U.S. Protests, looting, fires swept the nation.

In Washington, D.C., the 14th St. business corridor, a few blocks from Roosevelt High School where I taught, was picked clean and burnt.  A news article described the scene.

As night fell, angry people began to pour from their houses into the streets. Headed by the black activist Stokely Carmichael, crowds surged along 14th Street, ordering businesses to close. Carmichael tried to keep control, but things quickly got out of hand. A rock was thrown through a store window. Then a trash can was hurled. Someone used lighter fluid to start a small fire in a tree. As firefighters doused it, someone in the crowd yelled, “We’ll just light it again!”[i]

Over four days of violent disturbances, 13 people died and damages or destruction occurred to nearly 1200 residential and commercial buildings. The President called in the National Guard. Just barely a 100 yards from our house, Barbara, Sondra, Janice, and I stood at the corner of 16th and Holly Sts. to watch troop-filled trucks and tanks move down the broad avenue toward heavily damaged areas in the city.  [ii]

Like so many other families in D.C., we were distraught. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered their windows. Everything shut down, TV reports of shootings shook all of us. Since grocery stores in the damaged areas were either wiped out or picked clean, many families in those areas needed food. St. Stephen’s Church organized food drives and volunteers to take bags of groceries to families near 14th St. For two days these volunteers, including me, drove to apartment buildings and residences to drop off groceries.

King’s assassination altered dramatically what happened in my morning Roosevelt classes and what occurred in the afternoons at CCR. At school, there was much absenteeism and when even smaller classes convened, feelings were raw and silence was common during lessons. The school held a memorial service for Dr. King. Ever so slowly, my students re-entered discussions. In the Negro History class, where there had been many free-wheeling discussions of racism in American society, three students displayed their anger at whites including their teacher over the next few weeks.  Sullen aggressiveness was the order of the day from many (but not all) students.

At CCR, divisions among the multiracial staff became even worse than it had been. Hateful looks and whispered comments about whites were frequent and often went unanswered. The sadness and anger over the loss of an exceptional leader whose views of making Blacks full citizens had broadened to include fighting poverty, connecting capitalism to inequalities, and the blood-letting Vietnam  War were evident in the weeks to come. My own inexperience within a bureaucracy and working half-days increased my uncertainty over what exactly should be the Unit’s agenda for school desegregation. What could the U.S. ever do to rid itself of racist structures and behaviors ricocheted in my mind. My questions and stumbling, uncertain efforts to ease the racial antagonisms shaped the following months of work at CCR. My inability to come up with a viable agenda of research and, more important heal the open racial divide that had been simmering before I became Director and now erupted within our Unit led, after many discussions with Barbara, to my quitting a few months later.  No other job awaited me.


[i]  Wikipedia, “1968  Washington, D.C. Riots,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Washington,_D.C.,_riots

Denise Wills, “People Were Out of Control,”: Remembering the 1968 Riots, Washingtonian, April 1, 2008 at: https://www.washingtonian.com/2008/04/01/people-were-out-of-control-remembering-the-1968-riots/

[ii] Wikipedia, “1968  Washington, D.C. Riots,” at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1968_Washington,_D.C.,_riots

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“Confessions of a School Reformer” (Part 2)

Glenville High School, 1956-1963

My memory of teaching over a half-century ago is filled with holes. In thinking back to the time when I began teaching at Glenville High School in Cleveland (OH), I can remember some events, some students, some teachers, and my first principal but there is much I cannot recall. Slivers of memory remind me of what I did daily in my five U.S. and world history classes over the seven years that I taught there. And even those fragments are disconnected.  What helps me from sentimentalizing my memories are yellowed copies of actual lessons I taught, student papers with my comments on them, old spiral-ringed gradebooks listing students and their marks, occasional articles about one or more classes of mine in the student newspaper, and photos of me teaching in the annual yearbook. That’s it.

I do recall my shock when I had lunch with Glenville principal Oliver Deex just before I had to report for teaching in September 1956. I was startled to find out that Glenville’s student body was over 90 percent Black—the word then was Negro. He gave me a once-over-lightly account of segregated schools in Cleveland, the differences between the increasingly Black East Side and the all-white West Side, separated by the Cuyahoga River. He began my education in Cleveland’s residential segregation and the growth of ethnic and racial ghettos.[i]

Segregated Cleveland

Patterns of ethnic and racial segregation in Cleveland had developed early in the twentieth century, when neighborhoods became easily identifiable as Italian, German, Polish, Jewish, and Black. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, upwardly striving immigrant Jewish families clustered in the Central, Scovill, and Woodland Avenue neighborhoods close to downtown. By the 1920s, many of these families began to move eastward into the Glenville area in response to an influx of Southern Black migrant families seeking better housing. The result was the gradual transformation of these areas into a Black ghetto. By the 1930s, Jewish businesses, synagogues, hospitals, and charitable institutions services dotted 105th Street, one of Glenville’s main thoroughfares, and Glenville High School became nearly 90 percent Jewish in that decade.[ii]

Residential segregation (homes on sale often had racial covenants in their deeds) and in-migration of Blacks after World War II again created overcrowded housing in already racially segregated neighborhoods. Upwardly mobile Black families entered the Glenville area in the late 1940s and early 1950s. As that occurred, more and more Jewish families moved into the eastern suburbs of Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid, and Beachwood. Middle-class Black families increased their presence in the Glenville area, so that by the time I arrived, Glenville High School and the adjacent junior highs and elementary schools were already over 90 percent Black.[iii]

Classroom teaching

Although my teacher preparation at the University of Pittsburgh was steeped in the Progressive tradition of student-centered instruction, if an observer had entered my high school history classes in those initial years they would have easily categorized my instruction as wholly teacher-centered. Students sat in rows of movable chairs with tablet arms facing the front blackboard and my desk.

I planned detailed lessons at home for the five classes. In my written lessons, which I would follow religiously in the early years, I would carefully list the questions I would ask for whole-group discussions, lecture on the text and additional readings Iassigned to the class, all the while orchestrating a sequence of activities aligned to the questions. Over 90 percent of instructional time was spent teaching the whole group.

Toward the end of my first year at Glenville, I realized, albeit slowly, that teaching five classes a day with multiple lessons (I taught world history and U.S. history), grading homework from over 150 students, and learning the ropes of managing groups of students a few years younger than me not only wore me out–I was also taking late-afternoon and evening graduate history courses at Western Reserve University– but drove me to rely on lectures and the textbook far more than I anticipated.

Slowly, however, I became dissatisfied about how I was teaching. I routinely lectured, watched maybe half of the students take notes and the other half stare into the distance or try to look attentive. Some fell asleep. I asked students questions about the textbook pages I assigned and got one-word answers back. Occasionally, a student would ask a question and I would improvise an answer that would trigger a few more students to enter in what would become a full blown back-and-forth discussion. It was unplanned and brief but mysteriously disappeared in the snap of a finger. Periodic quizzes and current events topics one day a week altered my routines but student disengagement persisted.

After six months, I realized that I did not want to teach history mechanically drowning students in forgettable facts that left me drained and dissatisfied at the end of a long day. I wanted to break out of that pattern. But did not know how to do that yet.

These were the years before the civil rights movement had traveled northward. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in the midst of his Montgomery ministry; Rosa Parks had just triggered the boycott of Jim Crow buses in that city. After nearly a year teaching, I became more aware of how Cleveland’s racially segregated neighborhoods had blanketed schools like Glenville with malignant neglect. But it was slow going for a white teacher who gradually learned from his students and Black colleagues what was happening outside of school. Slow as it was, I began to see my work inside the classroom where students took notes and participated in discussions connected to students’ lives outside school.[iv]

That insight occurred as I grew Intellectually. Oliver Deex, my principal was midwife to expanding my mind. A voracious reader and charming conversationalist, Deex introduced me to books and magazines I had never read: Saturday Review of Literature, Harpers, Atlantic, Nation, and dozens of others.

He often invited to his home a small group of teachers committed to seeing Glenville students go to college. When we were in his wood-paneled library, a room that looked as if it were a movie set, he would urge me to take this or that book. In his office after school, we would talk about what I read. I have no idea why he took an interest in the intellectual development of a gangly, fresh-faced, ambitious novice, but his insistent questioning of my beliefs and gentle guidance whetted my appetite for ideas and their application to daily life and teaching.

The next year, I decided to experiment with different content to break out of those instructional routines that numbed me by the end of the day. For two of my five classes, I began to design lessons that differed from the assigned U.S. history text (David S. Muzzey’s History of Our Country published in 1955 had no entry for “Negro” in the index). Drawing from my University graduate history courses, I began to type up excerpts from primary sources, duplicate them on the department’s one ditto machine, add questions and assign them to those two classes–the thought of doing this for all five classes overwhelmed me; two seemed do-able. [v]

For example, in a textbook chapter on the 13 colonies in which Muzzey’s History of Our Country dismissed the origins of slavery as unimportant, I would copy readings that included descriptions of slave auction and bills of sale and historians’ accounts that spelled out the issues surrounding the introduction of Africans into the colonies. I would add questions to these readings that called for students to analyze both primary and secondary sources. In addition, the librarian gathered the few books on Negro history that we had in our school and nearby libraries and put them aside in a special section for my two classes.

By my third year at Glenville, I had found that gaining students’ interest in U.S. history was only half the struggle. I was now using these materials in all five classes. Student response to non-textbook ethnic materials, however, was mixed. The novelty of studying Black figures and broader issues of race triggered deep interest in maybe half of the students in the classes. But many students felt that such content was sub-standard because their texts didn’t mention the information contained in their readings and, moreover, they complained openly that other history teachers didn’t have readings and used the textbook more than I did. Some students even asked me to return to the text. I was surprised at first that some students wanted me to return to the deadening routine that left me and most students anesthetized. Then I realized that using textbooks in high school was all that they knew.

Overall, however, I judged student response as sufficiently positive for me to continue and, truth be told, I was excited about the readings and ways of getting students to think about the past that I had developed. I saw that students studying a  past in which racial content and practices were important enabled both students and me to make connections between then and now that had been missing when I began teaching.  Sure, I was weary at 3:30 PM, but now I looked forward to the next day of teaching.[vi]

Within four years, I had expanded my repertoire beyond weekly use of ethnic and racial subject matter. I slowly introduced new content and direct instruction in skills into my U.S. history classes. As I learned the methodology of the historian in my graduate courses, I designed more lessons on analyzing evidence, determining which sources of information were more or less reliable and assessing what makes one opinion more informed than another. A later generation of scholars and practitioners might have labeled my uncertain baby-steps in changing the content of lessons,  “teaching historical thinking.” [vii]

______________________________________________

[i] Leonard Moore, “The School Desegregation Crisis of Cleveland, Ohio, 1963–1964,” Journal of Urban History 28, no. 2 (2002): 135–147. Within the school, I quickly learned from experienced colleagues that the district personnel department customarily assigned young, white, inexperienced teachers to mostly minority schools to see if they would survive. 

 [ii] Kenneth Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland, 1870–1930 (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 157–173; David Van Tassel (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 595–599.

[iii] Kusmer, A Ghetto Takes Shape, 170–171.

[iv] A reader knowledgeable about Progressive thought in the early 20the century could easily point out that such a connection I had come to realize was within Progressive educators’ thinking decades earlier.

[v] For the reference to David Muzzey’s U.S. History textbook, see Larry Cuban “Jim Crow History,” Negro History Bulletin, 1962, 25(4), pp. 84-86.

The ditto machine (or “spirit duplicator”) came into schools in the 1940s. It did not need electricity to run and was cheap compared to a mimeograph machine. The machine was basically a crank-turned drum to which I attached a stencil that I had typed up. I inserted paper in the tray, and turned the handle until I had enough copies for my lesson. The finished copies were purplish with the distinct fragrance of alcohol (which was in the drum). The purple type ran occasionally and after producing many copies my hands were often bluish. With the invention of the electronic copy machine in the 1970s, ditto machines became another footnote in classroom teaching.

[vi] In 1962, I was asked to present at a national conference of social studies teachers on the ethnic and racial content lessons I had created. A member of the audience, Ted Fenton, came up to me afterwards and asked me if I would write a volume for his Scott,Foresman series on problems in American history. I said I would and in 1964, The Negro in America appeared in the series (it came out in a second edition in 1971 re-titled The Black Man in America.. It was the first book that I had published.

[vii] Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Phi Delta Kappan, 1999, 80(7), pp. 488-499; Roy Rosenzeig, “What Is Historical Thinking Matters,” at: http://historicalthinkingmatters.org/about/

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I’m a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did (Kristin McConnell)

Kristin McConnell is a nurse and writer living in New York City. This appeared in The Atlantic online August 4, 2020.

The other day my husband, a public-school teacher in New York City, got a string of texts from a work friend. After checking in on our family and picking up their ongoing conversation about books and TV shows, she wrote, “So, are we going on a teacher strike in the fall?”

“What!? No!” My husband is adamantly against a strike, because he understands on a deep, personal level his duty to serve his country in the classroom.

We have two young children, one of whom is developmentally disabled, and I’m an intensive-care nurse. Through the spring, I took care of COVID-19 patients at the hospital while he toggled between teaching on Zoom and helping our daughters through their own lessons. He knows that I did my part for society, and that now he should, too.

We wouldn’t be in this mess of uncertainty about the coming school year if the federal government had managed to control the virus; any glimmer of leadership from the president would have gone a long way. Grievances and fear are understandable. I support teacher-led campaigns to make sure that safety measures are in place. And any city or state experiencing a spike in cases should keep schools shut, along with indoor businesses.

What I don’t support is preemptively threatening “safety strikes,” as the American Federation of Teachers did in late July. These threats run counter to the fact that, by and large, school districts are already fine-tuning social-distancing measures and mandating mask-wearing. Teachers are not being asked to work without precautions, but some overlook this: the politics of mask-wearing have gotten so ridiculous that many seem to believe masks only protect other people, or are largely symbolic. They’re not. Nurses and doctors know that masks do a lot to keep us safe, and that other basics such as hand-washing and social distancing are effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

nstead of taking the summer to hone arguments against returning to the classroom, administrators and teachers should be thinking about how they can best support children and their families through a turbulent time. Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers. They should rise to the occasion even if it makes them nervous, just like health-care workers have.

My husband, playing devil’s advocate while we discussed this (we both know how eager he is to go back), said, “Arguably health-care workers sort of signed up for this kind of risk, but teachers did not.”

I replied, “Absolutely not!” Doctors and nurses sign up for work that is sometimes high-stress for us and sometimes life-or-death for our patients, not for us. Aside from those who choose to work in biocontainment or offer their services in war zones, we are not expected to do crucial medical work under potentially lethal circumstances.

I was terrified when I started taking care of COVID-19 ICU patients. Before my first COVID-19 shift, I had panic attacks that made me wheeze, and I walked onto the unit my first day in tears (so in addition to being terrified, I was also really embarrassed). My co-workers felt similarly. I heard an attending physician say, of her daughter, “What if she loses her mother?” and I read through a young nurse’s freshly written will, no joke.

In those early days, I confessed my anxieties to an acquaintance, and he asked whether I could take a medical leave of absence. I could have taken a leave, and teachers in need can too. (And parents who want their children to stay home have that option, whether through homeschooling or continued remote learning.) But I said, “No, I can’t just chump out!” Chump wasn’t the right word—at the moment, I was almost hysterical, and it was hard for me to even articulate how I felt, called upon to do something frightening and hard that I viscerally did not want to do.

The military language people used when discussing COVID-19 in the spring seemed totally appropriate, and in a way that mentality got me through the peak: This was a war, and I was a soldier. It wasn’t my choice to serve, but it was my duty; I had skills and knowledge that were needed

So I can understand that teachers are nervous about returning to school. But they should take a cue from their fellow essential workers and do their job. Even people who think there’s a fundamental difference between a nurse and a teacher in a pandemic must realize that there isn’t one between a grocery-store worker and a teacher, in terms of obligation. People who work at grocery stores in no way signed up to expose themselves to disease, but we expected them to go to work, and they did. If they had not, society would have collapsed. What do teachers think will happen if working parents cannot send their children to school? Life as we know it simply will not go on.

When some of my husband’s students told him that they had continued working as cashiers throughout the spring and summer, he said, “Wow, that’s so courageous of you.” He feels that he doesn’t really have anything to show for himself, and he looks forward to the time when he will. Now, contemplating the possibility of teachers striking, he says, “Bowing out wouldn’t be a good example to set for our students.”

Teachers signed up to be a positive adult presence in children’s lives, and to help them grow up with their peers, at school, away from home. We need them to follow through, even though it’s a challenge. It’s going to be hard; it’s going to be stressful; it’s not going to be perfect. “I can’t think of one time that there was actually hand soap in the men’s bathroom,” my husband told me. That’ll have to change, hopefully for good. The point is that everyone is going to have to go above and beyond. But teachers are smart and adaptable. They can do this.

In the days before I first took care of COVID-19 patients, I discovered a deeper fear. Beneath my panic over exposing myself to the disease, I was also afraid that the work would be too difficult, too fast-paced, too chaotic: I was afraid I would fail. When I came to the hospital, I discovered that solidarity, flexibility, kindness, and a willingness to learn would be integral elements of nursing through a pandemic, and I knew I wouldn’t fail—the skills I had were the very reason I had been called upon to do this work. The same is true of teaching through a pandemic.

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Remote Delivery of Instruction–Covid-19 and Re-opening Schools

Regardless of what President Trump wants, the vast majority of American students will begin their school year with remote delivery of instruction. As the surging of infections in many southern and western states has occurred, health risks for both children and adults have again risen. (see here and here). And many parents unwilling to take risks with their children will opt for staying home and their children doing the best they can with electronic devices

Note that I avoid the phrase “remote learning.” I do so because “learning” implies that through a medium–a computer screen–students have acquired knowledge and skills, been assessed for mastery, and can apply either or both in a different situation. Sitting at home in front of an Internet-connected device and listening to a teacher conduct a ZOOM session or completing and submitting an assigned worksheet, or partnering on-screen with a small group, or have small groups of students collaborate on-screen separately from the teacher can be (and are) worthwhile tasks leading to learning. But the medium has severe limitations as anyone knows who has taken online courses and experienced it since lockdowns and sheltering in began in March. And veteran and novice online teachers, are familiar with both strengths and shortcomings of distance education.

Nor am I romanticizing in-person classroom teaching. Rest assured as someone who has taught for 14 years, headed a school district for seven years, and have studied how teachers have taught over the past century I know full well the limitations, nay weaknesses, of face-to-face instruction. I have studied school reforms aimed at transforming curriculum and instruction and found how some were fully implemented by teachers and ended up both stretching and entrancing students intellectually. But most did not.

Organization may be transformed such as the age-graded, eight-room grammar school replacing the rural one-room schoolhouse over a century ago. But that has been rare. for all of the rhetoric about multi-age groups in schools, project based teaching, and unleashed innovations of charter schools, the age-graded organization remains the mainstay of U.S. schooling nearly two centuries after the first one appeared in the 1940s in Quincy, Massachusetts. I have yet to hear anyone question this organization

Curriculum may be transformed as has occurred when the college preparatory curriculum that all high school students in the 1890s had to take and subsequently the differentiated curriculum (e.g., college prep, vocational/commercial. and general) that Progressives created in the comprehensive high school between the 1920s and 1940s. And a generation later only to have many of the courses mostly replaced by the New Math, New Biology and New Social Studies of the 1960s and 1970s. Then within a few decades, to have those courses once again re-engineered by reformers in the 1980s and 1990s with curriculum standards aimed at getting all students prepared for college. Not unlike the aim of those 1890s reformers who taught a bare fraction of 17 year-olds. Yes, curriculum has indeed changed again, again, and yet again.

And instruction has also changed. Transformed, no. But incremental changes, yes. And in that tradition of gradual change, the notion of “great” teachers continues to seize the imagination of students, parents, administrators, and, yes, teachers as well. That idea of “great teachers” persists. Yet the idea hides the conflicting traditions buried with the common belief that there are “great” teachers.

Consider that the majority of adults in the nation believe schools should test students to see that they prepare children with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to succeed in an increasingly competitive labor market and diverse community. In short, they embrace the dominant ideology of standards, testing, and accountability to prepare graduates for college and career. In the historical tradition of teachers transmitting knowledge and skills to students, Maurice Butler, William Taylor , Michele Forman, and other teachers push, prod, and inspire students to get high test scores, go to college, and succeed in life.

But for many other parents, practitioners, and researchers, a “great” teacher goes beyond high achievement. They want their children’s teachers—reflecting another age-old tradition of teaching—to work daily for the wellbeing of the child, see students as whole human beings, believe in active learning, create structures for students to collaborate and explore. In short, these folks embrace a progressive ideology of teaching believing with supreme confidence that students exposed to this tradition of teaching will do well on tests, graduate and go to college. They would point to Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley, and Foxfire teachers in rural Georgia nurturing, inspiring, and connecting to students.

Because parents, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers vary in their beliefs about “great” teachers and different historical traditions of teaching, I put the word in quote marks. Especially now when remote instruction will be the dominant way of teaching in the coming months.

Even more troublesome is that the current concept of a “great” teacher squashes together two distinct aspects of teaching that need to be separated: the difference between “good” and “successful” teaching. They are not the same. And here is where the concept of “great” teachers gets even more complicated. Please stick with me here.

“Good” teaching is teaching that pursues morally and rationally sound instructional practices. “Successful” teaching, on the other hand, is teaching that produces the desired learning. As Gary Fenstemacher and Virginia Richardson put it:

“[T]eaching a child to kill another with a single blow may be successful teaching, but it is not good teaching. Teaching a child to read with understanding, in a manner that is considerate and age appropriate, may fail to yield success (a child who reads with understanding), but the teaching may accurately be described as good teaching. Good teaching is grounded in the task sense of teaching, while successful teaching is grounded in the achievement sense of the term.”

Another way to distinguish between “good” and “successful” is when a 8th grade teacher teaches the theory of evolution consistent with the age of the child and best practices of science teaching (the “good” part) and then has her students complete three written paragraphs filled with relevant details and present-day examples that demonstrate their understanding of the theory of evolution (the “successful” part). These teaching acts are not the same nor does one necessarily lead to the other. For the next few months, one has to imagine this occurring on screen with rapt students watching. It is hard for me to imagine.

For the past quarter-century, however, policymakers and politicians have chopped, grated, and mixed together the goals of schooling into a concoction seeking to make education an arm of the economy. They scan international test scores, focus on achievement gaps, and boost teacher pay-for-performance plans. This policy direction has shoved the notion of “great” teaching into one corner of the ideological debate and thoroughly erased the distinction between the “good” and “successful” in teaching. Now “great” teaching means test scores go up and students go to college. A big mistake.

Why a mistake? Erasing the distinctions between “good” and “successful” teaching muddles policy prescriptions seeking to improve how teachers teach and what students learn. Most important is that policymakers have, again, ignored the history of diverse teaching traditions and different ways of teaching that parents, practitioners, and researchers prize resulting in an unfortunate monopoly on only one way of teaching while students—in their glorious diversity–learn in many different ways.

And during a pandemic when the main choice is on-screen delivery of content and skills, these distinctions matter but will be lost in the predictable hullabaloo over remote instruction (not remote “learning.”

Just as being “schooled” is very different from being “educated,” so too is face-to-face learning from “remote delivery of instruction.”

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The Poetry of Teaching

Why a poem? Because in writing posts for this blog and for books I have written over the past half-century, I have used expository writing. I describe, analyze, and try to capture school reform, policy-making, and the practice of teaching using facts, evidence, and explanation. It is aimed at the brain, not emotions.

Yet art, dance, drama, short stories, novels, and poetry–even cartoons–can capture features of teaching and learning, particularly what teachers and students feel when in classrooms in ways that exposition cannot.

I am neither a poet nor an aspiring one. I offer these as ones that stirred me, that captured in vivid language what teachers and students feel and do.

The Hand

Mary Ruefle, 1996

The teacher asks a question.

You know the answer, you suspect

you are the only one in the classroom

who knows the answer, because the person

in question is yourself, and on that

you are the greatest living authority, but you don’t raise your hand.

You raise the top of your desk and take out an apple.

You look out the window.

You don’t raise your hand and there is

some essential beauty in your fingers,

which aren’t even drumming, but lie flat and peaceful.

The teacher repeats the question.

Outside the window, on an overhanging branch, a robin is ruffling its feathers

and spring is in the air.

Reprinted from Cold Pluto: by permission of Carnegie Mellon University Press © by Mary Ruefle 1996.

Why Latin Should Still Be Taught in High School

Christopher Bursk

Because one day I grew so bored

with Lucretius, I fell in love

with the one object that seemed to be stationary,

the sleeping kid two rows up,

the appealing squalor of his drooping socks.

While the author of De Rerum Natura was making fun

of those who fear the steep way and lose the truth,

I was studying the unruly hairs on Peter Diamond’s right leg.

Titus Lucretius Caro labored, dactyl by dactyl

to convince our Latin IV class of the atomic

composition of smoke and dew,

and I tried to make sense of a boy’s ankles,

the calves’ intriguing

resiliency, the integrity to the shank,

the solid geometry of my classmate’s body.

Light falling through blinds,

a bee flinging itself into a flower,

a seemingly infinite set of texts

to translate and now this particular configuration of atoms

who was given a name at birth,

Peter Diamond, and sat two rows in front of me,

his long arms, his legs that like Lucretius’s hexameters

seemed to go on forever, all this hurly-burly

of matter that had the goodness to settle

long enough to make a body

so fascinating it got me

through fifty-five minutes

of the nature of things.

From The Improbably Swervings of Atoms by Christopher Bursk © 2006. Reprinted by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Poem for Christian, My Student

Gail Mazur

He reminds me of someone I used to know,

but who? Before class,

he comes to my office to shmooze,

a thousand thousand pointless interesting

speculations. Irrepressible boy,

his assignments are rarely completed,

or actually started. This week, instead

of research in the stacks, he’s performing

with a reggae band that didn’t exist last week.

Kids danced to his music

and stripped, he tells me gleefully,

high spirit of the street festival.

He’s the singer, of course—

why ask if he studied an instrument?

On the brink of graduating with

an engineering degree (not, it turned out,

his forte), he switched to English,

his second language. It’s hard to swallow

the bravura of his academic escapes

or tell if the dark eyes laugh with his face.

Once, he brought me a tiny persimmon

he’d picked on campus; once, a poem

about an elderly friend in New Delhi

who left him volumes of Tagore

and memories of avuncular conversation.

My encouragement makes him skittish—

it doesn’t suit his jubilant histrionics

of despair. And I remember myself

shrinking from enthusiasm or praise,

the prospect of effort-drudgery.

Success—a threat. A future, we figure,

of revision—yet what can the future be

but revision and repair? Now, on the brink

again, graduation’s postponed, the brilliant

thesis on Walker Percy unwritten.

“I’ll drive to New Orleans and soak

it up and write my paper in a weekend,”

he announces in the Honors office.

And, “I want to be a bum in daytime

and a reggae star at night!”

What could I give him from my life

or art that matters, how share

the desperate slumber of my early years,

the flashes of inspiration and passion

in a life on hold? If I didn’t fool

myself or anyone, no one could touch

me, or tell me much . . . This gloomy

Houston Monday, he appears at my door,

so sunny I wouldn’t dare to wake him

now, or say it matters if he wakes at all.

“Write a poem about me!” he commands,

and so I do.

Gail Mazur, “Poem for Christian, My Student” from Zeppo’s First Wife: New & Selected Poems (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005). Copyright © 1995 by Gail Mazur. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Source: The Common (The University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Mrs. Kitchen

Ann Staley

Teaching is about making 400 close-judgment calls a day. Wise teacher comment

Mrs. Kitchen

…traveled the world with her M.D. husband,

both working for the American Red Cross.

They returned to suburban Harrisburg

and began the next chapter of their lives.

Mrs. Kitchen became a 2nd grade teacher at Progress Elementary School.

Our classrooms had floor-to-ceiling windows,

which opened so you could hear recess voices,

and dark wooden floors polished to a sheen.

We were seated, not in usual rows,

but in a square “u” of desks.

We were allowed to sit with whomever

we wanted, as long as our work was uninterrupted

by giggling (the girls) or hitting (the boys).

Mrs. Kitchen was small in stature, big in heart.

She wore glasses and had curly brown hair.

She loved all of her students, but had,

I realized even then, a soft spot for me.

I didn’t understand why and still don’t.

Every afternoon, in the hour before school ended,

she read aloud to us–from books

on the New York Times Bestseller list.

 Kon Tiki is one I remember most vividly.

Winifred Kitchen taught “up” to us,

believing that eight-year-olds could understand more

than the 1950s psychology books expected.

This was her great gift to her fortunate students.

We studied Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal men,

then made shadow boxes depicting their lives.

One day when I’d finished my work early,

she sent me to the library, alone, saying,

 Get whatever book you want, Ann.

That day I chose a book titled The Pigtailed Pioneer,

about a girl whose covered wagon arrives in Portland, Oregon,

where she meets her first Indian in an encampment south of town.

I had braids, then, which my mother plaited each morning,

tying on plaid or satin ribbons that she ironed.

Girls still wore dresses to school in those days,

no pants were allowed until we got to Junior High School.

Jeans–never!

One afternoon I asked Mrs. K if I could go to the office

without being sent there. I wanted to meet the principal,

a woman, but wanted to go there on good terms.

She arranged an interview with this imposing woman.

After we finished speaking, the Principal told me to

sit behind her desk, answer the phone if it rang.

She was going out for her usual late afternoon of listening

to the classrooms with open doors. I was thrilled.

My 2nd grade year convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher.

I set up summer school for my dolls in the basement

and began, in earnest, my professional life.

In Instructions for the Wishing Light, with Permission from author

Teaching English from an Old Composition Book

By Gary Soto

My chalk is no longer than a chip of fingernail,

Chip by which I must explain this Monday

Night the verbs “to get;” “to wear,” “to cut.”

I’m not given much, these tired students,

Knuckle-wrapped from work as roofers,

Sour from scrubbing toilets and pedestal sinks.

I’m given this room with five windows,

A coffee machine, a piano with busted strings,

The music of how we feel as the sun falls,

Exhausted from keeping up.

                                       I stand at

The blackboard. The chalk is worn to a hangnail,

Nearly gone, the dust of some educational bone.

By and by I’m Cantiflas, the comic

Busybody in front. I say, “I get the coffee.”

I pick up a coffee cup and sip.

I click my heels and say, “I wear my shoes.”

I bring an invisible fork to my mouth

And say, “I eat the chicken.”

Suddenly the class is alive—

Each one putting on hats and shoes,

Drinking sodas and beers, cutting flowers

And steaks—a pantomime of sumptuous living.

At break I pass out cookies.

Augustine, the Guatemalan, asks in Spanish,

“Teacher, what is ‘tally-ho’?”

I look at the word in the composition book.

I raise my face to the bare bulb for a blind answer.

I stutter, then say, “Es como adelante.

Augustine smiles, then nudges a friend

In the next desk, now smarter by one word.

After the cookies are eaten,

We move ahead to prepositions—

“Under,” “over,” and “between,”

Useful words when la migra opens the doors

Of their idling vans.

At ten to nine, I’m tired of acting,

And they’re tired of their roles.

When class ends, I clap my hands of chalk dust,

And two students applaud, thinking it’s a new verb.

I tell them adelante,

And they pick up their old books.

They smile and, in return, cry, “Tally-ho.”

As they head for the door.

Gary Soto, “Teaching English from an Old Composition Book” from Gary Soto: New and Selected Poems. Copyright © 1995 by Gary Soto

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Please Don’t Make Me Risk Getting Covid-19 to Teach Your Child (Rebecca Martinson)

Rebecca Martinson is a teacher at Northwest Career & Technical Academy in Mount Vernon, Wash. This appeared in the New York Times, July 18, 2020.

I write often about the inescapable personal and professional dilemmas that each educator (including myself) confronts as we traverse our daily lives. Martinson expresses very clearly the stark dilemma facing her (and the choice she would make) if her district directs her to return to the classroom for face-to-face instruction during this pandemic.

But the fact is that for Martinson and other teachers there is no right answer on what to do. During these difficult moments when we face such dilemmas about how much risk each of us is willing to take for ourselves and loved ones, no one can say with any confidence that X, Y, or Z is the correct thing to do. Yes, we have learned to protect ouselves to some degree by wearing masks, keeping physical distance, washing hands, etc. but beyond that no one knows for sure whether opening schools for children and their teachers will lead to more infections and some deaths. Sure, experts state probabilities but health risks remain. Individual choices must be made between staying free of the virus and jobs, between losing a year of schooling and not contracting Covid-19. Regardless of what political leaders tell us, the persistent unknowns about the virus make decisions about what to do, at best difficult, and at worst, paralyzing.

Read Rebecca Martinson’s reasoning behind her decision and how a few teachers responded to what she wrote.

Every day when I walk into work as a public-school teacher, I am prepared to take a bullet to save a child. In the age of school shootings, that’s what the job requires. But asking me to return to the classroom amid a pandemic and expose myself and my family to Covid-19 is like asking me to take that bullet home to my own family.

I won’t do it, and you shouldn’t want me to.

I became an educator after a career as a nurse. I teach medical science and introduction to nursing to 11th and 12th graders at a regional skills center that serves students from 22 different high schools in 13 different school districts.

My school district and school haven’t ruled out asking us return to in-person teaching in the fall. As careful and proactive as the administration has been when it comes to exploring plans to return to the classroom, nothing I have heard reassures me that I can safely teach in person.

More than 75 New York Department of Education employees have died of Covid-19. CDC guidelines say a return to traditional schooling with in-person classes would involve the “highest risk” for Covid-19 spread. But even in-person classes with students spaced apart and prevented from sharing materials are categorized as leading to “more risk.” The “lowest risk” for spread, according to the CDC, is virtual learning. I can’t understand why we would choose more risk than is necessary.

It’s impossible to hear about the way parties, day camps and church services have led to outbreaks this summer without worrying about what will happen if kids and adults gather in the fall. It scares me to think of how many more lives will be lost. It terrifies me that I could be among those who lose their lives.

I completely understand why parents and administrators want kids to return to school. When we first started online learning in March, it was miserable — pointless, even. Eventually, we established parameters, and I figured out how to teach kids across the northwest corner of Washington State virtually. During summer school, I’ve live-streamed my lectures into campgrounds, living rooms and bedrooms decorated with twinkly lights or festooned with posters. My virtual classroom includes pets and younger siblings.

Yes, it has been hard. Yesterday, as several really adorable teenage faces laughed through the computer screen at my use of a Tyrannosaurus Rex to explain the sympathetic nervous system and the feeling of impending doom it can cause, I thought, “I miss them.” I wished I was standing in my favorite place in the world, my classroom — because, frankly, that T-Rex analogy is much better when accompanied by my dino walk.

But it amazes me how fast students adapted to remote learning. I teach a particularly hands-on class. This summer, I’ve managed to teach them to type blood, to suture wounds and how the sensory system works. I’ve taught them all about infection control and epidemiology —  they can not only tell you that you should wear a mask, but they can show you how to do it correctly. I used to put my hand over students’ hands to guide them through certain lessons. Now I use a GoPro camera. It’s hard, but they are learning.

Most important, we — students and teacher — are safe.

If I’m asked to return to the classroom as the pandemic rages, I will have to walk away. As deeply as I love teaching, I will not risk spreading this virus in a way that could hurt a child or a family member of a child. While children make up a small proportion of U.S. coronavirus cases and they are less likely to become seriously ill than adults, the virus might be linked to “multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children.” Plus, many of my students struggle with poverty or are from multigenerational households. I will not risk passing a virus to them that they might pass to their vulnerable loved ones. I won’t do it.

It isn’t fair to ask teachers to buy school supplies; we aren’t the government. But we do it anyway. It isn’t fair to ask us to stop a bullet; we aren’t soldiers. But we go to work every day knowing that if there’s a school shooting, we’ll die protecting our students.

But this is where I draw the line: It isn’t fair to ask me to be part of a massive, unnecessary science experiment. I am not a human research subject. I will not do it.

I have also included two responses from teachers in other parts of the country to Martinson’s op-ed. These appeared in the New York Times Letters section on July 24, 2020.

Hannah Duggan
New Orleans

To the Editor:

I am 62 years old and have been teaching in the New York City public schools for more than 20 years. I love my students, my job and my school. I believe that children belong in school, and I know that this period of quarantine has been incredibly hard for my sixth-grade students academically, emotionally and socially. I miss them every day.

I will not return to the classroom in September, which makes me extraordinarily sad. Unfortunately, I do not trust the system to take care of me (or my students). Our school’s ventilation system has not been working properly for more than 10 years despite custodians’ efforts to fix it. I spend many days dealing with students coming back from the bathroom to report that there is no soap to wash their hands.

Are you wondering if my school’s population is made up of Black and brown students? It is. Do you think these same scenarios exist in schools that are richer or whiter than my school? I do not know.

Nothing would make me happier than to be persuaded that I am incorrect — that it will be safe for a 62-year-old teacher to return to her classroom. But too much is at stake. I love my students, but I love my own children, my husband and my friends. I value the gift of my life. I will not look away from reality. This is my “teacher reality” right now.

Sharon Kramer
New York

To the Editor:

As a teacher, I very much appreciated Rebecca Martinson’s discussion of what is going through the minds of all teachers right now. Yet I can’t help but comment upon her great privilege in being able to write this.

Should she disagree with her state’s or district’s policies, she simply will not teach next year. What about teachers whose realities are much different? Single-parent teachers who rely on that income? Or my own situation, in which both partners are teachers in the same school district — in Florida! — where the governor has mandated in-class instruction five days a week? Where does that leave those of us who cannot give up our incomes?

Teachers all over the country are being put in the inconceivable position of having to choose between the health of their families and their livelihoods, and it is a terrible position indeed.

Anna Deckert
Fort Walton Beach, Fla.

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Dilemmas Facing Policymakers in Re-opening Schools

Here is the best summary that I have found thus far on the policy dilemmas facing school boards and superintendents in deciding how and when to re-open schools. It comes from a blog called Electoral Vote. Curated and written by two academics, one (Andrew Tanenbaum) an expert on statistics and public opinion polls and the other (Christopher Bates) a historian.

Every educational policy has one or more prized values embedded in it and when it comes to Covid-19, these values clash. Choices have to be made among sought-after values (health and safety of students; health and safety of faculty; giving parents choices of school options, limited resources to do efficiently what is essential, quality of educational experience, etc.). Sacrifices occur as policymakers with limited funds and knowledge of the virus’s spread and effects strike compromises (e.g., when to open, under what conditions) in deciding which values take precedence. Thus, the policy issues that authors of Electoral Vote have listed.

As part of his program of COVID-19 denial, Donald Trump has demanded that schools reopen in the fall, at risk of having their federal funding cut. His notion, ostensibly, is that if students go back to school, then parents can go back to full-time work. And if parents can go back to full-time work, then the economy will come zooming back to life, and he will ride that momentum to a reelection victory. Talk about your magical thinking.

In any event, the plan—if you can even call it that—is falling apart. On Monday, school officials in (liberal) Los Angeles County and (conservative) San Diego County both announced that they would begin the year with virtual instruction, and that they might eventually go to face-to-face, but they might not. Miami-Dade, which was specifically held out by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos as a model for other districts to follow as they reopen, is now tapping the breaks hard as Florida evolves into the nation’s #1 hotspot. Officials in Chicago, Houston, New York City, Washington, D.C., and other locales have also made clear that, at most, students will attend school in person a couple of days a week in fall.

There is no question that, under pandemic-free circumstances, students are best served by in-person instruction. But the barriers that school districts face under current circumstances are substantial. We’ve noted some of them already, but let’s put together a fuller list, all in one spot:

  • Space: Most schools do not have enough space to allow students to sit in a classroom and maintain social distancing. They could (and presumably will) wear masks, but that’s not going to get it done when sharing space for 6-7 hours a day. And that’s before we talk about communal situations like cafeterias, hallways, locker rooms, and so forth.
  • Student Risk: It is true that younger people seem to be less likely to contract COVID-19, and less likely to have really bad outcomes if they do. On the other hand, consider the Fauci item above and think about what we did not know about COVID-19 six months ago, or even three months ago. Then consider what we might find out in the next six months. Maybe it turns out that the current thinking is entirely wrong, and that kids are just as vulnerable as anyone else. Maybe it turns out that certain populations of kids—say, those of a particular ethnicity, or who are lacking a particular gene, or who have an underlying health condition, or who live in a particular climate—are at risk. Do we want to turn the nation’s schools into the world’s largest virology experiment?
  • Faculty Risk: A major part of the reason that schools were shut down in the first place was to protect faculty, many of whom are senior citizens (or near-senior citizens) and/or have underlying health conditions that are known to put them at higher risk for COVID-19 (and for serious complications from the disease). One would hope that Americans would not wish to put these folks at risk. And regardless of what Americans think, the faculty themselves may not be willing to play Russian roulette. One survey, way back in May, revealed that 20% of teachers were unwilling to return to the classroom while the pandemic is underway. A more recent survey, covering only the city of Chicago, put the figure above…70%. At a time when resources and faculty time will be spread very thin, the loss of 20% of your labor force would be a backbreaker. Anything above that, and it gets even more grim.
  • Online Classes: Online classes are a very different beast than in-person classes, with different forms of presenting information, different kinds of assignments, etc. It is challenging for both students and teachers to shift back and forth. And it is nearly impossible for a teacher to simultaneously prepare and teach both sorts of classes. There just isn’t time. So, any model that involves “18 students will take the in-person version of the class, and 14 more will take the online version” is not plausible without additional faculty.
  • Educational Experience: Again, in-person is almost always better than online, all other things being equal. But if students have to wear masks, and if they can’t have recess time, and they have to eat lunch in shifts, and their teacher has to step out for a month due to illness to be replaced by whatever substitute the district can find, and so on and so forth, they are going to have a lousy educational experience and aren’t going to learn a whole lot. Further, even the most optimistic folks aren’t trying to say that no students will get sick. What happens if a student is incapacitated for a month, or six weeks, or longer? Can they plausibly catch up? Probably not, especially with teachers stretched too thin to give them one-on-one help. And if that’s the case, then what? Do they just go through the motions and repeat a year, lagging their cohort for the rest of their educational career? Do they take a long vacation and try again in Fall 2021?
  • Legalities: Nobody’s talking about this, as far as we can find. However, there are some significant legal issues that are likely to come into play here if schools proceed injudiciously. One of the biggies is that most faculty are protected by unions, and the unions can be expected to hold the line on safety, particularly for high-risk faculty. Imagine that a school district orders a 56-year-old asthmatic 8th grade teacher with hypertension back to work, and that teacher refuses for (justifiable) health reasons. Then what? If the school tries to fire the teacher (and probably even if they try to withhold pay for a year), they’ll be hit with a grievance, which takes even more time and money to fight, and still leaves the classroom unstaffed. Another big issue here is the Americans with Disabilities Act, which gives substantial protections to both faculty and students for a broad range of conditions, including underlying chronic health problems. If the parents of a fifth grader with a history of circulatory issues insists that their child simply cannot be exposed to COVID-19, and demands that they be accommodated, the school district would probably be compelled to offer them an alternate (online) mode of instruction. And then we’re back to the problem above, that one faculty member can’t plausibly create two versions of their course at the same time.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does cover some of the major challenges that school districts are looking at right now, with roughly six weeks left until school resumes. No wonder Los Angeles and San Diego have already put their feet down. Anyone who knows anything about education (i.e., not Trump and DeVos) would recognize that these things cannot be dismissed with the wave of a hand, and that the best you can hope for is that districts work through them as best as is possible, adopting different (and flexible) solutions as dictated by local circumstances….

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