In Defense of Teachers

It has become very popular to take potshots at teachers over the last month. Even the Atlantic got into it:

“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.” 

This article—and the growing sentiment it represents— is horseshit. Poor analogies and half-assed logic throughout. Grocery store workers are not working in small enclosed spaces where they have 20 people spaced three feet apart at all times. Nor are grocery store customers coming in and remaining there for 4-8 hours. Let me know when grocery store workers are not just asked to stock shelves, check people out, and/or clean their areas, but are also responsible for teaching content, taking care of the physical, social, and mental needs of their customers, personally responsible for deciding how customers are arranged in the store, and coming up with a plan on the fly for how they will handle shortened in person hours of instruction, possible online instruction, and a blended approach.

Imagine a school not letting your child in because they are at capacity today. Grocery stores are, after all, first come, first serve. As are hospitals. As are most businesses. They can’t decide that some kids needs are “elective” and decide they are too overburdened to serve them.

Public schools do not have this luxury. They cannot turn kids away.

What we are asking teachers to do goes WAY beyond the physical risk they are being asked to take on (which is considerable and frankly more risky than all but the true front line medical professionals are facing). Developing multiple curriculums isn’t something you can just do in a couple hours—they take months to build out.

Let me be perfectly clear—teaching online is NOT easier for teachers. It is one thing to watch essential workers who have to physically labor at their job to complain about this—I can understand why they feel this way, even though they are wrong. It is quite another for wealthy office worker parents to say it—looking at some of the prominent voices in the Columbus suburban communities that have been bitching about it). None of them seem to think their working from home doesn’t count as real work—even though their jobs do not really change (if anything, they become less busy with walk in issues). Unlike regular office work, teaching online is far more labor intensive than in person teaching. It requires content creation—the kind that publishers or online academies that do this for a living take months to develop. Reading through discussion board posts (for middle and high school students) is far more time consuming than moderating discussion live. Facilitating synchronous meetings takes more time, technology management, and careful planning than similar in person meetings. There is way more 1-on-1 time—which is obviously more time consuming. Asynchronous work means students have things coming in at all hours, requiring diligent planning and commitment to reviewing, grading, and responding to outside of traditional hours. Just because the schools are not physically open does not mean teachers are not working.

That is not to say the rollout of the 2020-2021 school year has been good. Frankly, it is an unmitigated disaster. This is not because teachers are too afraid and do not want to do their jobs. Far from it. The blame lies squarely on the shoulders of our elected political leaders, local superintendents and school boards, and the public at large—in that order.

Politicians have utterly failed us in responding to the Covid crisis. At the Federal and state level, the public health response was slow, often contradicted itself, and was subverted by immediate political desires repeatedly. No other developed nation has failed as completely as we have in flattening the curve and responsibly preparing for reopening. Our death numbers speak for themselves. Economically, we have dithered. The President personally downplayed the crisis, promised it would be over before it barely began, has repeatedly moved the target on what would qualify as a poor performance in volume of cases and deaths, lies about how well we are handling the crisis (his performance in the infamous Jonathan Swan interview is a masterclass in how not to discuss a public health crisis, use visual aids, or talk about statistics if you are numerically illiterate), promoted unproven treatments, undermined public health officials who work for him, embraced wild conspiracy theories denying the crisis and touting miracle cures, encouraged people to violate local and state public health orders, mocked masks and social distancing, and sent mixed messages about them when he tried to pivot to taking it seriously. Republican media, state, and local politicians and supporters have thus turned the pandemic into a political culture war battle, where positions on public health policy are viewed through a what is good for Trump’s political prospects rather than what should be the obvious goals: what will save the most lives and stabilize our world quickest.

The original stimulus was the rare success—timely and appropriate, it supported both businesses and workers. It had hiccups. The PPP rollout was bad. But it worked—it kept the economy from totally collapsing and helped American families to continue to pay their bills. But here we are in August and we have let the protections for workers fall off, are no longer supporting small businesses who need money to keep from shuttering their doors forever. Why? Because the GOP has no vision for moving forward, is held hostage by a small group that is suddenly concerned with fiscal austerity (after years of running a deficit during boom times—literally the opposite of what every basic macro economics textbook would tell you to do).

It is no surprise the same federal forces would fail us in education. Betsy DeVos has presented nothing but the idea that schools should open in person other than where that is not possible. Thanks for such sound guidance! The President had the CDC rewrite their guidelines for safe opening, because their original guidelines would have basically made it impossible for most schools to open this fall in person. It wasn’t education or health that drove these decisions—they are simply political calculations.

The President and his administration think that opening the schools is a pre-requisite for getting everyone back into the workplace. And it gets echoed at the local level. For instance, the President of the Dublin City School Board got in hot water this week for tweeting out partisan talking points about needing the schools to be open (complete with a conflict of interest in that he owns and operates a prep sports scouting business) and has clearly been a driving force in preventing the school from opening remotely the way every other district in Franklin County is (they relented for at least a two week period to start with and have had a full 25% of students opt for online only instruction for the first semester of the school year).

This shouldn’t be happening. The partisan talking point that the schools need to be open to jump start the economy completely misunderstands what is keeping businesses closed. The schools are closed all summer long every year. Work goes on. Businesses are staying remote, not because they are worried their employees kids will be home but because there is no need to take the risk of putting everyone back in poorly divided, poorly ventilated office spaces when the work can be roughly approximated from home. Chase owns a huge physical campus in Columbus, yet it is largely empty. So are a host of other retail, finance, healthcare, and utility companies in the city that I have connections to. Office work is returning very slowly, if at all, right now.

So if white collar office jobs are not what Trump is concerned with, who is he talking about? Primarily construction, manufacturing, warehouse, supply chain, and service jobs—the jobs he assumes his base care about. To be sure, this is a huge part of our economy. These jobs are indispensable and require an in-person presence. But again, none of these workplaces’ shutdown in the summer when schools are out. Indeed, for many of them, summer is the busy season. These jobs won’t magically reappear when you open the schools, because for the most part they never went away. Opening schools won’t get people to eat out more or get the international supply chain functioning properly again. What would get these things going? Deficit spending by the government for one. Of course, that won’t help all the businesses that grift off our schools… like prep sports scouting.

The screw up in leadership in education extends to the state and local level. Again, this is not about teachers, public healthcare, or educational policy. Governors and state boards of education have completely abdicated their leadership role. Hiding behind the language of “local control,” they have pushed off a very political decision to individual districts. Responsible leadership would have created public healthcare guidelines and assigned corresponding results for schools. Here in Ohio, where they exist at all, schools can draw on the recommendations of the county health department  they simply “recommend” the schools continue on as normal, mitigate with online or blended learning, or go completely online if a county finds itself in a certain category. This forces local leaders to make inherently political decisions. Do I follow the squishy guidelines from my local Department of Health and open remotely or do I follow the loud demands of prominent politicians, community members, and parents and open fulltime in person?

Obviously, superintendents do not normally have to make such political charged calls. They know how to navigate curriculum changes, textbook adoptions, and even school shootings/active shooter prep. None of them have had to deal with a public health crisis. And it is frankly unfair of our state and federal leaders to have dumped this into their laps. But here we are. And like the state and federal leaders, most superintendents and school boards utterly failed. They waited (and waited) for guidance, wasting the time the spring shutdown bought them hoping this would be solved from above. Not a single school district I have contacts in (and I know hundreds of teachers spread across the country) have spent time preparing the sort of content and structure necessary for even a mediocre online program. They had the time—with appropriate support staffing a conversion of existing content into an online format with appropriate content creation could have happened had they struck deals with teachers to work over the summer and modified their hours for the fall and spring. However, logistically, this investment would have required a year long commitment to online learning. Instead, they waited and hoped. Now many are left contracting third-party “online academies” to provide content and/or curriculum for remote learning. This is a disaster. These programs do not come close to approximating the teaching and learning of our schools. They don’t even sniff the content of an online textbook that you might purchase from McGraw-Hill or Pearson. If you are paying 12k/year in property taxes in a place like Upper Arlington or New Albany just for your local school to dump your kid into an online program that operates at the lowest common denominator I’d be asking for the heads of my superintendent, school board, and principals. This was administrative malpractice.

None of this had to happen this way. A competent Secretary of Education would have worked closely with the CDC back in February and March to figure out the worst case scenario, inform schools of the variety of options they should consider best practices based on how things progressed with the virus, and started hounding Congress for funding so that schools could adequately prepare for the worst. Instead, we got Betsy DeVos pushing people to send their kids to private schools if their public schools didn’t capitulate to opening in person.

Competent state leadership should have filled the obvious void—no one I know on either side of the aisle thought Betsy DeVos would be up for this challenge. Instead, we were saddled with Governors who have been cutting public education funding at the K-12 and college level for decades and knew that their threadbare education operations couldn’t provide any funding or support to the schools. They couldn’t encourage schools to prepare for remote learning because they knew the cost was prohibitive, but they also couldn’t say “you just have to open” because it was clear that in many areas it wasn’t safe to do and would have cascading effects on public health and the economy. So they did nothing.

Like with DeVos, this shouldn’t have surprised local leaders. There hasn’t been a credible voice in government around education reform or development in nearly 40 years. Our conversations at the state and federal level are always centered on cost cutting and demanding more from the schools—they had no reason to think these same people would suddenly develop a competent understanding of how schools are run and what this crisis might require of them. Any superintendent worth their salt knew this and should have prepared accordingly. What does that mean? For starters, it should have meant comprehensive plans for remote learning, hybrid learning, and fully in person learning would be developed before the 2019-2020 school year let out. The runway for change is short—you have three and a half months—so the decision on which model you would implement had to happen in early May. This is project management 101 stuff. With the information in front of you in May, there is no way you could have reasonably chosen anything but the remote option. You could hope for everything to be fine in the fall, hooray!, but none of the evidence indicated it would be (and it isn’t). And hybrid learning is a logistical nightmare—asking teachers to do the job they already do, only splitting their classes so they do the same thing several times a week, while adding all the same work remote only would require while not giving them any more pay or time seems unlikely to work (let alone all the cleaning, busing, lunching, and other physical logistics that make this untenable). Hybrid shouldn’t have even been on the table. That leaves one option for you to actually prepare for—remote only.

Pivoting back from remote only to fully in person wouldn’t have been impossible—but pivoting to it largely is. Yes, it would have felt like wasted time, money, and effort had the remote work not been fully utilized (it could still have helped many middle school and high school classes flip their instruction model and had lectures online for homework and working through problems and assignments as the in person activity, making it not a total waste), but it very clearly was the responsible thing to have prepared for. It would have been difficult. Labor contracts might have even precluded a pivot back, at least for the fall, given the amount of work teachers would have had to do to create these programs in the summer. But it was what an active, courageous, and student-oriented school leader would have done. That it basically didn’t happen anywhere shows how our educational leadership training programs have failed us. Our school superintendents are simply unequipped to truly lead.

We the people bear a great deal of the burden on this. We have collectively pushed for the defunding of our schools. We have heaped responsibilities on teachers and school leaders that stretch their capacity—making them into educators, curriculum experts, technologists, social workers, mental health professionals, nutritionists, risk managers, physical safety trainers, security officers, and compliance officers. Scope creep everywhere. Our colleges spend more time training teachers in how to manage their classroom (behavioral management and risk mitigation!) than they do teaching them to be subject matter experts in their disciplines. And our educational administration graduate programs are even worse. Class discussion more resemble a third-rate night law school than they do a collection of dedicated and experienced educators. You’ll hear the phrase “consult legal” more that you will hear “best practice in instructional methodology,” and it won’t be particularly close. We asked for this. We allow our schools to be the targets of frivolous lawsuits. We accept, uncritically, the misguided notion that our public schools are on the large failing and need of radical reform. We pile on state and federal guidelines, stretching our already thin budgets to make room for unnecessary administrators whose only role is to document compliance for these bureaucratic Leviathans. Our schools simply react to the market we created for them. And we long ago decided we wanted our schools run by wannabe business executives, despite the fact that the mission, resources, processes, and responsibilities were much more akin with a religious calling.

Everyone failed here. Federal politicians. Governors. School boards and superintendents. The American public. As a result, we have painted ourselves into a corner. Schools, by and large, will not function as normal. We had chances to fix this and we missed them, hoping that some miracle would come and save us from our dilemma. The President will tell us to open or close! The virus will go away on its own! We might have a vaccine! We gambled it all on false hopes and desperate dreams. Or maybe everyone knew there was another ace up our sleeves. A miracle that always comes through. That even if all our deflection and obfuscation didn’t work, there was someone or something that would pull our chesnuts out of the fire…

How can I say everything will be fine after spending over 3000 words telling you what an abject failure this all is? Because I know that a miracle is coming. Teachers. They never let us down. We have asked them to do the impossible time and again. They muddle through with outdated teaching materials (almost every book I had in high school had one of my cousins or their friends names in it from 8 or 10 years earlier). They reach kids who haven’t eaten, are dealing with unrest at home, and see no way out of the poverty and desperation they are living in. They soothe our anxious kids, worked up from our overbearing ambitions and a social media environment that bombards them with visions of how successfully everyone else is. Our kids will survive the educational morass we have created for them because they are resilient and their teachers will work tirelessly to make it happen, no matter what.

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