An Advocate for Teachers Forever

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I’ve been thinking about history during the pandemic. I’ve considered what life may have been like for people who braved the expanse of the Atlantic ocean to set up colonies in a foreign land. I’ve thought of pioneers who left everything behind to secure homesteads far away from family and friends. I’ve considered my grandparents who sailed to America never again to see the people that they had loved. There is a loneliness about their choices because there must have been times when they awoke each morning to quiet and sameness that was devoid of contact with other humans. As I spend my days inside my very comfortable home I find it difficult to understand how they made it because I find myself missing people more than anything else.

I would be willing to do without movie theaters, malls, restaurants if I had to give something up, but I cannot imagine being this distanced from people for a much longer stretch of time. There is nothing in this world that means more to me than people and the joy of being with them. I think the vast majority of us feel the same way. We long to sit in a room laughing and talking with friends and family. We realize that our children need to be learning how to build relationships and become independent by joining their peers at school. We are social creatures who need time together as much as we must have air to breathe and food to eat. Even the hunters and gatherers of old moved in search of sustenance in groups. We generally do better together than apart.

Nonetheless I fully understand the dangers of throwing caution to the wind during this time when a novel virus continues to stalk us. It seems that each time we attempt to ignore its power we are burned. Large extended gatherings of any kind only stoke the fires and the energy of Covid-19. Kids and counselors at camp in Missouri get sick in numbers too high too dismiss. Congregants who flaunt social distancing at megachurches begin to die. Families that throw large parties watch as relatives end up in the hospital. The reality is that we cannot ignore the consequences of taking the virus lightly no matter how eager we are to return to our old habits.

We all wish Covid-19 would go away but the virus itself has other ideas. Parents understand that their children are happier and more successful when they go to school. Teachers miss their students and long to be back with them once again. We are not comfortable with the situation in which we find ourselves. Everyone wants what is best for our students and yet we are unsure what that should be. So here we are only weeks away from the start of school and instead of working tirelessly together to plan for the safest possible return to learning for our children and their teachers we are engaged in an endless argument about what we should or should not do. The clock is ticking and our president’s dictate is that every school must open and every school district must figure out how to do that with little guidance and virtually no funding.

I spent the last years of my career as a Peer Facilitator and then a Dean of Faculty. My principals charged me with the duty of making certain that the teachers had every bit of support that they needed to be able to perform their exceedingly difficult jobs. The school leaders for whom I worked believed that if the teachers were provided with a strong support system the students would be the ultimate winners. I was to be the conduit for material and mental assistance for every educator in our school.

I know all too well how dedicated teachers are. I have witnessed the stresses that they endure. Sometimes I worked fifteen hour days to lighten the load of responsibility from their shoulders. My goal was to help them to maintain the stamina to do their magic in the classroom. I did this in ordinary times when there was no specter of Covid-19 threatening them and their students and yet even then sometimes my greatest challenge was to ease their fears. I have wiped away many tears and often chased away the uneasiness that comes from teachers caring so much that emotions overtake them.

At this very moment it is not only the parents who are losing sleep at night wondering what to do when it comes time to send their children back to school. The teachers who anticipate the hundreds of ways that things may go wrong are beside themselves with worry. The possibilities of a reopening of classrooms without sufficient planning gives them nightmares. Educators are running the many scenarios through through their heads and they have more questions than answers. It is in their natures to be fully prepared for any contingency with a well reasoned response but this time in the rush to return the unanswered queries are piling up in their minds. The “what ifs” outweigh the solutions.

Anyone who thinks that returning to school will be a flawless process has never worked inside one. Sadly many of the people providing directives don’t even send their own children to public institutions. Schools are notorious hotbeds of contagion. Even though younger children appear to be less affected by Covid-19 than others they have the potential to take the virus home their parents. Teachers have families of their own whose members may infect them. The possibilities are exponential. The sticky web of potential contagion is enormous and educators understand this better than politicians. Our teachers know to proceed with caution.

I weep for and with the teachers just as I have done so often before. I am their advocate, the person who is supposed to fight for what they need. Being retired does not release me from that responsibility. I will be their voice forever only this time I feel helpless in knowing what to do. I can only urge every single citizen of this country to champion our teachers, our schools and ultimately our children. Call the school district. Call the state education agency. Call the governor’s office. Call the Congresspersons. Call the White House. Do not be silent about the most important resource we have. 

School Bells Will Soon Be Ringing

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Going back to school was always an exciting time for me. School was a shelter that kept me going even when times were tough. After my father died school gave me a sense of normalcy when my world felt so upside down. When my mother had mental breakdowns school provided me with a sense of purpose and control in a life that felt as though it was skidding off the rails.

Every July I would plan and anticipate the coming of the new adventure in the classroom. I bought clothes, shoes, supplies. When I was still a student I wondered who my teacher would be. When I became a teacher I wondered who my students would be. I thought of being together with my friends again. Everything about the time felt shiny and new. It was like starting with a blank slate, an opportunity to learn and change for the better.

Even after I retired from more than forty years in education I still went out in July to buy new pens and pencils and to freshen my supply of paper. I enjoyed back to school sales and somehow felt the same joy of anticipation that I had known since I was five years old. I eagerly read the posts from teachers with whom I had worked and I lived vicariously through their preparations. Eventually I had to admit that I missed working with students too much to just enjoy my new found freedom. I found tutoring jobs and taught mathematics to young people who were being homeschooled. I was still part of the educational world if only in a small way.

This year is so different. The usual teacher and student anticipation has become trepidation. The joy factor is absent as teachers consider the need for a new kind of supply closet, one filled with disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizers and extra masks. Their planning centers on how to keep students sufficiently distant from one another in a room so small that such a feat seems impossible. Teachers understand that the usual sights and sounds and smells will be very different from anything that they and their students have ever experienced. Understanding this fills them with a sense of gloom which late at night sometimes becomes a feeling of doom.

The world of school as we have come to know it will not include knots of friends playing together at recess. There will be no relaxing over lunch or trading of chips for a bag of cookies. Gatherings in the hallway will be prohibited. Teachers who have always been all things for all of the people they serve will have added responsibilities that will be exhausting both for the labor involved and the sense of responsibility incurred. They will be the ones continuously cleaning the desks and supplies. They will be the ones enforcing the safety rules. They will be the ones watching for signs of physical or mental trouble in their all too tiny classrooms where the virus has the potential to lurk in every corner.

Teachers understand better than anyone how different things will feel and be. Children will only see their friends from afar. The smiles and facial expressions that enliven relationships will be covered with masks. Only the eyes will tell a story and many of them will have difficulty focusing on learning when everything feels so wrong. No matter whether classes resume in person or remotely a deep sadness and sense of fear will hover over everything. School will not be a haven of routine but a haven of uncertainty. Being there or not being there will be equally difficult.

Teachers and their students are now part of a grand experiment and nobody can say with any assurance what exactly will happen. I can only predict that teachers will put every ounce of their dedication into to trying to make the most of an horrific situation. It is what they do. It would be nice if we would support and appreciate them as they grid themselves like soldiers going off to battle. They are quite naturally frightened because they know of the dangers they may face as they care for the most important treasures that our nation has.

Schools are getting threats of loss of funding if they don’t do things a certain way even as educators understand that one size fits all theories never work. People who have never ventured into a classroom to actually care for children all day long are creating policies that hinder the kind of flexibility that is a necessary part of teaching. There is much talk about what parents need and what students need but very little about what teachers need. There is even renewed criticism of the entire educational system because in truth it is impossible to structure learning in a way to please everyone. The outcry is leaving teachers wondering if anyone even cares about the incredible duties and dangers they are being asked to embrace without question.

The school bells will be ringing in a month or so. Many of them will be virtual. Others will be in person. It will not be the same. The routines will be different. The challenges will be many. We can only hope and pray that we are making the right choices. What we do matters greatly. We should hear what our teachers have to say. It is something we don’t tend to do very well. Perhaps now is the time we start. 

A Grand Experiment

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We are almost at the end of June which means that we have to begin thinking about sending the children back to school in six to eight weeks. I often used July to plan lessons for the coming academic year. I am a freak when it comes to preparing ahead of time. I have never been able to do anything at the last minute. When I look at the possibilities of chaos in the coming school year I feel for teachers everywhere. Never has there been so much uncertainty about what will happen once children return to the classrooms.

The governor of Texas has declared with great confidence that all schools will reopen and that masks and other forms of protection from the virus will be optional. The reaction from the public has been mixed with many insisting it’s time to get back to normal and others worrying about the dangers of turning classrooms into germ farms. I have heard of parents investigating home schooling for at least the next year and teachers resigning or retiring because of health issues. We are wading into unknown waters and the fear is that those waters may be infested with sharks.

I teach eight home schooled students and we have not yet decided whether I will resume in person lessons or continue teaching them remotely. I am not as self assured as our governor is. I am still in the mode of wanting to wait to see what happens in the coming weeks. I can’t afford to bring illness into my home so I am a bit more circumspect.

Knowing what to do is a major dilemma for so many people. I agree that the best case scenario is for the nation’s students to return to a sense of normalcy but there is still a little voice whispering concerns to me. My forty plus years of teaching taught me that classrooms are like petri dishes for growing germs. I’ve seen more than my share of outbreaks of disease that closed down campuses. My hope is that this does not happen when we attempt to get back to the books.

The planning in many school districts appears to be far too nebulous for my taste. I’m of the mind that every teacher and parent needs a clear outline of Plans A through Z that will take into account any eventualities. All the shareholders need to know exactly what to expect when they return. How many students will be in each classroom? Will masks be a requirement? How will the school day change from the norm. Everyone must be told what will happen if there is an outbreak of the virus in a particular classroom or if the virus runs rampant through an entire campus. There should be plans for doing a better job with remote learning if that becomes a necessity again. Just using canned programs did not appear to be particularly effective so there should already be discussions about to how teachers might make those lessons more meaningful to their students?

There should already be concrete learning alternatives for those students with illnesses that might make them more vulnerable to the effects of the virus. Parents need to know what to expect if they choose to keep their children home. Teachers who have compromised immune systems should be provided with opportunities to become remote instructors for the children who need to avoid classrooms. There needs to be consideration for all individuals, not just a statement that if they can’t handle things they should just stay home.

July should be dedicated to using the creativity and talents of teachers to help in the design of each possible scenario. Schools need to be willing to try new ways of providing instruction that focus on the health and safety of all parties and provide the needed materials to institute each idea as needed.

I know of parents who are trying to find masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfecting wipes for their children to take to school. Each campus should be well supplied with such items and even have a larger than usual janitorial force to maintain bathrooms and general cleanliness throughout the school day. I have so often see restrooms without soap. This is something that should not ever happen and its occurrence must be reduced with a firm plan for continually monitoring the building throughout the school day.

So many schools have eliminated nurses from their faculty. I can think of no better time to bring them back onto every campus. Schools will need their expertise in attempting to insure that the virus does not overwhelm the efforts to provide education. They can also vanguard the daily monitoring for signs of potential illness and help to determine when and if there are particular dangers.

I know that many school districts are working diligently to be prepared. I hope that they are willing to allow teachers, parents and even students to both ask questions and provide input. I would also request that the governor please quit changing his mind about how things should work. His latest remarks undid a great deal of work that had already been done. If you are going to make the teachers and students return at least allow them to create the plans that work best. This is going to be a grand experiment and our halls of education need to be ready for anything. 

Celebrating Our Magnificent Snowflakes

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With each new generation there always seems to be a great deal of chatter about how spoiled or clueless or delicate they are. We hear them described as “snowflakes” not because of their unblemished beauty but because they appear to some adults to be far too fragile to take on the real problems of the world. There are those who poke fun at the ideas and ideals of our youth as though they are living in an imaginary land of unicorns and fantasies. The age old divide between some members of the older generation and our young people continues to flourish just as it always has.

With the outbreak of Covid-19 the normal routines of our youth have been twisted into unrecognizable versions of themselves. In an instant so much changed for our kids. To the utter amazement of many of the naysayers who thought that they would surely fall apart they have soared just as I knew they would. If there is any delight to come from this pandemic it should be the realization that the children are not just alright, they are warriors.

I puff up with pride when I see all of the evidence of our youngsters from toddlers to twenty somethings proving their meddle and creativity. When the track season was cancelled the athletes took to the streets and trails around their neighborhoods to keep in shape. When the lessons went online the kids tuned in to Zoom meetings and worked on assignments in their bedrooms. In the last few weeks thousands of high school students across the country have been faithfully taking the Advanced Placement exams in subjects from American History to Calculus.

I’ve watched a video of the valedictorian of Pearland High School giving a speech to his classmates from his front yard. Wearing a casual t-shirt and a big smile his words are somehow more uplifting and meaningful than they might have been in a big auditorium or sporting venue with thousands of guests squirming in their uncomfortable seats. With the same determination that earned him the honor of graduating number one in his class, he found a way to share a moment of celebration and remembrance with his classmates. I suspect that his moment will one day make a great story for his grandchildren. Moreover, it demonstrates his grit, a quality that will serve him well as he enters the adults world.

I saw a young lady try out for cheerleader at Madison High School. Imagine attempting to show your stuff on film with nobody else around. Well, she did it, and she made it. She is now a very excited member of the squad and she is still practicing wherever she finds enough space to do her flips and cartwheels and routines. She’s not about to let something like a virus hold her back.

I enjoyed the musical recital of my young cousin who continued his lessons remotely. He never quit practicing in spite of the shut down of his city and his school. When the date of his already planned performance came he demonstrated his talent and his creativity with arrangements both on the electric guitar and the piano.

I have laughed with some kids who were once my neighbors who have had their own episodes of “Chopped” for nine weeks now. Their production is professional and delightful. Mostly they spread a sense of optimism and joy with their unswerving determination to make the best of a difficult situation.

I have been impressed by the sweet sounds of the granddaughter of one of my dearest friends. Not only does she have the voice of an angel but she sings with the personality of a Broadway star. She has used her time at home to perfect her performance skills without a single sign of self pity that they have not showcased in front of a live audience.

The eight students to whom I teach various levels of mathematics have checked in on time for all of our scheduled sessions. They are alert and filled with questions. They send their homework without fail. They literally make me smile each time I see them because they are soldiering forward without a hint of complaint. We are excited to be nearing the end of this school year and planning for the new one in August however that may prove to work out.

I know that the children in my cul de sac study for most of the day and then emerge in their yards to run and play and engage in games that keep them at a distance from one another but still provide lots of fun. Their laughter brightens my afternoons and convinces me that they will be more than just fine. They have adapted more quickly to the new normal than most of us old coots have. I sit in my living room and watch their antics with so much delight. They are so alive.

My own grandchildren have been more than amazing. They have put as much effort into their online learning as they would have done in a regular classroom setting. They have offered tutoring to those who are struggling. They have continued to complete community service projects. They are entering online speech contests and trying out for offices like Drum Major of the school band. They have sought out opportunities to learn and grow outside of the required assignments from their teachers. They read voraciously and write about the kind of future they hope to see. They keep themselves in shape with regular exercise. They continue moving forward even as they realistically know that many of their dreams may have to be adjusted.

I could go on and on and on. The young ones are continually inspiring me and giving me so much hope. They are showing their flexibility and their willingness to adapt quickly. They continue to look to the future, even as they know that it may be uncertain. They are filled with ideas and are willing to make needed changes in a split second. We are very wrong if we believe that they are only focused on proms and ceremonies. They are far more mature and realistic than that. If anyone wishes to continue to call them “snowflakes” they need to bear in mind that a snowflake is a mathematically complex and stunningly beautiful and unique creation. When all of those snowflakes come together they create a wonderland that is breathtaking. We should be celebrating their magnificence. 

A Formula For Success

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While visions of sugarplums should be dancing in my head, instead I am inundated with thoughts of foci and directrixes on parabolas, and unit circles whose angles and radians haunt my dreams. I want to be enjoying the spirit of Christmas present but am forced to patiently explain the nuances of mathematical concepts to my grandchildren who are being rushed through advanced topics by teachers feverishly staring down deadlines that won’t stop for the holidays. The mad rush of the season is as evident in classrooms as at the malls and Amazon distribution centers. Christmas will be here and gone before anyone associated with schools manages to catch a breath and this year I’m caught up in the insanity because my grandchildren are drowning in information overload and I have the tools to help them survive.

The human brain is capable of great leaps of learning but knowledge must be ingested in appropriately measured chunks and then practiced and reviewed well enough for mastery of concepts. When new ideas are presented before the old ones are completely understood the brain tends to seize up in frustration and the individual experiences a sense of failure that is only compounded as more and more information is piled on a foundation that is faulty. This is what I am seeing in my grandchildren as they attempt to balance unreasonable demands on their capacity to learn. They are literally operating at full tilt each day while falling behind in the race to meet the demands of their teachers. It’s not that they are lazy or slow to learn. The problem is that nobody seems to realize that they are existing on five hours of sleep each day while filling every waking minute with assignments that take far longer to complete than their teachers seem to understand.

One grandson recently took a fifty minute test in Pre-Calculus that was four pages long. He knew how to do every problem but ran out of time when he was only about three fourths of the way through the questions. He made one of the few passing grades but it was still rather low. The teacher chided the students insisting that he had been able to do all four pages in only thirty minutes, hardly a reasonable way to determine whether or not the students should have been able to finish in a timely manner. He has been teaching the topics for decades and he made up the questions. Of course it would take him less time than those who had first learn the concepts only a week before the test.

Another grandson who is generally quite competent with all things mathematical described the breakneck speed at which his teacher is pushing the class. On the last exam the class average was 62 and the highest grade was a low eighty. This is a group of hard working gifted and talented students who are members of the National Honor Society. It is not that they did not expend the necessary effort to better learn the concepts. The problem was in the pacing which required them to deconstruct all aspects of exponential functions in the space of about four days time and then take a major exam on the concepts. There was not enough time for them to develop fluidity in their understanding and, even worse, in spite of their poor performance on the test they had to move on to the next topic while still in a state of confusion.

Much of this insanity is driven by the demands of the College Board, a group that mainly focuses on testing, an industry that brings them great financial profits. They develop tests like the SAT and then create workshops and curriculum for both students and teachers. All of the moving parts cost money that fills their tills in the guise of being helpful.

Today’s successful high school students are leaving for classes in the dark, spending spending seven hours in a classroom, participating in another three or four hours in after school activities, arriving home in the dark, and then studying until well past midnight. They are exhausted and often confused particularly when their teachers and society view them as being lazy. Their frustrations are real and few people are taking them seriously.

Each teacher is in turn encased in a pressure filled bubble with the scope and sequence of the curriculum more often than not predetermined by administrators who never see the struggles of the students to keep pace. The classroom often feels like a long distance race across a desert that leaves all but the strongest behind. The teachers see the problems first hand and realize all too well that in the process over which they have so little control so much potential is destroyed.

Sadly schools have become political tools for individuals who have little or no understanding of how the brain works or what proper teaching and learning looks like. There is often a one size fits all approach to education that does not take the needs of each individual into account. The platitude, “All children can learn” is true but with a caveat. The rate at which they truly master concept varies considerably and in a reasonable situation they are not tested for a grade that defines their abilities until they are ready. The goal should never be to frustrate, but to encourage. Time and patience is a critical aspect of the process. Because we are each so very different it is a huge mistake to assume that a canned program tied to a calendar will work for everyone.

Our schools are in trouble not because they are filled with incompetent teachers and unmotivated students, but because they are being run from afar. Learning should never be a race. When it is not a pleasant and encouraging experience it changes minds in negative and unpredictable ways. It’s time we all speak out about the problems that we see and seize control of the process from politicians and businesses who do not know our children. We have to return to a formula for success, Good teaching + time for practice + attention to individual needs = Mastery. That should be our goal.