Do the Research and Be Open Minded

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My father gave me the gift of reading. When I think of him I only have the memories of an eight year old child and yet what I recall is profound. My clearest images of him all involve books and newspapers, libraries and bookstores. Even on vacations we would visit little shops filled with volumes of every sort and our souvenirs would be books. My father not only read every book that he owned but he discussed what was inside with a kind of encyclopedic knowledge. His depth of information ran the gamut from humor to sports to science to history to poetry. He was a renaissance man in his tastes and his modeling lead me to also enjoy the search for beauty and truth in the written word. After he died so unexpectedly I suppose that I clung to his legacy by avidly devouring any written material I encountered.

My grandfather gave me the gift of understanding history. Like my father he read all the time but his favorite topics were historical tracts and biographies of great men and women. When I graduated from junior high school he gave me a volume of short vignettes of individuals whose lives had changed the world for the good. He inscribed the book with the suggestion that I should seek to learn from people whose courage lead them to upend the status quo when such actions were needed. He encouraged me to ask questions and have a willingness to stand up for justice.

My debate teacher gave me the gift of open-mindedness. She showed me how to view both the pros and cons of an argument. She taught me to use data and facts to support a declaration. She helped me to be objective and unbiased. She also introduced me to the tools used in the art of persuasion. She helped me to realize that I must carefully unpack any assertion in a search for truth.

My seventh grade English teacher gave me the gift of awareness. She alerted me to the use of propaganda and the rhetorical devices that are designed to create emotional rather than rational responses to events and problems. She helped me to understand how we are often manipulated by the way issues are presented with the purpose of making us angry or afraid.

My college professors gave me the gift of knowledge about things that I had never before known. They taught me to be analytical and showed me the value of asking questions before buying into any theory. They widened my horizons and provided me with tools for rationally parsing and investigating ideas.

All of these people taught me the importance of thinking, testing, verifying. Because of them I am wary of any person who tempts me with emotional group think. I require proof before accepting something as factual and I want that proof from the proper sources, experts. I broker little patience with wild ideas that reek of rhetorical excess. I cringe when I hear ridiculous phrases being repeated like the chirping of parrots. I abhor hoaxes proclaimed as legitimate theories. I demand concrete substantiation.

When our current president was gaining fame and a following for demanding to see a birth certificate from President Obama I thought that we were being duped by theater of the absurd. Somehow Donald Trump made large numbers of people believe that Obama was not born in the United States and was therefore unqualified to be president. In truth the Constitution makes it very clear that if an individual has one parent who is a citizen of the United States then that person is by default also a citizen as well. Since there was no denying that President Obama’s mother was a born and raised in the USA it really did not matter where he was born, but with rhetorical relish Trump made it seem so. His technique was so successful that he has since created one ridiculous hoax after another to seal the support of his followers.

I spend a great deal of time unraveling fact from fiction. Most of the time if something sounds audaciously absurd it is. Some ideas are trickier and more difficult to analyze. When there is confusions even among the experts the ground is fertile for misrepresentation. In such cases I find it useful to tread with caution and follow the science of the information.

Such it is with Covid-19. I do not get my information and form my conclusions from lay people. Instead I look to the scientists and the doctors and then listen to their suggestions for being safe. If the information changes as the knowledge of the virus increases I don’t resent being conservative in my approach to staying well. I wear my mask. I stay home as much as possible. I social distance. I wash my hands. None of those things hurt me but it may be that they have helped someone else. I do not consider it an infringement of my freedoms to care about someone other than myself. I do not believe that the virus was purposely created nor do I think that it will miraculously go away the day after the elections in November. My background and those who have gifted me with a rational approach to the world serve me well but frighten me when I see how many actually believe in the disinformation being perpetrated by trolls and bad actors.

The world is quite complex and we have to be careful of being taken in by individuals whose only purpose is self aggrandizement. We need an educated citizenry if we are to have the leadership that we need. Bear in mind that if something appears audacious, it probably is. Take the time to find the truth. Don’t be tied to a single television network or talk radio show or political ideology. Be open minded. Seek the truth.

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. 

Allow Them To Lead

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I once attended a week long teacher training session during the summer. It’s purpose was mostly designed to plan for the upcoming school year, but also to acquaint us with new and exciting methodologies. As part of the the event we were given homework assignments to complete each evening. One of them involved answering a questionnaire that would then be analyzed to determine our talents, skills, dispositions. At the end of the week a psychologist gave us an overview of the results with great excitement because they had shown that the most frequent characteristic that we teachers shared was altruism. In fact, virtually ninety nine percent of the over one hundred educators in the room had scored higher in this category than any other.

Altruism is defined as “disinterested and selfless concern for the well being of others, behavior that benefits others’ well being at the expense of one’s own.” It is not particularly surprising that a room full of educators volunteering to attend five long days of learning during their vacation time would be unselfishly more concerned about other people than themselves. In truth anyone who lasts more than a few years in the teaching profession has a special kind of heart because the work is often grueling and the pay never quite compensates as fairly as it should. Nonetheless there are dedicated souls who return year after year to provide one of the most essential duties in our society. There is little of more importance for the future of our country than the education of the young.

Teachers overlook a great deal of criticism because of their very natures. It is quite rare for them to think of much more than their students. In fact they have a kind of obsessive concern for the young people in their care, sometimes even long after those pupils have grown into adults. For the greater part of a year they see a group of pupils day after day and feel a sense of responsibility toward each one of them. Their dedication is so all consuming that it is difficult to describe. They think of their pupils on the way to work and before they fall asleep at night. They are as anxious for the safety and success of their charges as a parent would be.

Teachers across America have missed their students since schools closed in March. So much was left unfinished, unsaid. They have grieved at the way things had to be. They have worried about their kids and in most instances worked harder than they would have if the school year had ended normally. They understand well how important it is both academically and psychologically for our nation’s youth to return to a semblance of learning and traditions. At the same time they worry about safety and have a sense that somehow the plans for reopening schools are too vague to insure that everyone will have a positive and healthy experience. Mostly they understand the complexities that have not been addressed and they wonder why they, the very experts who know the dynamics of classroom management, have rarely been consulted. 

Our nation’s teachers have many questions and concerns and even ideas that should be addressed sooner rather than later. Instead there is great uncertainty in the vague plans being set forth by education agencies and school districts. Meanwhile the president of our country insists that we must take care of our kids and their parents by opening schools regardless of whatever else may be happening and makes no mention of the teachers. Those altruistic individuals who are the heart and soul of every school in America are rightfully afraid and little is being done to quell their fears. They need answers for their justifiable anxieties that a “fly by the seat of their pants” approach will result in a disastrous mess.

It is going to take time and funding to make our schools places where everyone feels comfortable. Simply screening students and faculty with thermometers and probing questions as they enter buildings each day will take far more time than it sounds and may in the end be ineffective in keeping Covid 19 at bay. The design of classrooms, the numbers of students assigned to one teacher and the management of passing periods all have to be addressed. Cleaning of the building will have to be continuous throughout the school day and will no doubt require large maintenance crews. An on site nursing staff will be critical. As far as I am able to  ascertain schools simply do not have budgets large enough to create the necessary changes nor do they have a unified direction to keep everyone working toward common goals.

When the teachers express their doubts and their worries they are not attempting to get out of work or express support for one politician over another, but they are genuinely concerned about the young people for whom they will be responsible. They want and need to know how the needs of everyone will be met. They understand that the efforts will require the support and backing of the entire community or they will be doomed to failure from the start.

Businesses that opened slowly and with regard for the safety of patrons have done well. Those that ignored precautions are part of the blame for the uptick in Covid-19 cases. Why would we ask our schools to open at full capacity with only cosmetic changes? Why do the minimal guidelines feel as though they are the result of a rush to pass the buck of responsibility?

It’s time we called upon our teachers and asked them what they need to make schools places where everyone feels comfortable in returning. Their ideas may require great flexibility and an investment of time and money. Teach are the altruists who continually allow the world to fall on them. They will not take advantage. That is not what they are about. They will use their wits and their skills to create the safest possible environment. It’s time to allow them to lead.

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.