Absolutely necessary; extremely important; crucial; necessary; key; vital; indispensable; needed; required; vitally important; critical; life-and-death; imperative; mandatory; compulsory; obligatory; compelling; urgent; pressing; burning; acute; paramount; preeminent;high-priority; significant; consequential.
These words describe the word essential. Notice how many words are employed to define a single word. Anthropologists note that the higher a term is valued, the more names a culture associates with it.
Many Americans would agree that the terms mentioned above explain essential, but also explain the need for education in general.
On August 18, 2020, the Trump administration declared teachers essential workers. According to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post:
“The declaration of teachers as “critical infrastructure workers,” which came in an August 18 guidance published by the Department of Homeland Security, means that teachers exposed to coronavirus but who show no symptoms can return to classrooms and not quarantine for 14 days as public health agencies recommend.”
“Essential workers are those deemed by the DHS to work areas typically essential to continue critical infrastructure operations and who are expected to show up for their jobs on site because there is no other way to do them.”
Although the constitution reserves the power to the states over education, this federal directive emboldens governors to push for school building re-openings, and keep schools open even with virus outbreaks.
Furthermore, the Department of Homeland Security defines teachers as critical components of the economic infrastructure, but only if teachers are working “on-site?”
By deeming teachers essential, but only in the traditional school building, the Trump administration shines a spotlight on the perennial American dichotomy–teachers as either saviors or scapegoats. Americans perceive teachers as helpful, altruistic babysitters, or lazy members of demanding unions who suck up precious tax dollars.
Typically, when the public views teachers positively, it is because non-teachers have a glimpse into a teacher’s realities. Early in the pandemic, many people were praising teachers, including Shonda Rhimes’ tweet: “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.”
Funny videos of parents abounded during the first months of Covid-19. Parents and teachers were players on a losing team–we had solidarity. Until quarantine fatigue and economic realities, including childcare issues hit. That $1200 stimulus check was only a band-aid, and the kids were demanding. We all believed in magical thinking that by late August or early September, schools would reopen, colleges would welcome eager young adults, and home-life would balance out once again.
Once teachers voiced their legitimate concerns about school building re-openings, including the need for personal protective equipment, ventilation, and general health, many Americans grumbled to each other or on social media. Teachers had already succumbed to the virus, but many did not seem to notice.
The savior teacher archetype does not include a teacher’s voice. It is more attuned to the role of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Since seventy-five percent of teachers are female, and a disproportionate number of administrators and school leaders are male, there is a condescending attitude within the school structure. Mostly, when female teachers are vocal about their concerns, they are instructed to “Talk Less, Smile More.”
Most people want teachers to be political androgynous, like Barbie Dolls. However, teachers must teach civics and American exceptionalism with a daily promotion of nationalism through the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. In essence, America wants its teachers to be good little soldiers.
At the height of the Great Recession, attitudes towards teachers turned nasty. Teachers viewed as having a cushy life–salaried, vacation time, “good” health insurance–by other working and middle-class people.
It was a time when people who “have a lot less” blame those who “had a little more.” Of course, the top one percent let the rest of us fight amongst ourselves. Instead of workers uniting, we divided, and education was the casualty. Moreover, many school budgets have yet to recover from the tax caps and staff cuts.
Enter the “accountability” movement where acronyms like APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) and SLO (Student Learning Outcomes) became the vernacular. Democratic governors, President Obama and Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan, encouraged us towards “The Race To The Top.” Wages stagnated, teachers were blamed for students’ low test scores, and charter schools flourished. Many young people, especially females, turned away from teaching to more lucrative and respected professions. Education fields were no longer attractive to the smartest college graduates. The teacher exodus and subsequent substitute teacher shortage began.
The Trump administration, along with Donald Trump, Jr., has continued to pit Americans against teachers. Trump has labeled public schools as “bad government schools.” While Donald Trump, Jr. called teachers losers, who indoctrinate students with socialist beliefs. Of course, Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has promoted a privatization scheme furthering demonizing teachers and threatening more defunding if schools do not reopen.
Recently, when teachers in large cities, including New York City, question their safety, ask to teach remotely, and threaten to strike, the national response vilifies teachers as lazy government workers. Countless social media comments include the phrase: “Teachers, go back to work! I have been working this entire time…”
Even a nurse, Kristen McConnell, a fellow caregiving professional, pushed teachers to return to the classroom. Writing in the Atlantic, her title says it plainly: “I’m a Nurse in New York. Teachers Should Do Their Jobs, Just Like I Did. Schools are essential to the functioning of our society, and that makes teachers essential workers.“
STAY. IN. YOUR. LANE. KRISTEN!
Teaching remotely is work. It is tremendously taxing and can be very effective if done well. However, teachers dived into online instruction with varying degrees of technological access and training. Even in districts that have had 1:1 Chromebooks for many years, teachers floundered until they formed organic professional learning communities and found their groove.
Teachers cannot be scapegoats for the pandemic, for failing schools, for a tanking economy. However, this summer was a missed opportunity to offer teachers robust training to improve their online instruction. The federal, state, and local leaders failed to act and to predict the inevitability of remote education.
Categorizing educators as either saviors or scapegoats is a false dichotomy. The labels lead to unproductive conversations, limiting growth and progress. Pitting working Americans against each other only serves rich people’s agendas. Furthermore, teachers, like all people, are not monolithic.
When one of my closest friends received a phone call from her child’s teacher during the first week of remote instruction in Cary, NC, she asked the teacher what she needed from her. The teacher responded that she needed prayers. Amen.
In addition to prayers, teachers need:
Worker solidarity: Every worker must demand safe working conditions, flexibility, living wages, and health benefits.
Parental cooperation: Parents partner with teachers to require safe schools (during a pandemic and in “normal” times).
Administrative support: School leaders who listen to teachers and adjust routines, regulations, and instruction accordingly.
State-wide planning: Each state must partner with colleges to promote and incentivize teaching, recruiting from a variety of backgrounds while emphasizing the need for highly intelligent and motivated educators.
Nationally: Politicians need to get out of our way.
Change is a direction, and it is often slow. America’s teachers and students desire and request a change on our terms.
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