Social Justice Saturday: do we value our schools and teachers as much as we should?

Social Justice Saturday time. Time for another topic that has risen to the top of many people’s priority lists thanks to the pandemic: schools and the role they play in our societies. They have risen to the top of people’s lists for many reasons:

  • Parents. Suddenly, out of nowhere, sometime in March, parents all across the globe found themselves in various forms of lockdown, with kids ranging from preschool to high schoolers all stuck at home and all needing to be schooled at home. Homeschooled! Learning at home using technology that many homes don’t have access to and many other homes with access but with parents who aren’t comfortable with the technology. And with parents who are suddenly working from home themselves. Perhaps parents who are teachers, trying to teach remotely while their kids are learning remotely. Or perhaps parents who are suddenly furloughed and not receiving a paycheque. What an unbelievably stressful situation. The miracle is that as many parents and their kids have done as well as they have.

    A family spread out to do their school work. Image credit: ABC7NY.com

  • Teachers. I can only hope that many more people now appreciate the challenging and critically important role teachers play in teaching, caring for, and molding our children, some of whom respond less well to old-style one-method-fits-all approaches to learning and some who have special needs. I can only hope that many more people now understand, after trying to oversee their children’s at-home learning and keep their attention, just how stressful their teachers’ jobs are. Teachers work hard to do the best for every child. Often without sufficient resources. Often wishing they could do more. Occasionally constrained in trying to do more by district, state/province, or national regulations.

A possible classroom setting before COVID. Image credit: Ted Talks

  • Politicians. Disappointingly, it seems that some politicians, including a few presidents and prime ministers, view schooling primarily as child care, wanting to get students back in the classrooms ASAP so that people can get back to work. It would be nice if all of them would at least preface their remarks by acknowledging the full value that schools and teachers provide, rather than just categorically state that we need the kids back in school F-T so that we can get our economies going again. Despite the continuing threat of the virus. Despite the threat to teachers’ health. Despite the threat to the health of kids with vulnerabilities. Despite the threat to the families the kids and teachers may bring the virus home to.

A tweet of concern for teachers being expected to return to classrooms in jurisdictions where there is a surge in COVID infections.

  • Our children. The significant impact on our children from these school closures has not been lost on most people. People who last attended school themselves ‘thousands’ of years ago can still remember how important their school lives were to them, every day. That’s where kids’ lives are. Figuring out how to make friends, get along with friends, and deal with ‘non-friends’. Being exposed to new ideas and new challenges, sometimes without even realizing it, and rising to the challenge.  Finding a mentor in a teacher who may change a student’s life forever, again, maybe without even realizing it. Finding a sport, musical instrument, or something else that speaks to a young student.  Growing as a person. Gosh, all this learning and shaping of lives, and all that’s on our minds when we send our kids out the door is that now we can leave for work. The teachers are providing this environment for our kids. Let’s not forget that. In many places they do so with inadequate resources and inadequate compensation. In some places with less-than-helpful regulations from Education Officers, i.e. government dictates.
  • Our most vulnerable. Decades ago, most of the more vulnerable kids didn’t go to the public schools. They went to special schools, and none of the rest of us knew anything about it. Now we live in more inclusive and much more complex times. Our teachers teach, motivate, nurture, and provide individual supports for children with all kinds of special needs. How they do this is beyond me. Some undoubtedly must cope better than others, and I’m sure there’s a burnout rate. But when kids are at school, there’s some sense that the ones who arrive hungry get fed. There’s some sense that those who come from dysfunctional families get spotted and nurtured by at least some teachers. There’s a sense that there are (certainly should be) special assistants for kids with learning disabilities and other serious needs. Regardless of how well or how inadequately a school is equipped for all these societal challenges, it’s a healthier environment for most of these children than the alternative of staying at home in isolation.

When it became apparent that schools would have to close, teachers (and university professors) had to switch from in-class teaching, for which they are well trained and experienced, to teaching their students online and through remote discussions (Zoom, Team, etc.) in a matter of days. No materials ready, no prior training in the technology themselves, no special equipment at home, where they were often sharing a home computer with their own children and their teachers. No easy ability to establish the sense of connectedness that one has in a classroom. But they did their best. They worked hard to try to figure out the best way to continue with their students in an incredibly challenging situation and often with limited resources or support from their districts. They contacted students directly via Zoom or FaceTime to discuss their students’ progress and concerns. This didn’t always work well, but it wasn’t for lack of trying by the teachers.

Along with their principals, teachers found creative ways to provide graduating students at all levels with novel graduation ‘ceremonies’ in the absence of open schools and helped celebrate the achievements of their grads.

What a classroom might look like as students return in a world still controlled by COVID. Image credit: forbes.com

I cannot begin to imagine the challenges of planning for schools to reopen. There are the challenges of social distancing on school buses. The challenge of wearing masks to prevent the spread of the virus with a percentage of the population refusing to do so (???!). The challenge of protecting teachers, who are used to close physical proximity with their students in a classroom setting, but need protection. There’s the importance of having a Plan B – and a Plan C – for if/when it becomes clear that schools have to be closed down again for a while. I don’t want to even think about the additional costs involved. Huge.

At least now students, teachers, and parents have all had some experience with remote learning and can work to fine tune their materials and approaches. But it remains a work in progress. And most teachers don’t even yet know what the final decisions for their schools will be for this fall. They have to plan for every eventuality. Our teachers deserve a huge shoutout – and our continuing gratitude and respect – for the learning environments they work to provide for their students. Our children. And let’s not forget, their students are society’s future!

As we watch and wait to see how successful various parts of the world can be in reopening schools, in their own way and their own time, please let’s not forget what we have learned about the value of our schools during these strange pandemic times. Yes, they serve as child care insofar as our children have a place to be every day. But that is not why we have schools. We have schools so our children can be taught the subjects that each society considers an important foundation for ensuring a well-educated work force and responsible citizenry. Our schools provide an environment in which our children can learn socialization skills and can grow as individuals. For some children it is a haven in their storm.

As PM Jacinda Ardern has reminded audiences on several occasions, the societal well-being of a nation goes hand in hand with its economic well-being. Economic success with worsening social outcomes is not success, it’s failure. As it so happens, the cornerstone for both societal and economic well-being in a country is a strong, vibrant, well-supported public school system. To have successful societies we need our schools to succeed for our children. For all children.

PM Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, one of the most successful countries at containing their COVID-19 outbreak.

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20 Responses to Social Justice Saturday: do we value our schools and teachers as much as we should?

  1. Paulie says:

    Excellent piece Jane. There is a wealth of insight here.

    COVID-19 has uncovered the deficiencies in so many aspects of American society; healthcare, equal opportunity, housing, the wealth gap, the technology gap. And all of these have ties to our education system.

    These aren’t issues that began in 2016 with the inauguration of Trump but that event in itself certainly made things considerably worse. And just to pour gasoline on the dumpster fire, consider that we have an unqualified oligarch running the Department of Education who clearly got her position through blatant patronage.

    The disparity is plain right here in my area. A few miles west is Richmond which is largely made up of people of color, located in the shadow of the Chevron Refinery with higher rates of cancer and other illnesses and with schools that are largely out of sight and mind and need infusions of money and attention. Over the hill to our east are Danville and San Ramon with high schools that resemble well endowed junior colleges.

    COVID-19 is going to magnify the imbalance hundreds fold. Trump’s days are numbered (although that number isn’t low enough for my liking) but the problems will most certainly continue. All of the deficiencies that I listed are some of the many cans that get kicked from administration to administration.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Paulie, and thanks for sharing all this depressing but important background. There’s no doubt that Betsy deVos as Educ Sec is about as scary as possible. This in the country where the American Dream was predicated on equal opportunity to a good public school education. It seems that money has become everything, or rather keeping and growing the money for those that already have it. Scary as hell. Yes, the upheaval in schooling caused by the pandemic is truly going to increase the disparity. So damn sad. Let’s hope there’s a massive 180 degree turn in a few months.

  2. Kate says:

    My youngest just graduated from high school and is starting college in the fall. I have my own opinions about what I think is best in the long run for that situation but I won’t get into that here.

    My concern for K-12 is that if we would go to a mostly homeschooling/online model, is that the rich will get richer, and the poor will fall farther behind. I mean that more in a metaphorical sense.

    Hopefully one day the virus will pass–how will we make it up to kids who get left behind if they aren’t in a traditional classroom for a semester or a year?

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I know. You raise such an important point. It’s not just having access to technology and accompanying skill. It’s having adults in the house with the time, patience, and educational background to be able to provide needed support and encouragement. The socioeconomic gap is an issue at the best of times. The main hope, I guess, is for extraordinarily dedicated, sensitive, and creative teachers. But they’re already stretched and concerned for their own health. It’s a tough situation. Let’s hope the back-to-school plan can work in most places. But some parts of many states are out of control with the virus right now. I feel for the people who are having to make the decisions, and for the teachers and parents who have legitimate concerns. What a mess! 😥

  3. K E Garland says:

    “Economic success with worsening social outcomes is not success, it’s failure” this would be a great point for those who actually cared. I’m not sure society cares enough to develop creative solutions.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      OMG, Kathy, that is such a sad observation. The reality is that many nations do care and have developed creative solutions. It was the PM of NZ who said it. They care enough that everyone who can pays sufficient taxes that the social equalizers (to an extent) like healthcare, early childhood education, parental leave, etc are just part of being a citizen of the country. It is hard to believe that views like this in the US, the wealthiest country on earth, are vilified as “socialist”. Society needs to care. In the US, hopefully the young people coming up will have a different perspective. So sad.

      • K E Garland says:

        I have such a lengthy response, but I will pare it down. Our country deems some things socialist, while actually practicing socialism in different areas. Heck, the idea of public school and paying taxes is socialist.

        I hope this youngest generation has some semblance of creativity and action, but I also hate to keep passing all the ills on to them, you know?

        • Jane Fritz says:

          I know and I agree. But the lack of a belief in a common good on the part of so many in the US is very difficult for most of us watching to comprehend. Using just one small example, last night BBC World News America interviewed a family whose husband contracted COVID at work in a meat packing plant. He and his son both died from it, and now the penniless grieving family has medical bills they can’t pay??!!!! This just doesn’t happen anywhere else. How is this OK with any policy maker with a shred of human decency. I guess the answer is that you’re right, the society doesn’t care. More important for the insurance companies to make money and the wealthy and the rich corporations not pay taxes than to live in a more compassionate society. As I said, so sad. 😥

        • K E Garland says:

          It’s very sad. And I have an entire story about teachers going back, but I’ll save that for another day lol Long story short, people over here are feeling more and more hopeless, but they can’t afford to not go to a job, even if they’re deathly afraid. Okay. That’s my last comment ❤ Thank you for always sharing varied perspectives on these issues.

  4. I can’t even imagine having to teach a child or grandchild at my house. Math is a major riddle to me since my time in school in the 60’s, history supposedly isn’t correct from what I was taught and science is science fiction!! English and literature I might be able to cope with but kids should be so grateful they don’t have to learn from this old girl!! Give me my garden, farming and crafting and I may be on to something!!!

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Lol! Fabulous response, Rita. You aren’t alone; can you imagine how parents or grandparents have who are in that situation?! But you sure could teach them plenty about gardening, cooking, and crafts, which are important lifelong skills. And you’d be surprised how much math is involved in cooking and crafts – quilting for sure. It’s easier when you don’t think of it as math! 😉

  5. There are some harsh realities, that it will take a while to overcome. I can only wish all involved the best of good luck.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I agree, Tim, that it will take some time for kids’ (and their parents) lives and their education to get back to a real semblance of normal. So many unknowns.

  6. Amen! Sure wish we had Jacinda Ardern instead of the grotesque man we have in the White House.

  7. LA says:

    We clearly undervalue teachers.I fear for these kids, because very few pick up concepts without help. It’s going to be hard…

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