Opinion: We are guilting teachers into returning to dangerous situations

This popular meme has been making the rounds on social media in the wake of the call for schools to reopen so Americans can go back to work.

Longtime educator says purpose of schools should not be to provide child care

Roy Jackson is entering his 20th year in education; he spent 18 of them working for the Atlanta Public Schools in a variety of roles including classroom teacher and school librarian.

In this piece, Jackson addresses the pressure on public schools from the White House to reopen so America can get back to work.

By Roy Jackson

I began my teaching career in public education with the Atlanta Public Schools in 2001. I was hired to teach first grade at a brand-new building. I had lived in Atlanta only a year prior and worked at a wealthy private school.

The new school building was beautiful. The superintendent hosted a ribbon cutting, and the staff was given a tour. The school went nameless for some time as the community fought over what to call it.

But I had another fight to wage.

The lovely new building had no playground. I was baffled that Georgia had eliminated recess to maximize teaching time. All I could think was how will kids learn conflict resolution, imaginative play, and exercise daily if they were in a classroom all but the 30 minutes they went to lunch.

I was dumbstruck with state standards and requirements that all seven of us on the same team were expected to follow. Our lesson plans were so strict that it was considered bad practice to not be on the same page at the same time. I was angry we gave letter grades instead of narrative reports on progression of learning, as private schools do.

I couldn’t believe students had to take a bubble-in test, the CRCT, at the end of the year. I was defeated when No Child Left Behind was so stringent with rules that we could not use school funds for crayons and glue as they were not considered educational materials.

I was ready to give up when I bought all those things out of pocket, typically spending more than a thousand dollars a year, only to find I was capped at $250 when it came to deducting work-related expenses on my taxes. No other profession I knew of had a cap on deductible expenses.

Roy Jackson

In the call now to reopen schools, I hear talking points about the importance of learning, mental health, and socialization. The last gut punches me when I think about how long Georgia sacrificed recess, yet now emphasizes the need for socialization. What I hear coming from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos is about day care -- babysitting kids so parents can work.

When did schools become the mitigating factor for child care? Is day care the highest priority of our educational institutions?

I am incensed with the nuance in wording. Secretary of Education DeVos has said in her interviews, “And many teachers have families.” She was attempting to show that she understood the concerns of front line educators being forced to go back. But that word, many, is a lie.

I know not one robot teaching in any school, and, therefore, it’s impossible for any human to not have some semblance of family. All teachers have families. Most, not many, have kids themselves. They have grandchildren, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, and cousins. By choosing to say that “many” teachers have families rather than “most” or “all,” DeVos is subtly casting the teacher as a babysitter who doesn’t have a family as worthy or important as the families coming into the school.

Teachers have spent a lifetime of being guilted into accepting bad deals through contracts, salaries, insurance premiums, paid time off, and so forth.

The teaching profession has been placed on a pedestal of clergy-like status and sainted. But that canonization means when teachers push back on working conditions, we get demonized. We are criticized for putting ourselves over our students. This weird halo placed over the heads of teachers works against us when we fight for our rights as workers. This is a narrative that must stop.

In the midst of this health crisis, people ought to consider how easily lice can spread in a school, how flu and now even measles outbreaks are a part of our lives. We want to open school, but it feels we are being guilted into an all-or-nothing scenario. Day care or babysitting should not be the focus, but it is.

Secretary DeVos has said that schools must make decisions based on what’s best for them at the local level. But she then pivoted and warned schools better fully open so parents can go to work, or the feds won’t fund them. She said it, she tweeted it and she re-tweeted the president's message on that point.

Why was the federal government so willing to let states and local leaders handle the pandemic, but push all schools coast to coast to open as if things were normal or risk the punishment of losing federal dollars?

What a confusing message. That demand to open schools in normal fashion eliminates staggered start times, grouping students into half day or alternating day schedules, freeing instruction from state standards and teaching to the year-end test, front-loading instruction and then having the guided and independent practice happen at home. But we cannot consider these options if we won’t be funded if we decline to fully reopen.

It is time we change the definition of schools. Either we see them as educational institutions or rebrand them as day care facilities with some education provided on the side.

Quite clearly, Trump and DeVos see what we do as babysitting. If you believe schools ought to be educational institutions, then we need your support. Support that must last longer than just this moment in time.

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