Back to school: How we're failing those who support us

Monday, September 7, 2020 - 5:12pm

–

Illustration by Eileen Kelly

My mother has always told me I’m allowed to be an English major, but I’m not allowed to become a teacher. As a senior studying creative writing and literature, I haven’t strayed far from the world I grew up in — one where education was a daily topic of discussion. 

My mother is a public high school English teacher whose biggest project is a class called College Writing, which she created over a ten-year span with peers and mentors. I grew up fully immersed in her academic career. I graded her students’ quizzes at swim meets, sprawled on the concrete and wrapped in the thick chlorinated air, oblivious to the excitement around me. (I later found out they were Scantrons and that I was a gullible, eager twelve-year-old). I rode in the passenger seat while my older brother drove to an after school test, quizzing him on research acronyms and grammar intricacies. I took College Writing my junior year of high school, finally writing poetry and digital stories like the “big kids” I’d watched growing up — though after a year in my mother’s classroom for freshman year English, we decided another teacher might be best for me. 

After I finished College Writing, my mother would tape notes to her students’ portfolios strewn around our kitchen counter. Not sure about this one. Thoughts? We’d typically differ half a letter grade, with an A- from her and a B+ from me. During my first few years of college, I brought home textbooks littered with sticky notes, emailed her essay drafts hours before they were due and called at odd hours when I couldn’t remember specific words. 

I grew up listening, and then participating, in discussions of curriculum, standardized testing, racism and discrimination, keeping digital projects relevant and eventually remote teaching frustrations, among many others. 

But I grew up into a world that replaced those conversations with ones of worry for everyone’s safety, from school shootings to a pandemic, into a world that let outside problems fester and swell and force their way into brick-walled classrooms, trapped with no place to go. And our educators bear the brunt of it. 

***

Of course, safety and education have always been complementary. Educators are responsible for a group of human beings, after all — a duty that comes with inherent uncertainties. American teachers, in particular, accept daunting truths that may appear foreign to other professions, such as the reality of school shootings and their role as protectors. But 2020 brings new challenges:  Teacher safety is not only jeopardized by a small possibility of unpredictable danger, but instead by the very unknowns schools are swinging open their doors to. 

Six months after COVID-19 was first reported in the United States, I watch on Facebook as my former math teacher posts photos of the plexiglass shield her husband constructed for her desk. In some classrooms, the desks are as little as 23 inches apart. Across the country, teachers with serious pre-existing conditions are writing wills and calculating loss of income if they choose not to go back. And just like that, with schools reopening, we’ve successfully crammed another problem into a classroom that didn’t ask for it. 

“I'm not asking for a zero risk. I know there’s risk in my job,” my mother said in a phone interview that was as formal as you can get with a parent. “There’s risk in my job every day with school shooters. But I'm asking to be treated respectfully and humanely.”

Respectfully and humanely by whom? By administrations, who are tasked with opening schools at the objection of their teachers. By parents, who only want their kids back in school. And by college students, some of whom still spend their free time attending bars and parties

Kentaro Toyama, a professor in the School of Information, feels the same as it applies to in-person classes on college campuses. “I feel reasonably confident as long as I take moderate measures in terms of social distancing and wearing masks and the students do too,” Toyama said. “But I’m also completely sympathetic with many of my colleagues who are either older or have various health conditions for whom this is potentially life or death — you meet with the wrong student for just a little bit too long and it could mean coronavirus.” 

Dennis Mihalsky is a high school English, Journalism, and Speech and Debate teacher at the City College Academy of the Arts in New York City, who had a different opinion on meeting students face-to-face. “For my own boundaries, I am pretty nervous and hesitant,” he said. “I'm going to go in (to school) but I will be very cautious of everything that I do, follow as many of the procedures as possible and get my students to as well.”

My mother, who now hates the word “feasible”,  mentions that her school has tossed the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines in favor of what they consider to be practical or possible — meaning instead of desks six feet apart, it’s now “as far apart as feasible.”

“I'm torn. I don't want to get sick,” my mother says. “I certainly don't want to have long term consequences. But I also feel like we need to do our best to try to open schools. And if it doesn't work, then we at least tried.” 

***

“I would like to believe that universities, and especially public universities, would be leaders in showing what well-run, enlightened leadership would do in a crisis situation,” Toyama said. 

We call ourselves the Leaders and Best, yet hundreds of faculty remain suspended in conflict with the University. Toyama explained that the University left many decisions regarding COVID-19 and reopening up to individual units, meaning departments, programs or other clusters of faculty. Some units embraced the challenge of online learning, while others soldiered on with in-person teaching. Toyama explained that the instructions for his department were unclear, but that the deans went instructor to instructor, asking what each was willing to do to make a remote education possible. Allowing individual units to make decisions for themselves allows for flexibility, but also exposes employees with less agency within the University.

“There are units on campus where, for example, all of the tenure track faculty declined to teach in person,” Toyama said. “So (now) the lecturers are being required to teach in-person classes, but they have much less occupational stability than tenure track professors, and that seems grossly unfair.”

Just one unit — be it an academic department, class, lab, or faculty group — affects many different populations of Ann Arbor, pressuring people into unjust situations that others can opt out of. “We're a large community,” Toyama said, speaking on U-M faculty. “We have not seen evidence (for) the people who are on the front lines that the leadership has their back.” 

In the past few months, Toyama watched his colleagues, staff and peers who ensure the University functions smoothly be pressured into in-person work. He began organizing protests and encouraging faculty to voice their concerns so the administration could make decisions with input from its constituents.  

“In my five years in faculty governance, I haven’t yet seen the administration give an inch on key issues, though they are very good at providing the impression that they care about our opinions,” Toyama said. “I don’t think this is governance, this is dictatorship. And, if that seems a little bit alarmist, it’s because I really believe we are in a moment in which we have to do something a little bit more than make polite requests.”

U-M is not alone in turning deaf ears to its employees. By April 28, 68 New York City teachers and staff members had died of COVID-19, which can be attributed as a direct result of schools remaining open longer than the faculty wanted. “We sort of lost our trust, almost, in the school district, because they just didn't act fast enough,” Mihalsky said. “But the union really went to bat for us.”

In addition to teaching, Mihalsky is a chapter leader in the United Federation of Teachers, where he “protects and defends” the fifty educators in his chapter from action taken without teachers’ input. The UFT helped close schools in March, then found itself in uncharted territory as it turned to face the new school year. “The UFT was very clear with the city’s administration and the mayor that we need to start planning for next year now, and not wait until the last minute. Of course, they didn't. They didn't listen to that,” Mihalsky said. 

And this past week Mihalsky was preparing his chapter for a strike ahead of NYC schools’ reopening on September 10, but was told at the last minute that the Union had reached a deal with the Department of Education and the De Blasio administration. They never voted to begin the strike, but their uneasiness still lingers. 

The plan pushes the school year back by two weeks, meaning students will begin September 21, buying the districts time to acquire all the necessary PPE, place social distancing stickers on the floors, check ventilations systems and plan for any other potential necessity. If any of the requirements are not met, the school is supposed to shut down. 

Mihalsky called the deal unrealistic. “Teachers are intimidated by administration,” he said. “They don't want to say anything.” 

Beyond that, he finds it problematic that schools could be open and functional one day, then completely shut down the next. “What are the parents supposed to do? They didn't plan for their kid to be at home the next day. It’s messy.” 

He was hoping for a fully remote year, but like many others, spent his summer preparing for any possible contingency. What the general institution overlooks, individuals like Toyama and Mihalsky must provide for their students, their parents and the educational system at large. 

***

Mihalsky is in his fourth year of teaching, my mother in her 25th. They’re typically fixated on college prep, students’ mental and emotional health, school shooter drills, standardized testing or any number of things. Their newest responsibility will be to police how their students wear masks and if they social distance in the classroom. 

“I never know where to put my focus. Am I there mostly to help my kids be stable, happy human beings and if I can teach them to read and write as well, that's great?” my mother said. “Or am I mostly there to make sure we have well informed citizens who can read critically, think clearly, write and communicate clearly, understand what is fake news versus real news?” 

With the pandemic, these concerns increase tenfold. The beginning of September brings an increasingly confusing and complicated world. We’re asking our educators to assume roles as unscathed physical protectors — a role they never asked for. 

“We don't need to be called heroes. We don't need to be called any of that,” Mihalsky said. What they do need is for society to recognize their humanity and adequately address their needs through systemic and societal support, funding and respect.  

“Give us the resources and the opportunity to do our jobs, and (we’ll) do our jobs well,” Mihalsky said. “Teachers are sort of patted on the back and told, ‘You’re a hero, look at you, you can do this and not get paid a lot. But that's just not enough to get things to work.” 

When we label someone a hero and put them on that pedestal, we effectively take away any responsibility we feel for their safety. We don't have to think critically about them as people and their needs because they’re categorized as superhuman. And if they die, or they’re hurt, it’s viewed as less tragic — it was for a noble cause. This pseudo-martyrism makes it easier for us to  accept their fate rather than show enough gratitude to implement a system that actually protects them. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the world on hold, or at least stalled its momentum. We inch along, one day at a time, doing our best to carry on as normal. We bake bread and watch Tiger King, play Animal Crossing, turn to the streets to protest for Black lives and turn inward when the virus rages on. But at some point, we’ll be thrust back into motion again, and the students in today’s classrooms will be moving forward into the next part of their lives. 

So how will they have spent this historic year? It’s impractical to think everything we expect educators to impart and students to absorb can fit into one classroom or year, even without a pandemic. And it becomes virtually impossible to do these things without the support of education’s institutions.

“It can be challenging to feel like you’re doing a good job,” my mother told me over the phone. We began the interview while she drove home from an errand, and I could tell she’d made it home and curled up in the driver’s seat, too deep in thought about her life’s work to walk into the house. 

I haven’t been in her classroom for a few years now, but at one point it was the backdrop of my life. The east wall is lined with pennants from universities her students have gone on to, some as a direct result of her help. Her passion for education is so strong it’s spilled over into my life, too. I’ve watched her change the way my friends and peers write, and subsequently think about the world, how they process information and define themselves on paper. By some people’s standards, she’d be considered a hero. She’s one of mine. But this distinction does not absolve us of the responsibilities we carry for the educators we’ve been privileged to have in our lifetimes.