Education in Crisis

Image from printersrowlitfest.org

Last Saturday I had the privilege of selling my teaching memoir, Tales Told Out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher, at the Printer’s Row Lit Fest in Chicago. Not surprisingly, the majority of my customers and visitors were teachers. Everyone who had not yet retired reported the same concerns:

  • The kids are not all right. The pandemic and the dysfunction in our country have taken a huge toll.
  • The kids are not behaving as well as they did pre-pandemic. They are less cooperative, less engaged, and less friendly.
  • We aren’t going to help kids make up academic deficits until we address their mental health issues.
  • The controversies swirling around so many districts about what can and cannot be taught are disempowering to teachers and make them question their willingness to stay in the profession.
  • Teachers are tired, too. They’ve paid a heavy price during the pandemic, too.
  • There’s just too much micro-management.
  • The pressure on current teachers to cover empty classes on top of their own load is too great a burden.

I recognize that this is a small group of anecdotes, not a vetted research study. But on Wednesday, when I was joined a group of former colleagues for a tram ride through the spectacular Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Illinois, I shared that feedback with them. The woman seated directly in front of me turned around and said, “Both my grown daughters are teachers. They’re in two different states and teach different grades, but that’s exactly what they say!”

Research studies about mental health issues for young people abound. I’ve written about them before, and I’ll write about them again. And we already have a serious teacher shortage and a grossly inadequate pipeline of teachers in training. The response, to let college students [Arizona and potentially Michigan] and veterans [Florida] teach without proper training and certification is not the answer. Even in the best of times, teaching has always required commitment, content knowledge, classroom management skills, and training in effective methods and best practices. Yet teaching may never have been more challenging than it is today, so teachers really need good preparation. We cannot help teachers and students recover unless we make significant changes:

  • We need to work on a culture that too often doesn’t value teachers or treat them with respect. Imagine, for example, if the media did more news stories about classrooms that are working well.
  • We need to empower teachers to do the decision-making for which they were trained instead of having screaming adults at school board meetings force administrations to surrender decision-making.
  • Every teacher needs a living wage and a workable class load.
  • We need to expand and develop programs that help teachers-in-training with college tuition in exchange for some years of service teaching in under-served areas after graduation.
  • We should provide mentoring for new teachers.
  • We must staff mental health positions in schools. The NASP has long recommended a ratio of one school psychologist for every 500 students, yet the national ratio average is 1:1211 and approaches1:5000 in some states [nasponline.org].  The need has never been greater, and classroom teachers have neither the time nor the training to fill it.

I felt so lucky to teach for over 30 years, to know so many students, to work with communities of colleagues. Let’s make sure those still in the classroom get to feel that way. Let’s invest in changes that support both teachers and students. That’s our best hope for retaining teachers and reaching and supporting students.

Is It Already Too Late?

Phto by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash

I fear for the future of public education in this nation. These forces fuel my angst:

  • Students, teachers, parents and administrators are dealing with lost learning and lost connections from the pandemic.
  • Public support for education seems less reliable. From my first teaching experience in 1970 until my retirement, I saw a shift from teachers almost always being right to teachers almost always being wrong, neither of which seems right to me. The assault on teachers’ choices and on school board decisions suggests an us-you dynamic instead of collaborative support.
  • Micromanaging public education by non-educators has become a costly epidemic. From the days of “No Child Left Behind” to now, legislators have been setting rules and guidelines that may not align with known “Best Practices” and that disempower teachers and teacher decision-making.
  • People using the “culture wars” for their own political purposes are polarizing communities and hurting support for schools. They are robbing schools and educators of decision-making, hamstringing their ability to teach students to think and learn.
  • Critical thinking, perhaps the most important life skill schools should nurture, cannot be taught without exploring more than one side of an issue. Unfortunately, too often today adults want kids to parrot their beliefs instead of developing their own.

I hold core values that matter here:

  • All students can learn given good teachers and appropriate materials and lessons. One size has never fit all, and well-trained teachers are best equipped to figure out how to reach a wide array of students.
  • Educators have a moral responsibility to nurture students thinking, especially critical thinking. We seem to be living in a time when many don’t value critical thinking, when many adults want students to toe their line of thinking instead. How can we solve the great problems facing our world if we can’t think about them openly and explore possibilities collaboratively?
  • Educators can – and should – be responsive to parental concerns about curriculum on a case-by-case basis, thereby honoring their family values without dictating them to everyone else. When I had a parent concerned about controversial content, I could offer alternatives without the entire class being deprived of an important experience or exposure to ideas.
  • Educators, especially when they work in teams and have their curricula evaluated by their administrations and boards of education, are by far the most qualified to develop curricula. Teachers have been trained to evaluate material and put it in a meaningful context. Working in teams, they are best suited to identify what is appropriate and provides an opportunity for learning.
  • Winston Churchill [and/or George Santayana] supposedly said, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” How can we teach history from which we can learn valuable lessons if we continue to sanitize it and dismiss uncomfortable past realities?

I knew I wanted to spend my life teaching and learning by the time I was in sixth grade, and I loved my career most of the time. Now, though, I’m less convinced that I would choose it. The politics in Florida may be among the more extreme, but their policies are catching on in other states. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s “Stop WOKE Act” regulates what schools can teach about race and identity [washingtonpost.com]. Although the law is currently being challenged in court, it should still strike fear in proponents of public education. Critics warn that the efforts in Florida are a harbinger for other states [Ibid.]. “’Florida may be leading the charge,’ said Fairfield University mathematics professor Irene Mulvey, the president of the American Association of University Professors, adding that Texas is not far behind and that many other states are following suit. ‘It’s a trend in the larger culture wars … where you see these politicians trying to throw red meat to the base and stir people up’” [Ibid.].

Florida is trying to control every aspect of education and to focus on a sanitized and Christian worldview. “The DeSantis administration has decried teachings on race, suggested civics instruction that downplays the historical separation of church and state, told school districts to ignore advice from the federal government that guarantees civil rights protections for LGBTQ students and, on Wednesday, asserted that children in elementary schools are being told they are the wrong gender” [washingtonpost.com]. The vagueness of the rules and the conflicting instruction from the state and federal governments are sowing fear and confusion. According to Michael Woods, a Palm Beach teacher and member of the Classroom Teachers Association, “’The vagueness of these laws is doing exactly what it was intended to do. It’s silencing teachers… I have grown people coming up to me worried about what they can say’” [Ibid.].

Florida also requires new civics training for public school teachers that includes the statement that it is a “’misconception’ that “the Founders desired strict separation of church and state’” [washingtonpost.com]. This flies in the face of the First Amendment, which prevents the government from “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” which scholars widely interpret to require a separation of church and state. Broward County teacher Richard Judd, who attended the three-day training on the new civics curriculum, said the trainers told teachers, “This is the way you should think” [Ibid.]. Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said, “Then they kind of slipped in a Christian values piece, ignoring the fact that this country is made up of so many different cultures and religions” [Ibid.]. If teachers can only present one view, how can students learn to think critically and evaluate the information offered?

And this same state has flip-flopped over the use of a specific textbook in health and still hasn’t made a decision for the start of this year’s instruction. Health professionals are alarmed, especially in a state with the third-highest rate of new HIV infections in the country according to the CDC, in a state ranked 23rd for teen pregnancies. They point out that public opinion surveys show significant support for sexual education [Ibid.].

If these actions were limited to one state, I would be less concerned. But they are not. Lawmakers across the country are proposing bills like these: “’First Florida. Then Alabama. Now, lawmakers in Ohio and Louisiana are considering legislation that mimics the Florida law,’ according to NPR” [catholicvote.org]. After Florida passed the Don’t Say Gay Bill, 19 other states have introduced similar legislation [nbcnews.com]. For this issue alone, The Guardian identifies Georgia, Louisiana, Kansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Arizona, Oklahoma, Ohio, and South Carolina as states emulating the Florida Don’t Say Gay Bill. Education Week shows similarcontagion from state to state [theguardian.com].

Sexual orientation and gender identity are not the only flashpoint. Since January 2021, 14 states have passed laws prohibiting “critical race theory, even though that term refers to post-secondary scholarship. Legislators want to sanitize the nation’s history of slavery. These laws and orders, combined with local actions to restrict certain types of instruction, now impact more than one out of every three children in the country, according to a recent study from UCLA [edweek.org]. Education Week analyzed active state bills and warns that “Republicans this year have drastically broadened their legislative efforts to censor what’s taught in the classroom. What started in early 2021 as a conservative effort to prohibit teachers from talking about diversity and inequality in so-called ‘divisive’ ways or taking sides on ‘controversial’ issues has now expanded to include proposed restrictions on teaching that the United States is a racist country, that certain economic or political systems are racist, or that multiple gender identities exist, according to an Education Week analysis of 61 new bills and other state-level actions” [Ibid.].

Teaching has always been hard, and other factors [like the pandemic and verbal fights at school board meetings] have only increased its difficulty. But this national movement to disempower educators, to take away their decision-making, to make them fearful of lawsuits as they try to determine what subject matter is safe in their state, is crippling their ability to teach. A survey of members of the American Federation of Teachers shows dramatically increased job dissatisfaction, up from 27% in 2014 to 79% in 2022 [AFT Member Survey]. That news should be especially concerning given the existing shortage of teachers and the insufficiency of the pipeline of teachers in training.

Publishing my teaching memoir this year reminded me of the joys as well as the challenges of my career. Would I choose it now? I don’t know. Will others? The current climate hardly encourages the best and the brightest. Don’t our students deserve them?

“The Children Are Our Future”

While many complain about teens, my problem-based learning elective class, which fostered service projects for the school and larger community, taught me that teens can and will make major contributions to their community. Right now, when so much education news keeps me awake at night, I loved reading about the high school senior in Olivia, Minnesota, who did just that.
 
The son of a military veteran and relative of others, Dominique Claseman grew dismayed that his small town didn’t have a veteran’s memorial. Although some residents of this farming community of 2500 people 90 miles from the Twin Cities had put up a few rocks and signs in recognition, that didn’t seem adequate to Claseman. He was ready to design and enact his Eagle Scout project, and his veteran father was his scoutmaster. Claseman and his parents toured war memorials in other towns. Then Claseman began his own PR campaign to raise funds. He sought interviews at local radio stations, handed out brochures, and went door-to-door to local businesses. He offered families the opportunity to sponsor stone pavers engraved with their veteran’s name. Although his initial goal was a modest $12,000 – 15,000 dollars, donations came not only from Olivia but from surrounding towns, hitting almost $77,000.
 
Claseman drew up a sketch inspired by memorials he’d seen. His contractor grandfather helped with the design. By May, the finalized blueprint showed “a long walkway leading to a stone monument and four granite benches in a 21-foot circle representing the 21 boot steps the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns walks. The memorial also would include flagpoles and Army helmet sculptures in honor of two local men who died in Iraq. A local crew volunteered to pour the concrete if Claseman would purchase the supplies. Then his dad walked across the wet cement in his Army boots to complete a walk of honor with 21 footprints” [washingtonpost.com].
 
Over three weekends, Claseman and his family, along with other members of his scout troop, installed the landscaping and 280 inscribed pavers. “’There were about 10,000 pounds of rock, so, yeah, it was a lot of work,’ Claseman said’ [Ibid.]. This past Memorial Day, two years after Claseman began fundraising and designing, the monument was dedicated. Jon Hawkinson, mayor of Olivia, said, “’Dom’s project proved to us that when creativity meets ambition, wonderful things can happen’” [Ibid.]. Several hundred people attended the dedication and grew quite emotional. 91-year-old Marjorie Barber came to honor her uncle who died in World War I at the age of 21 along with more than a dozen relatives who served during World War II, including her late husband. “’We have 17 members of my family on the memorial — almost all are gone, a few are still living…We never had a place to remember our veterans before, so what Dominique did is really wonderful and uplifting for our town’” [Ibid.]. Kim Wertish, whose 20-year-old son James was killed in a mortar attack in Iraq in 2009, bought markers for her son and some of his comrades. She called the Olivia memorial “extra special.”
 
Claseman expects his younger brothers to add to the memorial for their own Eagle Scout projects. He said he was thrilled to see his friends and neighbors paying their respects on the Fourth of July. “’Everyone came together for the veterans,’ Claseman said. ‘That’s what this is all about’” [Ibid.].
 
This heartwarming story feels remarkable, and Dominique Claseman is an admirable young man, but I feel confident that his story is not unique. While the news is full of grim updates about the concerning state of education, some young people continue to rise to the occasion and even to exceed anyone’s expectation. We should learn more of these stories. I find myself humming Whitney Houston’s song:
“I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride
To make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be.”

Out of Africa

In 2010, when we were on our second safari in Tanzania, we again splurged on a posh yurt village in the Serengeti. This time we met a wealthy couple from England, pompous name-droppers who claimed to be friends of David Cameron, then the Prime Minister. I knew we held different values when she appeared at dinner in a flowing white linen shirt and palazzo pants, knowing full well that locals would have to try to wash them in water heated over an open fire. At dinner one night, she confirmed that sense when she started denigrating zoos. Another guest and I pointed out that zoos were responsible for significant conservation efforts, like the Amsterdam Zoo’s program for black rhinos, and that many people could only learn about animals through zoo. “Oh, no,” she replied blithely. “They should just all come to Africa to see animals for themselves.” Clueless and out of touch, she failed to see the value of empowering people to learn about the world beyond their own lives.

I have been thinking of her attitude a lot lately as I continue to read about the attacks at library board and school board meetings as people fight to curtail access to books for readers. Yet reading is an invaluable way for each of us to expand our awareness of worlds hitherto unknown to us. As a teacher, I always accommodated parents who had concerns about works in our curriculum. As an educator, parent, grandparent, and citizen of this country, I am appalled at the efforts of conservative individuals and groups to limit not only their reading of their own family members but of everyone. They would remove so many books from libraries and schools that many students would never see themselves reflected in their reading, much less learn about others who are different.

Consider this passage from Reading is Fundamental [scenicregional.org]:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.

I am somewhat comforted, though, by Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I am relieved to see many organizations actively working to support those of us who would fight such censorship. These include the following:

If I were still in an English classroom, I would depend upon the efforts of the National Council of Teachers of English. Their “This Story Matters” initiative provides rationales to defend books under attack. Their position says it best:

The right to read is one of the foundations of a democratic society, and teachers need the freedom to support that right so their students can make informed decisions and be valuable contributors to our world. A story can encourage diversity of thought, broaden global perspectives, celebrate unique cultures, and motivate the reader to achieve their dreams. This right matters. This Story Matters.

Tennessee Leads the Way!

Image from governorsfoundation.org

Like so many states, Tennessee is concerned about the “COVID Slide,” the estimated learning loss for students from the pandemic’s school closures and disruptions. Their Department of Education recently released data that projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math. This is about 2.5 times higher than the learning loss students can experience during a normal summer break” [governorsfoundation.org].

Such data is not news, but Tennessee’s approach to this harsh reality is news. The Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation [GELF] addresses this problem: “The mission of Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation is to strengthen early literacy in Tennessee. Our vision is a Tennessee where all children have access to the resources, guidance and support they need to become lifelong learners” [tn.gov/education]. In January of 2021, GELF, in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Education, “announced a statewide rollout of Ready4K, a research-based text messaging program to help parents support their students in learning at home” [Ibid.]. Their research confirmed that 97% of parents had smart phones and texted [Ibid.]140,000 families with children enrolled in pre-K through third grade received, at no charge, “three weekly text messages with facts, easy tips, and activities on how to help each child learn and grow by building on existing family routines. Text messages match each child’s age, with simple, engaging facts and suggestions for building on existing daily routines, such as getting dressed, bath time, or preparing a meal” [Ibid.]. 

“’Tennessee is taking a leadership role in providing families with accessible, evidence-based family engagement text messages to help foster child development and bridge the gap between home and school during a time of unprecedented challenges,’ said Ben York, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Ready4K. ‘With more than 15 million children in the U.S. living without adequate internet access or devices, the use of texting addresses the country’s digital divide and enables even the hardest-to-reach parents to access high-quality information and resources for their children’” [Ibid.]. 

An evidence-based program, Ready4K is continuously being evaluated and improved through ongoing partnerships at Stanford, Brown and Notre Dame universities. It “has been shown to increase family engagement at home and school and increase child learning by 2-3 months over the course of a school year” [Ibid.]. 

Last week GELF announced its second year of Its K-3 Book Delivery program. Partnering with Scholastic Library Publishing, it will deliver half a million books to teachers and students all over Tennessee, including to every first grader in the state. The high-quality and age-appropriate books will be delivered directly to homes at no charge [businesswire.com]. Encouraging students to read through the summer improves their literacy and reduces learning loss.

Participants agree. A survey by GELF showed a positive response to the program from caregivers, teachers, and students of 94-97% [Ibid.]. 

This program builds on Dolly Parton’s incredible leadership for childhood literacy. “Since 1995, Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program has delivered meticulously chosen, personalized, age-appropriate books every month to children up to five years old — all free of charge” [rollingstone.com]. Initially a very local program, it kept expanding and, by February of 2021, had distributed nearly 155 million books [Ibid.]. Now the state of Tennessee is following her lead.

The pandemic has brought about lots of handwringing about learning loss, and I myself have written about it often enough. Here, though, is meaningful good news. Here is a state, one not necessarily known nationwide for leadership in education, that offers a concrete solution to address the COVID slide. Their leadership makes me hopeful for the children of Tennessee. Now may other states follow suit, developing programs like these or their own alternatives, so that our students catch up and become literate adults!

Enough!

More than 311, 000… that’s how many students have experienced gun violence at school since the Columbine High massacre in 1999. “While school shootings remain rare, there were more in 2021 — 42 — than in any year since at least 1999. So far this year, there have been at least 24 acts of gun violence on K-12 campuses during the school day” [washpost.com].

So we start the sad dance all over again. Politicians who claim to be pro-life [who would take away a woman’s right to choose how to deal with her pregnancy] spout the same sanctimonious spiel to all who will listen even as they fight gun control legislation and take millions from the NRA. And nothing changes… We are growing numb as well as impotent.

David Frum points out: “Every other democracy makes some considerable effort to keep guns away from dangerous people, and dangerous people away from guns. For many years—and especially since the massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School almost a decade ago—the United States has put more and more guns into more and more hands: 120 guns per 100 people in this country” [atlantic.com]. He reminds us that the most numerous gun sales in our country’s history occurred during the pandemic, “almost 20 million guns sold in 2020; another 18.5 million sold in 2021” followed by a surge of gun violence [Ibid.]. We are the “only country with more civilian-owned firearms than people “ [forbes.com].

The conservative podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey points out that the one common factor in these school shootings is that they are all committed by young males. She argues that we “are doing absolutely everything wrong when it comes to promoting healthy masculinity, purpose, & goodness for these boys and men” [Ibid.]. The gunman who killed 19 students and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 had dropped out of school after being bullied for a speech impediment. He had a difficult home life and unsatisfying job, and his behavior and social media posts offered warning signs. Yet no one pursued those signs, and he shot his grandmother in the face before walking into a school, wearing body armor, and randomly shooting victims. We may not understand, but we must act.  

We could know more and better understand situations like these if it weren’t for the 1996 Dickey Amendment that forbade the CDC from using its funding to study gun violence. In 2019 the law was clarified, and research resumed the following year, but now we’re running to catch up [washpost.com 2].

And I fear, as do so many, that once again nothing will be done. Brian Broome argues that nothing will change, that this will be yet another tragedy that will prompt empty speeches and vigils but no action on gun control. “The gun is a holy relic in America. A sacred talisman. More important than life itself [washpost.com3]. We live in a country that loves its guns more than its children. Isn’t that backwards?

Some in the Senate have tried. After 32 people died and many more were injured in the August 2019 El Paso and Dayton shootings, Senator Chris Murphy and others were negotiating with then Attorney General Bill Barr when the Trump/Zelensky call derailed that effort [washpost.com4]. Even the Manchin-Toomey bill, so diluted to appease the NRA that some called it “toothless” couldn’t pass the 60-vote threshold [Ibid.]. Manchin tried again after the May 2022 massacre at a Buffalo, New York, grocery store. Again, no legislation passed.

Those who argue for the sanctity of the Second Amendment to the Constitution would distort its meaning and context. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That right did not include private ownership of cannons, and assault rifles didn’t even exist. We require training and licenses to drive a car but not to own a gun.

Our elected officials are failing our nation. “Nearly 60% of registered voters think it’s at least somewhat important for lawmakers to pass stricter gun laws, a new Morning Consult/Politico poll found after a mass shooting in Buffalo, New York—even before another shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on Tuesday further ramped up calls for Congress to pass gun control legislation” [forbes.com]. Yet once again, nothing changes.

What can we do? Each of us must find out the position of our elected officials on gun controls. Then we need to work to vote for candidates who will support red flags and background checks and mental health efforts. We must vote out the hypocrites who offer sympathy as they block change. Congress and Governors and the President haven’t done it. It’s up to all of us.

The Practice of Religion in Schools?

Image Courtesy of Good Word News

A high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, wanted to continue to pray on the field after games even after the school district asked him to stop. Joseph A. Kennedy started coaching there in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line after each game. “But students started joining him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop” (washingtonpost.com). When he refused, the school district fired him from his coaching job, and Coach Kennedy went to court.

The three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court unanimously ruled against the coach, “saying that school officials were entitled to forbid his public prayers to avoid a potential violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion” (nytimes.com). On April 25, 2022, Kennedy’s case reached the Supreme Court. Conservative justices questioned the attorney for the school district about other scenarios that might impinge on the coach’s right to free speech. They responded, “by proposing lines the justices could draw. Mr. Clement said it mattered whether a coach’s speech had “an instructional component” and whether a religious exercise was fleeting” (Ibid.). Although Judge Kavanaugh acknowledged the possibility of players feeling coerced to participate, “Members of the court’s conservative majority indicated that the coach, Joseph A. Kennedy, had a constitutional right to kneel and pray at the 50-yard line after games” (Ibid.).

The issue involves two potentially conflicting sets of rights: the coach’s right to freedom of expression and the separation of church and state in schools, including protecting students from feeling coerced to participate. I find it interesting that some of the same social forces that support the coach’s public prayer in front of the community as one of his inalienable rights don’t support the same free speech protections for classroom teachers who, in many states, no longer can choose their curriculum nor tackle tough issues deemed untouchable.

As a teacher, I felt my freedom of speech had to bend when it might offer undue influence on students. I sought to encourage dialogue and discussion without being didactic about my own beliefs. Teachers and coaches often have a significant impact on their charges, and they need to be thoughtful so as not to abuse that impact.  Kennedy argued that his religious expression is constitutionally protected. Others disagreed. “’When a coach uses the power of his job to be in a place and have access to students at a time when they’re expected to encircle him and come to him, that’s an abuse of that power and a violation of the Constitution,’ Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told CBS News’ Jan Crawford. ‘Religious freedom is not the right to impose your religion on others. We all need to have it, so that’s why the free exercise and establishment clause work together to protect religious freedom for all of us’” (cbsnews.com).

The Washington Post offeredacompilation of reader responses to this issue. On April 30, 2022, in “A Coach Who Prays Is Not the Issue,” (washingtonpost.com2). Ryan Miller of Monroe, Georgia, played three sports in school and was aware of the impact his actions had on his coach’s perception of him and his subsequent playing time. He writes, “A coach expressing his right to pray personally should not be unconstitutional in and of itself; however, when a coach’s expression compromises the free exercise of his players and encroaches upon the role of a parent, the courts should intervene” (Ibid.). Clayton Childers, a retired United Methodist Minister in Manassas, Virginia, says that the doctrine of separation of church and state has served religion well by allowing citizens to choose and practice their faith as they see fit with no government interference. He argues that “true faith is grounded in voluntary choice and spiritual vitality; neither is fully present where government becomes faith’s promoter and overseer. That is why it is critical for agents of the state, including public high school coaches, to refrain from leading public prayers while on duty. As soon as they do, the neutrality of the state toward faith is compromised. The government moves from faith neutrality to faith promotion” (Ibid.). And Maureen O’Leary, Director of field and organizing for Interfaith Alliance, refers to the sway coaches have with student athletes, which might make those athletes feel pressured to participate.  She fears that a ruling “ allowing educators to push their religious practices on students would erode the long-standing wall of separation between religion and government, and foster an environment that is less — not more — tolerant of different beliefs” (Ibid.).

As a well-educated teacher, I would fight for the right to shape curriculum [though I would always be willing to talk with parents about concerns about content and approaches] and I would not want to be muzzled the way many seek to muzzle teachers these days. As an educator aware of the dynamics between students and their teachers, as well as students and their coaches, however, I think my responsibility to protect students from feeling coerced into following my path trumps my freedom of speech. A coach is welcome to pray privately. Praying on the 50-yard line in front of his students creates an unacceptable pressure. There’s a fine line here, and I fear the Supreme Court will throw it away.

Facing a Future Without Enough Teachers

Photo courtesy of Brookings Institution

Our nation faces a growing teacher shortage and we have failed to address the underlying causes. Attrition and retirement coupled with fewer students entering teacher training programs prompted regional shortages even before the Covid pandemic. The added stressors of the pandemic and often remote instruction plus parent attacks at school board meetings and the ever-increasing number of laws regulating what teachers may teach/do/say have created conditions that threaten the future of American public schools.

The American Psychological Association clarifies the importance of effective teachers and good student-teacher relationships: “Positive teacher-student relationships — evidenced by teachers’ reports of low conflict, a high degree of closeness and support, and little dependency — have been shown to support students’ adjustment to school, contribute to their social skills, promote academic performance and foster students’ resiliency in academic performance” [apa.org]. They also assert that “students were less likely to avoid school, appeared more self-directed, more cooperative and more engaged in learning” [Ibid.]. The Economic Policy Institute warns of serious consequences of the teacher shortage: “A lack of sufficient, qualified teachers threatens students’ ability to learn. Instability in a school’s teacher workforce (i.e., high turnover and/or high attrition) negatively affects student achievement and diminishes teacher effectiveness and quality. And high teacher turnover consumes economic resources (i.e., through costs of recruiting and training new teachers) that could be better deployed elsewhere” [epi.org].

Yet educator Larry Ferlazzo reports that “There will be a big increase in teacher retirements in the spring/summer, leading to a teacher shortage that will make this school year look like a picnic. Then, in an advance prediction for 2023, the stress created by that staff shortage will result in an equal number of departures the following year” [WashPost.com]. Teachers are tired.  “Fears of catching Covid-19 and enforcing pandemic protocols are additions to the long list of challenges teachers face daily — from low pay and often little regard from their communities, to growing numbers of school shootings and legislative requirements about what and how to teach. Many educators have walked away in recent years and amid a dire shortage, few people want to fill their spots” [cnn.com]. The Learning Policy Institute lists largely stagnant salaries over the past decade, a 19% weekly wage gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals, a culture of teacher blame and punitive test-based evaluation as additional negative forces [learningpolicyinstitute.org]. The Rand Organization identifies increasing stress as the single largest factor causing teachers to leave the profession [rand.org]. Right now “Schools struggle to find and retain highly qualified individuals to teach, and this struggle is tougher in high-poverty schools” [epi.org].

Some teachers are hanging on until they reach retirement age. Even as cohorts begin to retire and the need for new teachers increases, the pipeline of new teachers is shrinking.  “In fall 2020 and 2021, about 20% of institutions surveyed by American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education reported the pandemic resulted in a decline of new undergraduate enrollment of at least 11%. Roughly 13% of institutions reported ‘significant’ declines in the number of new graduate students. Regional state colleges and smaller private institutions — often found in rural communities — have seen the steepest declines” [cnn.com].

What do we do now? As a nation, we must reinvest in education. The Learning Policy Institute recommends supporting the existing workforce, hiring additional staff to make the workload more manageable, strong mentoring and induction programs, investing in mental health services, leveraging teacher training candidates by hiring them for residency and aide programs, and providing mental health support [learningpolicyinstitute.org]. The Economic Policy Institute supports involving teachers in developing district-wide approaches to reduce stress and building more flexible schedules[rand.org].

I would add several expensive but worthwhile initiatives:

  • Mentoring new teachers, a pivotal role in keeping them in the profession, too often gets done on top of all other responsibilities. Build a school system where new teachers have lighter loads their first two years, and they have a mentor with release time to help them. Get the cooperation of teachers’ unions for this – it will pay off.
  • Build a national program to pay tuition for teachers in training in exchange for a multi-year commitment to teach in an underserved area.
  • Hire more social service support for students so that teachers don’t have to function as social workers and counselors, instead focusing on their primary purpose.
  • Develop tutoring programs to help students who are struggling with the materials to support instruction in the classroom.
  • Provide a buffer for the political hysteria that wears educators and school board members down.
  • Develop programs and opportunities to build a positive climate for learning and for parent engagement. Couldn’t parent/teacher nights be designed to be more effective at team-building and community-building, for example?

I became a teacher because I loved teaching and learning, because I wanted to build relationships with students and impact them positively. I chose my profession as a fifth grader helping in a first-grade classroom during my recess period. I knew my path then. I don’t know if I would feel that same determination today. As a nation, we must figure out how to invite people into this very important profession, and then we must support them. The future of our nation and our ability to be an effective part of this complex world depend upon our doing that.

Transgender Battles in Texas


We may be accustomed to politicians manipulating the “culture wars” for their own political purposes, but the actions of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Governor Greg Abbott have gone even further than most, weaponizing the government against loving families and harming children already in precarious positions. Abbott followed Paxton’s legal opinion that gender-affirming medical treatment harms children with a directive to state health agencies to conduct “prompt and thorough” investigations into the use of gender-affirming care for transgender children [WashPost]. Their position is dangerous, disingenuous, hypocritical, and misinformed.
 
Their actions directly endanger trans people and their family. Jack Turban, a chief fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine who works with trans youth, writes, “at least 14 studies have examined the impact of gender-affirming care on the mental health of youths with gender dysphoria and have shown improvements in anxiety, depression and suicidality” [WashPost2]. “And as conversations mounted, the Trevor Project — an organization dedicated to suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth — received more than 10,800 total crisis calls, texts and chats from LGBTQ youth in Texas looking for support between Jan. 1 and Aug. 30, 2021. More than a third of those crisis contacts came from transgender or nonbinary youth” [npr.org].
 
Their actions are disingenuous and hypocritical. Abbot, Paxton, and their allies are using the plight of others for political gain. Jennifer Rubin writes, “Consider how perverse the Republican Party’s mentality is: Parents should be allowed to intervene or even sue schools for teaching about racial history, but if they try to support their children along medically accepted lines, the GOP will try to take their kids away” [WashPost3]. So parents know best about education – they know better than professional educators trained to determine what to teach – yet politicians somehow know better than parents when it comes to children’s health and sexuality? Hardly consistent…
 
Their actions are misinformed. “Contrary to the outdated, inaccurate and intentionally misleading information cited in the attorney general’s opinion, gender-affirming treatment for children and adolescents suffering from gender dysphoria is supported by every major medical association in the United States, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association and the American Psychological Association. Decisions about treatment are made with care and thought and consultation; research has established that transgender youths at risk of mental health problems and suicide benefit when their gender identity is affirmed” [WashPost]. Paxton’s claims that gender-affirming care for adolescents results in sterilization are also false. “Puberty blockers have been used for decades, and they don’t impair fertility” [WashPost2]. Nor are teens rushed through gender-affirming care. In reality, clear guidelines require minors first to work with mental health professional trained in these issues, often for a year or more, and then the wait to get into a clinic is often a year or more as well. [WashPost2].
 
Frank C. Worrell, PhD, president of the American Psychological Association, directly condemns Abbott’s directive:
This ill-conceived directive from the Texas governor will put at-risk children at even higher risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. Gender-affirming care promotes the health and well-being of transgender youth and is provided by medical and mental health professionals, based on well-established scientific research. The peer-reviewed research suggests that transgender children and youth who are treated with affirmation and receive evidence-based treatments tend to see improvements in their psychological well-being.

Asking licensed medical and mental health professionals to ‘turn in’ parents who are merely trying to give their children needed and evidence-based care would violate patient confidentiality as well as professional ethics. The American Psychological Association opposes politicized intrusions into the decisions that parents make with medical providers about caring for their children. [apa.org]

 
Emmett Schelling, the executive director of the Transgender Education Network of Texas told NPR, “The state leadership has said, ‘We would rather see dead children … instead of happy, loved, supported, thriving trans kids that are alive and well,’ ” [npr.org]

I do see glimmers of hope. The ACLU has asked a judge to issue a temporary restraining order, temporary injunction or permanent injunction for what they call legislating by press release. “Governor Abbott’s letter instructing DFPS to investigate the families of transgender children is entirely without Constitutional or statutory authority,” the lawsuit says, adding the governor’s directive denies transgender youth equal protection” [cnn.com]. Frank C. Worrell, PhD, president of the American Psychological Association, condemns the governor’s actions:
This ill-conceived directive from the Texas governor will put at-risk children at even higher risk of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide. Gender-affirming care promotes the health and well-being of transgender youth and is provided by medical and mental health professionals, based on well-established scientific research. The peer-reviewed research suggests that transgender children and youth who are treated with affirmation and receive evidence-based treatments tend to see improvements in their psychological well-being.
Asking licensed medical and mental health professionals to ‘turn in’ parents who are merely trying to give their children needed and evidence-based care would violate patient confidentiality as well as professional ethics. The American Psychological Association opposes politicized intrusions into the decisions that parents make with medical providers about caring for their children [apa.org].


A number of Texas district and county attorneys say they will refuse to enforce the order. Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee spoke for many of them when he said, “My office will not participate in these bad faith political games. As the lawyers handling these cases, we owe a duty of candor to the courts about what the law really says. We’ll continue to follow the laws on the books — not General Paxton’s politically motivated and legally incorrect ‘opinion’” [DallasNews].

I know trans people from my decades in safe schools work. Those I met as adults helped me understand their journeys through discussion. Those I knew through their transition have shared their struggles firsthand. They have taught me how essential it is for every human being to be able to be authentic in life without being judged or harassed. Isn’t that what all of us want for ourselves? We cannot let politicians deprive transgender people and their families of such basic rights.

At Last!

I’ve been working on a serious blog entry for a week now, but the topic inflames me so strongly that it’s been hard to pull together. I will finish it and get it posted soon; today, though, I’m just going to write about last Sunday’s book launch.

Being a teacher always called to me; it was the second most important part of my life after family, and sometimes [when grades were due, when research papers piled up on my desk…], it even displaced family as a priority! Long before I finished teaching, I knew I wanted to capture the stories from my years in the classroom. I wanted them to be more permanent than mere dinner party storytelling.

It took me seven years and the support of a good writing group to really pull my stories together. It took my writing group to help me define my audience, and a specific member of my group to help me create the structure I ended up using. Often life got in the way, but I remained determined.   

When my first real copy arrived, I wept. I had already published two textbooks about writing with computers when they were new to schools along with dozens of articles. None of those compared to seeing this book in print. It’s so personal to me.

And on Sunday I had the privilege of seeing and hearing from former students, a blessing in its own right. Some I’ve been in touch with, so I was less surprised when they came or ordered the book from me. Others offered wondrous surprises. A young woman I hadn’t seen since her mid 90s graduation brought in her creative writing portfolio with my notes and grade of A+. I had encouraged her to submit one of the poems for the graduation program, and it was chosen. She told me on Sunday that that had been a turning point for her, that my encouragement and having her poem chosen had mattered so much. I had no idea… Other former students surprised me with flattering Facebook comments. That’s the thing about teaching — you often don’t know. 

I’m surprised at how many years have passed since I left the classroom for retirement, but my teaching experiences remain a fundamental part of my identity. I am so grateful for them and for the relationships that teaching allowed. I’ve finally told my “tales out of school,” and I know how lucky I’ve been.