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labor No More “Normal”

Teachers have underwritten the underfunded public school system with their pocketbooks and after-school hours, stealing both time and money from their families to provide for their students. Normal was awful. It is time to be bold.

, Christiane Grauert

In Abbott Elementary, an ABC sitcom about an underfunded elementary school in Philadelphia, Quinta Brunson plays Janine Teagues, an enthusiastic 2nd-grade teacher who attempts to overcome every obstacle with her grit and determination — a flickering light in the back hallways, the perpetual lack of basic school supplies, a complicated reading software program. Barbara and Melissa, the older, more experienced teachers, remind her “to just worry about what you can control.” 

And for years, that’s what teachers have done. We’ve made do. Having kids paint with water, like Barbara, when there’s no money for paints. Ponying up pieces of our salaries to buy books for classroom libraries, highlighters for writing activities, pencils, food for hungry kids, printers, microphones, even textbooks. You name it, we’ve bought it. We have underwritten the underfunded public school system with our pocketbooks and our after-school hours, stealing both time and money from our families to provide for our students. Teachers at the “lucky” schools recall the excitement that percolated through the building when Nike or Columbia or Pepsi redecorated and our schools received their hand-me-down furniture or outdated computers. Corporations got a tax write-off and we got something only a little better than what we had.

In an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Brunson said she set Abbott Elementary in Philly, where she grew up, to make the school “specifically dirty” because that would be universally understood. And unfortunately, it is. 

The pandemic has pushed many frayed public schools into a state of barely managed crisis. We receive daily messages that there will be no bus pickup in the morning because of bus driver shortages. There are no substitutes. Even central office employees are now regularly required to take over classes. Oregon passed a new rule dropping the requirement that substitutes hold a bachelor’s degree. In Humboldt County, California, school districts hire student teachers as paid substitutes. In her article in this issue, Sarah Jaffe quotes a 17-year veteran Michigan teacher: “Seeing the national guard, police, and anyone they can find called in to cover classes — instead of fully funding schools and supporting current staff — is another slap in the face. It shows that to many we are just babysitters.”

Teachers are quitting. The workload is overwhelming — teaching and planning for synchronous and asynchronous lessons, responding to student work, answering family and student emails, substituting for other teachers during prep time. We are tasked with teaching students to read, write, think, compute, imagine, and evaluate. Then we are blamed if with overwhelming numbers of young people, our students don’t make a benchmark based on some irrelevant, often culturally biased, test. 

In November, at quarter break, the grandson of two Rethinking Schools editors announced that his PE teacher left to take a job at a bank so she could earn more money without the stress. When one of our colleagues, a stellar teacher, was asked to lead an inservice workshop, she said, “You couldn’t pay me enough to add something else to my to-do list. Besides, no one wants to attend more meetings after school.” A brilliant special education teacher we know broke into tears and announced she had to leave the classroom because she can’t handle the endless paperwork, but she worries about what will happen to her students. 

Julia Kirkpatrick, a Portland high school language arts teacher and Rethinking Schools contributor, offers a snapshot of her workload: “To take just four minutes to read, grade, and give feedback to each student, I would need 624 minutes — 10.5 hours — per week. The district gives teachers like me 7.5 hours per week to plan lessons, prep materials, meet with colleagues, fulfill special education requirements, respond to parent emails, and maintain a robust online presence for my students quarantined at home from COVID exposure.” 

But teachers are not quitting only because of overwork. The pandemic also exposed school districts’ complete disregard for teacher health and safety. Families need to get to work, so teachers have to open up their classrooms. Forget about their partner with cancer or their own diabetes or their child who is home with COVID. Kirkpatrick continues her description of teaching and learning conditions in her high school: 

In the class period where my new student has just joined, there are more students than desks. My invaluable teacher’s aide now sits on the counter. I feel helpless and trapped. I’m a type 1 diabetic, which means I am immunocompromised. I’m also a probationary teacher, which means my job is not promised for next year. Should I take time off? I don’t want to jeopardize my position. Was that sore throat this morning nothing, or do I need to call my endocrinologist and set into motion the plan we worked out in September, when I realized how much I was increasing my risk by returning to work? Am I sick? Will I get sick? Will I pass COVID to my family? To my students? These thoughts race through my mind as my classroom fills up with students because there is no time to process a COVID exposure.

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For two years, many teachers have longed for a “return to normal” from the devastation the pandemic has wrought. Yet, as those leaving the profession realize, our problems stem not just from a virus, but also from what was considered “normal” even before the pandemic. There was never enough time to do the job adequately. Never enough time to support all the students we served. Never money for the books or materials students needed. The pandemic may have been that extra can of gasoline, exacerbating the flames burning our schools, but the fire was not caused by COVID-19: It is the result of decades of disinvestment, a corporate ideology that values the voices of business leaders over educators, and the broader failure of the political and economic system to adequately provide for working people’s mental and physical well-being.

For years we’ve heard that “our children are our future.” It is a platitude doled out at every teacher inservice and award ceremony. But it’s time to put actions in place of sentiment. Brunson highlights some of our society’s upside-down priorities in Abbott Elementary when she says, “The city says there’s no money, but they’re doing a multimillion-dollar renovation to the Eagles’ stadium down the street from here. But we just make do.” (Did you watch the Super Bowl? According to the Los Angeles Times, the LA Rams’ SoFi Stadium cost more than $5 billion.)

Military spending this year hit a record $778 billion — $25 billion more than the Pentagon asked for. Americans for Tax Fairness reported that, as of last August, U.S. billionaires increased their collective wealth by more than $2 trillion since the start of the pandemic, and yet proposals to tax that wealth are too often deemed “unrealistic.” Where are our country’s priorities? More obscene wealth in the hands of a few, more weapons systems, more nuclear warheads — and, of course, more oil pipelines, more football stadiums. But there is little increased support for students and families reeling from the trauma of the pandemic and scant funding for increased pay for school staff, lower class sizes, and the renovated buildings needed for the learning and working conditions that students and teachers deserve. The money is there; it has simply been hijacked for other purposes.

One of the insights of Jaffe’s article is that teachers’ mental health and longevity in the profession is linked to the strength of our unions. As Labor Notes’ Barbara Madeloni, former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, says: “The answer to the problem of our mental health is to organize not only in order to win different conditions, but because by coming together and organizing, we are transforming ourselves, creating the different experience that we want in the world.” And staying in the profession to make it better is a form of resistance itself — especially now.

At the risk of sounding hopelessly utopian, it is at the hardest moments like this that we need to dream the biggest, make the most far-reaching demands. We need to push our national unions, professional organizations — and our own school communities — to articulate a vision that will not just make things a bit better, but that will fundamentally transform our schools and our work lives. And that vision needs to be matched by the support of the national teacher unions of organizing on the local and state levels so that sufficient political pressure can be placed on elected officials to end austerity budgets and defend and improve our public institutions.

We are through with schools being forced to beg for what we deserve. During the revolutionary upheavals in 1968, students in Paris insisted: “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.” Just schools for our children remain “impossible” only if we fail to overturn the distorted priorities that sustain inequalities of wealth and privilege. 

What will it take to double the number of teachers at twice the current salary? How can we better fight for a Green New Deal for Our Schools — with well-paid support staff, bus drivers driving fleets of electric buses; schools rich with nurses, counselors, psychologists, and artists; solar-powered buildings with clean air and water; healthy, free food for all children — and the kind of anti-racist/social justice curriculum that will help our students make sense of and act on their world? What will lead to community schools with wraparound services, as well as to the removal of police, who increase our students’ stress and siphon precious resources? 

All this may seem unrealistic when even basic demands by teacher unions to protect the health and safety of staff and students are labeled as extreme by those in power — and distorted in attempts to divide teachers from the students and parents they serve. But more than anything, this reveals the determination of those with wealth and power to maintain the “normal” that has benefited them at everyone else’s expense. If we lower our expectations as a result, they win.

Return to normal? Normal was awful. It’s time to be bold.

Illustrator Christiane Grauert’s work can be seen at christiane-grauert.com.