Posted in Policy, TEA, Texas

A Texas Educator’s Take on the July 7th TEA School Safety Plan

I feel that I must begin this post with the ever-existing disclaimer that my opinions are my own, not that of my employer. Okay, we’re good? Great. Let’s dive in.

Around 3:30pm yesterday (July 7), the Texas Education Agency (referred to in the rest of this post as TEA) released a statement in which they outlined what they refer to as “Comprehensive Guidelines for a Safe Return to On-Campus Instruction for the 2020-2021 School Year.” I first saw this statement on Twitter and Facebook, where a few screenshots had been included with the post. The longer, official document can be found here, and I encourage you to read it as well before continuing with this post.

Upon seeing the first few bullet points and then starting to read the comments, I immediately realized that I would need to sit down in a quiet setting and read the document critically before posting any thoughts or criticism. In this current climate and setting, it’s so easy to immediately react and comment before rationally thinking it through, so I wanted to make sure I didn’t get ahead of myself. Now that I’ve read it a few times and had time to sit with the information, there’s just a few points that I want to go over and think through with you all.

First and foremost, as a former high school ELAR teacher, language and rhetoric will always stand out to me in close reading any text. Certain phrases and words jumped out at me. I invite you to do the same, just with this small clip of text. Read through and think about the word choice and phrasing: what do you notice? What do you wonder?

(Image is a screenshot of the actual TEA document, which can be found here.)

The main words that stand out to me are the words “should,” “are encouraged to,” etc. If I continue to examine the document, there are other examples such as “may,” “might,” even “consider.” One specific example applies to student-teacher groupings, suggesting that “in classroom spaces that allow it, consider placing student desks a minimum of six feet apart when possible.” In this one sentence, there are three different examples of conditional language. Take a look:

“in classroom spaces that allow it” – based on this language, only classrooms that are large enough to move desks around and keep the 6 foot separation need worry about this. Immediately I think about the classrooms I have been in across the state; I’ve yet to see a classroom that would allow for this kind of separation at their current capacity.

“consider placing student desks a minimum of six feet apart” – So, once we have established whether or not a classroom can allow for social distancing, we get another conditional statement. A school leader will consider, or simply think about, spacing out student desks.

“when possible” – Again, in case we haven’t already gotten the picture, the author of this text reiterates that this only applies if it is possible; what that actually means is left ambiguous.

Upon reflection, there’s much more being unsaid here than being said. What does it mean for a classroom to allow spacing? Because this is a consideration, can we assume that a class of 30 could, in August, contain 30+ bodies, as many classrooms do? What are the conditions that would make spacing desks possible, and the inverse, impossible?

This is just one of several examples of conditional language throughout the document. What I’m guessing the TEA is trying to do is provide choice and control to school districts, so that districts can make the decisions they deem best for their students. However, upon listening and reading many district statements, districts have been fiercely struggling with planning for the fall, and have been craving feedback and guidance from the TEA to help them with the non-negotiable pieces. By leaving much of this document vague and conditional, all that districts have been given are a list of brainstorming ideas with a few non-negotiables that don’t have much impact on the day-to-day classroom interactions. Based on this document, a district could choose to ignore any statement that does not contain the word “must” and create a learning environment that looks much the same as it did prior to March 2020.

The other glaring issue that I see in this document occurs explicitly in the first section and reoccurs thematically throughout the text. In examining the public health considerations, the TEA cites the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and their research that identifies children as at far less risk of serious COVID-19 symptoms than others who are infected, in addition to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ comment on the harmful effects of students not being in school. I’d like it stated that I see both of these sources as credible, and trust that the information they are distributing is peer reviewed and research-based. Just for the sake of context, I fully see the perspective of many parents and students who want, no, NEED, schools to reopen. For many students, the risk of staying at home is far larger than the risk of potential COVID-19 exposure. My own daughter has struggled socially and emotionally through the end of school and beginning of summer, emotions and anxiety flying high. My concern and criticism of this section is that it is missing vital voices. Whose voice is not being heard here?

When schools reopen, who are the people that will be doing the work, interacting with students, putting themselves at risk? Teachers. Bus Drivers. Cafeteria workers. Counselors. School Administrators. Paraprofessionals. Janitorial and maintenance staffs. The list continues. As a high school teacher, I saw anywhere from 70-200 students rotating through my classroom on a given day. Consider what this looks like, even if all of the “musts” and the “shoulds” are followed; what consideration is being given toward the risk that district employees will be taking just in doing their jobs? We are asking educators to not only put themselves at risk, but put their families at risk as well. This document is glaringly silent when it comes to the teacher voice, and any acknowledgement or empathy from leadership at this risk they are being asked to take. No, “being asked” isn’t the right language…”required” is more fitting.

Teachers already face criticism from society on a daily basis. I’ve heard teachers compared to childcare, heard parents speaking in board meetings that they should receive a teacher salary because “teachers are just sitting around on their computers all day” during stay-at-home. The reality is that most of the teachers I’ve spoken to worked tirelessly from waking up in the morning until 9-10pm every night, learning new virtual skills, making sure each and every student was not only learning but emotionally okay, etc. Teachers are exhausted, anxious, and fearful coming into the 2020-2021 school year. It’s painful to see educators waiting all summer for guidance, then receive an 8 page document that lacks this consideration for their own health and well-being.

Which brings me to the last thing I’d like to just mention and let sit with you; this document is 8 pages long. We have had 5 months since the beginning of this process. I simply expect more. I expect better. The announcement was made last week that 2020-2021 STAAR assessments would indeed take place this year (read more about that here), so it seems that some forethought has occurred; forethought that, in my opinion, is heavily misplaced. What does it say to all of our stakeholders that the testing manual for STAAR is over 100 pages, yet this official “comprehensive” document for school safety is eight?

I digress. I am just one person, an educational employee living in Texas that hopes for specific and strategic guidance, understanding, empathy, and collective efficacy for all of us during this time. I’m not bitter, I’m not ragey, I just…I just want better.

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear some of the other responses to this document and its contents.

Posted in Equity, Leadership, Personal, Policy, TEA

Systemic Change: Why Not Ask “Why”?

In this work, it often seems like we are given reasons why something cannot or will not happen when change is pursued. Whether it’s teachers wanting to add a specific book title to a classroom library or book club, or an ELAR coordinator wanting to dismantle leveled libraries on a campus/in their district…the roadblocks feel so similar. We hear things like “change is slow here” or “our community isn’t ready”…or even a downright “No.” When I hear these things, only one word comes to mind…why?

Let me be more specific. I’m not asking for the specific rationale behind the response. I know why many teachers still level their libraries, or why certain titles make parents or administrators uncomfortable. I guess I’m asking for the “why behind the why”….why does it have to be that way? Who makes the rules?

Last summer at the Teachers College in NYC, Lucy Calkins discussed at length the origin of American education systems. She talked about the origin of the U.S. education system, a system that was not meant to educate all, but a select few. Challenging us to reflect, we questioned how much has truly changed about classroom instruction from this original model? Not a whole lot, from my perspective. But everything else has changed. The WORLD has changed…people has changed…what is considered “literacy” has changed. Text is everywhere, thanks to the digital age. The amount of information available online doubles every twelve hours. No longer are we teachers the gatekeepers of the knowledge, dispensing it upon those we deem worthy. Rather, we are tasked with helping students pilfer through the information, finding information that is interesting and useful, teaching them how to examine information through a critical lens, and how to use it in meaningful ways.

When I walk into campuses and still see archaic beliefs and practices, I don’t lay blame on teachers who are working hard to do the best they can with what they know and understand. I don’t necessarily “blame” anyone. The higher up the chain I go, I observe so many stresses and pressures that I can empathize with and see motive behind certain choices. However, in my gut, I cannot let go of the fact that, if we are ever going to truly be a part of transformative educational practices that truly empower all students, we have to start questioning our practices, and the people in power have to set the example.

Superintendents, Directors, Coordinators, Administrators—I beg you to examine the systems in place in your prospective districts/campuses, and simply ask “Why?” Why does the dress code include/not include certain things? Why did we choose this specific discipline policy? Why is there an imbalance in who gets office referrals in our schools? Why do students seem apathetic toward learning? Why are teachers seemingly exhausted/unhappy? We must also do this with the understanding that, when we uncover uncomfortable issues, a 6 hour professional development will not fix them. Neither will one more new initiative, or a book study. We must be vulnerable, and we must be brave. Change takes time, and teachers are waiting/begging for brave leaders who are willing to invest the time to lock arms with them long-term to make systemic changes for the benefit of kids, leaders who will get in the uncomfortable dirt of change without panicking and searching for the nearest cleaning station.

What happens next? Teachers will join you in this work. (Consider this your own personal “If you build it, they will come” situation) You will start to see teachers more willing to ask themselves why DO they have those libraries leveled, or those seating charts in rows. They will be brave, because you have given them permission to do so…but they can’t do it alone. They need an example. Consider yourself a living, breathing mentor text.