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 Personal, Reading, Texas, writing

#TCTELA20 – Top Five Takeaways

A little over a week ago, I was settling into a hotel room in Frisco, TX prepping for a weekend of being “on.” The Texas Council of Teachers of English Language Arts hosted their annual conference at the Frisco Convention Center, and I have the privilege of being a part of leadership this year (I am the Teacher Development Section Chair). This was my third TCTELA conference to attend, but my first to attend as a “leader” of sorts. I joined the board in September, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect.

Before I start reflecting on this year’s experiences, I’d like to take a second and talk about what TCTELA has done for me as a whole, in both my career and my person. About 4 years ago, I began to gain a sense of restlessness in my work. I was a high school teacher who LOVED students but wanted an opportunity to stretch my legs and grow. I’d seen TCTELA mentioned in a tweet or two, and saw a link for proposals. I took a shot in the dark and submitted a proposal for a session on digital writing tools, and was approved for a roundtable. My principal paid for my registration to attend the conference that year (Galveston 2018) as long as I paid for my travel, food and hotel. My family came with me and we got an Air BNB to make a weekend of it. I knew approximately ZERO people there. However, the overall electric buzz that filled the halls, rooms, and sessions gave me the sense that I was not just Caty Dearing, English teacher, one of many within my district. It was my first sense of the larger community of ELAR professionals across the state and even the nation, and that my school district was but a small cog in the larger wheel of this work. I started following the organizational leadership on Twitter and came back to my classroom inspired and re-energized to teach and teach well.

That summer I left teaching to serve at one of the 20 regional service centers in Texas as a secondary literacy content coach/consultant. Talk about a huge leap—and feeling like a fish out of water! I shifted my Twitter account to be mostly educational (goodbye, Bachelor recap posts!) and started gaining the confidence to dialogue with the literacy leaders I so admired. By the time TCTELA 2019 arrived, I’d been accepted to another roundtable and had developed Twitter relationships with several of the attendees and board members. I had the courage to introduce myself to several of these people, and ask to get plugged in. Again, each session felt like chugging a Gatorade in the desert; I returned to my cubicle with a sense of purpose and a few new connections in the work.

In September, I had the opportunity to dive into the behind-the-scenes work of TCTELA. As a section chair, I have the privilege to facilitate discussions across the state with coordinators, coaches, principals, professors, all seeking ways to support other teacher developers. I knew it would be a great opportunity to develop more leadership skills, but after reflecting on TCTELA 2020, it has become so much more than that…which leads me to my top five takeaways from this weekend.

5. Getting my professional cup filled by incredible, dynamic speakers.

Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent

If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I’ve taken a bit of a break from the edu-conversations. I’m extremely passionate about a lot of things, things that are hard, things that hurt, things that feel big and heavy and immovable. Sometimes (and this speaks to my privilege) it just feels like too much, and I have to step back. Laurie Halse Anderson spoke about rape culture and consent with such boldness, and Clint Smith talked about the single story narrative of history we often experience, and how to challenge and question this. By the end of the weekend, I really felt more energized and focused to dive back into those difficult conversations as an active participant, not a bystander.

4. An invigorated sense of purpose and interest in the Teacher Development section

All of our section hangout work!

Coming on in September, the few active members of the section and I decided to start from scratch. We consistently had about 5-6 people that would show up on our monthly Zooms, contribute ideas, and share their expertise. I remember the feeling of pride we felt when we released that first newsletter in December!

At the conference, we each had tables for our sections. Every time I passed our table, I saw a section member talking to others and handing out buttons. We had a full table at our Sunday “Coffee and Conversations,” everyone excitedly talking about all of the ways we can address leader burnout and other heavy issues. I’m pumped to take that enthusiasm into the new year, and I think that by TCTELA 2021 our section will have created/shared a wealth of new resources! It was truly so much fun and warmed my heart to share space with so many COOL people.

3. Rebekah O’Dell’s session on teachers as writers

This session gets its own bullet point, because it tapped into a part of myself that’s been dormant for a really long time. In my last post, I talked a lot about the crippling fear I’ve been experiencing every time I try to write. Rebekah approached this idea of teacher-writers from a different angle, providing ideas and options to just start the process. I found myself excited about several ideas, where before I’d found myself drowning in a sea of “I have nothing new to offer here.” I’ve been able to set aside time to write/journal in small chunks. Hey, this blog post is proof of that! I’m excited to see what I’ve written by 2021, even if it’s all writing that’s just for me.

2. Friendships, friendships, friendships

As I said at the beginning of this post, my entrance into the TCTELA world was one of a stranger in a sea of strangers that had developed into professional connections, mostly via Twitter. This weekend I was able to spend actual face-to-face time with the teachers, coaches, coordinators, and professors that I’ve only ever Zoomed and tweeted with. We spend each night down in the lobby, laughing and brainstorming over wine and hummus. It’s amazing how this conference brings people together, and I’m entering the 2020 year with a cadre of people who care very deeply about this work, and about me, and that feels pretty cool.

  1. A newfound sense of confidence in myself as a literacy leader (bye bye imposter syndrome)

Something unlocked in me this weekend. I’ve lived most of my adult life fearing the concept of leadership, and considered myself more of a follower. Every time I encountered a promotion or an opportunity to lead, I chalked it up to “right place right time” or a really great interview. Over the past few months, I’ve been feeling a sense of pride in the work that I’m doing at the service center and a desire for MORE. I’m fairly certain that the other four takeaways listed contributed to this, but I truly had a “come-to-Jesus” moment with myself. I am a literacy leader, and that has nothing to do with a board position or a job.

I have contributions to make to this work.

I can confidently introduce myself to people in the field that I look up to without worrying if I’m good enough, smart enough, etc.

I can write things that might help other people.

I can confidently volunteer my thoughts, ideas, and concerns without apologizing first.

What I hope other conference attendees gained from this past weekend is a similar understanding. Cornelius Minor said in a presentation I attended last year (and this is paraphrased based on my memory), “If you’re waiting for someone to give you permission to lead this work, you will always be waiting.”

Your voice matters. You have something to contribute to this community. You are valuable to the ELAR collective, not because of position or job, but because you dedicate your time and heart to students, and that is important, and people need to hear what you have to say. I’m dedicating myself to this mantra, and would love to support you as well!

Let’s be bold, brave, and unapologetic together.