Viewpoint: During the Crisis, Teachers Need the Freedom to Focus on Student Needs, Not Online Metrics
My first teaching assignment was in a special education classroom in an elementary school basement; above the door in red were the words “Shelter Inside.”
I read those words every morning on my way in. The relationships inside the classroom were our shelter, and the community we built together made learning possible.
Now school districts across the globe have been closed due to the COVID-19 crisis. Some school districts have taken the position that by giving a student a Chromebook they have flipped a switch: remote learning is now in place.
This rushed, corporate approach doesn’t address the needs of our students as whole human beings.
First of all, many districts don’t even have enough laptops for every student. Millions of families live in communities without free internet access, and don’t have the means to purchase it. Some school districts are putting hotspots in school buses and driving them out to neighborhoods. Philadelphia Public Schools actually told its students to park in public library parking lots and use library Wi-Fi.
Beyond that, simply providing a device and internet access is no guarantee that a student is being served.
At the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, we are trying to use this time to strip back what has been wrongly imposed on our students—relentless standardized testing, scripted curriculum, one-size-fits-all online interventions—and work toward a way of teaching that honors relationships as the foundation of learning.
STUDENTS HAVE A LOT ON THEIR MINDS
In March, MTEA pressured our state and school district to keep students and workers safe by closing schools. Once the schools were closed, we began a meet-and-confer process with the administration to hash out working conditions and student supports.
Many students are naturally thinking less about grades, standards, and learning intentions right now. They’re thinking more about their parents getting laid off, or their parents working in frontline jobs that put them at greater risk for exposure to COVID-19.
Students and families are stressed out. They’re managing changes in their daily lives and schedules, while trying to remain economically whole and physically safe. They are looking for supports, many of which have been ripped away by austerity measures that weakened our already threadbare social safety nets.
So many of our students’ families were already living with very little margin. All the underlying racial inequalities are exacerbated in the pandemic: residential segregation, not enough access to health care, differential treatment when they do get health care, and food and housing insecurity.
Parents and families deserve grace. They need our solidarity and advocacy.
BUILDING SERVICE WORKERS’ SAFETY MATTERS TOO
During this limbo period, in Milwaukee teachers have tried to stay connected to students and families by mailing personalized work packets of assignments and articles, sending handwritten postcards and letters, texting, FaceTiming, creating YouTube storytelling and yoga videos and lessons, and even dropping off food, art supplies, puzzles, games, and work packets at students’ homes.
Now is the time for unions to embrace all that we know to be true about child and human development, leaning heavily on the basic needs: food, water, warmth, rest, safety, and security.
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Our negotiations with administration are anchored in these needs and start from a clear position:
- No to inauthentic, top-down, administrative instructional mandates that are harmful to students, like requiring and enforcing daily attendance, forcing students to engage for four to five hours daily with online work.
- No to administrative directives that put members’ personal safety at risk.
We’re demanding safe working conditions for all members we represent. Unions must refuse to agree to conditions of work where teachers get to work safely from home while low-wage workers are made to work on-site.
Our administration tried to force building service helpers back to work May 1 to clean schools unnecessarily—even after the governor had extended Wisconsin’s Safer at Home Order through May 26.
Building service helpers are largely workers of color, earning low wages and mostly relying on public transportation to get to work.
COVID cases in Milwaukee are climbing. MTEA has already lost two members to this virus, both Black men working as educational assistants. We will not allow the administration to put our lowest-paid members’ lives at risk.
At MTEA we are holding to these four principles:
1. Keep students and staff safe by keeping the schools shut down until there is abundant access to the testing necessary to determine who can return to work on-site and when. Ensure that schools are clean and safe for students and educators upon their return.
2. Join with our students and community to make common-good demands such as waiving rent, a freeze on evictions, waiving mortgage and utility payments, ensuring immediate housing for the homeless and basic health and safety protections for essential workers who are risking exposure, and economic relief and health care for undocumented people.
3. Beware of privatization. A crisis like this is when the vultures descend. Public schools in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina are now 100 percent private charter schools, with no oversight from a publicly elected school board. There are no public schools left there, and the city became the blueprint for the country. Corporate privatizers are licking their chops to devour the rest of the country’s school districts.
So we must be careful that the COVID-19 public health crisis does not lead to further experimentation on already marginalized students, families, and communities. Black and Latino students, especially in majority-minority cities like Milwukee, have been experimented on enough. Prepare for your state legislature to make moves to further slash public education funding (see New York and Wisconsin).
4. Negotiate the terms under which educators will teach and students will learn, with an eye to taking more control of what the work is and how it gets done.
Great care and flexibility must be guaranteed to both students and educators during these exceptional times. The aims of our work should be relationships, regular communication, and offering students opportunities for enrichment, practice learning, and support.
GRADES ARE NOT ESSENTIAL
In practical terms, that means that for the rest of this school year we are advocating for:
- No teacher evaluations.
- Grades must be pass/fail.
- Student GPAs must be held harmless—that is, frozen at the level they were before schools closed.
- No new graded instruction.
Here’s a partial list of questions we are considering:
- Inclusion. How do all students get served: special education, English language learners, refugee/newcomer families, homeless students, medically fragile and homebound students? What about students who require hands-on, experiential, project-based, concrete learning opportunities that can’t be replicated remotely?
- Tech and supplies. Do students have a laptop/tablet at home for learning? What about students who only have access to a cell phone to log in? Do students have pencils, erasers, pens, crayons, and paper? Do students have reliable, high-speed Internet access at home?
- The time crunch for parents. What about parents working from home who can’t work and help their children with school? What about parents working outside the home who can’t provide as much support?
- The time crunch for students and educators. What about older children who are now caring for younger siblings as their parents continue working? What about students, parents, and educators who are caring for elderly and at-risk family members who need support?
- The virus itself. What about students/families who have family members sick with COVID-19? What about students with family members who have succumbed to COVID-19? What about students who are suffering from lack of motivation, depression/anxiety, or other mental health issues?
Amy Mizialko is president of MTEA.