Stop Whining About Teacher Sick Days

My daughter just told me that one of her teachers had wanted to come in to work today, but a friend of hers (another teacher at our school) stopped her.

The former has just started chemotherapy because of a recent diagnosis. She is a seasoned teacher, a leader, well known and loved. I have had two of her children as students in my classroom. The latter is a very good friend of hers and likely felt compelled to push for a focus on self-care and recovery instead of committing (because of sheer dedication and love for teaching) to “the daily grind”.

I think my daughter’s teacher wanted to be in school, engaging students in excellent thinking, great work and taking her mental focus off of the battling cancer stuff. Also, she knows that the difference a great teacher can make is increased along with the time they are with their students. She knows this, like all great ones do, and despite the haters and all their moaning about how little teachers work, their summers off and banker’s hours: most teachers want to be in school for their students than they want to be away from their students. But people get sick. even teachers, even the great ones. So do the very good ones, the pretty good ones, the fair ones…and yes, even the bad teachers get sick. People get sick. They can’t plan when sick, why sick, how sick, or how long sick. Everybody gets sick at some point. People get sick.

But unlike most people: teachers of all stripes and locations within the artifice of a HEDI scale are exposed daily to pukers, coughers, snot-wipers, close-huggers, every-thing-touchers…Every cold and virus that goes through a family that has children goes into school with those children. Now multiply that by all the families and all the children going into school. And then consider that lots of teachers and children are in buildings that generously share a little of the rain and snow/heat and cold on the outside with some of the places and people on the inside. Drop-ceiling tiles show gross, brown stains and sags where roof-tar water has dripped and pooled. Musty, dusty smells in some places indicate that it is the kind of situation that runs a risk for mold and other air-borne contaminants.

Staff members might describe being chronically sick during the school year (not during summer) and parents describe increases in symptoms (coughing, sneezing, throat-clearing…) during the school year and/or in some specific homerooms. Many, many school buildings and facilities across the country are older buildings in need of continual repair. The roofs leak, the paint chips, the ventilation systems don’t work the way they should. Too hot, too cold, infested with vermin …and so on.

And yet some reformers take a perverse pride in choosing to ignore the conditions the poorest have to live and learn in…

…and that educators have to try to teach them in, and preach school “choice”  instead. That is disrespectful of teachers and neglectful of students who spend entire school years and extended hours daily in those buildings and with all those kids and all those other people. Some of those teachers do this for thirty years or more! Is it any wonder that a teacher gets sick once in a while?

It’s understandable that the drooling human rats looking to nibble away at true public education want to point to things like the “sick-out” in Detroit, as a perfect example of teachers abusing their benefit time. But beyond the fact that the time is theirs, and that something was likely given up in negotiations to get those sick days in their contract (they are not just a gift benevolently given): when teachers act together to advocate for better conditions to teach in, they are also advocating for better conditions for children to learn in. This is why teachers banding together against a lack of political and economic will is a good thing.

“Considering the average teacher salary in DPS is $63,716, this means that funds that could have paid nearly five people’s salaries went towards legal fees to sue teachers who were fighting this winter, when the suit was filed, against deplorable working conditions…” (Allie Gross, July 2016)

Interestingly: the self-righteous, editorialized lamenting over the children whose futures are sacrificed when teachers take sick days is generally not matched with columns of concern for children perpetually sacrificed to unsafe neighborhoods, lead-tainted drinking water, lack of access to sound nutrition and proper health care, absence of stable and gainful employment that sustains families and communities, programs that encourage the conditions and skills within families that prepare children for school success…

It saddens me as a teacher to see a “reform”campaign that proudly advocates driving parents towards the open arms of a market that actively separates, divides…

…and only serves to the extent that the market is served. Civil rights and civics get wrapped into the propaganda with talk of “parent rights” along with publicity stunts and slogans like “don’t steal possible”– the whole time denying the when, where, and how the stealing is actually happening; why so many children are coming to school unprepared and why some of the most high profile “choice” schools unashamedly refuse to serve them. The conditions in their communities, homes and families impacts their readiness to learn,  and we would do better by the children to take the goal off of the market and put it back on the people.

“Learning begins at birth. By the time children turn three, they have already begun laying the foundation for life-long learning and success.”

So why no real concern for communities, children or their families-the foundation of good outcomes?

Because it costs money to address the real systemic and endemic evils policymakers enthusiastically sacrifice our children to daily, and to get that money you may have to spend less on bombs, war, corporate subsidies, etc…But you can save or even make money gutting the middle class, labor protections, teachers’ pensions and benefits (like sick days, remember sick days? This is a piece about sick days. I’m bringin’ it around I swear, but I think and write like Arlo Guthrie doing Alice’s Restaurant), the public commons of schools and taxpayer dollars meant to maintain that commons for the good of all…

This can no longer be pinned to typical Republican evil, because despite the current scary right-wing agenda being driven-the Democrats have helped slow-walk us to where we are today. They might be the “lesser evil” but are complicit in bringing the greater evils. The reformer response to their lack of will in addressing those greater evils is usually the typical dodge: “We are in a crisis! We can’t waste time addressing the decaying communities, destabilized families, crony capitalism, political dishonesty that backs our agenda-we just need to focus  on pumping out propaganda on the evils of unions and the promise of an edu-market of ‘choices’.” Or it may be continued promotion of alternative certification for teachers (de-stabilize, de-professionalize the profession), cheap disposable TFA teachers who’ll work a few years and then move on to some political action, non-profit organizing, charter-school creating, uber-driving…whatever. As long as salaries, unions, benefits and pensions can be reduced, eliminated and/or side-stepped. It’s that exciting new transient, insecure, lack of commitment to people, families and children economy and job market that “choice” proponents seem to crave. Choose-em, use-em and lose em I guess.

But, back to sick days (I told you I’d bring it around).

With so much that really needs reforming how can reformers effectively whine about career teachers, their salaries, their benefits, their sick days? “Most people only get two sick days a year…”, “Most people don’t get a pension…, “The days of careers that last 30 years are in the past…” It’s all language intended to sow resentment and discord among the lower classes and encourage acceptance of on-the-job exploitation by the wealthiest (through the government and economy they own) who themselves enjoy the revolving door of never-ending, high-paying opportunities to fail outward, upward or away. This is the paradigm, by the way, that gives birth to a Trump presidency-where those who enjoy position, privilege, protection and pay believe they have earned it, and that their millions or even billions should entitle them to more respect than your average worker, or family, or child…

So back to here, returning  home after my psychedelic journey of a rant.

It is, about 8PM, and my 16 year old daughter is absorbed in some school work, typing and sending some questions to this very teacher at home, by email, regarding the writing of the constitution. How/why was Madison chosen to do the writing and not Bartlett and Dickinson (the writers of The Articles of Confederation, the predecessor to The Constitution)? Interesting question. Even though I’m an elementary teacher, I’m a history buff and have a feel for the tenor of those times (and love to weave history into stories I tell) when leaders sought to make a more unified and powerful (but clearly defined and “checked”) central government. The Articles empowered states in their own interests while the “founding fathers” looked for a more unifying document the put more power in a central government, I know that much but can’t help my daughter with this one.

That’s my daughter, any of my three girls, really.

…wondering about the people and personalities of revolutionary times, and how they were involved and intertwined, not crying over a boy, complaining about a mean girl…She wants to communicate with her teacher. I almost tell my daughter not to bother her, but then I know (or I think I know) that a serious student who is a serious thinker and has a serious question has some healing value. So she sends this teacher, my colleague, the woman beginning a battle with cancer and staying home, her question.

Within 10 minutes my daughter gets a response. It is a mix of admiration for a “great question from a great writer”, an admission of not knowing too much about the specifics of how the decision to choose Madison to write The Constitution was made, a direction to seek out a real history buff teacher at the high school, and (get this)…some seeming enthusiasm for a homework assignment my daughter inspired for her as a teacher.

And I bet she will actually use her sick days to do that homework.

I get that it bothers those looking to exploit others that groups can organize to resist exploitation. But the whining about the sick days teachers have and take has to stop, okay? The resentment wealthy strategists want to sow for what little is left of job security and respect for workers will not reap the benefits anyone wants, and making comparisons to other disrespected workers is not a license to spread that disrespect.

It’s time for any describing themselves as a “reformer” to reflect on who they serve, what it is they are really trying to reform and what they are and are not willing to push for. Whining about sick days in not helpful.

 

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The NAACP Report and the Opposition to Better Schools for All

With the release of the NAACP’s Task Force on Quality Education Hearing Report  came an opportunity to move forward in an honest way to meet our education obligation to all children. This report followed the civil rights organization’s call for a moratorium on the creation of new charter schools last October. The moratorium was not a condemnation of charters, or government action or policy. It was just a “weighing-in” on the issue and an opinion on how we should move forward. Surprisingly, there was backlash to the NAACP’s call for better, and more honest school choice. Where does that come from, and why?

1. The NAACP Calls for Better Schools for All

First off, know that the NAACP has acknowledged the need for better schools to serve the neediest students in the most under-served areas, but felt the expansion of the charter industry should happen under the four conditions outlined in it’s moratorium:

  1. Charter schools are subject to the same transparency and accountability standards as public schools.
  2. Public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.
  3. Charter schools cease expelling students that public schools have a duty to educate and
  4. Charter schools cease to perpetuate de facto segregation of the highest performing children from those whose aspirations may be high but whose talents are not yet as obvious.

Far from refusal to support charter schools, or an undermining of quality education options for parents and children of color, these conditions advocate for the very things school choice proponents demand: transparency, accountability, commitment to the students being served… And since it’s common for pro-charter school and parent choice advocates to decry unacceptable “school to prison pipelines”, exclusion and/or segregation by zip code,  inability or unwillingness of traditional schools to provide services and resources, …I believed these four conditions would be embraced and there would be a united demand that policymakers step up and do right thing by all communities and all schools.

Boy was I in for a surprise.

2. The Opposition to Better Schools for All

There was no unity cry from the reform crowd. The conditions weren’t well-received by outspoken charter school defenders, but the criticisms they’ve mustered have been weak, circular, and unconvincing. To summarize the opposition to better schools for all:

1) You can say these bad things happen at charters, but you can’t really prove these things happen.

2) Okay yes, bad things happen at charters but those things happen at all schools.

3) Where has the NAACP been while parents and poor children of color are stuck in traditional schools that don’t serve them well?

4) Since the NAACP wants more honestly run charter schools, they must oppose poor parents of color and their children.

A closer look at these opposition points:

The “You can’t prove it” maneuver 

Most often this response refers to a supposed lack of evidence that charters are guilty of “creaming”, or the screening out, of lower performing students in order to bolster charter results by bringing in those more likely to perform well. This is a common allegation, and insinuated in the NAACP’s moratorium, but in his reaction to the NAACP Chris Stewart writes:

The NAACP implies that charters are “creaming”—screening out low-performing students in order to boost their overall test scores. Here again there may be anecdotes, but there is no data supporting this claim, and therefore no ability for the charter sector to “meet” this expectation.

The “no data” link is to one paper, which based it’s results partly on information gathered from one “anonymous major urban school district with a large number of charter schools”, and focused on one issue of why schools might pressure out students: because of grades or test scores.

The concern, though, isn’t about looking at a spreadsheet of test scores and selecting or de-selecting-it’s about an intentional design of a more subtle form of filtering up front, with more intentional exclusion/removal as a backup. According to the same “no data” paper:

If students are being pushed out, it is more likely to occur in subtle ways—for example, through counseling students and their families to seek a better fit for their needs or having more stringent disciplinary consequences or requiring certain commitments that are associated with higher student achievement such as family involvement and student attendance requirements.

The Conclusion section states:

Together, the ongoing debate as well as the previous research suggests that an aggregate examination of charter schools as well a more micro analysis of charter schools is warranted to inform whether the “push-out” argument could be a strong argument against charter schools in general and whether there should be greater scrutiny imposed upon individual charter schools, which could occur at the reauthorization of charter schools.

So on “creaming” and “pushing out”: to say that there is “no data” is misleading, and to follow up with “therefore no ability for the charter sector to ‘meet’ this expectation” is not a Perry Mason closing moment deserving the word “therefore” between the premise and conclusion . If we agree that “creaming” is wrong (Do we?), agreeing to not do it isn’t impossible. Imagine me saying “You can’t really prove I’ve ever stabbed a kitten before, so I have no ability to promise to not to do it in the future.” It’s not as if I have “no ability” to meet the no kitten stabbing expectation.

2) The Bad things happen at all schools gambit

“It’s wrong, but you do it so we can do it too,” just sounds bad to begin with. But it is a dishonest argument as well. Traditional schools do suffer from some unintended consequences of self-imposed (to an extent) and externally imposed burdens (both of which I am more than willing to admit and discuss) that limit the ability to serve all students in a way that meets their needs. I have watched as access to needed resources, personnel, and services gets further beyond reach and classroom teachers are expected to be more than just the teacher to students coming to school needing way more than to simply be taught. The economic, social and political forces are beyond the truly public school’s purview, without a loosening of the reins on the mission of public schooling. As is, schools are left to respond to the damage and hope students survive and maybe thrive.

But charters can under-serve or avoid serving some by internal and intentional design. Their model is to enroll students that simply need to be taught, do good work with them, and then wear the (hopefully) better stats as a comparative prize ribbon. Maybe some “See, we told you those schools are failing and we are better!” theater.

In terms of the “intentional design”, on the front “creaming” end where students are taken into a charter school: parents need to sign off/sign up to get their child into a charter school. The traditional, open-enrollment public school is the default compulsory public education option and if there is a child that doesn’t show up to the school he or she is linked to: a parent/guardian risks getting charged with educational neglect for truancy. So to actually remove a student from that option and enroll him/her in another school “choice” really does take some active parent choosing. Hopefully there is some research into the options, maybe there’s a lottery, a waiting list, a qualifying test score or principal recommendation, interviews and/or references… It takes some intent and the will to execute an enrollment plan; it takes awareness and motivation; and it takes parent involvement. It may take prerequisite student success/dedication and it most likely takes ongoing involvement.

Now while one weak-ass study that misses the mark to begin with is definitely no proof that “choice” schools don’t cream or do the choosing themselves to allow only the most likely to succeed, the one thing we definitely do know: Involved parents are likely to have more successful students.  Charter schools know it too, and must know that their selective schools benefit from this type of “creaming” because research  shows that, among many other positive impacts, when parents are involved:

  • Children tend to achieve more, regardless of ethnic or racial background, socioeconomic status, or parents’ education level.
  • Children generally achieve better grades, test scores, and attendance.
  • Children consistently complete their homework.
  • Children have better self-esteem, are more self-disciplined, and show higher aspirations and motivation toward school.
  • Children’s positive attitude about school often results in improved behavior in school and less suspension for disciplinary reasons.

For the pushing out or counseling out of students, it’s the “two wrongs make it right for us” defense. Students get suspended from traditional schools too, sure. But what, really, might get a student suspended or pushed/pressured out of a traditional school versus a charter school?

Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school…

As a career teacher in traditional schools I could tell you about kindergartners who come to school and to a general education classroom still pooping and peeing in their pants. They stay in school and for as much as possible in the general education setting because it’s the least restrictive environment. I could share stories about second graders who rage to the point of throwing chairs around and emptying the classroom for everyone’s safety, or about third graders threatening to stab another student, her family- and her cat (just for good measure, I suppose). They stay in the school and in classroom for as long as possible. I could tell you stories about parents who come to conference reeking of dope and asking if they could volunteer to come in to help sometimes because “they could use a little learnin’ too”, or custodial grandmothers who show up in the newspaper’s “police beat” for cooking meth and possession of heroin…I could tell you so much more. If you have never taught, or taught temporarily so you could pretend to understand teaching, you might not get this. If you don’t know what “mandated reporter” means, you might not get it either.

But then again, I am white, and have lived my whole life and taught in a  rural area. It might be that violence, crime and drugs are only a country-white problem that mostly impacts rural families, children and schools and isn’t really a problem for families with children in the cities and their schools. Help me out with this because I don’t know. What I do know is that highly promoted and praised charters have a very low tolerance for behaviors that are hardly even “on the radar” for public schools and  the seasoned teachers in them. As an example, note Alan Singer’s description of what a “violation” is at this “choice” school:

“Success Academy’s code of misconduct is six pages long with 65 infractions ranging from minor or Level 1 violations such as slouching or failing to be in “Ready to Succeed” position, to middle or Level 2 misconduct like forgetting to bring a pencil or pen to school, to more serious Level 3 infractions like play fighting or repeated littering. The most serious Level 4 infractions include continued violation of the lesser misbehaviors, bullying, and “blatant and repeated disrespect for school code.” In-house and home suspension from school starts with Level 2 infractions. Penalties for “scholars” accused of Level 3 or Level 4 infractions include immediate expulsion from school.”

So parent involvement on the way in, strict student compliance- or you’re out. Should our “failing schools” adopt the more successful policies of this charter to be more successful? When choice advocates eagerly attach words like “results” and “high achieving”, why do they sometimes relish critical comparison to traditional schools while avoiding full disclosure of charter mechanisms?

 3) Where has the NAACP been?

I can’t answer this, and wonder why anyone asks. The economic and social crisis of class division and diminishing opportunities and returns has been been ongoing and the those with the least continue to suffer the most. Not coincidentally, it is the wealthiest who benefit the most and try to leverage their political voice and control to define “reform”. Do you think their goal is philanthropic and willing to give up any of their control or share; to empower either economically or politically a massive population waking up to how they have been and are being divided and exploited? To allow the middle class and lower classes to unite and demand real substantive reforms?

While even “school choice” advocates are starting a soft-sell of their own version of segregation (or separation), and while filtering away students with involved parents and the ability to adhere to draconian conduct policies can create some stats that investors like and politicians can ride during campaign season, we have to ask what the overall benefit of separating students based on their personal resources is, and if we shouldn’t be demanding more economic and social support for integration. Not necessarily based on race, because it seems a hard sell and I see little belief that that is an achievable goal in the nearest possible future- but integration based on poverty and economic status. In this Frontline interview, Richard D. Kahlenber explains:

It was always that low-income students of all races do better in an economically mixed environment. … Their classmates had parents with higher education levels, which was related to higher aspirations. In middle-class schools, parents usually have more flexible jobs so they can volunteer in the classrooms. They have cars to get to PTA meetings. … [Meanwhile],  when you integrated low income and working class African-Americans and whites, there were no achievement gains.

We all benefit from having a higher education level among all students, and we want to tap into the talents of low-income students, African-American, Latino, Asian and white students. And we all, as a society, benefit when those investments are made.

 4) Who really opposes the empowerment of poor people of color, The NAACP or the millionaires and billionaires controlling policy and defining the parameters of “reform”?

You have to know that this kind of childish attack gets us nowhere if doing right by children is the goal. So if you want to talk about opposing poor parents of color and their children, there are far deeper, more endemic and systemic harms being done and/or being ignored. As rich white guys make millions and billions steering public policy and weighing in on how exactly how and what the poorest people need to learn and do to be “ready”, they also benefit enormously from:

  1. Taking and sending jobs and resources out and away from our poorest communities and families,
  2. Using their political leverage to segregate populations, isolate resources, gentrify neighborhoods and further limit opportunities,
  3. Numbing the collective mind of our nation with perpetual soul rotting media, junk food, and disposable, consumable technology and goods that keep us perpetually spending, wasting, replacing…
  4. Polluting our air, water, food and souls while ensuring that their corporations are seen as people, their money as speech and our interests and votes mean little in the end.

“God is watching,”  a wise man once said, noting how we have tainted children’s water with lead.

So, with God watching (if you believe he is):

If we are going to do education reform, school choice, accountability, and do them right, there is much more important work to do than helping the wealthy tear down what is left of the middle class, public institutions, a profession, unions… There is a better path than letting millionaires, billionaires point away from their greed and deciding for us what the poor will be allowed. Instead of letting a charter industry protect it’s interests, let’s provide parents with honesty and simple information about charter schools, and create charter schools that serve any child who might attend them.

 

What is wrong with this world

So what is wrong with this world?

My answer is “Nothing that the right people can’t fix”, and I believe it. But boy, it’s starting to approach a crisis situation. To begin with, I have been watching the DNC chair debates, and am now watching the nominations and votes for the next DNC chair-have it running on my phone as I type this. The saddest thing of it all is the unwillingness, both in the debates, in the media, and right now as I watch some of these pretenders talk about a fresh start; talk about reaching out and knocking on doors; talk  about unity… the unwillingness to change and bring a powerfully new and progressive message to the people is glaring. People are desperately waiting for something to vote for (as opposed to being told they have to vote against something), and the tone-deaf and entrenched establishment that had aligned itself stubbornly behind Hillary Clinton still refuses to own up to the error of it’s ways. It isn’t that they’re full of %$#@, god no…They just didn’t organize and unite enough to effectively spread that %$#@ far and wide enough. They didn’t reach out those crap covered hands wide enough to give a fake “I care about your plight” hug and spread the smelly promise of more neoliberalism and Wall Street funded perpetual poverty politics.

Are our leaders working for us? I mean really. Have they been? If you could say that there was something wrong with the world it would be that they are not. Trump is getting the blame for a lot of stuff because he’s an almost cartoonishly deplorable character, but it was Obama who spent his administration demeaning public education, growing income inequality, allowing war crimes to go unprosecuted, and in November, on his way out, microwaving Syrian women and children.

Whoa…what was that, you ask?

Depleted uranium is prized by the US military for exceptional toughness, which enables it to pierce heavy tank armor. However, airborne DU particles can contaminate nearby ground and water and pose a significant risk of toxicity, birth defects and cancer when inhaled or ingested by humans or animals. The coalition’s promise not to use DU munitions in Iraq was made after an estimated one million rounds were used during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion. Between Iraq and the Balkans, where they were also used in the 1990s, DU rounds have been blamed on a massive increase in cancer and birth defects.

Yeah, that was President smooth. “Microwaving” is a little specious, but the article that link takes you to describes our government’s willingness to blast some depleted uranium on the collateral damage of our foreign petroleum control conquests. I don’t think radiation hurts the oil, but wow is it bad for babies. But it’s only our leaders doing it to babies in other places. Is showering foreign innocents and babies with depleted uranium how we want our leaders to represent us? Who cares about the in-your-face evils of a Trump administration when our corporate shill Democrats in name only are covertly as evil, and still feel entitled the votes of the millions they have helped to ignore and suppress only because they’ll half-heartedly fight for some health coverage and  some labor rights and some minimum wage standards. If the DNC continues to support policies that fuel economic savagery and war-hawkishness-they will be spreading those %$#@-covered huggy-hands wide, but coming back with far less than they’d hoped for.