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This letter to the HCPS School Board is written by Venus Freeman, a friend and veteran teacher colleague who, like me, teaches in high school. When I read this letter I felt it not only captured the emotional outpouring of  educators I saw online after the special called board meeting of this past Thursday, but also articulated how unconscionably thoughtless and politically driven this “decision” was. Though the board will be meeting to decide our collective fates next Thursday, August 6th, there is an upcoming regularly scheduled board meeting this coming Tuesday, July 28th–please continue to email each of them your concerns and be sure to CC them to BoardPublicComments@sdhc.k12.fl.us so that they will be included as part of the public record.

Dear Members of the Hillsborough County Schools Board,

A story from WTSP on 7/23/202 asserts “Infectious Disease Experts Believe Schools Will Be the Epicenter for the Spread of COVID-19 This Fall.” The title alone tells the tale and explains what teachers have known since we ended the 2019-2020 school year, and what we have been certain of since Florida AND OUR DISTRICT became an epicenter for this disease.  We have always understood that we did not have the resources to enact CDC guidelines for social distancing because even with unlimited funding, we do not have the teachers available to teach the increased number of classes that would be necessary to provide that social distancing.  And frankly, with infection rates where they are, we should not be bringing students back into school buildings even if we could provide social distancing.  I won’t rehearse the numbers for you, but I will remind you that Florida posted a new record for deaths both Thursday and Friday.  With the numbers we are currently experiencing, there is simply no way we should be bringing students and adults back into school buildings because it’s not safe for anyone.

Important as it is, the need to implement eLearning for the first quarter of the 2020-2021 school year is not the subject of this letter.  My subject instead is how upset I am about the decision not to decide on that issue at Thursday’s meeting.  The request to wait to make a decision after consulting with experts, and every vote that validated this idea, was completely disingenuous, and every teacher who was sitting on the edge of their seat yesterday waiting for a decision knows it.  While COVID-19 is indeed a novel virus and we are still learning about it, everyone knows it is a highly infectious disease.  Only someone living under a rock does not know that a classroom, with 30 or more people jammed into a confined space for extended periods of time, is precisely the most dangerous situation for spread of this disease.  On our high school campuses, we routinely house more than 2,000 students, so every day potentially constitutes a super spreader event.  We all know that there have been infections that occurred on campuses this summer, though the district has been less than transparent about these cases, and summer is the safest time on any campus for the spread of an infectious disease because summer is the time when there are the fewest people on campus.  We already know ALL of these things, so there really was no need for experts at Thursday’s meeting, and there’s no reason why said experts could not have been consulted before the meeting or asked to attend if we wanted their comments in person.  It’s not like the Board could not have predicted the subject coming up at the meeting.

You likely wonder, though, just why teachers—and I mean just about ALL of us—would be so upset by a simple delay.  No big deal, right?  WRONG.  Firstly, many, many teachers I know have indicated that this has been the most stressful summer they have ever experienced because we have spent the entire time that we were supposed to be getting recharged for a new school year anxiously watching the news, waiting for some clear, detailed, concrete plan from our leaders, only to hear nothing for weeks and weeks and weeks, all while we watch infection rates and death rates climb.  We have spent many sleepless nights this summer wondering what, if anything, we can do to protect our families, wondering if now is the time to retire, or what other options are available to us.

As if that weren’t enough, we are also trying to think about how we will provide instruction and trying to make plans for how we present our material because the single thing that is certain is that nothing will be “normal” this year, none of our tried and true practices can be relied upon in our current situation.  But apparently, the Hillsborough County School Board is filled with people who think teaching requires no planning or preparation—apparently our school board believes teachers just walk into a building, stand up in front of children, and get started.  While it’s disheartening enough to have members of the general public assume our work requires no actual work, it’s frustrating beyond belief to have the people who make decisions that affect our personal and professional lives every day do the same.

Your simple little delay, for frankly no good reason other than politics, costs us the entire first week of our pre-planning, precious time we should be using to prepare for the actual situation we will be facing.  We CANNOT simply plan for BOTH online learning AND face-to-face instruction.  Firstly, we do not have the time and secondly, these situations are so completely different we cannot formulate comprehensive plans for both.  Training for these situations is dramatically different.  How do we train for such entirely different situations simultaneously?  Do we purchase supplies?  Most teachers begin the school year with supplies for the year already purchased.  But do we need to spend that money now?

Even more important than the vital planning and preparation time teachers lose to your delay, school guidance counselors in all of our schools, middle and high school especially, will have to go forward with changing the schedules for literally thousands of students as if face-to-face instruction is going forward.  If we switch to eLearning for all, then they have to go change all of those thousands of schedules back.  School administrators must go forward with setting their teachers up for eLearning for those who will fill those positions if face-to-face instruction goes forward and change their master schedules accordingly.  Consider all this work at every school site around the district, work you have dismissed as nothing by your very decision, as if we don’t all have other work to do, as if it’s no big deal if we spend an entire week working on these projects, possibly only to find that it is effort entirely wasted.  I don’t know how you feel about putting a week of your life into something only to have it rendered meaningless, but this is potentially the situation you are putting all these people in through your delay.  A delay that has no justification except for a lack of courage.

Here’s the thing: there is absolutely no decision you can make that will absolutely keep everyone safe other than online learning for the first nine weeks.  This virus is not going to magically disappear in the two weeks you have decided to waste.  Teachers were frankly relieved to hear that the Board had elected to delay the start of classes because WE NEED THAT TIME TO PLAN.  We’ve never taught in the middle of a pandemic before, except online at the end of last year, and if we have to do it again, we want to be better prepared to serve our students to the best of our ability.

So, essentially, you have set us up to fail yet again.  Take away our ability to plan and prepare, then express disappointment and disapproval when teachers work harder than ever before (and we are normally very hardworking people) because our product wasn’t ideal.  Well, if you want a high-quality product, you have to give us the time and the information we need to create that product.  Contrary to popular belief, we do NOT simply walk into a classroom and start talking!

We teachers have spent this summer staying at home to stay safe, watching the infection rates climb, planning where we can by getting wills and other end-of-life documents in order.  Just contemplate that reality for a moment: teachers have spent the summer getting their end-of-life documents in order as preparation to return to school!  Because if you make us go back into brick-and-mortar buildings people will die, and there’s no way to ensure that it won’t be ME.  Every teacher in this district has spent the summer with these thoughts as their constant companions.  Think about the stress and anxiety that has caused for thousands of teachers across the 7th largest district in the country.

Other places where social distancing is easy are closed: county offices are closed, and those clerks and other employees are not sitting in enclosed spaces with over 30 people for extended periods of time!  But teachers should walk back into classrooms gladly and just do their jobs.  After all, it’s what we signed up for!  No, not one single teacher I know joined this profession expecting to be told just to risk their lives every day, as if it’s a simple thing, as if our lives count for nothing.  As if our work counts for nothing, as if our daily dedication, working many hours every day, every week beyond what we are paid for count for nothing.  I wonder how you would feel if your life and the lives of your family members were treated as disposable.

Perhaps the School Board should remember that teachers are also their constituents, and we have lots of friends who are constituents, too, and we have long memories.  Make a decision and give us the time we need to put together our plans to begin instruction online for the first quarter so we can make it as good as it possibly can be.  Keep students AND teachers (ALL the adults in our buildings) and all our families safe.

Respectfully,

Venus S. Freeman, PhD

Veteran Teacher

Function of Education

For the last several years I have thought about this quote on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. It is fitting for two reasons: 1) most would profess this to be education’s chief aim; 2) a free, high quality public education seems to be the civil rights issue of our day and age. Rather than offer a solution on either of these two challenges–and make no mistake, solutions are desperately needed for both issues–this brief entry is more of a meditation on the first reason and the vexing problems presented by the Florida Education Model.

Much of what Florida education–and this is perhaps true in most states across the U.S.–focuses on is “teaching to the test” in the sense that almost everything revolves around some standardized test outcome, whether for the individuals involved (student or classroom teacher) or the institutions themselves (schools and districts). Though not explicitly taught to do so, by the time students are in middle school they realize the skills they are receiving, perhaps even implicitly, are that of “memorization and regurgitation.” They cram their heads full of facts that they often have no connection to or context for, dump out the ones they remember on the all-too-important state assessment, only to move on to a new subject the following semester or year having learned little to nothing of value.

Many high school students themselves find this incredibly frustrating and want something better, something more.

Imagine if our education system really were about teaching “one to think intensively and to think critically.” What would that look like? While some traffic in conspiratorial plans about reformers intentionally dumbing down our children, the current model is simply the cheapest to implement for the state while simultaneously padding the profits of the Education Industrial Complex, most especially the standardized testing giants. None of this benefits our students, especially as we get further into the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to radically reconfigure our education system so that the outcomes are focused on students who can think intensively and critically.

As a Theory of Knowledge teacher, much of the class is oriented toward producing these skills, albeit they are focused on knowledge itself. But learning how to think intensively and critically needs to be modeled aloud, discovered through dialogue, and practiced often by oneself and among peers–something we have little time for in most traditional classrooms. Moreover, we often get into discussions about the value in knowing random facts about the world if they will have little use or relation to one’s future professional path, regardless of what path that may be. Whether a student becomes a plumber, a pilot, or a plastic surgeon, any adult person living on the planet will need good thinking.

But even beyond the college and career readiness aspects of focusing on teaching students how to think intensively and critically, the second part of the MLK quote is equally essential: “Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education.” Obviously thinking hones intelligence, regardless of the type, but character is an interesting word choice. The root is the ancient Greek word for sharpening, as if our character is something to be worked upon, whittling away that which does not benefit our personal moral code and leaving behind what is most essential. Does our education system explicitly promote that? How might our students benefit from this type of education? Would it not truly leave them better prepared to face any challenge life might throw their way in the future? All of us face a future full of uncertainty due to technological innovation and disruption, and being able to think clearly and lucidly about events as they arise, in conjunction with the strength of character, would be the best skills and traits we could impart to our students.

We need to make this seismic shift in our educational approach much sooner than most think. The regressive model of education we currently use is antiquated and built upon ideas that were important 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more irrelevant today. The future of education must be more human and more humane. We must focus on what makes us unique as a species (art, play, creativity, communication, etc) and leverage those skills over and above those tasks that can be done by machines. Education must become focused on thinking for its own sake and to instill a love of learning that is lifelong and directs each student to further investigate his or her passions, none of which can be found by filling in letter B on the bubble sheet.

 

Testing Anxiety
An all-too-common sight for teachers looking out at students taking high stakes tests/exams.

Friend and fellow educator Michelle Hamlyn returns with another timely guest post about what it is like to silently sit in a room with over-tested teens who are anxious and stressed about earning a certain number / grade on their semester exams. If you didn’t catch any of Michelle’s previous guest pieces, Why We’re Here and I’m Angry are highly suggested. For now, please read and share her latest reflection on what education has become…

As I sit here for the third day in a row, watching my twelve- and thirteen-year olds take their sixth semester exam, I am once again reminded how far public education has gone off course. Some of them sit and stare like zombies. Some of them have at least one body part perpetually in motion – a foot tapping, fingers drumming, a leg bouncing up and down. Some of them just sit with the most resigned, discouraged looks on their faces. And we expect them to be able to sit and be quiet for almost two solid hours. I know successful adults who can’t manage that.

It didn’t used to be like this. Learning used to be enjoyable and interesting. Students used to be able to feel wonder and curiosity and success. But now, it’s just about finding the “best right answer.” Although I’d like to claim that phrase, I can’t. It’s been used in more than one professional development course I’ve taken.

How exactly is a twelve-year old, who can’t remember to bring their PE uniform home to be washed and back again, supposed to pick the “best right answer?” These are the people whose interests change more often than the latest technology. The people who today are “going out with” Bubba, but tomorrow find Earl more attractive. The people who think armpit “fart” noises are hysterical. (All of which is developmentally appropriate for this age group, unlike a two-hour semester exam in seven subjects over three and a half days.)

What does it do to your spirit when over the course of four days, you take seven nearly two-hour exams in which you have to find the “best right answer?” How does any of that feel rewarding? How does it show your intelligence?

More importantly, what has happened to teaching children to think for themselves? To know that there is more than one way to do things and that sometimes there is more than one answer?

With all the posturing over test scores and a push for creativity, you’d think that someone in charge would understand that the more rigid the answers become, the less children ask questions. The less they enjoy learning. The less they are, in fact, learning.

I hear all the reformers and legislators talking about kids being college and career ready. Those terms didn’t even exist back when they were children. And they shouldn’t exist now. That’s a fine goal for high school students. But it has no place in our dialogue about kindergarten through eighth grade.

I wonder how many of the reformers and legislators were college and career ready in elementary school or middle school. Those are places where you are supposed to learn, not just your numbers and letters, but also who you are and how to manage learning. They are not places where you only learn one thing or the “best right answer.” They are places where you explore, you make mistakes, and you learn from those mistakes.

But today’s students don’t want to make mistakes. They can’t afford to. Because their scores depend on it. Sadly, they’ve been taught to believe these scores actually define them.

And parents have bought into this narrative. Your child MUST take this standardized test to prove they’ve learned. To prove their value. To show that they can handle the next level. That they are college and career ready.

Even if they are just twelve- and thirteen-year olds. Taking seven two-hour exams where they have to find the “best right answer.”