It has been difficult to feel that it is okay to discuss teacher working conditions this year. The United States has lost approximately 600,000 lives in a global pandemic. In addition to lost lives, people have lost their lives. Family. Friends. Jobs. Homes. I have to remind myself often, that while perspective matters, it is not license to relegate my own suffering to unworthiness. What follows comes with a heavy understanding that far worse has happened. Yet what is about to follow is not just in spite of what has happened over the last fifteen months. What follows is what always happens in public schools, where those who make decisions about what goes on there have no understanding, connection nor valuing of the work students and teachers are engaged in every day.
After being closed for the last third of the 2019-2020 school year, my colleagues and I went back to work, full time, in school with students in September of 2020. There were no FDA approved treatments nor vaccines for COVID-19. We were required to teach and learn, wearing masks while maintaining a social distance of six feet. Much of teaching children is based upon close interactions among teachers and students where you can speak, listen and be heard. Teaching in a masked, socially distant classroom is a monumental task. I had to teach five subjects rather than four. Students did not change classrooms, including during lunch. They were not permitted to mix with other groups of students. Sharing outdoor equipment, such as soccer balls, was prohibited.
For a moment, let us cast politics aside. Let us ignore debates about the valuation of these practices. Let us concede that at the time, the powers that be, determined these measures would make reopening schools safe for all. Let us, for the time being agree that children were better off in school. The economy needed to restart. Parents needed school to provide some level of care for their children. These things, I can accept. But what I cannot not accept, is what has always been an issue, our state and federal governments are blind to the reality of the work that goes on in our public schools. What they fail to see, is that in our schools, teachers identify what their students need, and hunt for ways to meet those needs.
Our teacher evaluation systems base teachers’ performances on an arbitrary set of standards, using assessments that rarely, if ever, have the capacity to measure a student’s growth within said set of standards. Compound this failure with the realities of our students – hunger, sickness, homelessness, anxiety and depression, etc… and it is evident what teachers do has no relationship to the yardstick we use to measure them. And now, wait for it, here is the kicker…
In the fall, the state and federal governments expressed an unwillingness to place the teacher evaluation system on hold this year. We had to be observed by our supervisors who used a rubric that bore little resemblance to what was transpiring in the socially distanced, masked classroom where we were making our students feel safe and dealing with trauma, in my case, with none of my teaching supplies. They had been packed away the previous June. Students had to either take state assessments or take pre and post tests at the beginning and end of the year to track growth in their teachers’ classrooms. It was absurd. No one stood up to say no. But nothing was as ridiculous as what came next. Last week, on June 7th, New York State’s Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Chapter 112 to ease this burden on school districts.
What burden was lifted? Teachers had to prepare and assess students twice during the year to measure student growth in a pandemic. Students had to sit for assessments that ultimately mean nothing. Their teachers spent hours on the exams, reports and observations, ultimately for nothing. The worst part of all of this is the fact that the legislature did this, after all of the work had been done by teachers and their students. This went completely unnoticed.
Millions of dollars go into these mandates, while infinite hours go into the creation, preparation and administration of teacher evaluations. This year, the state’s willingness to throw it away, after all of the time, energy and resources spent on the ludicrous assessment of children and teachers during a pandemic demonstrates the state is willing to own up to the fact that these assessments do not mean anything in the first place.
We cannot have suffered for the last fifteen months in vain. We have to look at what teachers are truly responsible for, our nation’s youth, and ask ourselves how we craft an evaluation system that corresponds with the work teachers actually do, and supports them in providing the very best care and instruction for their students.