An Open Letter To Teachers Everywhere

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Before I begin, I should note that I’ve taught high school English since the year 2000. I still teach to this day.

That being said, to my fellow teachers, I hope you are well. We are a routine-oriented lot who thrive on knowing what to expect, so this summer has been particularly difficult in that regard.

Hopefully, by now, you are getting some concrete plans. For instance, within the last few weeks my district has shifted to remote learning for students and then, a bit later, remote teaching for the instructors as well. Needless to say, we all exhaled a collective sigh of relief when that news arrived.

For those of us fortunate enough to be teaching remotely from home, I offer this one piece of advice: be the best you’ve ever been.

There are many ways to interpret that statement, but let me lay some groundwork before I expound upon it.

Everyone is currently stressed to the point of breaking.

School administration is being hit on all sides by the public, the business world, and politicians. They cannot please everyone right now. The phone calls, the emails, the texts, the social media comments–I’m sure it feels like a deluge. It’s hard to be an administrator at the moment.

Parents are also at their wits’ end. Their entire schedule has been thrown off-kilter and they are trying to work while providing childcare for their kids. They realize that they will soon have to also help with school work as best they can. I can easily imagine the pressure of trying to make sure the kids are on the correct Zoom call and checking in for attendance while the parent is also trying to fulfill their work obligations. Furthermore, parents are worried about their kids’ mental health. So many things are forcing their kids out of routine. Sports, music, clubs, youth groups–they are worried about what effect these omissions will have on their child’s well-being. It’s hard to be a parent at the moment.

Members of our community have had their lives disrupted. Even if community members don’t currently have a child in school, as taxpayers, they are still entitled to an opinion and should have the opportunity to voice that opinion. Some members think it’s dangerous for schools to be in session and every precaution should be taken to keep all members of the community safe. Some members believe the virus is not so great a risk that we should deny children all of the benefits that come with attending school such as education, supervision, food, shelter, and other services. It’s hard to be a member of society at the moment.

My point is, teachers, that everyone around you has a vested interest in how this all plays out, and everyone is on edge. Consequently, everyone will be watching you. Your administrators will be watching you. Your students will be watching you. The parents of your students will be watching you. If working from home, your neighborhood will be watching you.

My district has told me since the day I got hired that the teachers in our district are the best of the best. I’m guessing every district says that, but even so, we have to exceed that description. We must surpass even our own professional standards. As teachers, we are accustomed to being in front of students the vast majority of the day with very little downtime. The public is going to expect that same rigor even if we are working from home.

Therefore, teachers, be your best selves. Do not slip out for some time in the pool during the workday. Don’t be seen mowing the lawn during the workday. Don’t go shopping during the workday. Don’t go on vacation during the workday. I would advise you to even stay off social media during the workday. Do not give anyone any reason at all to doubt your professionalism.

Is this fair? Probably not. I know plenty of people in other professions working from home who have no qualms about doing any of those things. But teaching is different. We are judged in ways most other professions are not. There are dozens of reasons as to why this is the case, but the bottom line is that it’s true and we must act accordingly.

It’s correct that everyone’s “best” is going to look a little bit different. Some of it depends on our subject area, some of it depends on our technological prowess, some of it depends on our personality, some of it depends on our living conditions, but the most basic thing we can do is keep up appearances by sticking to our contractual hours and saving chores, errands, and personal desires for after the work day.

Teaching is an incredible responsibility. We are counted upon to guide the nation’s future. Yet, we must do better than we’ve ever done before during these difficult times.

I wish you all good health. I support you. I respect you. I stand with you.

Does Your Teen Need Help With Writing?

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I’m excited to announce that I’ve opened a small online business aimed at helping teenagers from all over the world improve their writing skills. If you happen to know of any families seeking supplemental writing instruction because their teen is being home schooled or learning remotely, I hope you’ll share Advanced Writing, LLC, with them.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT ADVANCED WRITING, LLC

An Open Letter To Political and Educational Leaders

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Before I begin, I’d like to state that I truly believe almost all teachers and administrators honestly want the best for their students. I cannot say “every” because I try not to deal in absolutes, but the vast majority of teachers and administrators with whom I’ve worked put the students first.

Educational leaders are in an impossible situation. They know that children need to be in school. It’s not a political responsibility, it’s not an economical responsibility, it’s simply a responsibility to the child’s well-being. Children need to grow socially, intellectually, and emotionally, and school is an exceptional place to do that. School is a place for children to exist independently from their parents or guardians and a place for them to find their own voice. Yet it is also a place filled with structure, routine, boundaries, and–perhaps most importantly–professional guidance.

However, school is impossible without teachers. We all seem to be forgetting that fact. Teachers are, right now, being asked to enter often poorly ventilated, overcrowded classrooms filled with children who are proven to carry the coronavirus. We are literally asking our teachers, many of whom are over forty years old, to risk their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

I often hear the argument that grocery stores and doctors’ offices are open–schools can open, too. I think it’s important to remember that those are usually very well-ventilated environments with strict control over who and who cannot enter. If someone refuses to comply, they literally have a security force they can call upon. We took our child to the doctor the other day. We had to wait in the car until we got a text. Then, when the text came, we entered a side door, spoke to no one, and made our way directly to the patient’s room. We wore masks the entire time, as did the medical staff. It was an incredibly controlled, rigid system. My wife’s eye doctor even had a placard placed in her examination room stating the room is disinfected between patients.

Think back to your days in school. Do you really think children are going to stay six feet apart (even though most agree this will be impossible to accomplish in classrooms due to limited space and teachers). Do you really think schools are going to be able to force students to wear their masks correctly?

I’ve seen some plans where teachers are being told to wear a mask all day, disinfect desks between class periods, eat lunch with the same group of students in the classroom daily, prohibit shared material (like textbooks), stay six feet away from those students in the classroom (which will literally be impossible in many cases), enforce temperature regulation, and direct traffic in the hallways. This is on top of the daily lesson planning, teaching, grading, behavior management, parent contact, and meetings.

Furthermore, some schools are going all in, every student every day, while others are going half in-session and half remote learning. I have a child at the elementary level and then another child at the middle school level. The middle school is essentially going part-time, while the elementary level is going full time. Meanwhile, my place of work (a high school in a different district), is going all in, full time. This is an incredible burden on me both as a parent and as an employee. I’m being asked to leave my middle school child home alone for three days out of the week, find after school care for my elementary school child (which further bursts any already-lackluster bubble), and work full time in my own building. My middle school child is going to be isolated at home for many, many hours, which is dangerous at a physical, emotional, and social level, while my elementary child is unnecessarily being exposed to even more people. As a parent, I find this incredibly stressful.

If your child is next to a child who shows any of the numerous symptoms, your child is quarantined for several days. If your child’s teacher shows any of the symptoms, he or she is quarantined for several days. In some cases, an entire class could be quarantined for several days–perhaps as many as fourteen. This is all true for school buses as well. We are quickly going to run out of teachers, substitute teachers, and drivers. You’re going to be finding someone to watch your child as they keep getting quarantined when kids in their classes show symptoms. It’s going to get very chaotic, very quickly.

Though it’s not the popular solution, the most logical, rational, and safest decision is for all school districts to go 100% remote. Families can continue with whatever summer childcare they have in place, which will keep them within whatever bubble they’ve established. We can all start the school year off with a remote learning procedure in place. As it stands right now, schools meeting in-session will be doing so completely out of any previously proven routine, and will likely have to go remote within four to six weeks anyway. When that happens, many are going to be scrambling for childcare and trying to figure out remote learning anyway. Doesn’t it make more sense just to start off with 100% remote learning when we know it’s coming? Neither choice is easy–I understand that. There will be hardships even with 100% remote learning. This is obviously a case of choosing the lesser of two evils. Personally, I feel ensuring the physical health of our teachers and students must take priority.

As a nation, we have not done our part. As a nation, we’re not wearing masks, we’re not staying home, and we’re not establishing a bubble. People at my grocery store won’t even follow the arrows marked on the floor. We teach our students that behaviors have consequences. Guess what, America? 100% remote learning is the consequence of your behavior. Many have taken the necessary precautions, and it’s awful that those people must suffer the ramifications of those who haven’t been responsible.

Additionally, I fear this is further reinforcing the class divide. I hear more and more of my friends who are upper-middle class or upper class opting to keep their kids home in order to guarantee their safety. They will still have outdoor play dates, Facebook Messenger For Kids calls, trips to the park, and bicycle rides. Those parents, who are likely working remotely due to white collar, well-paying jobs, don’t have to think about it too hard. Meanwhile, lower-middle class families and low-income families don’t have a choice at all. If they don’t physically go to work, they don’t get paid. They literally cannot afford to do what they think is best for their kids–they have no choice in the matter. They will risk their lives, their children’s lives, and their extended families’ lives because they have to. This is the height of inequality.

It will take incredible bravery, morality, and willpower for school administrators to do the right thing and implement 100% remote learning at the start of the year. It will be incredibly hard. They will be ridiculed every step of the way. Many will question them at every opportunity. There will be several challenges, such as food distribution, guaranteeing WiFi, and providing services for those students with unique needs. However, in the long run, it will be what’s best for our children.

As for politicians, I suspect the most powerful of politicians never attended public school nor send their own children to public school, so they should stay out of it and let the experts–teachers and school administrators–work it out. I’m tired of politicians using our children as pawns in their political warfare and you should be, too. I was under the impression that they were here to serve us, but it seems to be just the opposite.

A Change In Public Education That Must Occur

I started my teaching career in the year 2000. This happened to also be around the time that No Child Left Behind was implemented. Generally speaking, No Child Left Behind said that every child would be prepared to enter college. Schools would be held more accountable. Students would be held more accountable. Academics would become more rigorous. Thus, every student would be academically fortified to flourish in college.

Now, that sounds wonderful on paper, but as with most things, there were unforeseen consequences. (At least, I hope the consequences were unforeseen and not actually premeditated.) Furthermore, from my own experiences in high school, I knew brilliant people who simply did not want to go to college. I also knew people who were very capable at life with no interest in college for many different reasons–primarily the debt they would accumulate. Even as a young novice teacher I knew that No Child Left Behind seemed to lack perspective because not everyone wants to go to college.

Here we are, twenty years later, and I’m witnessing the unintended effects of No Child Left Behind. In the interest of keeping this short, I’ll summarize by saying that if our students don’t play school very well, they are being left behind in a completely different way.

Imagine that you don’t particularly like English, math, history, or science. Now imagine that day after day, you have to sit through those classes for four straight years scraping by with Ds and Cs. You’ve been told college is the only option. You sign up for a local community college, and after struggling to pass your first year, you give up on post-secondary education.

Now what?

What do you do?

What skills do you have?

What sustaining opportunities exist for you?

I’ve seen this happen time and again and it breaks my heart.

The unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind is that, in an effort to meet all the rigorous requirements set forth by various bureaucratic entities, we lost a lot of classes that didn’t fall under the “core curriculum” category.  Most of these classes involved working with the hands. I’m not going to run through them all, but a few that immediately spring to mind are shop class, art, music, and automotive. These were all sacrificed in order to devote more time and teachers to the college-bound material.

I can think of dozens of students who would have thrived in classes where they got to utilize those skills related to working with their hands. And it’s true that some schools still have industrial arts and vocational classes, but I think in most cases they are not offered to just any general student. There’s a selection process involved due to limited space.

Remember that class you were super excited to attend because it addressed your specific interests? Maybe it was British literature, or physics, or chemistry. What if you didn’t like any of those subjects? What if, throughout your entire high school tenure, you didn’t take a single class that interested you? What if you never had the opportunity to discover you like the culinary arts, or fire safety, or automotive technology, or carpentry, or plumbing?

I absolutely believe that every American citizen needs a baseline understanding of the core curricula. Math, English, science, history–these are important things, for sure. However, why do we force a student who has no interest in college to sit through four years of English or math? Why not require two years of English, and then allow that student to take vocational classes related to a field they’d like to enter? They could also use that time to serve as apprentices or interns, get on-the-job training, and graduate from high school with real leads connecting them to a full-time job.

Of course, the great irony is that many of those in the trades are faring better than those with college degrees in today’s world because of scarcity. A plumber can charge whatever he or she wants because toilets have to work and not many people know how to fix them (myself included).

You’re the taxpayer. You know what your kids need. At the risk of sounding controversial, I maintain that most of the bureaucrats and politicians at the highest levels making the decisions influencing public schools neither attended public schools themselves nor send their own children to public schools. They are dictating the outcome of your child’s life with little to no vested interest in the welfare of your child.

How do you get vocational classes that are widely available to all students back into the public schools? I honestly don’t know. It probably starts with contacting your local representative or school administrator.

But a student exited to go to school in order to learn about things tied to the vocations that will have a positive impact on his or her professional life? I think it’s time for that change to occur.

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A Teacher’s Thanks To District 87

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As many of you know, I teach high school English. (Yes, I am the epitome of the clichéd  English teacher who thinks he’s also a writer. It’s true that I even have sports coats with elbow patches.)

I wanted to take a moment and thank my employer–District 87.

It’s been a long ride with District 87. I started teaching with them in 2002. Other than a two year sabbatical when my first child was born, I’ve been in the same building in the same hallway–and almost every room in that hallway–for sixteen years. We’ve been through a lot together.

In fact, I didn’t think there was much that could surprise me anymore when it came to teaching, and then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

The weeks leading up to the official “shelter in place” were confusing. Like you, we heard all kinds of contradictory reports. When the order issued to stay home, none of us knew exactly what to expect.

District 87 did two things that I find exemplary.

First of all, they implored us to “do no harm” to students. They reminded us that maintaining positive relationships and assuring students’ well-being took top priority. They encouraged us to error on the side of caution, to be gentle, to have an open mind, and to emphasize kindness. In my opinion, District 87 recognized that trauma takes all kinds of different forms, and no matter how well individuals were dealing with the situation, it was nonetheless somewhere on the trauma scale for all of us.

Which leads me to my next point. District 87 treated its teachers just as compassionately as they urged us to treat our students. District 87 goes above and beyond in fulfilling the various needs of our students. We are not just an educational institution. I feel that we are also very much a social services entity. As a result, I personally think that sometimes we want to do so much good for the kids that teachers become physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. One of the first things that District 87 did after we were all sent home was to alleviate our fears as much as possible. District 87 demanded that we take care of ourselves and our families. They acknowledged that there is no way we can teach like we did in the classroom. They made a point to let us know we would all continue to be paid and that they wanted us as safe as possible.

I have not once felt pressured, judged, or stressed by District 87’s leadership during this pandemic, and for that I am deeply grateful.

To my employers, I say “thank you.”

 

What the NBA G League Means For Businesses and Colleges

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The NBA’s G League is kind of a like a minor league for the NBA. Players in the G League are considered professionals, and they are paid. However, something very interesting has happened over the last several weeks. Top college prospects are electing to enter the G League rather than going to college for a year before entering the NBA draft.

Up until now, it was common for elite high school  basketball players to go to a top-tier basketball school for one year. In doing so, they raised their own stock and gained a national spotlight, but they also made a lot of other people very, very rich while not being allowed to legally earn a cent for themselves.

Jalen Green, who is largely considered to be the best of the best among high school seniors, is reported to earn $500,000 his first year in the G League. After that first year, he’ll be allowed to enter the NBA draft for, presumably, quite a bit more.

You probably have an opinion about the basketball angle of all this, but that’s not really what I want to talk to you about. No, I want to talk about why kids bother going to college at all.

Now, obviously, college is the only path for many professions–teachers, doctors, lawyers, etc.

However, quite a few of us land jobs that have virtually nothing to do with our degrees–it’s just the fact that we have a degree that allow us to obtain a job.

According to The Street, who got their information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American makes an annual income of around $48,672. The average annual college tuition is somewhere around $15,000. Keep in mind, that’s just the tuition. If you need room and board, that’s another $10,000. In other words, an average American can expect to pay somewhere around $100,000 total for an average public university’s undergraduate degree.

I teach at a local high school, and the idea of paying $100,000 for college is a crippling one, especially if a student has no idea what they want to do with their lives. Most of my students just want to live comfortably. Most want to earn a decent living. Taking on $100,000 worth of debt, plus interest, to earn somewhere around $50,000 a year doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to them.

If given the choice, I think most would opt for the Jalen Green route. Go right into the work force with the opportunity to earn lots more while learning valuable skills.

Frankly, I’m surprised corporations don’t offer their own in-house universities. Almost all of the large corporations have some kind of a learning and development department, and almost all of them offer ongoing training for certificates and advancements. Imagine if a corporation hired an eighteen-year-old at an entry-level position, then offered free courses specific to that corporation’s field of interest that the new employee could take at their own pace. After so many hours, the employee would have the equivalent of a college degree, and they could then use that degree to go find other jobs in the same field (if they chose to do so). Consequently, I’m guessing most would stay with the corporation that groomed them.

I’m going to be honest with you–I paid for a lot of classes at college that had no bearing on my career as a teacher nor did they particularly interest me. (Geology comes immediately to mind. My apologies to all of the geologists out there.)

I personally believe in the power of education. I also appreciate that college is intended for the student to receive a well-rounded education on a variety of topics. I know that education is the path to greater success and ultimately provides an easier life for nearly everyone. However, I also admit that college has become far too expensive for the average American, and that college is not particularly appealing to the average American because much of it seems unnecessary.

Education and college should not have to be one and the same when it comes to a high school graduate’s earning potential.

So why aren’t corporations following the NBA’s model? Why aren’t they creating their own “G League?” And if they do, what will be the colleges’ response?

 

Visit Monica Estabrook’s Virtual Exhibition “mother•land”

I hope you will take a moment to visit Monica Estabrook’s virtual exhibition entitled “mother•land” by clicking HERE.

Monica Estabrook is an art teacher at Bloomington High School. I’ve known her as a coworker and friend for several years and appreciate her unyielding passion to create art even as she excels at teaching and raising children.

Many weeks ago, Monica invited my Creative Writing students to participate in an art show (“mother•land”) she had scheduled to appear at Heartland Community College. My students were both very excited by the prospect and also genuinely touched that Monica would share the spotlight with them. If you know Monica, however, this generosity would come as no surprise.

The plan was for my students to recite their poems on the opening night of Monica’s exhibition.

As you have probably guessed, the Covid-19 pandemic changed everything. However, the artistic spirit cannot be stopped, nor should it. Monica and Danell Dvorak, the HCC Art Gallery Coordinator, quickly developed a “plan b.”

When you visit the link, you’ll be able to view each of Monica’s photographs individually, and you’ll also be able to view a “walk-through” video as well. At the bottom of the page, you’ll find both text and audio versions of my students’ poems. They were tasked with recording themselves reading their poetry and submitting those audio files to Monica. Due to various circumstances, not all were able to participate, but those poems available are magnificent.

The pandemic has caused great tragedies, bitter disappointments, and mild inconveniences. I can only imagine how upsetting it must be to have an exhibition overshadowed and drastically altered due to the outbreak. But, if you know Monica, you won’t be shocked to learn that she took it all in stride, overcame the difficulties, and even found a new, creative way for her art and my students’ poems to shine.

Show this indomitable spirit your appreciation and visit her art show at this link: https://www.heartland.edu/artGallery/motherlandExhibit%20.html

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Working Hard, Or Hardly Working? My Answer Is … Yes?

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The other day someone asked me if I’m working more or less than I did before the COVID-19 outbreak. I thought about it for a few moments, and I found that I could only logically answer “less.”

As a teacher, I spent about eight and a half hours at work every day before the pandemic. That doesn’t include any assessing, lesson planning, or prep work I did at home.

Now, with my wife working in the house as well, and two children under twelve years of age trying to learn remotely, I cannot honestly say I’m working eight and a half hours every day at my job.

I can’t.

It’s impossible.

There are far too many interruptions, distractions, and general necessities that come with a family spending all day together, every day.

However, even though I’m working less hours, I honestly feel like I’m working harder than ever before.

There is no routine now–not like there is when I’m at work during an average school day. As a result, I do a little work, we make lunch. I do a little work, I go outside and watch my kids as they play. I do a little work, we help our kids with their lessons. I do a little work, we make dinner. Do you see the pattern? The pattern is that there is no pattern. As hard as we try to establish a routine, it’s impossible due to the nature of our jobs and the circumstances.

Ultimately, there is no work “shut-off.” I’m thinking about work all the time. I’m at least reading–if not answering–emails at all hours of the day. It used to be that when I walked out of my place of work at the end of the day, that was it–the end of the work day. That mindset no longer exists.

I’m thankful that I work for a very humane district. They are stressing the importance of both physical and mental health, not just for the students, but for the employees as well. They have made it very clear to put health before work, which I greatly appreciate. However, teachers are self-motivated people who thrive on routine-oriented, multifaceted tasks. We like spinning a thousand plates at once, but we also like clearly established patterns.

I’m sure you’re probably in a similar circumstance–we all are. This is hard. It’s hard on kids, it’s hard on adults, it’s hard on everyone.

Are You Checking Your Child’s Grades?

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Whether COVID-19 has sent your life into utter chaos or perhaps simply a bit of disarray, chances are you’re forgetting to check on your child’s grades. I urge you to do so regularly.

Most school districts have an online grade book that allows family access. I’m sure your elementary and middle school teachers have communicated with you how to take a look at your student’s assessments, but if not, get in touch and ask. It is absolutely your right to keep up with your child’s grades.

Most high school students know how to check their grades using an online grade book, but that doesn’t mean they actually are. I suspect many high school students are checking out or in denial. They need your support right now, and that support will probably feel like nagging. Most adults have felt like shutting down and hiding under the sheets at some point during all of this. Teenagers feel that way, too, but they may not have the capacity to actually get over that feeling. They need you cheering them on, urging them on, or nagging them–whatever works.

Most districts have adopted a “do no harm” policy. This basically means that schools are focused on improving each and every student’s grade. If your student is currently failing, most teachers will be very accommodating with helping that student improve. It could be in the form of making up missing work, doing work over again, or perhaps even excusing some work and treating it as a “no count.”

Whatever the case may be, it starts with you checking in. I know life might be crazy for you right now. I know it seems like you might not have time to do that. I know it seems like it’s the students’ responsibility to keep up with their grades, or the teachers’ responsibility to notify you of failing grades, but it’s yours as well.

The schools want your child to succeed, the teachers want your child to succeed, your child wants to succeed, and you want your child to succeed. Let’s all work together to make sure that success is achieved.

One Month Later …

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I took this picture of my classroom on March 16th, which was a Monday. I didn’t have any students that day–they had already been told to stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I spent the day in an empty classroom. It became obvious that we would not be back for a while, so as I walked out of the room at the end of the work day, it dawned on me to take a picture and commemorate the moment. I suspected we wouldn’t be back for several weeks.

I literally took this picture before I closed my classroom door, and, as of today, that was one month ago.

One month.

I have to admit, that’s pretty surreal.

While I’m fortunate enough to still be in contact with my students via technology, it’s very, very odd not to share the classroom space with them any longer. I spent roughly eight and a half hours a day in this room every weekday. I spent more waking hours in this room throughout the week than I did in my own home.

When a teacher leaves for the summer, the mind is mentally prepared to step away for some much needed restoration. However, I don’t think any of us were ready for the emotional ramifications of this unexpected quarantine. We didn’t get to say goodbye to our students. Most of us didn’t realize the significance of the moment when we said goodbye to our coworkers. Furthermore, I’m not sure any of us were ready to partially relinquish our professional identities on March 16th.

We’re still working. We’re still in contact with our students. We’re still encouraging learning. None of it feels the same, though. My identity as a teacher relied on having students physically in front of me. I liked making them laugh and seeing them smile. It was important to me to make a positive impact on a daily basis, no matter how small.

I miss my classroom space, but I miss having that space filled by my students even more.

One month … and counting.