Making Change That Matters

The COVID pandemic has impacted the public education landscape of America. Policy across the country has shifted like the sands of the Sahara, causing unrest and uncertainty. In some cases, there have been vocal and sometimes violent confrontations at school board meetings with parents squaring off against elected officials over mandates, curriculum, and content. Many of these protests are rooted in new organizations created to provoke unrest, creating an aura of uncertainty in communities.  These changes have impacted the professional and private lives of frontline administrators, counselors, and teachers. These professionals have the responsibility of implementing policy they may or may not believe will stem the tide of the pandemic. Although there is still a high level of uncertainty, what is certain is that after two years of shutdowns, social distancing, and subversion, all concerned are exhausted.

I wanted to take the temperature of a district in my state. To accomplish this, I selected three teachers at various stages in their careers, a school counselor, a frontline administrator, and a college professor teaching future classroom teachers.

  • Anthony is a second-year teacher at the high school level and served as a coach for several years.
  • Kristen spent a few years in the classroom before attaining a master’s in counseling and moving to her current position.
  • Juan spent a lengthy career in the classroom and as a coach before working his way to the principal of a middle school.
  • Ann spent 25 years in the middle school and high school classroom. In addition to her classroom responsibilities, she also directly serves the greater local community and coaches.
  • Jake worked in the private sector before pursuing a career in education. He has worked as a short-term and long-term substitute and has spent years at the high school level classroom.
  • Gary spent years in the public school classroom at the high school level while also working with the local teachers’ union. He shifted his focus to the college level, attaining a full professorship.

They all work in the same district. The district has seen its share of angry parents and uncertain futures as they have struggled to accommodate students and adapt to the changing education landscape. They are working within professional confines they never thought they would encounter, while enforcing rules they never thought they would employ. They have played the hands they were dealt. Each has developed their own means of coping with a shifting education environment while striving to be the best possible professional they can. It is an environment where they once had a fair amount of autonomy, but now this has been diminished. Some are now facing an uncertain future in a profession that was their passion.

One element they share is a sense of frustration, although how they share it differs greatly. For Anthony, it has been almost impossible to set the rhythm needed to create a productive learning environment. Ann is uncertain she will be able to complete the 30 years in the classroom she needs to have full retirement benefits. For her, the joy of being in the classroom with young learners has been blunted by the politics of education and the hoax of CRT. She sees students with poor attitudes and diminished accountability. Juan saw himself as an instructional leader but is facing high turnover. He spends more time putting out fires than assisting teachers with professional growth. Kristen sees professionals who feel under-appreciated and are worn out by the constant change and multiple pedagogies they are forced to use. In her words, “The current state of education has failed everybody.”

Despite the frustration and uncertainty, there have been bright spots over the last two years of COVID influence in their schools.

Jake has seen his students work in a manner future business communities utilize now. Digital firms are finding that investment in workspace outside of the home is an expense they can now avoid. Students have used the time to get jobs and experience the real world. This is something they can take with them after high school. Anthony is working to build relationships with students, despite the gaps of distance learning and stress of the classroom. It is why he got into the profession in the first place and is rolling with the changes.

Gary has seen a slight increase in enrollment in the education program at the college. Their foundation students claim the current COVID mitigation measures have not deterred them from going into teaching. Many of their students relate stories of wanting to fix the “ills of education” they experienced in their own educational journey. What is needed to “fix” education differs greatly between individuals.

Most consider the lack of financial support to be problematic. “Policymakers must make a financial commitment to teachers as far as salary goes,” states Juan. They are not alone in this observation. “Funding, Funding, Funding,” cries Gary. “Teacher pay and money for capital improvement projects have got to increase along with opportunities for movement in the school other than administrators.” Ann says, “We need boots on the ground. I have 26 students per class times 8. We need to decrease class size and get more adults on board. Students learn from adults and the numbers are not there.” There is agreement the profession needs to grow, but the financial will to do it is lost on the state legislature. As Juan puts it, “You get what you pay for, and if you want the best people to turn to the profession, you have to pay them accordingly.”

Finance is not the only issue facing schools and much of the unhappiness currently plaguing the profession and schools. Instability caused by shifting political policy has affected the emotional health of students and teachers. Kristen observes, “Inconsistency is killing public schools and destroying our young people. Everyone’s cup is half empty. Our profession is one where we must have faith in humanity and that faith has been shaken.” There is some consensus regarding the role of the public in schools; they must leave much of the practice to the professionals who do it. Ann observes, “Just because people were once students, does not mean they understand what is required to create a professional and successful learning environment. The public needs to step back and listen to what the needs of those professionals are.” Anthony states, “Education is waning as a priority in society.” The public has the tendency to look at standardized test scores as a measure of student learning and teacher expertise, but we know they are not. All they possibly measure is the ability of a student to take a test, nothing more.

The problems facing public schools are not just academic; they are also social. Several of the people interviewed noted social and academic growth of students has been stunted by the lack of social contact. Jake observed, “The biggest negative we face is the level of immaturity of our students.” When they approach problem-solving and responsibility, some of the high school students act like they are still in middle school. According to Juan, “Because students have been at home, their social and emotional growth has regressed.” As the adults watch students at lunch, they see students playing “red light, green light” and the students seem to be captivated by the latest Tic-Toc challenge. Kristen sees distance learning as a detriment to social development. She says,  “Students are not allowed to play with other students, and play is critical to a healthy learning experience. Students have no clue what school is or how to behave in a social environment.”

Public education has always been scrutinized but never at the level it now faces.

The level of misguided and uninformed anger aimed at frontline professionals can only have a disastrous effect upon the institution and the public it serves. For those angry voices calling for change while making false claims maligning the system, the words of Socrates should be heeded, “From the deepest desires often comes the deadliest hate.”

The time has come to calm the academic waters of the country and allow those serving the public to do their jobs with the passion and professionalism most practice. The change will come to the profession as well as to the institution, but this change should be measured and guided by those who best understand the profession and not by those who mean to use it for profit and power. It is not about making change; it is about making change that matters. That commitment will take everyone pulling the oars of the ship of state as one in a meaningful direction. It is time to get on board.

John Tierney has been a classroom teacher of civics and history for over three decades. He began his teaching career in the Bay Area of California working with “at risk” students in a variety of schools throughout the East Bay.  Although he loved the work, he sought a more rural setting and moved to Elko, Nevada after six years. Since moving to Elko, he has taught at the middle school, earned a masters degree, gone to work for PBS TeacherLine as a facilitator, and was named Nevada’s 2016 State Teacher of the Year as well as the NEA Teacher of Excellence and Global Fellow for China in 2017. Currently he is working with several state education committees, he is the president of Nevada State Teachers of the Year ,and he is also chair of  the Institutional Advisory Council at Great Basin College. When not working in education, he is a husband, musician, fly fisher, dad, and grandpa to twin girls.


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