The Lee County Association of Educators is requesting the Lee County Board of Education reconsider its Plan B school re-opening decision.
By Sandi Shover
President, Lee County Association of Educators
I haven’t slept at all tonight.
It is just before dawn on July 17, and my mind is swirling with unanswered questions and worries.
My phone, my social media, my email — it has all been blowing up with comments about last night’s Lee County Schools board meeting.
As president of Lee County Association of Educators, I am not surprised. People have a lot of feelings about what happened, but I want to share mine. I want the reader to understand who I am as an experienced educator, since I am often called upon to represent teachers as a group.
It’s a responsibility and privilege I do not take lightly.
When I entered college in the fall of 1989, I did so with a plan to become a teacher. I knew what my calling was by the time I was a freshman in high school. I was one of those kids that not only loved to learn, but looked up to my teachers. They were the people in my life who were steady even when things were falling apart at home. To this day, I doubt many of them even realize what their impact was on me, a white, middle-class honors student who never lacked school supplies or a lunch.
Most of them had no idea that I was an only child who lived in a house where my father was verbally and emotionally abusive to my mother and to me. I did not even realize that this man who threatened our lives on more than one occasion was an abuser until I had to take a seminar on mandated reporting law in college. He didn’t beat us up, but you don’t have to lay a finger on someone to terrorize them and scar them for life.
You also don’t even have to know a child’s full situation to help them believe in themselves and overcome growing up with a man like my father. That is what my teachers did for me. School was a place where I was made to feel valued and important because of the relationships those adults established with me. It was the steadying influence that not only kept me from running away from home, but also gave me the tools to begin college a year early through a program at Hofstra University that allowed me to still graduate with my high school class in Virginia even though my family had to move to Pennsylvania.
Those teachers were why I not only had scholarship money for Hofstra, but the confidence to go to a new place and succeed on my own. By the time I was 20, I had a bachelor’s degree, a teaching license and motivation to emulate the teachers who had done so much for me. I knew it would be a tough job, and I knew I wasn’t going to get rich doing it, but I expected to be able to live off my salary and have decent benefits.
Since 1993, I have only worked one job outside of education (due to a teacher surplus in Pennsylvania), and starting with the 1994-95 school year, I have taught in Virginia, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. I have taught high school and middle school, English, drama and even math and health. Most of my career, though, has been here in central North Carolina teaching middle school English language arts — five years at Horton Middle School in Pittsboro, and the last 18 years at West Lee Middle School here in Sanford. During that time, I also married, started a family, and now I am a mother of four teenagers.
Middle school is my jam. I really like this age, despite all the interesting quirks of adolescence. What I really love, though, is getting to know these students and their families. I have taught my way through quite a few families during my time at West, including my own children.
One thing I realize now is that my teachers may not have known the specifics of my home life, but I am willing to bet they recognized the need for support, encouragement, and positive attention that I often see in my own students — even when they may not say it directly. Once they come through my classroom, they are MY kids, and it warms my heart when I see former students. I may not recognize them at first because people change a lot from seventh grade as they grow up, but when they recognize me, it rushes back. They are all still seventh graders in my mind’s eye, so when I see them having made it to adulthood and setting out in the world, it feels good to know I contributed in some small way.
Teaching is inherently rewarding at the same time it demands sacrifices. This we know going in to the profession. There are sacrifices to one’s time, such as when I spend 10 hours a day at work and still have more to do when I get home. There are sacrifices to one’s emotions as we worry about our students in many ways. There are sacrifices financially when we spend our own money on classroom needs and when we don’t have a lot of disposable income. Since I started teaching, though, the potential sacrifices have increased.
Columbine happened. School shootings became another thing to worry about, more and more often. It doesn’t cross my mind much unless we are having a lockdown drill, but do I throw myself in front of a bullet to protect your child because they are in my care and I cannot bear the thought of not protecting them? Do I protect myself because I have a family that needs me as well as have a responsibility to not leave my kids without a mother?
No Child Left Behind happened. We started testing kids more and more with standardized tests that have produced data to be used against schools and teachers and students, but have NEVER provided me with enough specific data on a specific child to turn that child’s reading ability up like magic. I have learned to do the best I can to prepare students for these tests without sacrificing creativity and passion and inquiry that make kids want to learn. It kills me to see a child get a score from an EOG and decry their own worth based on a couple of hours of testing.
The defunding of education over the last decade happened. The North Carolina General Assembly has been systematically stripping away funding for all aspects of education and even targeting groups such as the North Carolina Association of Educators because NCAE has called out their games. I sacrificed thousands of dollars by remaining in education while my wages stagnated for years without so much as a pay bump for experience.
Thankfully, I earned my master’s degree (and therefore master’s pay) before the General Assembly stripped that way, but without even factoring in any raises that might have otherwise been granted to teachers, I have lost out on over $30,000 worth of income because step increases were denied, health insurance costs have skyrocketed, and even the longevity pay that state employees (which teachers are) get has been taken away. I still do extra work on the side to help my family financially. That is just reality.
Now Covid-19 has happened. In March, we went virtual with minimal notice and scrambled to adapt to all of the uncertainties and novel logistics of getting kids access to online education. We did it — even with frequent changes to guidelines and state guidance about grading that made it challenging to motivate students and even parents to want to continue.
I didn’t think when school ended in early June, we’d be looking at the current dire statistics surrounding the coronavirus in North Carolina. I had faith that people would try to follow the rules of social distancing and staying at home, but clearly, not everyone was ready to make sacrifices for the good of their fellow citizens. I should have realized that just like the students who will occasionally waste their peers’ time with their own selfish behavior, some of them grow up to be adults that have the same difficulty.
We are in a place with the virus we shouldn’t have gotten to, but now we have to deal with it. I am glad that there are options for students to attend virtually because it will certainly be different than what we scrambled to do last Spring. While I am concerned about bringing any students and staff into the building, I understand the dilemma that many parents face. People need to go to work and obviously, our society has deemed childcare as a function of the public schools.
It is what it is. Parents have choices and many made theirs heard through the public comments at the last virtual school board meeting where it was decided to send K-7 students back into the buildings daily and 8-12 students in one day a week.
What? Are you a bit confused as well? (And this is before we even get into how students are distributed among buildings … ) Teachers are confused, too. Not just because we have yet to see a more specific, flesh-out plan for exactly how this will look in terms of numbers of students in rooms and many other factors, but also because we have a lot of unanswered questions.
From politicians weighing in on school reopening to other non-educators doing so, we have heard a lot about the needs of children. What we haven’t heard much about is the needs of school staff. In the culture of teachers sacrificing for students, we are often an afterthought. Sure, teachers nationwide earned praise for how fast our entire profession adapted to a new set of circumstances and worked hard to meet as many student needs as we could — from curriculum to school lunches and more.
Now, as the school year rapidly approaches, that appreciation has dwindled and we are being left out of the conversation unless we insert ourselves. That is hard for teachers to do. We are student-centered by nature and therefore, often willing to go above and beyond. Some people recognize and appreciate this. Others take advantage and even go so far as to shame teachers who decry low pay, stressful working conditions, lack of funding, etc. Some politicians have taken the teacher hate to new levels in the last decade. This is why teachers across the state and across the country are speaking up, and it is also why many teachers want to speak up but have a hard time doing so.
You need to understand that education can be a lonely profession. Sure, there are hundreds of kids and dozens of staff in a building, but most of the time, it is one educator making as many decisions as a brain surgeon per minute. It is intense and has a steep learning curve. This is a part of why many teachers don’t last past their first five years. This is also why many teachers get into a behavior pattern where we just try to make it through, one day at a time, without “making trouble.” We know what is expected of good students and we tend to shift into that role when others are telling us how things will be done. It’s hard to speak up, so plenty of teachers stay quiet (except when they vent to colleagues in hushed tones) and are perfectly happy to let someone else stir up the questions.
I used to be a quiet teacher, but as I gained experience and I saw needs, I learned how to use my teacher voice for my students and my coworkers as well as myself. Raising genuine concerns and questions is necessary at times because we all have to work together to see the big picture. None of us have all the answers, but together we have a lot more. As president of Lee County Association of Educators (our local affiliate of NCAE as well as the National Education Association), it is my duty to be a leader and speak up.
After the governor announced Plan B for the state with districts having the option to use Plan C either as a whole or to offer virtual academies, I shared information and organized a meeting with fellow Lee County educators. We began a document of questions and concerns we felt needed to be raised as our school board considered their decision. We also knew there were people who couldn’t attend the virtual meeting, but would have valuable input, so we shared our list and set up a comment form. We also accepted input texted to me, messaged to our Facebook page, and emailed to us. Not only did we get additional questions for our list, but we consistently got comments that our list was thorough and detailed and brought up things people might not have thought about. We had feedback from administrators and support staff as well as classroom teachers.
I shared our document as widely as possible through social media and emailed a copy to all of the school board members. I spoke with a reporter from the Sanford Herald and shared the questions to her as well. I also sent a brief public comment for the school board meeting to remind members of the document they had received from me twice and that it was a crowd-sourced list, not just representing one person. Still, there was one board member to comment and wonder if teachers had been heard from.
Here’s the thing: we have a lot of genuine concerns that are about to become very real and very pressing and they need to be addressed. What is it going to take for teachers to be heard?
I personally want to teach through the virtual academy program as I have risk factors that make going into the classroom while our Covid numbers are still climbing a truly scary proposition. I have submitted my medical documentation and signed my own eighth- and 10th-grade children up to be virtual for at least the first semester. However, there are quite a few teachers who may not be able to apply for accommodations because the medical condition that worries them isn’t theirs. It’s a spouse or a child with an underlying health issue or an elderly family member they need to have regular contact with. They may be a single parent whose world would collapse if they were incapacitated by Covid for a long time. There are also some teachers eager to be back in their rooms and comfortable with the level of risk.
Giving educators choice, information and as much of a level of control as is practical is an important factor in making all of this work. We know that choice is an important factor for parents as well and we respect that there are many stakeholders involved.
I totally get why some parents and some students are desperate to be in the school building, but there is no way it will look like the typical school experience. That needs to be strongly communicated. The questions educators have posed are critical.
In order for this to work, staff concerns must be taken seriously. We need answers. We need to know that if the answer isn’t yet known, it’s been acknowledged and addressed transparently so everyone knows what to expect and parents still trying to decide which option fits their family’s needs know what teachers are trying to consider. No teacher wants to see anything happen to a student whether it is that student bringing a deadly virus home to their family or not having the social supports school traditionally provides.
Teachers are not done with our part in the conversation. Some of us want to be in the building and feel comfortable doing so with precautions. Some of us have very valid reasons to want to work the virtual academy. The choice presented to students and parents is good, but that choice and a voice needs to be extended to educators. We need policy to guide us just as we need lesson plans and learning targets in the classroom.
If we are going to make this work, we must be included and respected as part of the conversation. Teachers may make sacrifices, but we are NOT sacrificial. Our voices must be heard — not just when we echo what someone else wants to hear but when we have to bring up the things that wouldn’t occur to people who are not the professional in the classroom. Teachers are creative when faced with problems. We are used to making things work under challenging circumstances, but the stakes have never been higher.
Get the educators involved in this decision-making and planning process. The bus drivers, the custodians, the cafeteria staff — everyone — has important perspectives, not just the classroom teachers. Parents also need to be a part of the process. Agreement on all aspects may not be possible, but transparency, as much is allowed due to the unknowns of the virus, is possible. While it isn’t possible to anticipate everything that could happen, having some general plans and guidance available is important. We all need that.
I have shared all of this to frame the priorities that LeeNCAE and fellow education supporters have presented. Being the public voice as president, I want to be clear where I am coming from and why I am willing to be a teacher who tells it like it is and asks the tough questions. I care about my colleagues, my students, and my family and community too much to remain complacent. It’s hard to put these thoughts out there when some people are quick to judge teachers for being concerned and hesitant.
My fervent hope is that we can all find the grace and compassion to work together and put together a plan for this school year that gets us through it with consideration for others.