By Chris Thomas
During a visit last month to a private school in Michigan, amid a global pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of American life, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called remote learning “a tragedy.”
As a veteran educator who has spent years exploring the vast possibilities of blended learning and educational technology, I wholeheartedly disagree. But even if her assessment were true, shouldn’t it be her responsibility to help address the problem?
Fortunately, my state and national unions — the Michigan Education Association and National Education Association – have stepped forward to fill the void.
Through the platforms and networks of MEA and NEA, I have been proud to help lead a strategic effort to bring desperately needed training on tools and strategies for remote teaching to nearly 20,000 educators across all 50 states over the summer and into the fall.
This is unionism at its best: Member-teachers, given the chance to lead as the education experts they are, delivering free classroom-tested professional development to union colleagues who are hungering for it.
Most of those who stepped into training roles are my own colleagues from Ann Arbor Public Schools. Participants in the series of webinars we developed learn strategies they can use right away and receive free credits toward renewing teaching credentials.
DeVos could take concrete action to provide resources that will increase the capacity of educators nationwide to deliver high-quality remote learning opportunities for students. Instead she has chosen to advance her divisive agenda favoring vouchers and privatization at the expense of the public education system she is supposed to lead.
I believe I can speak for every educator in making a few additional key points for the benefit of DeVos, which I also hope leaders of the Michigan House and Senate will hear.
Educators are stressed and exhausted, carrying a heavy load and moving at an unsustainable pace, working nights and weekends to keep up with increased demands of planning and grading, while above all trying to meet the socio-emotional needs of students struggling to cope.
We continue to receive a conflicting dual message about taking care of ourselves and our families but also maintaining the academic standards and rigor as if nothing has changed.
Nothing about life or school is ideal right now.
Depending on local circumstances, we have districts conducting face-to-face learning with masks and social distancing, online learning with often less-than-perfect connectivity, or a hybrid of the two.
We know many schools statewide will move back and forth between those models as coronavirus infection rates dictate. None of this is going away simply because we are tired of it. Yet DeVos has refused to waive requirements for high-stakes standardized testing this year, and some state legislators want those test scores to count in teacher evaluations. Talk about frustrating and demoralizing.
Public education was operating on the knife’s edge BEFORE the pandemic hit us.
After years of well-documented underfunding, we already faced a teaching shortage and crumbling school infrastructure.
School employees have suffered pay and benefit losses even as new, poorly thought-out mandates came down from above. Now we’re grappling with additional time-consuming box-checking and hoop-jumping.
More than anything, educators need collective voices and action.
MMy union collaborates in local decision-making, bringing educators’ professional judgement to the table. It centers the care for students living in the heart of every educator.
So, Betsy DeVos, remote learning is not the “tragedy” that is playing out. The real tragedy is the lack of national commitment to supporting public education and educators. The remedy may just be in the collective action of public educators.
Chris Thomas is a 20-year educator and expert in blended learning and educational technology.
Editor’s Note: MEA is committed to helping members raise their voices for safety in returning to school. This piece is one of several written by MEA members sharing their thoughts and concerns, as published in the Bridge Michigan. Stay tuned to MEA.org and local media outlets for more.
Other Member Voices For Safety
Kathleen Dillon-Dowd on MEA.org: Schools Must Require Masks for All Grades
Dawn Levey in Detroit Free Press: Give me the resources to get back into the classroom
Greg Talberg in Detroit News: Whitmer listened to educators for school reopening plans
Bill Daniels in Bridge Michigan: Michigan educators like me must be heard in school reopening talks
Randi Trumble in Lansing State Journal: As others try and fail, are Lansing schools ready for in-person learning?
Andy Jarema in Macomb Daily: Put frontline educators on front lines of decision making