Wednesday, February 17, 2021

What Is The Secret Teacher Plot?

It's its own genre now. Generally runs something like this:

I think teachers are mighty swell and I respect the hard work they do, but as you can see from these studies that I have carefully cherry-picked selected, the science says that school buildings should be fully open right now, and teachers and their unions have no damn excuse not to get the hell back in their and do their frickin' job, for which I respect them very much (though I may have to stop respecting them soon if they don't get the hell back in there). 

You can find the latest widely shared example over at Vox:

And if educators and their unions don’t embrace the established science, they risk continuing to widen gaps in educational attainment — and losing the support of their many long-time allies, like me.


There are many, many twists and turns to the debate about red-opening buildings (schools, I want to be clear, have not ceased operation). CDC advice has varied over time, and continues to include guidance like the hilarious advice in the new guidelines that districts should recruit and train a whole bunch of substitutes to cover the many staff absences they're about to have, and that sounds reasonable, unless you've been around the education system in the last ten years in which case you know that the CDC might as well suggest that the new army of subs be trained to ride unicorns that poop lesson plans because subs were hard to come by in the best of times, and right now is surely not the best of times. 

Some of the folks pushing hard for open buildings (or, at any rate, slamming teachers and unions for not wanting to open buildings) are not sincere in their position This Students First coalition in Los Angeles is actually a coalition of private religious schools, and they're holding a rally demand that school buildings be re-opened; that rally will be held in cars, with explicit instructions that everyone is to stay masked and in their cars because "nothing is more important than your and other participants' safety." But get those buildings open for face to face. And closed buildings have become a conservative talking point for pushing every version of school choice, plus the kitchen sink. And people who never before cared about educational inequity or student mental health--at least not enough to put their money where their mouth is--suddenly care about these things very much.  In many cases of open building support, I strongly suspect that there are agendas in play that have nothing to do with students or education.

That said, I'm also certain that some people are quite sincere in their concern. Managing children and education and work from home is a huge challenge, and not everyone has the kind of support system needed to pull it off. And it's hard--really hard--to manage the education of young humans (in the future, a whole generation of teachers will be biting their tongues when on the receiving end of criticism about how they do their jobs, clamping their teeth shut to avoid saying, "This job? My job? You mean the one that you once had to do for a year and it pretty much broke you? That job?") Despite the outliers on both sides of the screen who are actually enjoying this, most everyone else agrees that distance learning under these conditions is sub-optimal, and it's not unfair to get frustrated with the whole situation and plead, beg, argue, agitate and otherwise push for all the powers of the universe to open school buildings again. 

But in all the arguments that teachers and their unions are blocking the re-opening of school buildings, there is on critical missing element.


Why, exactly, are teachers refusing to go back? 

Bad explanations of other peoples' behavior tend to fall into two categories-- evil, and stupid.

The Evil Explanation here is that teachers somehow went into teaching precisely because they don't want to teach and they hate kids. The unions, another twitter theory goes, are using the pandemic as a chance to shake down Uncle Joe for more money. 

The Stupid Explanation is that teachers just don't understand The Science, and so they--well, the AStupid Explanation is kind of incomplete. Teachers don't understand that they won't actually die, and so that Don't Want To Die thing gets in the way? Possibly they're just wimps who need to "suck it up."

So many of these narratives have a subtext that Teachers Are Up To Something. Up to what, exactly?

I can offer some other possible explanations. Like a lack of actual mitigation steps, resulting in this conversation:

Usual: Schoo buildings can be re-opened if we do X, Y and Z. So what are teachers waiting for.

Teachers: We are waiting for X, Y and Z to actually happen.

Usuals: Why do you reject the science?!

This doesn't seem like a hard thing to understand. In fact, a recent Huffington Post poll suggests that parents actually understand it pretty well and despite attempts to gin up some outrage against teachers and their unions, the public remains largely supportive. A new Politico poll finds the same result.

Nobody wants to get back into the building more than teachers do, but they also want to do it safely, and what that means, exactly, is not entirely clear these days. It really is that simple. No secret plan is required for an explanation.


  1. Hello Peter, I've written to you on this blog several times over the years from the point of view of a 22 year career in both NC and SC--by far the two least unionized states in the country.

    If I had one chance to ask an important politician about these "evil unions" keeping schools closed, it would be this:

    "What union, exactly, is keeping schools from going back full time where I work? Because in the two states where I've worked, unions are an evil word not to be uttered and the NEA [and NCEA and SCEA] are about as powerful as a paper tiger. The decision to keep students as virtual learners or on some sort of A/B schedule comes from duly-elected local school board members, many of whom faced voters in this past November."

    For the record, I WISH that unions--as we typically think of them--would exist in South Carolina. But I cannot fully express the frustration that us teachers "down here" that follow these national conversations of school reopening feel like persona non grata in regards "the union" having any input whatsoever in our professional lives and careers. (Not to mention that teachers in my neck of the woods have no choice but to chuckle about any notion of going on strike [the walkout in NC notwithstanding], have collective bargaining, union reps for disputes with name it.)

  2. Yes, right to work states suck--and here in NC, I can say with absolute certainty that the walkout really achieved nothing except to assure administrators, superintendents and school boards that they really do hold the power of life and death over teachers, since many did not hesitate to threaten job loss if teachers walked out. We have zero bargaining power since so many folks these days consider any adult warm body in the classroom to be as effective as a multi-degreed, experienced teacher--not to mention much, much cheaper.

  3. The CDC should not say ventilation systems and vaccines for teachers aren't necessary or important, I don't care what "studies" they allude to.