The morning of September 11, 2001, I stalled in my parking spot at the California high school where I had just begun my tenth year as a teacher. I stared into the dashboard and through the dusty windshield as radio voices pierced the horrors together. Aside from my reluctance to start classes that day, I remember a grim premonition that those towers collapsing in a replay of smoke and flame, human ash and concrete rubble, would become a permission slip for other atrocities—at home and abroad—that would be easier to ignore.
It took no time for education policy to adopt a martial air. As the US “war on terror” began in Iraq and Afghanistan, the arms race of testing ramped up under the Bush Administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policy, harvesting the poison seeds sown by A Nation at Risk twenty years earlier. Politicians, test corporations, and education pundits bombed the discourse with refrains about “standards” and “accountability,” eager to make profits. By the mid-aughts, newspapers were crowded with stockmarket-like grids that listed K-12 schools’ degree of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP)—usually to perpetuate a narrative of public failure, especially in certain zip codes. The high-stakes success crusade sought to sabotage confidence in public schools as a shared good. At its core, the policy offered a rationale to limit funding where it was needed most and advance the argument for more privatization. Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT) picked up where NCLB left off, adding an element of financial competition into the strategy mix.
The relentless bombardment of schools hit educators personally. Early iterations of value-added methodology (VAM), which determines teacher quality based on student test scores or other identified outcomes, surged in popularity for a time. Notoriously, the LA Times used this method to publish its 2010 list of roughly 11,500 public elementary teachers by name and school, including a commentary and detailed graph mapping individual “effectiveness.” The name of one of teacher, Rigoberto Ruelas, burned indelibly into my brain when he jumped off a bridge in the Angeles National Forest not long after he was labeled “less-than-effective.”
Ruelas’s death spoke to a deep and unavoidable violence underneath the rhetoric for reform: teachers were supposed to be soldier-heroes for systems that ignored their professional experience, disdained their voices, and exploited their students. Working conditions, caseloads, wages, patterns of harrassment, and even mental health were virtually taboo subjects, and it was a lonely time to try breaking through. Questions or objections refusing to conform with the racist-sexist savior/martyr template were easily cast as “self-centered” concerns or “excuses” for underachievement. Who had time for teacher talk, anyway, when NPR-listening audiences seemed hypnotized by “insights” from billionaires such as Bill Gates and Eli Broad, or hot takes from filmmakers like Davis Guggenheim. Even outside commercial media, white feminist editors at a prominent literary journal rejected one of my essays at the time because it was “too dark”/need some “hope” (smiley face).
Slowly, then steadily, good trouble started to coalesce, which is the key to any fighting chance. (Active hope and real joy are not just vibes, after all.) Twitter and other forms of social media enabled teachers to witness each others’ realities, to challenge corporate soundbytes, to collaborate on research and share their learning. It also became easier to activate and organize. In the years leading up to the pandemic, led largely by Black and Brown women leaders, a wave of strikes by teacher unions across the U.S.—notably in Chicago, Los Angeles, and the entire state of Arizona, to name a few—took unequivocal stands against the interests of privatization. In addition to wages and better funding, unions advocated for smaller class sizes, improved staffing of nurses and librarians, expanded counseling, and racially equitable practices in hiring. The stakes became even more existential when the the Janus ruling slugged at collective bargaining. And then the pandemic crashed down on everybody.
COVID-19 has only shown the determination of politicians to enforce a scarcity model when people are suffering the most. The pandemic inflamed painful realities for K-12 teachers whose work and voices have been denigrated for more than half a century in an essential profession whose labor remains heavily gendered and racialized, classed as “lower than” and inadequate.
It was no shock when a Rand study at the end of the 2021 academic year reported low morale: 1 in 4 teachers said they planned to leave their job due to stressors of the pandemic, a much higher rate of this feeling than in pre-COVID years. A third of those who planned to leave emphasized the toll of teaching from home while also serving as the primary caregiver for young children—a vivid reminder that the “parent vs. teacher” binary is a false and cynical construction.
Last month, thirty years exactly since I first set foot in a high school classroom, I moved into the former office of a dedicated colleague and Puente leader, Professor Joe Anguiano. He passed away due to COVID just weeks before the vaccine would become available. My colleagues and I do our best to honor his memory, to be hopeful in the hallways and in classrooms and on Zoom, encouraging and connecting with our students the best we can. But Joe’s absence is real, as are the other absences left in the wake of the pandemic that has not finished yet: more than 651 thousand Americans dead and 4,749 deaths alone in the Southern California county where we live and teach—more deaths than on 9-11. Edweek has started to maintain a remembrance for active and retired K-12 educators who have died nationwide, with 1,045 names recorded so far.
“Learning loss,” the pundits say with alarm. But they are not talking about the bodies or the trauma. The real casualities of wars at home are never acknowledged by those who wage them, and teachers are not forgetting what solidarity can do. In February 2021, thousands of Philadelphia educators taught in the snow for one day to contest rushed early returns of students and staff to packed, unventilated classrooms, no agreed-upon COVID protocols, and no vaccination priority for education professionals.
The Philly teachers’ effort succeeded quickly, and not only for themselves. Within a week, all U.S. educators, including child care workers, were prioritized for vaccination. Battle by battle, together, this is how we win.
by Jo Scott-Coe
Jo Scott-Coe is the author of “Teacher at Point Blank” (Aunt Lute) and most recently, “MASS: A Sniper, a Father, and a Priest” (Pelekinesis). MASS received the 2020 silver medal for biography from eLit Awards. She is currently finishing a new book for the University of Texas Press, a life-in-letters of Kathy Leissner Whitman, killed by her husband in private the night before he committed the 1966 UT Austin massacre. Find Scott-Coe on Twitter @joscottcoe on FB @teacheratpointblank and on the web, joscottcoe.com.