OPINION

It’s time to give teachers, and nurses, reasons to show up

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One day when I was the lead faculty of the Lansing Community College Writing Program, I was hanging around in the department lobby area where, at the administrative assistant’s desk, a group of students demanded to see the department’s  chairperson. They should have been in class, but there was no class because their professor was absent, again.

I had heard something about that earlier in the semester. 

First, the professor was regularly absent for one of the two weekly classes. Students were giddy about that early in the semester because who doesn’t like the gift of time? In that way K-12 students in the Waverly School District may have enjoyed being off last week when their school closed due to no substitute teachers to replace those out sick. 

But with the end of the semester swiftly approaching, those college students wanted instruction. Panic at maybe not passing the class and having to repeat it during the next semester caused those students to understand their teacher’s absence was a big problem. Their problem. And now the problem of educator shortages is being experienced all over the United States, and especially in Michigan. 

Unlike in Waverly, the lack of substitute teachers in Lansing Public Schools is no day off. I hear that the administration combines classes, making one teacher responsible for twice as many students. Where there are enough teachers, CNN reports, some American districts are extending the normal two-day Thanksgiving holiday to a week-long vacation. Mental health days, they call it.  But these students are lucky. At least they are continuing the discipline of being in school.  The Detroit Free Press reports that some districts across the state don’t have enough bus drivers to bring students to school.  

Teacher shortages are so bad that the State of Michigan launched the Welcome Back Proud Michigan Educator program to encourage “tens of thousands” of former educators with expired teaching certificates to come back to the classroom. Eleven hundred responded. Under the Welcome Back program, the state Department of Education approached 35,000 educators with valid certificates to return. More than 2,000 completed a survey, and about 1,000 gave the state their email addresses so school districts could contact them. Most veteran teachers who had been there and done that took a pass. 

This is a situation straight out of  Douglas Turner Ward’s award-winning play,  “Day of Absence.” Ward’s play is set in the 1960s in a Southern town where African Americans ghosted the white people., i.e. disappeared, for a day. They were protesting being limited to jobs of cooking, cleaning, garbage pick-up, driving, caring for babies and old people.  That’s clear because as the play unfolds, the white people don’t know how, nor want, to do any of that. During the play, the white people decide the Black people left because they are lazy. This is acted out by Black actors in white face. 

Our shortage of essential workers is attributed to many factors. It’s not because people aren’t trained to do the work. We were working before the pandemic, but COVID makes it difficult for educators to continue to tolerate the historical failure to fix public education. I’m talking in particular about preventing mass shootings by going after guns, favoring charter and religious schools at the expense of public schools, and bringing poor kids up to speed by increasing taxpayer support. That’s the shortage crises stalwart education professionals just aren’t feeling anymore. 

Other essential workers have also learned that not only is their work humble, but it is so so unappreciated and undercompensated. Many workers essential to our future are college-educated professionals who want to serve our society. What they get in return is appreciation that is “phoned-in.” That’s means it’s not sincere.  Consider the plight of nurses. 

Just last year, during the first wave of the disease, the refrain was “essential workers, we love you.” But this week, The New York Times’ COVID infection tracking map shows Michigan growing more red. That means climbing COVID infections. In Grand Rapids, Spectrum Health is rationing medical care and turning hospital hallways into hospital rooms to care for sick people who are mostly unvaccinated. 

In Lansing, Sparrow Hospital  nurses who have withstood the rage of COVID are negotiating for a new contract. The nurses picketed  this month on the sidewalk in the cold. Their demands? Limiting the number of patients assigned to an individual nurse’s care to the number set in their last contract. They also want a wage raise.  

Is that too much to ask for? Apparently it is, because the health professionals contract was allowed to expired in October. It sounds like business as usual, and that’s outrageous.

Sparrow nurses have voted to allow their union to call a strike. If it happens, that would not be good for any of us, but it would make the point of the real meaning of “essential.” Just to be clear, essential workers, like nurses and teachers, do the work necessary for society to function.

Those jobs are hard enough to do without being mocked and harassed. Parents second-guess educators when they should be asking questions. And listening. And helping in the schools, assisting teachers with students who need extra help or someone to listen to them read. And advocating for school millages. Instead, too many people try to hold the clock back with, for instance, protests about Critical Race Theory, which is not a K-12 subject matter. 

State Supt. Michael F. Rice drew the state Board of Education’s attention to the shortage crises earlier this month. His suggestion to fix the problem with various financial incentives, including paid college tuition for future teachers, is worth pursuing, but stopped far short of a suggestion on my Twitter (@dedria_hb) feed.  

A mother whose kids were abruptly dismissed to home at the start of the pandemic tweeted, “It’s been 3 weeks, two days and 45 minutes since I started home schooling, and I think teachers should make one billion dollars a year. “

(Dedria Humphries Barker is the the author of a book about education for girls, “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” Her opinion column appears on the last Wednesday of each month.)

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