Christine Bernstein: Educational Rant – That Nagging Feeling

Los Alamos School Board Member

Note: The thoughts expressed in this commentary are mine only and not representative of anyone in the community, school district, or school board.

You know that feeling you get when something just doesn’t feel right, but you can’t figure out what it is? I have had that feeling lately, actually, since Tuesday night after the School Board meeting.

This past weekend I had been in zoom meetings attending a New Mexico School Board Association meeting. I’m not too fond of Zoom meetings, but, I do like these conferences. I like hearing what school board members are doing. I like hearing our Secretary of Education Dr. Ryan Stewart speak. He makes sense. And I can tell he cares about education and is doing his best. I liked listening to Lt. Gov. Howie Morales give us a pep talk and recognize that this is a tough year to be a board member. I loved listening to Rep. Andres Romero, a teacher, AND legislator. Today, Sen. William Soules, an educator and member of the education committee, made my ears perk up. Plus, he helped me recognize what that nagging feeling was all about. He made three points that hit home for me:

Schools Are Open
We keep talking about getting schools open. Let’s open the schools. I get emails about how we need to get kids back in school. School board meetings are all about “let’s get the kids in school.” Senator Soules pointed out – they are in school. Schools are open. They never closed. In fact, last spring, when this all hit us, school didn’t close. They stayed open. Nothing in education shut down. It just changed.

Teachers Need to Feel Supported
Senator Soules said that. Teachers need to be supported AND feel supported. They need to know we’ve got their backs. I hear a lot of complaints about teachers, and I am guilty. I read many emails about how frontline workers need to be vaccinated first and that teachers are just like the rest of us, and they can wait because they haven’t been in the public arena. Why should they have to wait to get vaccinated when grocery store workers have been working since the beginning?  I have heard people say things like- teachers now get to be lazy and work from home. Ummm…have you tried to teach a bunch of kids on a screen? I talked to some the other night about fun stuff…OMG, that was so hard! It took a lot out of me to be patient, to wait, to not see anyone’s eyes, and have no idea if they were listening or not. Suppose a teacher chose to tune out for a few minutes, a few hours, a few days. I get it.

Supporting teachers means many different things. It means that we need to shut up about their job and let them do their job without judgment. We need to stop complaining about their fears of returning to the classroom. We need to ask…what do you need? What can I do for you? Thank you. They have a right to be afraid; they have a right to be exhausted and to want to leave the profession. Teachers have always been pushed to their limits, yet they keep going. They are judged and criticized, yet they show up every day.  They are exhausted and  I am with Senator Soules – they need to feel supported.

Giving them a coffee mug filled with Hershey’s kisses and a Starbucks card with a little note that says,  “You’re Awesome!” is not support.  They need trust. They need us to trust them that they are doing their job. We need to trust that they are doing their best, that they KNOW what is best for our kids. We need to trust that they are teaching our kids, trying to figure this out, and making decisions every day FOR our kids.  

We are not doing that. Other people are making decisions about their job and how it is supposed to go. And these people are not in their classrooms. Before I make any more decisions, I want to experience what they are experiencing. I want to know they know. I want them to be the ones to figure out the schedule, to have the place to communicate what’s working and what’s not. 

Senator Soules’ words hit home. He is a teacher. He has been in the classroom. He stays close to education. He knows what he is talking about. He has been there, feeling that no matter how hard you work, you do not feel supported. When you need to do something different to help that one kid learn and you are told you have to do it a different way…you are not supported.

For years, I have argued that teachers are the professionals in a profession that does not recognize their expertise.

We are not going back to NORMAL.
This is the other thing Senator Soules said that made my heart leap! Normal. What is normal? Nothing is normal anymore if normal means the past. Let’s not go backward. When COVID education hit us, I had so much hope.  I thought, “Wow! We get to reinvent it.”  This hasn’t been done before. We get a blank slate. We can take that idea out of the box and try it out. I heard a lot of talk about allowing teachers freedom to explore and reinvent. So, what happened? Ummm. They weren’t supported. They weren’t given time.

I had an opportunity to talk with a few Girl Scouts the other night. I have opportunities to talk to kids every day. These Girl Scouts asked the question I hear a lot- “Why are we still being taught the way people taught ages ago when they needed factory workers? And now we have technology? When are they going to change education?

I have seen changes in other parts of the country. But for some reason, it is tough here. I think it is because compared to the rest of New Mexico, we are a high-performing district. But does that mean we don’t make the change? What about the kids that are going through the motions and hate school? What about the kids that want to learn a trade? I can go on with the “what-abouts.”

Senator Soules helped me realize what was nagging at me. Since the board meeting Tuesday night, I have had this nagging feeling. It doesn’t feel right. I was reminded by Andres Romero that we are elected officials, and our duty is to the voice of the people. And as an educator myself, I realized that I did not represent the voice that needs the most support. When it came to the vote, I said yes…but my heart wanted to say – I am not ready…there are too many little pieces that have not been figured out yet. Pieces that will not support our teachers. I wanted to say not yet.

That nagging was also about those phrases- going BACK to school and NORMALl. There is no normal anymore. There is no back…school has been in session since August. It looks different. It is different. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t school. It doesn’t mean it can’t keep changing. And the most important part – it doesn’t mean you stop supporting the people who are making it happen. Every. Single. Day.

The first step. Give it to the teachers. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are using old delivery methods, but have they had time and support to come up with something else? Maybe they are giving tons of work, but have they had the time and support to rethink and evaluate the curriculum? Have they been permitted to relax, try something new, pare down the process?

I am always grateful when I am reminded in any format why I am here. There are times I feel like I have no clue what I am doing and how to do it. I have ideas. I know there is another way. I know we can do better at education. But, I do not know how to influence the ones who can make those decisions. I am learning. I will get there. The fact that two legislators spoke the words I think every day tells me that I have support to push for change. So, maybe I can do it.

And what I should have said and wanted to say, but didn’t have the guts to say was, “I can’t vote in good conscience until my three questions are answered”:

How will we make this new model sustainable?

How do we provide equity to those who are not ready to return in person?

And how can we find a way to allow teachers to choose whether or not they are ready to return?

I now know myself better and know that I HAVE to do what my conscience tells me to.  I apologize for allowing myself to be influenced in a way that did not sit well with me. This is a growing process, a learning process.  I once had a student that told me, “We want teachers to grow with  us, to learn with us.”  This continues to be something I live by – I am growing and learning with all of us.