Teachers Are Not Expendable

Texas educator says returning to school should not be a death sentence

ROCK PAPER RADIO is a dispatch for misfits & unlikely optimists by your favorite hapa haole public radio nerd, Kristin Leong. It’s a weekly email newsletter that shares three curiosities every Thursday - something to hold on to, something to read, and something to listen to. This story on educator Aletha Williams is a special edition. Thanks for subscribing and spreading the word!
Award-winning Texas high school teacher Aletha Williams poses for a portrait as a Teach Plus Fellow, 2020.

When classes were abruptly moved online last spring in the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak, Texas high school teacher Aletha Williams was ready. An award-winning veteran educator and tech expert, she thought teaching online a few hours a day would be no problem, easier than her regular long days in the classroom. She quickly realized she was wrong.

“I’ve cried at night,” Williams says. “I have friends who are crying at night because it is wearing and tearing at us and I don’t think that anybody is really looking at what is happening to the mental health of us teachers. And I don’t think they’re really thinking of us teachers as being essential workers.”

Williams teaches 10th and 11th grade chemistry at a public school in southeast Texas. Harris County, where her school district is located, has the highest rates of Covid-19 in the state. Currently, Texas has the third highest rates of the virus in the country. 

Like many teachers across the United States, Williams felt that she received little to no logistical support last spring when her school closed and she had to quickly move her curriculum from her classroom to a screen.

Along with teachers, students were also left ill-equipped to manage this new normal. Some kids without access to a computer or reliable internet were offered less engaging paper worksheets, or fell through the cracks without much or any access to classwork at all.

Racist harassment goes unchecked

Other students exploited flaws in online learning platforms in order to disrupt and harass both peers and teachers. In one of Williams’ virtual classes, a student entered without turning on their camera. When the student continued to interrupt the class by playing loud music, Williams took a closer look and noticed that the student had changed their screen name. First name: NIC. Last name: GERS.

Williams is one of the few African American teachers in her district*. When I asked if she received any support from her school or district following this racist incident, or if there were any consequences for the student, she said there’s nothing that can be done because there’s no way to identify who the person was behind that screen.

Meanwhile, students and teachers, along with the rest of the world, are battling their own anxieties brought on by the virus. Will they get sick? Are their families safe?  And concerns are not just about health—many of Williams’ teen students have gone to work or picked up additional shifts as parents and family members have lost jobs in the midst of our current economic crisis.


Extra strain for empathetic educators

Carrying the burden of their own stress and the hardships their students are facing, empathetic teachers are burning out. Aletha estimates that she knows of at least twenty colleagues who have quit teaching since the Covid outbreak began. Since her school district has announced their re-opening plan, that number continues to rise along with cases of the virus. 

Although protocols keep shifting, as of today all teachers in Williams’ school district will be required to return to their classrooms for full-time, in-person instruction starting September 8.

Families may choose to opt-in their children to the district’s “virtual academy” for fully remote student learning. Teachers, on the other hand, are facing an impossible choice: go back to their classrooms or lose their jobs.

How will social distancing work in classrooms full of kids who are not able to participate in full-time online learning? How will schools enforce limits on the number of students in bathrooms? Will there be consequences for refusing to wear a mask? What will happen if a teacher contracts Covid-19 and doesn’t have enough sick days to cover their recovery? According to Williams, answers to those questions are still unclear.

Curious to hear Aletha in her own words? Listen to a 6-minute podcast about this story here.

New school year bring new fears

After six years with her previous school, Williams will be teaching at a new high school in the same district this fall. She says her new administration is sympathetic to the fears and anxieties of teachers right now. On weekly video calls with staff, Williams’ new principal listens to concerns and explains the ever-changing plans and protocols coming down from the district, but there is still so much uncertainty.

Williams says she and her colleagues are scared and angry, and that teachers are being treated as if they’re expendable.

Still, despite fears for her own safety and the stress she’s facing as she simultaneously develops in-person and online curriculum for her classes, she remains focused on students. “The kids deserve the best that they can get,” Williams says. “I don’t want them to lose the teachers that are out there for them and who jumped into teaching because they love teaching and they love seeing the light bulb happen for kids. But this experience is difficult. It’s hard. It’s a hard experience for everybody. You know, we signed up to be teachers. We didn’t sign up for a death sentence.”

August 26, 2020 update:

At 5:00 PM on Friday, August 14, all staff members at Aletha’s high school were sent an email by the school district to inform them that an individual at the school tested positive for Covid-19. Then, at 5:00 PM on Wednesday, August 19, all staff members were sent another email informing them that an additional individual had tested positive. Both emails assured staff that the building would be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, but the positive cases did not lead to any closures or back-to-school delays. Staffers were urged to “contact their personal physician if any symptoms develop,” but neither email said anything about communicating possible symptoms to the district or school.

*According to the most recent data reported by the school district where Williams teaches, only 7% of teachers identified as African American in 2019, a total of 378.5 teachers. Currently 11.8% of students in the district identify as African American, a total of 9,944 students.

Aletha Williams is the founder of Young & Ready Youth, an initiative to support low-income and at-risk students. She is also a 2020 Teach Plus Fellow and is currently working towards a Ph.D. in STEM Curriculum and Instruction. As a representative on Educate Texas’ Teaching and Learning Council, she is an active advocate for teachers of color and English Language Learners. She currently leads her district’s high school chemistry program for a student body of nearly 3,000 students. Find her on Twitter @alwillia.
Kristin Leong is a producer at KUOW Public Radio. She and Aletha are part of TED-Ed’s third cohort of 30 global Innovative Educators. ROCK PAPER RADIO is Kristin’s latest endeavor for unlikely optimists. Find her on Twitter @kristinleong.