STA President Urges Community to Maintain a Spirit of Trust

STALogoThese comments were made by Scarsdale Teachers’ Association President David Wixted at the Board of Education meeting on October 19, 2020.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak. When I came before the Board in August, I said that STA officers do not typically make these kinds of public statements. The fact that I find myself here again two months later says something about the extraordinary times we are living in-- times driven by the ever-increasing pace in which demands arise and decisions must be made. Times that bring tremendous stress and worry to us all.

I will begin by asserting that seven weeks into the school year, the educators of this district are doing everything possible to provide excellent educational experiences to students in this time of pandemic. Tonight I hope to give voice to these remarkable efforts but I know my words will not provide their full measure. Much of what I am about to say is known to the Board and district administrators. Still, given the recent comments at Board meetings, the time requires that I step forward and speak about these realities to a broader audience.

To begin with the obvious: this school year is unfolding in a time of pandemic. Any reading of the news makes clear we will again confront a surge of the virus’s spread. Indeed, the events of the past weekend demonstrates how close the threat of the virus remains. Rightly, this district has asserted as a priority the health and safety of all working within its schools, students and educators alike. Over the past decade, this priority has been the source of consuming discussion at Board meetings. Since the outbreak of the virus, these concerns have become more pressing, leading to instructional modalities in line with guidance from authorities in Albany. Since March, teachers and administrators alike have worked to find their footing in this reality, and while we stumbled at times on the unfamiliar terrain, we became increasingly more assured at providing remote learning experiences to students.

Then, with an eye on the coming school year, and through ongoing deliberation among the professional educators collaborating with stakeholder groups, over the summer the district devised a series of plans for school restart. These discussions unfolded while we awaited directives from Albany. These deliberations were challenging and contentious because priorities were often in conflict. Over the summer, the STA, concerned with the well-being of students and faculty, argued for a commitment to remote learning. We sought to take what we learned from the spring and apply it to the work of the coming school year. Administrators and other stakeholders cited guidance from the State favoring in-person instruction. The argument was that through the cohorting of students, through strict adherence to guidelines including social distancing and the wearing of masks, and through a commitment to professional development and common planning time, schools could be reopened in a way that provided a reasonable degree of safety while also advancing the education of students. This led to the adoption of the hybrid models currently in place.

Once these models became defined, this district’s faculty has been and remains committed to answering the question of how to make instruction come alive in the minds of students. Let there be no doubt about this. The educators of this school district have dedicated themselves to planning meaningful and coherent learning experiences within unfamiliar modalities. Teachers currently find themselves living again what they remember as first year teachers striving to make instructional connections with students. Yet, in spite of laboring in modes that are unfamiliar, the work teachers are creating is deep, rich, and significantly advances students through curricula. Some may point to seeming limitations arising from the structure of school schedules required by the pandemic. However, they should know that teachers are always striving to provide students with learning that leverages the live instruction they receive with the work they do asynchronously. Every day, teachers teach the students in the room with them. Every day, they remotely teach the students whose families have decided to keep their children home. Every day, they plan learning for students who are off cohort. Every day, teachers have answered the demands arising from hybrid learning models, and they are making it work. And it is worth mentioning that the students have been wonderfully responsive.

These efforts are demanding, hugely time-consuming, and require the sustained commitment of educators working in service of students. But this is who Scarsdale educators are. They are devoting hours upon hours restructuring lessons, creating new ones, deepening their abilities with technology, and seeking new ways to connect to students when they are away from the classroom. Know that everything about teaching last spring and now this year is more complicated. Everything we do takes more time. These efforts require sacrifices teachers are willing to make because of their commitment to students. But to be clear, in this unfamiliar and challenging modality, teachers are sacrificing their well-being and commitments within their personal lives so as to provide the education their students deserve-- education that will prepare them for the work to come-- education that is at least the equal to that provided by any other school district.

But they also openly worry if their efforts are sustainable.

Since the start of the pandemic in March, the teachers of the school district have tuned into the broadcasts of Board meetings. They know in these exceptional times, listening to the tenor of the community’s conversations with the Board is important. In recent weeks, teachers, especially at the secondary level, have heard increasing criticisms for what is being provided along with calls for the ‘live streaming’ of classes. They have heard speakers defining the education offered by Scarsdale teachers as being ‘less than’ that found at other school districts-- that teacher efforts can be defined through classroom hour counts and opportunities for students to live stream. There is a truth that most area school districts are allowing off-cohort students into the classroom. I recognize that in part because of this truth, the district feels compelled to follow suit. But I do not accept that such practice is superior to the asynchronous work teachers have been providing. And I mostly worry that the practice will place additional strain upon teachers now required to engage three audiences at once-- the students in the room, the students learning remotely, and the off cohort students. I worry that the practice of live streaming will diminish the educational experience everyone receives.

When I came to Scarsdale thirty years ago, I remember being struck by the degree to which the professional educators-- teachers and administrators-- were trusted to make the decisions about what is in the educational interest of students. There was faith that the instruction provided to students was grounded on sound pedagogical principles, and that we could be relied upon to provide the learning opportunities students needed. Over the years, at the heart of this extraordinary district has been this spirit of trust. I recognize that this spirit is not always easy to maintain and relies upon a continuous dialogue between the Board of Education and all those working in these schools. These impossible times make maintaining this trust even more complicated, but it is in such times that it is most needed. It begins with this recognition, that your district’s educators, an expansive word that includes teachers, school counselors and deans, librarians, nurses and therapists, psychologists, and all professional service providers, are doing everything they can to make this hybrid model work, and they are doing it at great personal expense. They have been disheartened and discouraged hearing voices questioning their labor, their intentions, their commitment to their students. And every time there is a change that requires something more, the thought becomes ‘what’s next?’ All of this can have the effect of distancing teachers from their work, of seeing these obligations simply as a job and not as their life’s calling.

This year is sure to bring challenges that will be best addressed by a dialogue that places the voices of educators, the ones who will be required to implement decisions, at the center. Together, knowing that there is appreciation for the work of teachers within the Board, among building and district administrators and from many in the community, we must continue to maintain the trust at the heart of this school district. Doing so is the best way to be true to our educational culture and to find ourselves intact when this pandemic eventually ends.