Hylton Teachers Speak Out: A Series of Interviews

Members+of+the+Chicago+Teachers+Union+on+strike+in+2019+for+better+classroom+conditions.

(Ashlee Rezin Garcia / Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Members of the Chicago Teachers’ Union on strike in 2019 for better classroom conditions.

With the omicron variant running rampant globally, teachers everywhere, especially in the United States and France, are making their voices heard. They have demands for their employers, and they’re willing to fight to keep their rights as educators and workers intact. The discussion locally has been less intense than in cities like Chicago or Paris, but tensions are still rising. For this article several Hylton teachers were interviewed, they were all asked the same questions, unsurprisingly they had varying answers. Even among those differing opinions, most of them had one thing in common.

“Can it be anonymous?”

This was asked by a teacher immediately after they were approached with the idea for the interview. In total four out of five teachers wanted to stay anonymous. As to respect their wishes, names will be omitted and gender-neutral pronouns will be used.
On the topic of anonymity, one teacher pointed to the possible consequences teachers could face if they provoke the administration’s ire,

“What happens in a lot of workplaces, and I’m not saying it would happen here, just that this is why there’s a lot of [teachers] that are hesitant. They’re obviously not going to do anything to you, but you might notice you get treated differently. And technically no one is being wronged here, but you’ll notice they’re getting on your case about how you operate, how you dress, things that had never come up before. Little things can add up. I personally haven’t noticed this, but with [a former Hylton teacher] in particular, once it became known that [they] were resigning- all of a sudden, [they] were getting different treatment. All of a sudden admin has a problem with [them]. That’s like any workplace, you know. All of a sudden you might find yourself excluded from meetings or they don’t care about your input anymore. It’s just the little things that start happening when you rock the boat.”

Under Pressure 

At this point, it’s common knowledge that teaching is an underpaid, underappreciated, and unrelentingly taxing job. Unfortunately, this inequity has only been worsened since the pandemic began in 2020. Among Hylton’s teachers, there seems to be a common feeling of weariness and to a lesser extent exasperation at the lack of support they’re receiving.

“One of the major issues within the profession is that I’m paid for a seven-hour day, but my day is never seven hours, if my day were really seven hours I wouldn’t have lessons or videos or the [same] level of material that I do. None of the grading would get done, it wouldn’t account for the letters of recommendation that I write, all of that occurs outside of my contract hours.”

“I don’t know that we have done the best job of appreciating the additional sacrifices that are being made by faculty members to try and cover what is needed. So I think it terms of compensation there could more attention paid to the emotional consequence, more understanding in how teachers and faculty members are evaluated at the end of the year given that you’ve had less time to plan and less time to grade and less time to take care of your own work. That means that that work is either being done outside of school contract hours, most of the work is, or it’s not getting done, and I’m not sure that there has been a way of accounting for the additional burden within those processes per se.”

There seem to have been some concessions to further compensate for the extra work teachers have had to do, but is it enough?

“The board authorized a one-time bonus, and depending on your [position]- or maybe it was your hire-date, but you could get up to a thousand dollars which was great. That helped teachers to feel appreciated, but it created some difficulties. There were some teachers who were in all year even though the majority of the teachers weren’t because they were teachers of students with special needs who had to be in the school. And so they were like ‘Where was our compensation in all of this?’ you can never be equal, and it’s even difficult to be equitable.”

The shortage of substitute teachers has resulted in teachers increasingly having to cover their coworkers’ classes,

“I would say this year has been really difficult for a lot of teachers, the inability to get subs has been a persistent problem that has placed more of a burden on teachers. In the past we always used to help cover, it’s a duty that we have, it’s part of our contracts. The school has always taken that to mean occasionally you might need to supervise a group of students for which we don’t have subs. There is now the decision that they are going to compensate us, but it’s not at the instructional rate. It’s something rather than nothing, but the non-instructional rate of pay is much lower than instructional pay.”

The issues that schools face are clear, but are our leaders willing to do what’s necessary to support teachers? Is continuing to cut corners a sustainable course of action?

“From my perspective I’m pretty stressed out and stretched thin. Administration has discussed some measures they’re going to try to provide to relieve stress and make teachers feel more comfortable. I think most teachers including myself are in survival mode; get the education materials to the students, try to grade it, but a lot of the niceties have been removed from school because there’s just not enough time.”

COVID-19 Response

Teachers were then asked if they thought the administration’s pandemic response on both the county and school levels have been sufficient. The responses were mixed, with most levying some criticism while acknowledging the difficulties of dealing with a pandemic.

“Yes and no, I think the county is trying to meet the state requirements to a certain extent. I think there were significant limitations put on us when the state mandated that all schools offer in-person, five-days-a-week education. I think to a certain extent I appreciate the mask mandate; I am wary whether [it] will exist after [January 24] and that has me concerned.”

The recently inaugurated Republican Governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin signed an executive order during his first day in office that was primed to end all mask mandates in schools across the state. It was set to go into effect on January 24, but it has been heavily contested by many school districts, including our own. Further reading into the ban for mask mandates, here.

“I am reassured by the mask mandate, so I guess my current concern is what happens in the event that that does go away or that the parental choice movement succeeds in [their] effort. I think that scares me significantly, I was very concerned coming back from winter break. I will say it did have an impact on my family, due to my potential exposure we decided not to meet with family [over winter break]. So there is an impact and there is a consequence to being around students and interacting with hundreds every day, it leaves the potential for not being able to be around family in the same way.”

They also had a lot to say about the systems and technology Hylton has implemented in an attempt to mitigate exposure to COVID-19.

“I am not always certain that we’ve made the process of reporting a positive COVID case clear. For instance, if you look at Hylton’s website it’s very hard to figure out who our school nurse is just by the website alone. That’s a concern I have, do parents know how to report this, if someone tests positive? I think more could be done to make that process clearer and not from necessarily the county/district level but just at a Hylton site-based level as well.”

“We have a lot of tools that are meant to help and assist students, but those tools are sometimes not used perfectly. For instance, technology, technology is great, but it can also cause problems. Some of the more frequent hindrances I see with students learning right now are their computers failing. If we hadn’t gone one-hundred percent towards computers and we still had the ability to provide a paper handout, that would give us the backup we often needed in the past when technology failed. The push towards one-hundred percent paperless all of a sudden removes the teacher’s backup plan.”

One teacher described their confusion when one of their students had an abnormal code in the online attendance sheet. It turned out that the code meant the student was supposed to be quarantined.

“I saw this person is supposed to be home, but they made it to seventh period and nobody else had questioned it. And if I wasn’t concerned with the health of my family, I may have not questioned it either. But how did that person get in? I saw another code today that I didn’t know [the meaning of], and then I couldn’t find what it stood for. There’s not consistent communication [with teachers]. If you come down with COVID we’re relying on [students] to tell us, which isn’t the most reliable system.”

Others were less critical, arguing that the county and school have done reasonably well given the circumstances.

“I think the county has been trying their best, there’s a lot of site-based management where maybe at the school level it doesn’t match up to what the county wants to do as their policy. It’s kind of harder at the site-level because that’s when you’re dealing with real people and how they feel about certain things.”

“I think that considering the scope of the pandemic Prince William County has done a decent job with it. They shut down schools at the necessary times so we could figure out the pandemic and really the only best option for students going to school is to be vaccinated and-or wear masks. They’ve asked for both of those things and I don’t see a better way students could be educated.”

Conclusion

“Systemically, I think that if something new is added to teachers’ responsibilities or really anybody’s responsibilities, there should either be some sort of time compensation or [a responsibility] should be removed. I started teaching in the late 90s and then most of my responsibilities were teaching involved, you might have a little bit of paperwork and that was mostly with grades. But the percentage of what is actual teaching has dropped considerably because of various regulations. Last year we had to learn Canvas, we learned all these different apps. And then this year now we have the new textbook which I’m not using much of and I’m probably going to get in trouble for that. There’s always something new that needs to be learned and we have to prove that we’ve learned it… [Admin] will be like ‘we’re concerned for you mental health here’s a module for you, read this, do this, and then send a certificate’. And I’m like, well if my problem is time, how does that help me? You tell me self-care is important and yet you keep piling things on without taking things off.”

As students, it can be easy to form adversarial relationships with teachers, and there are certainly some that deserve the bad reputations they get. But, at the end of the day, they have their own lives and their own issues behind the scenes that we never see. They are workers, just like the vast majority of us will be or already are. You don’t have to like every teacher on a personal level, but we can recognize their circumstances and show solidarity with their struggle.

 

Many thanks to the teachers that gave their time for these interviews and for the rest of The Watchdog staff that helped gather willing participants. This is the first installment of a collection of similar articles that aim to give people within our school community a platform to voice their opinions and experiences.