Kids have to trust you if they are going to learn from you,” Amanda Kail says, “and in order to build trust, you have to form some sort of authentic relationship with them. That’s really hard to do over a computer screen.”
Kail is President of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, a local affiliate of both the Tennessee and National Education Associations, which serves teachers in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. She taught middle school English Learners (EL) for over a decade, first in Atlanta and then for five years at Margaret Allen Middle School in Antioch, until she was elected by her fellow educators to a two-year term as MNEA President in 2019. In her position she advocates for policies MNEA believes will empower public schools through community support.
Teachers, says Kail, truly do want to resume in-person instruction, under the right circumstances. And that’s despite being roundly accused of cowardice, laziness, and insubordination by a school board member on social media, as teachers advocated for safe working conditions before returning to the classroom. “Being able to be with our kids and their families and back in our buildings with our colleagues and all of our stuff, we all want that,” she says. “We just want it to be safe
Though MNEA pushed for those safer working conditions, which include personal protective equipment, sanitizing solutions, improved ventilation, social distancing (i.e. smaller class size), and, ideally, teacher vaccinations, MNPS has not been able to satisfy all of those needs due to lack of funding. Teachers were being asked to go back to work in person anyway, but MNEA insisted that they at least receive COVID-19 vaccinations first. That’s finally happening, with teachers designated for priority in the
Now during a phased re-opening, they are being asked to get back in the school buildings and prepare students for year-end standardized tests, which seems absurd to Kail. “Standardized tests are supposed to measure what was standard across the state. But nothing was standard across the state this year. We have people doing hybrid, we have people doing online, we have people coming in person, we had a lot of interruptions because there were so many teachers having to quarantine or were sick, and had so many students who were having to quarantine or were sick, missing two weeks of school at a time.”
“In many ways the pandemic laid bare the disparities in our school district,” Kail points out, especially when it comes to availability of technology. “Not everyone has access to the necessary technology. Even if they have the devices, they may not have internet access
“In many ways the pandemic laid bare the disparities in our school district. Even if they have the devices, they may not have internet access at home.”
That’s another reason teachers would love to get back to the traditional, in-person classroom, she says, if the district would provide needed safety measures. “People don’t realize this, but it’s actually more difficult to teach online, especially with EL students, who don’t have English as their first language. Try teaching students to login when they may not even understand an English language keyboard, and maybe, in some cases, haven’t ever been to school.”
Kail, who lives in East Nashville, with its abundance of charter and magnet schools, has mixed feelings about these models of academic excellence. “MNEA supports all teachers in all public schools, of course,” she says. “But instead of affluent parents trying to find the ‘good schools,’ I wish we could all support all the schools in all the neighborhoods where we live, so that every school is a good school. Otherwise we’re going to just keep perpetuating systems of segregation based on socio-economic status, and that doesn’t help anybody. It certainly doesn’t help kids,” Kail says. “In many cases, we’re their one shot at a good life, a better life. Why wouldn’t you invest in that?” she asks.
“Having strong public schools is actually a benefit in a time of crises. If we would have already had well-funded schools, we would have had small class sizes, the technology ready to roll, we would have had updated buildings with good ventilation systems and we would have been able to pivot more easily and to come back a lot sooner and would have been able to support our students and families a lot better than we did. I’m hoping people remember that, and that keeping our public schools strong is to the benefit of everyone, especially in a crises.”