What the pandemic taught us about teaching (On the Other Hand)
That sustained humming noise you’re hearing from one end of town to the other, rising over the still-unopened “Midtown” parking deck, echoing off the lonely, desolate tiles of the unused Nishuane and Essex pools, filling the stillness of the closed-door executive sessions of the Township Council, is not the dying strains of the quite wonderful Montclair Jazz Festival, nor the sound of millions of women angrily muttering under their breath about the Supreme Court, nor even the distant buzz of out-of-control California wildfires, but merely the collective, joyous exhalation of Montclair parents as their kids go back to school.
Yes, the pandemic, which we can now officially declare we are pretending is over, has brought a new appreciation for the joys of schooling, and not just the joy of having your lovely progeny out of the house for a few freaking hours. It has also, we can only hope, brought a new appreciation for the wonders of in-person teaching. You know, the kind done by a teacher? A real, live, three-dimensional human being?
That would be nice, because there is an ugly trend in American thought that teachers are just overpaid babysitters, or archaic remnants of a handicraft economy that can be replaced by online learning or gamified video lessons. This is the mindset of the corporate educational reform movement, which was all the rage about 10 years ago but recently seems to have lost some steam. Backed by tech bros and hedge fund managers, these reformers sought to apply corporate efficiencies and tech solutions to public education. They were also very fond of high-stakes testing and charter schools.
But as we’ve just discovered, teachers cannot be replaced by screens, and education cannot be automated for the simple reason that children (unfortunately?) are not standardized. They are not raw materials to be shaped into finished products but unique individuals that need individual attention — from a human being. (Until the singularity occurs and super-AI powered computers rule over humanity, when in all likelihood they will just clone us to ensure that we are standardized, but let’s not think about that.)
At least for now, human teachers remain the key to successful education, and precisely because they can’t be replaced by machines, it’s going to cost good money to get good teachers. Why do you think your plumber charges so much?
Often underpaid, vilified by the political right, under intense pressure from administrators and parents, many teachers, along with paraprofessionals and school bus drivers, have joined the great resignation creating a national shortage of qualified educators. You would think in these circumstances that we would be extra careful with our own precious professionals, but as usual, you would be wrong.
Here in Montclair, we had our own experience with corporate “reform,” when the board hired reformer Peggy McCormick in 2012, only to have her leave in a rush in 2015 in the midst of a scandal called “Assessmentgate,” which was about … never mind. The Board of Education has never really recovered from the contentious debates of that period. Instead, we’ve been plagued by a revolving cast of superintendents and a board that seems to drift from one crisis to another.
The current superintendent, Jonathan Ponds, doesn’t even appear to have a clear idea of how many teachers we need, as demonstrated by the chaos surrounding the nonrenewal notices sent out in May. He is now on his third business administrator in a year, with one leaving after whistleblower allegations and the second, his friend Nicholas Cipriano, vanishing without an explanation. The state of confusion is so thick that the district neglected to tell teachers that the first day of school had been rescheduled. Luckily, some of them are Montclair parents, so they found out from their kids. So once again, we have to ask, and I know this is getting boring, who is in charge?
Oh, and before I forget, the next election for school board is coming up in November with a whopping four candidates for three openings, which means basically anyone who submits a petition can get elected. The group that brought us the elected board, Vote Montclair, has dissolved in shame after learning its co-founder was only interested in “humiliating” Mayor Sean Spiller. Instead of participatory democracy we now have a vacuum in which no one seems to be paying attention. No one is in charge.
It's worth remembering that Montclair was once a leader in educational policy. The magnet school system, instituted in 1977, was a national model for integration. There was a time when the board worked together, the superintendent was competent, and community members attended meetings not just to complain (which is fine, I’ve done it myself), but to participate and, you know, help make the schools better. That’s not too much to expect, is it?
On the other hand, maybe the robots will save us
Richie Chevat, writer, activist, has been a Montclair resident for more than 30 years. He’s the author of the comic sci-fi novel “Rate Me Red,” the play “Who Needs Men?” and the young reader version of “A Queer History of the United States,” among other works. He can often be seen running errands around town on his bike.