Updated: Aug 11, 2020
One Teacher’s Pod Journey
In the early days of July 2020, I had before me what seemed to be a dilemma between a safe choice and a dangerous choice.
In any other year of the thirty I’ve had, the line between safety and danger in my career would have been clear: a stable job is safe, and depending on your own ventures for an income is dangerous.
Partially, that is still true. It is common knowledge that starting your own business is risky, and quitting a stable job offer to start your own business, more so. Doing so during a pandemic would be downright crazy, for some.
But, as with many areas of life, human reactions to the Pandemic of 2020 have recast some formerly safe professions into terrifying ones.
Public education has never been a completely safe career. Being around large numbers of people on a daily basis, in a somewhat closed and insular environment certainly has its risks, and at times, its tragedies, brought on where excesses of control and a dearth of empathy have met.
However, seldom before have professional educators been asked, pressured, cajoled, and threatened to return to work in an environment so outright likely to result in the spread of a pathogen for which little viable treatment exists, and for which permanent organ damage is a known risk of infection, even though the overwhelming majority of people who contract Covid-19 survive.
The Texas Government, Texas Education Agency, and the executive branch of what passes for this country’s leadership have stood together to create a potentially unsafe work environment in public schools. The existence of the coronavirus is not their fault, but their lack of consideration of the multitude of ways in which public schools provide for our economy – skills training, childcare, mental health assistance, nutrition, community – have resulted in their insistence that these institutions reopen, even where experts are warning that doing so is all but guaranteed to accelerate the spread of the pathogen.
So much has been said about how public schools are a place that spread is likely, impossible to prevent, and inordinately difficult even to slow down, that I need not add my voice to this opinion further.
The TEA does not allow teachers to strike, and threatens them with sanctions up to and including job loss and revocation of certification, should they dare to. This creates a divide-and-conquer mentality, where individuals in the teaching workforce do not have the necessary tools to protest injustice. It also creates a culture where school administrations may set regulations that are unpopular, considered dangerous, and possibly even unfair for teachers, who can do little but complain and hope their voices will be heard. Even complaining opens them up to risk, because it may identify them as potential troublemakers to colleagues and employers.
All of this was on my mind as I contemplated the safety procedures laid out for staff in an online town-hall meeting hosted on June 28th for the charter school system I had recently accepted an offer for.
The town hall meeting organizers were using Zoom Webinars to conduct the event. There was a Q&A section and I could read other teachers’ questions. There were concerns raised about the safety of reopening schools, but it was clear that the administration had every intention of going ahead no matter what anyone said. The reopening plan authors had claimed to consult with over 50 stakeholders including parents and teachers. However, many of you reading this know that to be consulted can just as often mean to be told something, asked if you agree, and if you say no, ignored thereafter.
It is an easy PR exercise to create the illusion of public participation and of group agreement and consent. The principles of group-think are simple. If you want to create a situation where it looks like people agree with you and follow you, just communicate with them subtly that agitation will not be looked kindly upon, praise those who agree, give dissenters little opportunity to speak out, and ‘stack the room’ by making sure that all those who speak first give the impression of agreeing with each other by pre-selecting those whose views and opinions are already known and favorable to yours.
In writing all of this, I recognize that school administrators in general have an impossible task laid out in front of them this fall. They know very well that no matter what they decide, people are going to be upset and angry, some will get sick, some will lose their jobs or be fired, some will walk away from their jobs rather than take the risk, and politicians will put pressure on them. It’s a regrettable situation to be in, and I understand that their options are extremely limited.
With these statements, I don’t doubt that the majority of school administrators are well-intentioned people who want to help to keep a very necessary social safety net well-funded and staffed with reliable professionals. I don’t believe my statements above represent a majority of administrators, but more likely a significant minority.
I gave this some two weeks of thought, and realized that my job offer portended significant risk to myself and my family. I tried to tell myself that I was overthinking it; that I should just get on with my job and not worry, but deep down it didn’t feel right.
So, on the first day of my virtual training (an option that was only offered on the Saturday night prior to training on the Monday), I completed my first day of assignments, and gave my notice of resignation.
While all this contemplation had been going on, I was also doing research into a newly-emerging model of education based on a much older system: homeschooling pods.
Early in July, the TEA released its first major communication about school re-opening plans, and a Facebook group called South Austin Quaranteam exploded in membership. Suddenly, everyone was talking about pods, or small groups of families, some of whom wanted to hire a teacher, others who wanted to share childcare duties between families. It was a creative solution to an urgent dilemma, and in this, I saw a way that I could practice education with less risk to myself and my family. I would be highly unlikely to earn as much money as a charter school salary would pay, but I could also be of service in a way more in accordance with my own goals. I can provide a more holistic, empathic, individualized service to a smaller group of families than I can to a large cohort of public school students.
The road to pod formation has been bumpy, but I’m still on it and am in the stage of closing on a current pod and beginning work with them soon. The process has taken about a month to get started, get in contact with people, and find who I wanted to work with.
The organization of pods is in a large way do-it-yourself, because there are so many options, and many will not work with a given situation and its constraints. A significant number of the challenges and roadblocks to pod formation are the legal uncertainties – is a pod a childcare business? Is it a micro-school? Is the location certified by the HHS? Do you hire a household employee or an independent contractor? Does household insurance allow so many children in a location? Will the local HOA have a problem hosting school-groups in private residences? What about liability? What about local restrictions on the size of private gatherings? What about all the questions I haven’t written here and the ones I don’t even know to ask? It’s a lot!
While home-schooling is neither new nor unprecedented, I believe that what is different is just how many families are now considering alternative options to public and private schools all at once. I think that in this time of uncertainty and rapid change, a movement is forming around a solution.
Pods are not without their critics and challenges, and it is true that large numbers of people who can’t afford them are going to be left behind. While I think it is incumbent on all of us to render support to the community at large irrespective of their financial status, I believe that this movement needs to grow and gain public support for it to become revolutionary and to have the ability to change the way public education functions for the better.
For this to happen, I think that the movement’s current rate of growth, and the important questions being asked about who is included and who is excluded and why, and the conversations around equity in education, must continue and evolve. Collectively, we are not rendering enough support to vulnerable communities at the moment, but I do think we are making progress and must continue to do so. I am proud to be a part of this movement, and glad I chose the profession of teaching to contribute to positive change in society.