An educational earthquake
A teacher's thoughts on hashtag activism and building a movement with sticking power
We invited fellow Substack writer and Phoenix high school teacher Billy Robb to pen a guest post for us about his takeaways from the COVID-19 school shutdowns and the #RedforEd movement. In addition to teaching, he leads journalism club, coaches basketball and writes a semi-monthly Substack newsletter called Cholla Express.
As the war over school funding continues to rage in Arizona, new battlefronts have emerged over the coronavirus. It has thrown our schools into chaos. Again.
When school buildings were closed indefinitely in the spring of 2020, I thought we were witnessing the collapse of the educational system as we knew it. All of a sudden, the routines and structures and schedules evaporated. Would it ever go back to normal? Did we even want it to?
In my mind, and in the minds of many other teachers, the status quo was already unsustainable. These shared frustrations found an outlet in the #RedforEd movement, which shut down our schools in the spring of 2018. The collective effort delivered tangible results.
The movement has changed since then, and as we’re learning now, the underlying power dynamics in Arizona have stayed the same. The Invest in Education coalition hasn’t delivered results. Not on school funding. Not on COVID-19 policy.
What’s missing from this new coalition is exactly what made the original movement successful: the active support of a large, politically diverse group of rank-and-file teachers.
We won a raise, but after the ballot initiative, teachers lost agency over a movement that could have enabled us to voice deeper frustrations. It’s not just the money. It’s the micromanaging that results from our state’s obsession with standardized testing. It’s duplicative mandates like the state civics test. It’s the overbearing layers of administrative control that stifle authentic instruction. Political operatives will never understand how important these issues are to classroom teachers.
During the height of the movement, all of a sudden, our voices mattered. The whole state was listening. Our voices were being heard at the highest levels of Arizona government.
But the movement was more like a lighting strike: one quick flash and then, poof, it was gone. Next thing I knew, there were more Democratic lawmakers wearing red shirts than teachers. The National Education Association officially trademarked the hashtag #RedforEd.
Life went back to normal. Teachers went back to internalizing their frustrations. Or maybe venting to colleagues, friends, and family — everyone agreeing, nobody with the power to do anything about it. Normal, at least, until COVID-19 hit.
When the earthquake of the pandemic struck our schools, I thought we were witnessing a system-wide collapse. I thought parents and students would prefer alternatives to the status quo. Maybe they would enroll in microschools. Maybe they would like the flexibility of online schools. When students tasted freedom outside the four walls of the classroom, maybe they wouldn’t want to come back.
Starting this year, I was pleasantly surprised to find students excited to return. They didn’t want to stare into screens anymore. They missed the social element of school. They eagerly (as much as a teacher can hope) adapted to the pencil-and-paper lessons I threw at them.
Parents also seemed grateful for the status quo. Finally, a sense of stability.
In my relief at getting back to raised hands and class discussions, I thought maybe the school system wasn’t so bad after all. I was looking forward to a drama-free school year.
But right away the Delta variant sent shockwaves back through the schools. When I would scroll through the news on my lunch break, a sense of fatalism set in once again.
Everything was still stupid.
Every issue is still politicized, every piece of information is weaponized and hurled at the other side. Instead of political leaders and thought leaders using sound arguments to forge satisfactory compromise, we have ‘influencers’ competing for ‘likes’ as a show of ideological force within their own silos.
Beware the pitfalls of social media
When it comes to coronavirus, wild accusations are flying everywhere. Reason is being overwhelmed by impulse. We’re going to have natural disagreements about risk-tolerance, but good luck trying to articulate that point on Twitter.
The folly of social media is exemplified in how the #RedforEd movement played out.
The movement never would have taken off in the same way, and with the same speed, without Twitter and Facebook. The hashtag was the definition of viral. Within days, basically every educator in the state was aware of the trend.
But social media allowed the conversation to be manipulated, and it was hard to discern the true consensus among participants. Lack of transparency was a common complaint at the time. Who was involved in making key decisions — like whether to hold a “strike authorization vote” after Gov. Ducey announced the plan for phased-in 20% raises? What was the relationship really like between the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United?
While many of the original Facebook groups remain active, the vast majority of educators who organized and rallied in 2018 have dropped off. The reins of the movement were taken over by professionals, and the Invest in Ed ballot initiative became the sole focus for the true believers.
The consequence is that we’re trapped in a false dichotomy.
It’s true that a majority of Arizona voters approved a tax-the-rich ballot initiative. That doesn’t mean a majority of Arizonans — or even a majority of educators — supported a tax-the-rich measure as the preferred solution to the problem.
It became the only option on the table. And it has failed to deliver results. It’s easy to blame Republicans; it’s harder to admit the #RedforEd movement strayed from its originally stated mission, which was to be a nonpartisan, teacher-led effort that was agnostic toward funding mechanisms.
On COVID-19, like everything else, the conversation is being suffocated by the loud extremes.
What do ordinary teachers think about mask mandates? What do ordinary Republicans think about school funding?
It’s hard to tell on social media. Hot takes are fun, but they drive reasonable people away from the conversation. The platforms don’t reward reasonable positions. It’s the nature of the beast.
We need to build consensus to tackle big issues like school funding and COVID-19. There’s going to be fierce disagreements, but if we don’t become more intentional in our dialogue, we’re going to keep talking past each other. Right now, nobody wins any arguments, small or large, because nobody makes real arguments and nobody concedes any points. We can move on, but only if we gravitate to better forums to discuss and debate.
These storms don’t need to tear us apart. We can use the aftermath of chaos to forge a better educational future.
I think there already exists a consensus on reforming, or paring down, the use of state testing.
When the dust settles, maybe we can start there. I know a lot of teachers who will happily weigh in.