What Betsy DeVos Should Have Said

A message to teachers navigating distance learning in a pandemic.

While millions of teachers struggle to navigate the new educational frontier from home, there has been a cold absence of regard from our nation’s Education Secretary. This void of leadership is due in part to the other demands of her job. 

For example, last week Betsy DeVos was busy undermining hard-earned civil rights in schools. She gave Connecticut districts an ultimatum: if they won’t disaffiliate with the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference, an organization that allows transgender children to participate in sports competitions, they will not receive $18 million in grant funding. 

Meanwhile, school administrators are scrambling to prevent a mass exodus of teachers who are looking at nine more months of impossible demands and crying in their bathrooms during their 10 minute breaks from Zoom.

During this time of unparalleled expectation, shouldn’t we be hearing more from the head of education about this crisis and the challenges our country’s teachers and families are facing? Betsy DeVos’s silence is a disservice to those who need leadership and hope in the earliest days of an indomitable school year. 

Because she was unable to address our nation’s teachers this week, I wrote a speech for her. I give this speech to her for any use. 

This is for all the teachers who are holding their responsibilities with heavy hearts. 

What Betsy DeVos Should Have Said 

My Fellow Educators,  

This has been an incredibly difficult start to an unimaginable school year. First and foremost I want to thank you for your service to our country. Education is the foundation of our society and an American promise to our children. Without you, our children would be alone in this dark time. Your commitment to them and to your profession is an act of selfless assurance that no child will be left without a teacher.

I can’t begin to imagine how hard you are working to create new ways of connecting to our nation's youngest and brightest citizens, but I want you to know that your work is critical to each and every child. It may feel like you are swimming in a sea of chaos right now, but the impact you have on those isolated at home is immeasurable. 

Let me start by acknowledging the situation we have found ourselves in. Last spring, the world as we knew it shattered. The lives of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens were at stake, and as the crisis has continued into a new school year, your willingness to carry on teaching from home has become a lifeline to your students. 

As we try to put the pieces of our lives back together, teaching has become the most essential and critical work that is being done in our country. Our nation’s future depends on our students, and continuing to reach them is fundamental for their growth as future leaders.

I also acknowledge that, while many of you have a wealth of experience, no one has been trained for this role. You are being asked to create a new system of learning that is vastly different from anything you have tried before. Any time we try new things, we will fail. Failing is part of the learning process, as you educators know down to your core. But the stakes are so high, the children are depending on you, and failing does not seem to be an option. 

So much of what you have built into your classrooms comes from a deep well of creativity, made deeper by each new teaching endeavor throughout an entire career. Access to those wells does not come via the internet, and the waters seem to have run dry for many. 

Patience is at an all-time low. Parents are trying to do the impossible by working from home and facilitating distance learning at the same time. They are as exhausted as you are and do not have the bandwidth to be gracious at all times. 

Students are lost. These apps, websites, and online classrooms are all new to them. As we all know, the first month of school is about normalizing processes and procedures in your classroom. It is full of reminders, repetition, and gentle guidance. With the muted mics, distracting pets, and bored stares, it feels like the sweet nuances of community building are falling off into the glitchy echoes of your Zoom call, rather than into the hearts and minds of your students. 

I also understand how vulnerable you feel as parents watch you teach all day long. What has always been an organic process is now drawn out and performative. It seems impossible to gauge which lessons hold any meaning. If you do not feel like the best of you is represented in this new way of teaching, you are not alone. 

I want you to know that I see how hard you are working, and that despite all the extra time you are putting in, the tasks ahead keep mounting. Much of what we are asking you to do is still undefined and uncharted, but your greatest task right now is to trust yourself and your ability to reach your students. 

While we are up against this daunting set of circumstances in education, I do see a way forward. We have the opportunity to find a better way. We have before us the opportunity to reexamine and reimagine our profession in a way that was not tenable before. 

We are at the beginning of a new way of learning.  

If anything is certain, it’s that we are going to have to create as we go. This means that most of this year will feel unmapped. But there is no way to know what will work until we try. 

I declare this the year of constant revision. We will write and rewrite the job. We will find our footing as we learn new practices. We will discard what holds us back as we design a new model of learning. The revisionist mindset will afford much grace when we fail, along with permission to test out fresh approaches to our core curriculum. 

What has made itself abundantly clear is that traditional school does not fit into a six-hour Zoom call. So how are we going to make our first revisions? 

Let’s start with our goals. Inspiring our children, fostering independence, and sparking wonder in learning - these are the goals of education. Learning from our nation’s past and working toward a more fair, equitable, and honest tomorrow - these are the goals of education. Letting kids try, fail, and learn from their mistakes - these are the goals of education. 

Next we need to ask ourselves where we can revise. What systems will enable our students to be more independent learners? How can we use project-based learning to cultivate curiosity? How can we create a big impact during short online cycles? A new and better way forward is within our reach, we just need to dream it. 

This new beginning should be a time of incredible creativity. There are so many questions that can lead us down new paths and new ways of teaching and reaching students. We need to tap back into our wells so that we can infuse this new way of learning with as much inspiration, play, and love as we possibly can.

I have complete faith in you. Your creativity and compassion have always been the hallmarks of your work. Use the frustration you feel from parents to strengthen your practices. You are teaching parents now, too. 

Know that you have everything you need within you to do this critical work. Kids don’t remember lessons, they remember teachers. You can do this because you already are everything your students need. This year is not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it.