I tend to spend a great deal of time thinking about the future, and I doubt that I’m in the minority in that. For most of us, this is at least partially a byproduct of our jobs. Each year from the middle of August until the end of May, hardly a day goes by that the specter of upcoming classes is not on a teacher’s mind. 

Many jobs have similar demands and result in a preoccupation that is neither comfortable nor encouraging. As the weeks and months pass, the constant demands of the jobs can become a grind. Amid the daily grind, many of us will find ourselves thinking about a future, a time or place that is a respite from our present struggles. In the modern vernacular, it is us going to “our happy place”. 

Normally when I return to work in the blistering month of August, I am thinking about the joys of football season, cooler weather and celebrating the holiday season with my family. In January, when all of that is in the past, the happy place becomes spring break on a cruise ship and eventually the extended time off during the blessed summer break.

With the specter of the virus over us, everything we usually look forward to is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.

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bricks and mortar

We are constantly told that in-person, “bricks and mortar” instruction is much better for students than online learning. The truth of this statement seems self-evident, but when evaluating the claim, we need to employ a common economic class assumption to the task. That assumption is expressed in the Latin phrase, ceteris paribus, which, in simple terms, means that we assume every other variable is unchanged.

This is a basic and necessary assumption in studying economics. For example, let us say that Starbucks increases the price of their coffee by $2 a cup. What will happen to the number of cups of coffee customers will want to buy? Our life experience tells us that people generally buy less of something at higher prices than they will at lower prices. This is the law of demand at work.

In drawing that conclusion, we are using the ceteris paribus assumption. That is, we are assuming that the only thing changing is the price of Starbucks coffee. The weather, people’s income, the prices charged by Starbuck’s competitors, and thousands of other variables are assumed to be unchanged.

Why We Simplify

The reason we make that simplifying assumption is that the world is incredibly complex. People make purchasing decisions based on many more factors than price alone. An arctic blast that drops Houston temperatures into the teens could cause people to buy more Starbucks coffee at a higher price, than before at the lower one. The closing of a major competitor could have the same effect. When formulating policies in real life, we cannot make those simplifying assumptions if we are to have a realistic view of a policy’s impact on the world.

So, let’s apply the ceteris paribus assumption to the statement about the kind of classes that are best for students. It now reads: “Bricks and mortar” classes are much better for students than online instruction, assuming the only thing changing is the location of the instruction.

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A Bitter Pill

Imagine you have been badgered into going to lunch at a popular, but expensive restaurant. Each entree is an clashing combination of ingredients you would never consider combining and the final results are an assault on your southern taste buds. You are very hungry, however, and know this will be your last chance to eat today.

You go over and over the menu in the hopes of finding something that won’t make you wretch while simultaneously emptying your wallet. You can order a less expensive but skimpy meal that won’t put the slightest dent in your hunger or take out a mortgage for something more substantial. You find little value in either proposition, so in utter futility you order the same bad meal you had the last time you were dragged to this place. You know it is a bad choice, but at least it is a familiar one.

I made my annual insurance benefit selections yesterday, and unlike every other year, I did not wait until the last day to do it. After staring at the same unappealing menu year after year, I decided I might as well make it easy on myself and go with the status quo.

Since I am on a number of medications including two that are very expensive, the most important part of my health coverage is the prescription drug benefit. This benefit has also proven to be one of my greatest aggravations. An encounter from 2012 illustrates why.

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Risking Teachers' Lives

I am a very introspective person, an INFJ to be specific, and as such, I am capable of spending hours a day in quiet deliberations. Writing helps me distill those reflections down to something that is well thought out, encouraging, and hopefully, wise.

I do not claim to be a fountain of wisdom. As a matter of fact, if you looked at the earlier decades of my life, you would probably find that I acted wisely about as often as a stopped clock displays the correct time.

Despite the years characterized by foolishness, something remarkable has transpired in recent years. After trying to do things in all the wrong ways, I have discovered pearls of wisdom which had been hiding in plain sight.
The training in wisdom begins early. If you had kept recordings of your parents from when you were a child, you would hear an endless stream of things like:

Don’t touch that stove. You’re going to burn yourself. Don’t run with those scissors. Do you want to cut yourself?
If you don’t turn off the video games and study, you are going to fail algebra and have to retake it in summer school. If you don’t brush your teeth, you’ll get cavities. Do you really like having the dentist drill holes in your mouth?
Having survived childhood, we move into our teens and explore new ways to act foolishly. This cycle of foolishness and awakening keeps repeating, and all along we have, hopefully, reflected on our choices and gained wisdom.

Having lived now for 60 years, I see things much more clearly than ever before. Some of the things I see more plainly are unsettling, and even disturbing.

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Despite starting in my in mid-30s, I began my teaching career as every educator does, as a very green newbie. Over the 12 years I spent at my first school, I rose from being a novice, teaching geography to bored freshmen, to a department head lecturing to GT students in Advanced Placement classes.  My way through the various high school social studies classes was positively smooth compared to my moves through the school building.

In 12 years, I taught in 9 or 10 different classrooms. I once joked that I was the only teacher touring my high school. At first, I taught in whatever rooms were free during the period my class met. Yes, I was a floater. Some teachers were gracious and accommodating to me while I was in their rooms, while others welcomed me like I was a pernicious timeshare salesman.  

Looking back, I do not think badly of the less-welcoming teachers. They were booted out of their rooms on their conference periods and had to become floaters too. I have been on the other side of this too and I know how disruptive it can be.

Beginning with my third year I got a classroom of my own. Home sweet home, it was not.  Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the room. It had the same ancient blackboards and rattling air conditioners found in other rooms. It even had windows that were covered in Venetian blinds installed, no doubt in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. 

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Thinking about the choice between online only learning and returning to regular classes reminds me of a scenario I share with my economics classes:

Assume you could put seatbelts on every new school bus produced each year for $100 million. Further assume that all kids would wear the seatbelts and, as a result, 3 children who would have otherwise died in a bus accident, would be saved.

Then I pose the question: Would you vote to spend $100 million a year to save 3 students’ lives?

After students have had time to write down their answers and the rationale behind their decision, I will take a vote. The results are usually about 90 % in favor of spending $100 million a year to save 3 lives and 10% opposed.

There is great eagerness in the votes of the 90%, but only a sad resignation in the responses from the NO voters. The spenders are given a chance to defend their votes, and the comments are very predictable. Most of the arguments boil down to the belief that every life is precious, and we cannot put a dollar value on those lives.

Then it is time to hear from the people I jokingly refer to as “the cold-hearted crowd.”

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Do you remember the toughest teachers you ever had?

I do not mean the ones that held you to high standards in their field of study. Tough graders make accomplished writers, mathematicians, and economists.

The tough ones I remember tended to be generally disagreeable people. Some were cold and acerbic; others were more brash and volatile. Some had the persona of Army drill instructors talking to bumpkins fresh off the bus, and sometimes those bumpkins were young teachers.

My wife remembers one such teacher. This woman would spend the passing period between classes standing in the girl’s bathroom and shouting the time until the tardy bell rang. This was punctuated by pronouncements of the doom that would befall anyone who was late to class.

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I am waking up this morning at a hotel in the shadow of Kyle Field in College Station. It is a vast structure with a dignity that is rare among football stadiums.

On games days, it is packed with excited fans engaged in a collective effort to cheer on their team to victory. While I have never been to a game at the stadium, it seems familiar from all the games I have seen on TV.

Watch any game played at Kyle Field and you will notice Aggie fans standing the entire game. This is a throwback to 1922 and a game when King Gill, a former Aggie player was called out of the stands to suit up and join his school’s team which had been decimated with injuries.

We stand at the forefront of a new school year, one that promises to be unlike any in the past 100 years. As teachers, we often feel we have too many hats to wear, and each year when we return we find the district has a new collection of Stetsons waiting for us.

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Tomorrow marks the beginning of my 24th year of teaching, and despite the many years that have passed, I remember well my first day as a teacher. In truth, my clearest memory is of the first hour of my first day as a teacher.  

Incoming students had to locate their name and room number on lists taped to the walls around the school, and then find their way to their homeroom class. Some students arrived early and waited in the hall outside my classroom, even though the door was open. It seemed nobody wanted to be the first to enter the room, but when the first bell rang, they slowly started to filter into room I shared with the tennis coach, a veteran of more than 30 years in the profession.  

At that point, I didn’t even have 30 minutes of experience to call on. 

After the tardy bell rang, the principal came on the speaker, gave the standard boilerplate first day greeting and made a few announcements. When that ended, I, the newly certified teacher, had to speak the first words I’d ever say to a class. With little confidence in my voice, I announced I was going to start by calling roll.  

Taking attendance at the beginning of the period is what teachers do, and I had performed this task many times as a substitute, but this was different. For the first time I was calling out the names of my students, ones for whom I had a great and continuing responsibility.  

About 10 seconds into calling the students’ names, I realized the paper I was reading from was not steady, making it more difficult to read. I paused, looked down at my hands and realized I was holding the class roster as if I expected someone to come along and rip it out of my shaking hands at any moment.  

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Monday will be my 23rd first day of school as a teacher, but I remember well the nervousness I felt and the many questions I had on my very first Monday. I also remember the few teachers who really helped me and those I went to who gave me the impression I was bothering them.

I decided then that if I made it as a teacher I was going to be proactive in reaching out to the new teachers and I hope I have never given one the impression I was too busy for them.

I recognize that I am a flawed as both a person and a teacher, but I am determined to do my best to support and encourage the good people who work alongside me.

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