Stay with me for a minute on this one. It’s not immediately about education policy issues, but they’ll come around.
I didn’t have to be back home in Georgia yesterday to appreciate what a colossal clustercuss it must have been. We’re used to cold and snow up here so you may have missed this on the wire or may have wondered why it was such a big deal: yesterday afternoon and evening, Atlanta and other parts of north Georgia were completely paralyzed by 1.4 inches of measurable snow. You read that right: one-point-four inches of snow, not fourteen. And I do mean paralyzed. Last night people spent the night in their cars on the interstate and on various secondary roads, and kids were stranded on school buses awaiting rescue by the state police. A friend I used to teach with sent me a text at 9:30 last night to say that there were still kids and teachers hunkered down in schools in metro Atlanta, planning to spend the night there, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution was reporting that 2,000 kids were still stuck at school as of this morning. Atlanta is famous for ridiculous traffic, but a two-day commute home–in some cases just to go a handful of miles–is truly insane.
I sometimes like to tell the story of my worst experience in teaching, and hearing about all this made me think of it again: it was the day the last bell had just rung and an announcement was suddenly made that a tornado was in the vicinity and the kids in the hall and on buses should go into the nearest classroom they could find with a teacher in it, close the door, and wait. Forty kids I did not know were in my room that afternoon for what may have only been forty minutes but felt like four hours. They had the TV turned on, and a CD player (back when those existed) blasting music. Posters were coming off the walls. Books were strewn about the floor. After a few hilarious attempts to get control I huddled up behind my desk and computer to wait out the storm–the one inside my classroom, not the one outside the building (which, it should be noted, never came). None of the kids even really acknowledged that I was in the room, which is easier to imagine when you realize the school had 3,000 students in it. I was as unknown to them as they were to me.
When I heard last night about the teachers and cafeteria workers and other staff members being asked to take one for the team again, I immediately thought of that awful situation (and secretly wondered if I could have kept myself from running away to the woods never to return if I had been asked to stay in that room overnight). Thankfully it sounds like the teachers in Atlanta last night did the best they could with kids they knew so the situations were not exactly alike. But there was enough similarity to give me pause and to get me thinking about the way we seem to ask certain people, usually people doing public work, to give cover to the people who irresponsibly fail to support those public servants in ways both big and small. Gov. Nathan Deal, just to give one example, alienated thousands of teachers with a ham-handed attempt to change the state health insurance program (and blame it, incorrectly, on the Affordable Care Act), then last night found himself, predictably, in a situation in which he depended on those very teachers to prevent a dire situation from descending into total chaos. It’s a good thing school personnel have a higher sense of responsibility to and for others than the governor apparently does.
The point is: it wouldn’t kill Gov. Deal, or any other elected official, to show some appreciation for the incredible lengths teachers sometimes go to out of a sense of responsibility for others, and it wouldn’t hurt to show some of that appreciation before a crisis hits. I probably don’t need to mention the heartbreaking stories that came out of Newtown, Connecticut, over a year ago to reiterate the point. This doesn’t rise to that, but both events–the Atlanta snow jam of 2014 and the massacre of innocent kids and their teachers at Sandy Hook– speak to the consequences of neutering public services and failing to take action for the public good, and they also say something about the lack of gratitude we show for the sacrifices we ask people to make in public service (let’s note here that teachers are often parents too, and husbands and wives and daughters and sons as well). No one can predict a crisis, but we can make crises easier to manage and can prevent unnecessary suffering with planning and foresight. Little has been done to prevent the movement of guns into the hands of pretty much anybody who wants one in the wake of Sandy Hook, and even less has been done to improve mental health systems and services (a failure also displayed when a state senator from Virginia, Creigh Deeds, was stabbed by his son, Gus, after Gus did not have his needs met by the mental health system in Virginia–another heartbreaking story). When you hear people say that government is bloated and it does too much (and none of it well), think of those teachers in Georgia and Connecticut, and think about Creigh and Gus Deeds, and think about Hurricane Katrina and everyone affected by Superstorm Sandy–and think, too, about the abject failure of social policy, at least for now, to deal effectively with any of them. These are not just failures of government; we are getting the government we paid for. They’re failures of vision, failures of social policy, and failures that reflect the inevitable consequences of trying to coordinate responses to events that happen irregularly (but, it seems, with increasing regularity) in an uncertain world on a shoestring budget. Irresponsible doesn’t even begin to describe it, and a good bit of the blame is on all of us. As students of education policy, we can sharpen our focus on the issues that matter most to teachers and learners and simultaneously think broadly about the things we need to do, as a society, to support them in both good times and bad. This, I think, is a civic responsibility, if not a moral one.
So I read this article and it exactly nailed my first thought when I was hearing about this debacle in Atlanta last night. What happened, as usual, was that public servants we do not support with adequate resources (teachers, firemen, police, cafeteria workers, the people working to get the roads salted, etc.) were asked to do something we would never, ever have had to ask them to do if we actually supported them like we should. That a few inches of snow could paralyze a city no matter where it is — and it’s not like it never snowed in Georgia before! — speaks volumes about the costs of not adequately supporting public services. Maybe Nathan Deal and the Georgia General Assembly will give all those teachers that stayed behind a decent health care plan to thank them for their service, but don’t count on it. By the weekend it will be 60 degrees in Atlanta again and as the temperature gets back to normal there is every reason to believe everything else in north Georgia will get back to normal too. We can only hope that this time will be different.