‘Just Talk Live’ devotes episode to teachers

Funding threats spark concern as schools face re-opening

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

School districts are deciding whether to send students back to classrooms this fall amid a raging pandemic. (Photo by Santi Vedri on Unsplash)

LOUISVILLE — Although education and the re-opening of schools are hot topics right now, teachers’ voices and opinions aren’t always lifted up.

But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)’s “Just Talk Live” show became a forum for teachers on Tuesday when co-hosts Lee Catoe and Destini Hodges devoted an entire episode to them.

“We felt that it is time that teachers are listened to,” Catoe told the Facebook Live audience.

“Just Talk Live” is a weekly web series from Unbound, the online Christian social justice journal of the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, and the Young Adult Volunteer program of PC(USA). Catoe is Unbound’s managing editor and Hodges is associate for recruitment and relationships for Young Adult Volunteers.

Part of this week’s show focused on the possibility of schools losing some federal funding if they fail to bring students back for in-person classes this fall, although the coronavirus is rampant in many states.

President Donald Trump tweeted in early July that he might make such a move, and reiterated that desire in a recent interview with Fox News Sunday.

“To me that feels like that schools are being held hostage and are being threatened,” Catoe said during “Just Talk Live,” without specifically naming Trump.

Panelist Rachael Eggebeen, who is an eighth-grade teacher in Tucson, Arizona, said schools already have been negatively impacted by what she called a trend of defunding public schools. As a result, some counselors, social workers and teachers have been cut, and classroom sizes have grown.

Funding cuts are “hurting the least of these,” including students of color and children who live in high poverty, she said. Also, teacher morale has taken a hit.

Teachers “keep saying, ‘We’re resilient. We’ll make it work,’ but how?” Eggebeen said. “I can’t put 40 (kids) in my classroom. … I can’t teach when students have no food, they don’t have electricity. … The cuts just frustrate me because they’re coming from a place of power and it’s willful hatred at this point.”

Click here to see the entire episode of “Just Talk Live: Listening to Teachers.”

Panelist Erin Rigot, an instructional coach in South Carolina who taught middle school for nine years, said it’s been difficult to hear the governor and others be critical of teachers, regarding issues related to the re-opening of schools.

“It’s super insulting to then feel like your own state’s saying you’re not doing a good job, you’re not doing enough, and if you cared about the kids in the classroom, you’d be there five days a week,” Rigot said. “Forget about your safety, forget about your family’s safety, forget about your own situations at home. You would be there.”

Rigot also expressed disappointment that some CARES Act funding will be going to private school vouchers. At this point, teachers are “beyond frustration and tears,” she said.

Panelist Tony Boada Davila, a staffing specialist for a special education department at an elementary school in central Florida, said, “We love teaching and we love our students and we want to be back with our students. We miss them. … At the same time, we’re worried. We’re worried for our health … and it’s OK to be worried.”

He also noted that it’s hurtful to think of funding possibly being taken away from disadvantaged children, such as those with learning disabilities and those just learning the English language, and he bemoaned teachers’ low salaries.

“We are the most underpaid for the amount of work that we do,” he said.

Both he and Rigot urged teachers to use their voices to stand up for their students and themselves.

“This is not a time, especially as Christians, to sit silent and watch all of this funding go and be taken out of the hands of our kids that are in the most need,” Rigot said.

Various panelists also urged communities and churches to find ways to support schools and students.

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Committee on the Self-Development of People and convener of the Educate a Child, Transform the World initiative, said schools have a vast role to play in children’s lives these days that far exceeds the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic.

“Our kids spend most of their day in school. … We really need to think about what’s happening there,” Johnson said.

Rigot encouraged churches to brainstorm ways they can support kids and to talk to teachers on the frontlines about the concerns that they have.

Davila called upon churches and community centers to get involved, suggesting that they email, call and come up with ideas. “We talk about it takes a village to raise a child,” he said. “Well, this is the time to step it up.”

Agreeing with others, Johnson said it’s important to be creative in helping and supporting the schools, and for churches to be involved. “We have to affirm our teachers. We have to affirm our young people.”

The Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy and the Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP) are both part of the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries. The work of SDOP is supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.

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