The amount at stake with education cannot be overstated. This is our Normandy. To all of the teachers out there, this is a call to battle, to you and to our society as a whole.
Society first: we risk very real collapse without restarting our educational system. It will begin economically, brought on by the impoverished segment of our nation becoming unsustainable. In healthcare, we would call this an “unfavorable payor mix,” where the percentage of patients unable to pay their bills bankrupts the system. The analogy is appropriate because healthcare is precisely where it will show up. We don’t feel it when people can’t pay for cell phones or high-speed internet or a car or even water, we feel it when they show up in the ER with any number of medical conditions brought on by an unsustainable existence, and it’s not limited to things like overdoses. Type 2 diabetes and all of its complications should be enough on its own.
There were 15 million kids in poverty in the US at the beginning of the year. Not one of these kids stopped developing, because development doesn’t stop. What ended for them was the support of the educational system. What changed for them is their environment, the environment in which their continued development is relentlessly proceeding.
In 2018, twelve children and their coach were trapped in a cave by rising flood waters for more than two weeks in Thailand. Their rescue involved the unified efforts of some 10,000 people and cost the lives of two divers. The tide that threatens to drown millions of children that live right in our midst – right in front of us – is metaphorical but no less real. It is not the delivery of educational material that is urgent, as an open mind is capable of learning through the entirety of human life. It is the complicated and interconnected support systems that provide basic yet fundamental needs during this critical period of human development that cannot be disrupted without irreparable damage.
This is where we are making a grievous mistake that we cannot – both literally and figuratively – afford to make: education of our youth can pause. Support cannot.
It is unfortunate but true: the value of the teachers is rooted in their ability to cultivate the growth of our children as humans, not as scholars. Millions of American children, for whatever reason, lack adequate resources in the home to provide an environment suitable for healthy growth. Public schools are our only hope of addressing these critical needs. We seem to have forgotten this: the first thing we should have done is be certain that all kids have the stuff they need before even thinking about working on lesson plans. At this time in their lives, socialization is just as essential as shelter and food and water, and extended periods without it will leave deeper scars.
And now I speak directly to teachers, and I am both pleading and warning: if you do not recognize where your true value lies and reapply the bandage to this wound, it will not only threaten the stability of our entire society, but the unmerciful reality of this new virtual world will expose the rapidly declining monetary worth of online education. Put frankly: we spend a lot of money sending our kids to school – over $700 billion – and employ over 3 million teachers. We continue to pretend this is for the educational material, but that has changed whether we want to admit it or not.
How many teachers would we need to put together a video curriculum that could be viewed quite literally by the entire world? A teacher’s value is face-to-face, as mentors, guides, and role models, providing encouragement, discipline, and advice. In this regard, our society cannot afford to go without you. But if you try to compete with our exploding digital capabilities, you will lose an economic battle that you don’t have the resources to fight. I know this, because doctors have been under assault from these same forces for decades.
If we made a digital, artificial-intelligence-driven online “doctor” that was better than your family physician, what do you think would happen? Luckily, the hands-on part of medicine remains essential (thus far). But creating a digital, artificial-intelligence-driven online teacher? That’s a much easier task, and right now there is big money in remote education. Not only that, by building online teaching systems you are doing the grunt work for them. You are literally working to create your own replacement.
Since finishing residency, the threat of digitizing medicine and sending it through wires to someone in their basement who would do the job for less money has been increasing, and doctors have been continuously fighting to protect their turf (that is to say, their patients). Now the pandemic has completely reshaped the arena, decreasing protective regulatory barriers and opening the playing field to circling technology giants who are eager to capitalize on a need. Our primary weapon in this battle: you can’t replace hands-on contact with a video screen.
Teachers: if you give up the most core element that is your true value to society, you will lose. And we will lose. Dearly.
The fact that you are grossly underpaid for literally keeping our free society intact is a travesty. The fact that you are ill-prepared as individuals to face a pandemic on the front lines and have little organized support from the system in which you are the critical component is a devastating reality. But that reality is life, and life is not fair. It wasn’t fair that over two million young people had to land on beaches in Northern France to protect our way of life, with hundreds of thousands of casualties. The battle we are facing now doesn’t have the same clear-cut cause and effect, nor does it have two sides facing each other over a ribbon of sand. But it is no less real, and the stakes are every bit as high.
Heroes are not made without assumption of risk. Though we are on the brink of a catastrophe, the ones who have the ability to save us are not those who would wade into a storm of gunfire, but those with the courage to sit in a classroom of kids, five days a week, 25 weeks a year, and provide for them the essential support that will enable them to develop in a positive environment instead of one of isolation and fear. We can easily educate kids online, and we don’t need you to do that, and you will not win the economic battle that the current void will create. But we cannot replace your face-to-face impact, and we aren’t going to survive without it.