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Episode 9: Be the Change

Being an educator is always hard work. As we enter the third school year impacted by Covid, being an educator is harder than ever. Before the start of the 2021-22 school year, we sat down with a veteran high school history teacher to discuss the upcoming school year. Filled with equal parts optimism and concern for the year ahead, Elizabeth Rasmussen shares the importance of taking charge, engaging in advocacy and being the change she wants to see.

Guest

Elizabeth Rasmussen, History teacher Polk County

Transcript

[00:00:00] Announcer: Sharon: You're listening to “Educating from the Heart.” Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents, and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt.

[00:00:27] Tina Dunbar, Host: Welcome back to “Educating from the Heart,” the Florida Education Association podcast for teachers, support professionals, parents, community leaders and students. Together, we engage in monthly conversations, exploring all aspects of education and the impacts of policy decisions on our students and their schools. I'm Tina Dunbar, and with me is my co-host, Luke Flynt. Hey, Luke!

[00:00:53] Luke Flynt, Host: Hey, Tina.

[00:00:54] Tina: Good to see you again.

[00:00:55] Luke: You too.

[00:00:56] Tina: Well, after our brief summer break, we're back to kickoff season two of “Educating from the Heart.” I am so excited, and I know you are too, because we've got a lot planned for this season.

[00:01:07] Luke: Absolutely, Tina. This season, we're going to talk about everything from teaching accurate history and civics in today's K-12 classrooms, to the attack on academic freedom at Florida's colleges and universities. And, of course, during the legislative session, we will keep everybody updated on what's happening in the State Capitol. But let's back up a bit and talk about this month's episode.

[00:01:31] Tina: Well, Luke, as you know, back in July FEA held its annual professional development gathering called Summer Academy.

It's our largest training for teachers and support professionals from across the state. And it was held in-person and, you know, everybody was looking forward to that. So, we decided to take the podcast on the road. Well, educators generally take advantage of this event and network with their colleagues, and one of the top conversations dealt with the new school year and the unknowns surrounding the virus.

Luke, all school employees, regardless of where they work, had been looking forward to a fresh start this year and a return as close as possible to normal for this school year.

[00:02:16] Luke: We open season two with a high school history teacher from Polk County who has been in the classroom for 14 years and seen a lot of change during that time.

Elizabeth Rasmussen shared her hopes for her students, as well as her fears for what this school year could bring. “Raz” as she is affectionately known, spoke about the importance of unionism and legislative advocacy, but she begins by sharing what inspired her to become a teacher and how her students motivate her to remain in the profession, despite its many challenges.

[00:02:50] Elizabeth R.: When I look back at the reason why I do what I do: It's my kids. It's kids like, and these are pseudonyms, because like Veronica and Juan that I've written about that really inspired me to keep educating, and I'm actually getting a PhD right now. So, I'm working on my dissertation, and it's been eight kids in AP and IB classes and kids who are their first language is not English. And it's seeing those struggles of those kids that's really motivated me in my education and my teaching.

[00:03:21] Tina: A lot of people don't understand the impact those struggles can have in terms of teaching and learning and how difficult that can be for a teacher.

[00:03:32] Elizabeth R.: A kid could come into your classroom, who's from Guatemala and they don't speak any English. And within a year, typically they will start picking up basic English. And that's called BICS: basic interpersonal communication skills. It takes anywhere from five to seven to, studies now say up to 10 years to get what they call CAL, which is your cognitive academic language abilities. And when your first language is not English, and it takes 10 years sometimes to grow that language, and then also your home language, that heritage language is being spoken at home. So, you're hearing two languages constantly, and it's hard to code switch constantly. So even your gifted students, they may, if English isn't their first language, they may have gotten a five on an AP test, but instead they score a three because they need the extra time that they don't get.

[00:04:30] Luke: So why, why history or social studies of all the things you could have taught?

[00:04:36] Elizabeth R.: I've always had a passion for history. I actually was homeschooled. So, I have an interesting path coming to be a public educator, but I would just grab a history book and hide in the closet and read. I just always thought it was cool, he stories in the past. And I remember I was 16, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do. First, I wanted to be a meteorologist, and then I realized that involves a lot of math and science. And so it was out for me because those aren’t my strong suits. But then I realized, I remember I was looking through a college catalog that my mom had just to give you an idea of jobs. And I realized, wait, I could be a teacher, and I can just teach history the whole time. I love working with kids, teach history. And so, at 16 I knew that's what I wanted to do. So, I started, [and] at 20 years old I was teaching.

[00:05:25] Luke: In 14 years as a history teacher. I mean, you've seen the election of the first Black president, you've seen an insurrection at the US Capitol and a whole bunch of things in between. And I wonder if there are perhaps some flash points right now that not every generation goes through. What's it like to be a history teacher now?

[00:05:54] Elizabeth R.: It's definitely living history, and that's something I've pressed upon my students to try to remember; we've even done journals. What they're going through, did that last year when we're all virtual, because of Covid.

I didn't want to dwell too much on COVID, but I also can't help with the parallels to the 1918 Pandemic with the flu pandemic and what was done then and what wasn't; it's been really interesting. The election, I mean, we had this only, not this past election, but we had, with the first election in 2016, the one that then-candidate Trump ran in, he won the electoral college and not the popular vote, only the fifth time it's ever happened in American history. So, there you go. That's history. And I think with the election and the insurrection, the insurrection, the day after it's all my kids wanted to talk about. So, we were able to talk about it and spend some good amount of time talking about it and talking about what it was and why it was before it became politically-charged when it was just facts. This is what happened. This is why it happened. My kids were interested in that.

[00:07:10] Tina: So, would you have the same conversation with them today? Or when you returned to school, would you have the exact same conversation?

[00:07:20] Elizabeth R.: No!

[00:07:20] Tina, Host: Why explain that?

[00:07:21] Elizabeth R.: Because I feel like as, especially as a social studies teacher, there's so much political pressure right now on what to say and what not to say. And I'm talking about really external pressure right now, having been told by department chair or principal that you can't say something. I'm respected as the authority in my subject area at my school, and I'm very lucky in that. But I know that there's going to be pressure to avoid certain subjects.

And, like we said, you can't avoid them, but to try to address them as limited as possible. So, I think that that definitely is going to, I have to be careful what I say, because my certifications at risk if I say one wrong thing, or I say something and it's, I won't say that it's wrong, I say something, and it's twisted in the wrong way.

[00:08:14] Tina: And that's the bigger concern.

[00:08:16] Elizabeth R.: Yeah, I mean, I was in tears about it earlier today. Because I was talking, we were doing a session, and me and my group were just talking about some of the challenges that we're facing this upcoming year. And the anxiety of that really weighs heavy on you as a teacher. Because you always want what's best for your students, and you always want your students to learn the full picture. And how can your students learn the full picture when you're leaving it out?

[00:08:40] Tina: Doesn't that hurt learning?

[00:08:42] Elizabeth R.: A hundred percent it hurts learning. I teach my students to be critical thinkers. I've always said this, and now it's been co-opted by other people, but I teach my students to be critical thinkers, not what to think. I don't teach my students what to think. I give them the skills they need to be able to look at things critically. And whenever I present anything, I present both sides. If it's a political issue, which history often is, you have to look at both or more of the multiple sides and the multiple issues of something. So, I definitely think this is going to hurt learning.

It's going to hurt the critical skills that we need to teach our students. They're not going to be able to evaluate things that they're not allowed to do so in school. How can they evaluate? I mean, for goodness sakes, “political parties” was just taken out of the civic standards in middle school. “Political parties. And how can students learn civics without learning about the political party structure? They can't.

[00:09:39] Tina: I want to talk about the teacher and staff shortages. Why do you think we have that happening?

[00:09:46] Elizabeth R.: I think there's multiple reasons, but one is a lack of perspective for teachers and educators, not just teachers or support staff, because we don't have enough support staff, even in my school we don't have enough custodians. We don't have enough lunch ladies. We don't have enough people. And especially this year: we had two positions in my school that were unfilled the entire year. If they did fill it, we had three teachers that quit during the year on these unfilled positions because they started teaching for a few weeks, and they felt so overwhelmed that they just couldn’t do it.

And so that was a lack. I wouldn't want my kid in those classes with even the most educated long-term sub, still a long-term sub, not a teacher, and you're not able to get that sense of community that students need to build. So, I definitely think the lack comes from a lack of respect from the public, and mostly right now I'm thinking of legislators.

[00:10:47] Tina: They make the policies.

[00:10:48] Elizabeth R.: They do, and what they say, and I'm just using their words, what they say often reflects what they think about education and public education, that's not high. They don't have a high opinion of it. And the general public is going to feed off of that.

I also think the lack, the fact that we don't pay, especially our support staff enough, teachers. Sure, there's been a couple of waves in the last year or two trying to pay teachers more. But in my county, even though teachers got a raise, and it wasn't a lot for veteran teachers, our support staff, our parents and ESPs got zero. And because they got zero, all our other support staff like custodians and everything else got zero also. And we can't build a respect for a profession if we don't pay decent enough living wage to these people.

[00:11:42] Tina: You’re right; people have to survive.

[00:11:45] Luke: Yeah. And the minimum wage hike, I mean, as excited as I am that we’re long overdue in 2026, but people will finally be making $15 an hour. It seems like that's only going to maybe make things worse because individuals who were… when the lack of respect that you're talking about, if I could make $15 at this job that is historically not respected, or I could go and many respects work at a much easier job and make the same wage, why am I going to stay as an disrespected lunch lady? Like you said, or a custodian.

[00:12:25] Elizabeth R.: when I was driving up here, I stopped at the new Buc-ee’s that everyone's saying to stop at the gas station. And the first thing that greeted me as I got up to get gas is a sign that talks about they were hiring, and the base wage, the lowest wage, was $15 an hour.

How can I go tell the paraprofessionals at my school who literally change diapers and do basic things that need to be done, and our secretaries, they're the first person who answers that phone. Parents are not always happy when they call the school, okay? And they're the people that deal with it. And they’re some of the most amazing and resilient people I know. And there are people in my county that do not even make $10 an hour in support staff. $10 an hour. $15 an hour I don't think is enough for a living wage. So, $10 an hour. How are you supposed to pay your bills when you could easily go to McDonald's or Buc-ee’s or someplace else and get another job and pay more?

And the reality is they do have jobs, sometimes full-time jobs. One of my custodians works for Publix and worked on the line as a bakery person. And she would work in the early morning, get off, like I'm talking like she'd be at work at like 5:00 a.m., and she’d get off at one o'clock. By two o'clock she had to be at high school for her job that went till 10:00 p.m. at night. So, she literally had seven hours off in which to sleep and do everything else then, because she worked two full-time jobs.

[00:14:06] Tina: Wow! That's hard.

[00:14:07] Luke: Right. And then, the same lawmakers who ensured that she doesn't have a living wage will then turn around and blame her for being an absent mother. Right?

[00:14:22] Elizabeth R.: She was doing it, and it's this one custodian, was actually doing it for her son, so she could afford for him to go to college.

[00:14:31] Tina: So, so lack of respect, pay, workload, right?

[00:14:38] Elizabeth R.: Let's talk about workload. I'm one of the teachers who did what my district called the “blended learning.” It's called different things in different districts. However, I was teaching students simultaneously while in-person, sometimes a full class in-person. I had 20 to 22 students in person in some of my classes, and I would have about another 10 online at the same time. So, it needed to be done. I'm not saying there was— this was a year like no other. And I teach specifically, usually AP and IB courses. So, they can't go take these courses on virtual all the time.

So they needed to be blended, but, man, it was like teaching double. Because I had to do, I did written assignments in class. I did online assignments. The engagement, the lack of engagement that my students were able to do this year. I love teaching in a collaborative classroom. It was very difficult to teach collaborative classroom when half your class is on zoom and half is in person. You can do breakout rooms and try as much as you can, but you're not really doing the real thing. Yeah. So, it was frustrating.

[00:15:51] Tina: Yeah. You can't engage them.

[00:15:52] Elizabeth R.: Yeah. And then my district, they tried to make, do the right thing to, for those teachers that were having [issues with workload], because they said, “oh, not that many teachers are doing that or doing blended. It's only special programs,” which I'm in. I'm like really? It turns out no, there are teachers across the board, in our district that were doing it. So they said they'd offer us a stipend, a blended learning stipend. Originally it was going to be around, my union advocated for being around $500 basic. And then for per quarter, and then a hundred dollars per all the periods you taught. They said, “oh no, we can't do that.” In the end, through all the bargaining, we got to $200, a quarter. $200 a quarter. So, $800 for everything that I did this year?

I did not go into teaching for money, but I also have to pay my bills. I also, it would be nice to have, you know, there's supplements for all the cleaning supplies I had to buy this year. And they did provide us with some, but there's never enough. You always kind of supplement out of your own pocket. So, it was really more of a slap in the face: for all the work that you stay late and you do, here's $200 for a quarter.

[00:17:07] Tina: There is an environment for public school-

[00:17:11] Elizabeth R.: -that's hostile.

[00:17:12] Tina: Yeah.

[00:17:13] Elizabeth R.: It's hostile. It's this year, especially with COVID. I was still responsible for my students' test scores and for their grades and for how they did. That data proportion that's 33 points off the percent of our evaluation? I still had that. My students weren't being held punitively by the state, but I possibly was. And I did my best as a teacher this year. And I think every teacher did, but because of collaborative, not being able to do collaborative structures because of everything going crazy, it wasn't the best teaching year of my career. Okay. But we are in this environment where, you know, I have administrators who come in, and they see what I'm doing, and if they ever have any tips, they'll give me tips. But for the most part, they just come in, they see what I'm doing. They interact. They're like, “Great. You're doing great.” And then you possibly get punished because of a test score; that happened to me once with two points, and my principal advocated for me. And they were able to say, “oh, okay, well, you know, she really did do, it worked out with two points.”

But that was actually my turning point to go join the union to go join PA. Because I thought, “wow, this time I have a principal, who's going to advocate for me. What if I don't have that in the future for two points that was, I actually had earned and we just had to show the paperwork for?” So, that was actually one of the reasons. I didn't join the union when I first started teaching, but that was one of the things that really motivated me to do so.

[00:18:51] Tina: So, you didn't think you needed the union when you first started teaching?

[00:18:54] Elizabeth R.: I honestly, I bought into the lie that I now know is a lie that you know teachers are just lazy, and they don't, they don't do what they need to do. You haven't heard that one? [all laughing]

[00:19:03] Tina: I'm just offended by that.

[00:19:06] Elizabeth R.: And I am now too, but I'm just saying that my school I was teaching out at the time was a very hostile environment for those who were in the union, and people were afraid to be in the union. And you knew some of the union teachers, and they weren't always, you know, sometimes they were great, sometimes they weren't. And there was this general—I was brought up in an anti-union household, and just that the union protects lazy people. It doesn't do that. It makes sure that we have due process, but I didn't know that at the time.

And after a few years after I joined the union because of the situation I described, and then I realized, well, all these things are happening. I don't necessarily always agree with what the district and the union coming to agreeance with. And I didn't understand how it worked, so I decided I want to find out how it works.

So, I got involved, and I figured if I, if I don't like how it is, I'm going to try to be the change. So, now I've gotten involved, and I'm actually part of different things like bargaining and whatnot. So, it's kind of, it's pretty cool.

[00:20:11] Luke: Yeah, that is pretty cool.

[00:20:12] Tina: That's very cool. How do you get more people involved, more members involved get more people to join?

[00:20:17] Elizabeth R.: So, I'm actually the lead member organizer for my districts. So, I've been working with the NEA grant we have since the winter, since around February. And I hear a lot of apathy from people, especially from our parents and ESPs who didn't get any raises and haven't for years. And I tell them the same thing: You gotta be the change, and we have to be, we have to come together as a union. If we fall apart, we're not going to be able to look towards everyone's interests and to bargain for interests. And we have to come together, and especially my parents and ESPs, we always are looking for more participation in bargaining and committees and everything.

And I just encourage them to come and get involved. And we actually have one now that became a member organizer now. So, she wanted to get more involved, she was a union member, but wasn't necessarily happy with what was happening. So, she became a member organizer

[00:21:18] Tina: And that's important that people get involved because often they believe all the miscommunications and then they get-

[00:21:24] Elizabeth R.: I did!

[00:21:25] Tina: Yeah. And you realize there's something more for you, but even in terms of, especially in terms of, our education support professionals, the people, the bus drivers, the cafeteria workers, the custodians. They definitely need to be engaged.

[00:21:41] Elizabeth R.: That’s one of the reasons, one of the union-busting bills that they tried to pass in the legislature this year, it aggravated me so much because it really was targeted at our support professionals.

And so I was able to come up to Tallahassee twice and was able to talk to both, testify to both Senate and House committees. And it was a pretty cool situation in the House committee that I testified at where we, we meaning my local union, tried to mobilize people, especially. And while we did it all over the state, our local was really trying to push that.

And one of our state legislators, he listened, and in the house meeting I was in, I testified, and it was me and a couple other people from our local, for his constituents who had come up, he changed his vote. And he voted against his party line. And that was just an incredible moment because it wasn't just me and it wasn't just the people who would come up to speak, but he also had been getting so much feedback from his constituents. And it really goes to show they, they listen, and if they feel pressure and that's honestly why the bill eventually got dropped and didn't become law, is there was so much pressure from the public.

And so that's just something we have to hold onto. And we have to remember for the future, because as we come together, we're stronger together than we are apart. And that's the only way we're going to get anything done and change public education for the good.

[00:23:07] Tina: And it's not just in, when you say the public, let’s define that because a lot of people don't realize what we're talking about here. It's more than just members of the union. It's the community coming together. You know, whether you support public schools or not, public schools will always exist. And if you live in a community and you care about the community, you need to come together to protect public schools for the children who will eventually end up in these schools, who will grow up and end up the keepers of your community. They will work in the stores-

[00:23:46] Elizabeth R.: They will become the teachers

[00:23:47] Tina: and the teachers! That’s what I’m saying: they’re the future.

[00:23:50] Elizabeth R.: Yes. They're going to become the support staff. So, if we're not providing a good education, what are we doing? That's what public education is. We, as you said, it really is about getting the community involved. And, I know my district and my level's done local outreach and done that, and I think you're right. That's one of the keys.

[00:24:17] Tina: So, you're about to start a new school year. You're looking forward to it?

[00:24:24] Elizabeth R.: Loaded question. Yes, because I love what I do, and I couldn't stay in this job if I didn't love what I do. I wouldn't be here for 14 years if I didn't love what I do. And I realized that early on: I'm not here for, definitely not here for the money. I'll tell you that, but I'm here because I love what, you know, my kids. But I think this school year, while I'm looking forward to it, I'm not looking forward to some of the unknowns. Like, am I going to be teaching blended again sometimes when my students are on quarantine? Am I going to have access to school supplies, to cleaning supplies? Because I still plan to keep my room clean, not that it wasn't clean before, but to have kids use wipes every day and everything, and I supply those wipes. Okay. We were given solution to spray, but it doesn't clean as fast as a Clorox wipe. Okay. When you have five minutes to get kids in and the other group out.

So, I'm not looking forward to those challenges. I know I'll get through them. But, it's going to be, it's going to be another challenging year. I don't think that COVID is totally in the past and what we learned, not just the disease, but the things that changed are in the past. And I think it's still going to be a difficult year as we try to adjust to those things.

[00:25:48] Tina: You definitely can tell that Raz is dedicated to her students and her profession. Yet, you can hear the frustration in her voice. It becomes easy to understand why so many educators have second thoughts about working in education and end up choosing another profession.

[00:26:07] Luke: Absolutely. It doesn't matter where students attend school, they all need certified and experienced educators who are prepared and supported by their school districts and the state to take on the educational challenges required to meet student needs. Unfortunately, we know all too often school employees don't receive that type of assistance

[00:26:29] Tina: And that's why parents and the community need to support their schools. We need to unite to encourage our elected officials, that's our state legislators and our school board members, to listen to the educators, listen to teachers, listen to support professionals.

[00:26:46] Luke: Simply pay the people who do the work of keeping our schools open. You heard Raz talk about the custodians and the other education support professionals who are undervalued and could get paid more by going to work at a gas station. We need to end that. All education professionals deserve a living wage, a stable and secure retirement. But there are policy issues as well, not just monetary ones.

[00:27:13] Tina: That's right.

[00:27:14] Luke: Teachers who are highly qualified and certified should have a guarantee of employment, not an annual contract that they might lose at the end of every school year.

[00:27:27] Tina: There are solutions to the problems that exist in public schools, and we can solve them when we work together. And we're going to talk about that throughout this season of “Educating from the Heart.” All right. Thanks for listening. We'll see you again real soon. Bye.

[00:27:50] Aurora Gonzalez-Announcer2: If you enjoy our podcast, ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe on our website, at feaweb.org/EducatingFromTheHeart. Send your comments and feedback to heart@floridaea.org. Or you can leave a voicemail at 850-201-3384.

[00:28:14] Announcer: Sharon: “Educating from the Heart” is a production of the Florida Education Association. FEA is the statewide educators’ union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistants, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators.

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