Teachers in the center ring

a mystical möbius — curating facts, ideas, text, and media to create a contemplative space.


center ring
Photo by Petri Heiskanen on Unsplash || CC0

No, I’m not placing teachers in the center ring of a circus, although many teachers likely feel as though that’s exactly what Covid-19 has done. I’m alluding to “Ring Theory,” by psychologists Susan Silk and Barry Goldman. We’ll come right back to that.


public school - Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash || CC0

Opening schools

The question over opening schools safely in the context of Covid-19 in the U.S.A. is quickly becoming the most serious and pressing issue among a long list of horrendous social and economic problems exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic. The question over what to do about K-12 education is the growing-tip of an entire constellation of inter-related systemic questions pressing hard for some policy guidance right now.  Significantly, a Band-Aid is not going to suffice on this booboo. Friday evening on the Nightly News, Lester Holt commented regarding our fight with Covid-19 in the U.S., “I’m just going to say it, we are losing this battle.” Sadly, no helpful guidance has been forthcoming from the president.

Opening schools is a question that the experience of other nations can help us with greatly. However, when President Trump, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, say “schools must open to all students for daily in-person instruction in the Fall,” and that “we can look to the successful experience of European [EU] countries in re-opening their schools,” my goodness, that’s comparing apples to toxic waste. Thanks to the administration’s total mishandling of the pandemic, our context bears absolutely no resemblance to that of EU countries.

CNN graphic comparing infection curves: US vs Europe…


CNN Covid curve


What’s the chief difference between most EU countries and the U.S.A. in terms of readiness to open schools? A few EU countries are seeing rates of new daily infection in the very low thousands (< 4,000). Most EU countries are seeing rates in the tens (< 100)  and hundreds (< 1000) of new cases reported per day. That is compared to the U.S. where the infection rate is presently over seventy thousand new infections a day. The rate may be on track to go over 100,000 new cases daily by the time school begins.” So, many EU countries with less than one hundred fresh cases in one twenty-four hour period, compared with over one hundred thousand new cases a day in the U.S. Again, that’s “apples to toxic waste.”

The White House’s [WH‘s] language on the issue of opening schools raises major concerns. The WH saying “open means open every day with all kids in schools,” and “science shouldn’t stand in the way,” puts any idea of a hybrid model (and sanity) off the table going in. I feel the WH‘s language plainly indicates that the chief concern is in bringing the child care dimension of schools back on line so that people can return fully to our ‘only-money-matters’ economy. This president and administration seem to understand key moving parts in the ‘only-money-matters’ economy, and yet remains totally blind to the human dimension and dynamics of our interdependent systems (e.g., home, school, work, etc.).

Some issues

I note that today I am writing anecdotally from what I have read on the issues; and spending the first couple years after retiring from local church ministry doing some substitute teaching. I subbed in four different school districts in the area in which I live (with roughly three differing funding levels, e.g., one low, two medium, one high). I hope I’m incorrect, however, I have a hard time imagining a situation in which it will be easy to get substitute teachers in this context—only one of many system-stressing problems.

Social distancing. This (and masking, as we know), is of crucial importance if we are to have any chance of safely managing gathering for school in any community with active  Covid-19 infection spread. The faithfulness-in-masking question is an open one. Are students willing, and/or even capable, to effectively comply with on-going masking requirements? Perhaps. However, social distancing is going to present a tremendous problem to at least three of the school districts in my area as they simply don’t have the space to pull it off. Classrooms weren’t overcrowded with desks and students before the pandemic for no good reason. The present system simply does not have the spare capacity of space to do social distancing in most of our existing facilities.

I live in Trump country and, even here, they are not considering a full return to school as before for this Fall. To accomplish social distancing in the low funded district in my area, the decision for a hybrid-model has been taken. Half the kids two days a week in person, two days remote learning, and rotating with the other half of the students. This hybrid school plan will have HUGE impacts on families in both their home and work systems. These multiple impacts will be felt more by teachers than anyone.

—As I finish editing this on Friday, I am hearing reports from all over the U.S. of many school districts coming up with many creative hybrid approaches to education in the Covid-19 context. We can take some solace in the fact that our resolve to educate children appears to be strong.

Remote learning. This course of action will be needed in some schools, however, let’s be clear. The harm remote learning will do in terms of increasing inequality and injustice is staggering. Not only is a lack in availability of technology and broadband access an issue for some, the lack of availability of a grown-up to monitor and mentor the remote learning in many low income homes in which all the adults simply must be away from home to work will also greatly exacerbate inequality in education. Add that the vast majority of teachers have very little training or experience when it comes to remote learning, especially on an entire class scale, even on a hybrid basis, the problem grows exponentially.

Teacher overload. I hope we haven’t forgotten that we have created a public education system that, generally, under-performs while over taxing teachers with work and responsibilities, yet way under compensating them for their trouble. That was before the pandemic. Now, depending on locale, we are asking teachers to take on the impact of Covid-19 and to retool themselves, and their teaching environments (both in-person and remote), to account for both learning and pandemic safety. For instance, very significant teaching techniques that are used daily, e.g., partnered learning, and small-group work teams, are no longer an option. This change alone will create huge impacts on students and teachers alike. And, we’re asking all this, and more, of teachers while offering no additional training or compensation. A recipe for mass retirement and all manner of attrition.


Teachers and Ring Theory meme 1
Background image by Gerd Altman || CC0

Ring Theory

The school opening issue has raised anxiety and my clergy colleagues are rightly concerned about families, parents, students, schools, teachers, administrators, staff, who are among their congregants, and wondering how to care holistically for all in our Covid-19 context. 

I’ve been writing to colleagues on social media that I feel we need to learn and apply the insights of Silk and Goldman’s “Ring Theory” (see brief very helpful article here: How not to say the wrong thing) and let teachers be in the center ring right now.

Let teachers be in the center ring right now.

Teachers are not just ANY group in this complex set of stakeholders. Teachers are often also parents who have children who are students in public school as well. Teachers share the one viewpoint that is most directly intersected and effected by the policy decisions we are making as a nation and localities right now regarding opening schools as we rapidly move toward back-to-school time. This puts teachers in the center ring.

Teacher-determined policy is needed

We need to let teachers be in the center ring and that means they are the ones who get the priority on care and comfort with regard to the opening of schools issue. Caring for teachers in this issue means letting them—in consultation with the consensus on the very best science—make the policy decisions regarding how to responsibly do education in the context of Covid-19.

We need to let teachers set the policy!

Time to completely re-think

One of the realities exposed by the Covid-19 Apocalypse is that our legacy systems are unable to meet the growing complexity of our interdependent human society. Our systems need a major rethinking. In some localities over the next few months we will likely see the collapse of major systems like education and medical care delivery. Hopefully the local collapses will not domino and cascade through the entire system. The pandemic has revealed that piece-meal whack-a-mole approaches to our systemic issues are no longer a sensible alternative.

Sadly, humans have demonstrated time and again that it takes urgency on the magnitude of collapse to animate very difficult change like the work of re-thinking all of our existing systems. As difficult and chaotic as this period will seem at times, it does provide our society the best opportunity we’ve had to completely rethink our present approaches to education. An opportunity to finally create school systems designed to provide an equal educational opportunity for all students as job one.

Many people wonder what “reparations” might look like. At a bare minimum, reparations might look like a nation-wide system of education that funds every local school on an equitable basis. A system that actually incarnates our shared moral sense that every public school student deserves an equal opportunity of getting a good education.

If you are interested in how education is presently configured, and where it may go in the future, I highly recommend a podcast entitled Reinventing Education. It is done by some forward-thinking teachers and is quite insightful. Here’s a link to episode-fifty from last May that offers an excellent summary of the first forty-nine episodes: Start Here 2.0! A Map for Reinventing Education

Many windows

“Education” is but one window on the dire nature of our present life conditions.

The systems are all interdependent.

Piece-meal cannot help.

As much as we might like it to, life is not going back into the same box as before.

As difficult as it will be, this is our (perhaps best) chance to see beyond an “only money matters” society and rethink what human beings really need from our systems. A chance to create systems designed to help us realize our humanness and not selectively diminish some human beings.

Next week: “Polemic: kw integral error?”

[this post approx. 1,800 words (~7 min. read)]

Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?


Note: I moved away from stadial/stage theory in August of 2021. This piece is not rectified except for this graphic:


center ring



9 thoughts on “Teachers in the center ring

  1. I have four sisters who are retired school teachers and a couple of nieces who teach.

    We need to get better at remote learning and make sure that all homes have the needed access. I think that we need a plan for the future of education that makes switching from in-person to remote learning something that we do whenever there is an uptick in community spread illness.


    1. Thanks for writing, David!

      It’s a tough problem. Different localities will need different responses. Pandemics are, intrinsically, much worse on urban populations.

      I had occasion to listen to some talk radio this morning. The host was ranting about how teachers ought to do this and ought to do that. #facepalm

      Best wishes to your nieces, the world needs good teachers.


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