Tim O'Mara has been a math and special education teacher in New York City public schools since 1987. He is also the author of two novels.
Opinion: Reward Teachers Who Brave the Snow
Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 04:00 AM
Like thousands of other New Yorkers, I woke up last Thursday waiting to hear if the city’s public schools would be closed due to the snowstorm. And like thousands of others, I was disappointed to find they were not. I'm a big boy, I could handle it. I'm also a teacher at The Computer School, so I had to handle it and then explain to my sixth-grade daughter that she had to handle it as well.
And we did. We left the apartment five minutes earlier than usual, caught the M11 going up Amsterdam Avenue and both made it to our schools half an hour early. Somewhat paradoxically, the lousy weather and road conditions kept many others off the streets which made our commute a relative breeze in the midst of the mini-blizzard.
I've been reading much over the past week about how Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña put our kids and staff in danger by not calling a snow day on the same day there was a state of emergency and New Yorkers were strongly advised to stay off the streets. I get it. I've also read that keeping the schools open put us educators into the roll of babysitters. That I don't get.
My Upper West Side middle school had about 80 percent attendance that day and the only teacher absent had already planned to be out. Admittedly, I did not cover any new material in my sixth-grade math class, but the students who did show up got to delve deeper into the concept of finding the area of composite figures. (The Polar Vortex is no match for the Common Core.)
The science class I co-teach spent a period in the Green Lab checking on their sprouts, making observations, and recording data. The only real downside to the day was the cancellation of recess and lunch out, causing most of the few hundred kids to be in the cafeteria without the benefit of having run around for 20 minutes.
A lot of the kids we teach have parents who can't take a day off from work without being penalized. They don't get the same sick and personal days teachers get. They sent their kids to school that day knowing they'd be safe, and then went off to work themselves. I'm proud of my colleagues for showing up and being there for our children. I'm even proud of my bosses. (That's right, I said it.) One came in from New Jersey and the other drove down from Westchester.
I also understand that many parents chose to keep their kids home and many teachers could not make it safely to school throughout the city. Adults making adult decisions. I'd like to propose a new approach that allows for a range of responses to challenging weather conditions.
Let's create something called an "Exceptional Weather Day." On these days—and let's hope they're rare—parents who choose to keep their kids home may do so without the students being marked absent. Teachers who decide they can't travel safely can also stay home without having to take a sick day. Those of us who can show up safely, get another sick day in our bank.
I've been teaching in the city system for over 26 years so I know there's a bureaucrat—or 50—in some office not anywhere close to an actual student who will tell me why that can't happen. It's not a perfect solution, but let's not make that the enemy of a good one.
As far as the question of what could kids possibly learn on a day like last Thursday, that's an easy one. They learned their schools and educators are there for them in stressful times. They learned there's a place to go when things don't go the way we plan or want. Above all, they were reminded that each and every one of them is part of a school community in an amazing city filled with communities who are not going to let them down.