At Aspen Ideas Fest, education advocate discusses classroom inequity, return to school

Schools are reopening, but Randi Weingarten says there’s still work to be done

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten (right) speaks with Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield during the Aspen Ideas Festival at the Aspen Institute campus on Monday, June 28, 2021.
Dan Bayer/Courtesy photo

After more than a year of on-and-off pandemic school closures and online learning, discussions of COVID-19 classroom safety and, lately, debates over curriculum in those classrooms, what does the leader of the nation’s second-largest teacher’s union see as the way forward in education?

“We have to find this common strand of humanity,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said at Aspen Ideas Festival on Monday night.

In keeping with the festival’s “American Futures” theme, Weingarten and Aspen Institute President and CEO Dan Porterfield looked toward the next steps for the nation’s schools during a wide-ranging, in-person conversation about the post-pandemic return to school and equity in the classroom.

Several lessons come to the forefront of the pandemic learning curve, Weingarten said.

“Kids are resilient, kids like school, and communities need school. It’s not just that kids need school, so I think we’ve learned a lot of that,” Weingarten said. “And then the other thing we’ve learned is just how amazingly ingenious and flexible school teachers are.”

Weingarten sees valuing those teachers, both in the market and in society, as an absolute necessity, especially as schools face looming teacher shortages. She cited the findings of a Rand Corporation survey that reported 78% of U.S. teachers experience frequent job-related stress, nearly double the 40% of the general population that reported the same; more than a quarter of teachers show symptoms of depression, compared with 10% of the general population.

While the early pandemic months brought about waves of appreciation as parents saw from home the day-to-day work teachers face, Weingarten said that appreciation waned as frustrations mounted over school reopenings.

“Teachers wanted to be in school. Safety was the way in, not the obstacle to (reopening), but you had what we had,” she said. Vaccines have made a big difference in reopening efforts; improving ventilation systems also is a key component in school safety, she said.

Reopening itself is something that most schools accomplished by June of this year, Weingarten said. But there are still unanswered questions about how to ensure that those schools aren’t just open again but improving to better serve the students enrolled there and the teachers employed there, she said.

“We haven’t learned yet how to use this moment to actually, really — not just recover but reimagine that it can’t just be about reopening. … What are we going to do to make every public school a place where parents want to send their kids, where educators want to work, and where kids thrive?” she said. Career technical education programs that give students the tools to feel confident, passionate about school and prepared to overcome challenges also could help pave the path forward.

Concepts like community schools that provide services for families and project-based instruction that prioritizes teaching over testing would be “a huge game-changer,” especially for marginalized students. The pandemic highlighted inequities that some students face, Weingarten said.

“We know that kids need the social, emotional services, and we need to deal with that trauma,” Weingarten said.

The work to make the classroom a better place to learn and teach entails not only providing services for students and families but also by teaching about those inequities and the history behind them despite the uncomfortable feelings that come with conversations about topics like racism, according to Weingarten.

“If we are not allowed to lift up kids’ lived experience, if we are not allowed to create a welcoming and safe environment for every child, if we’re not allowed to try to figure out this discourse to try to help kids see different perspectives, then how are we going to help kids become critical thinkers?” she said during an impassioned moment on the state.

Recent legislation in some states that limits teachers’ ability to discuss topics like racial equity and white privilege in the classroom is a “real problem,” Weingarten said — a problem that she promised Monday night to defend against.

“I’m no different than so many of my colleagues. We have to help kids learn to be critical thinkers. We have to help kids learn to discern fact from propaganda. … Teachers want to teach accurate history, and my union is going to defend anyone who gets in trouble for it,” she said.