One Baltimore #27, Spending Ourselves

12/9/19

This column has been a mini-research-project-of-the-week for a while now… it’s satisfying to do that, but PHEW, a lot of work too, and not necessarily what I intended to be doing non-stop when I started out. One thing I’ve always liked about the column format is that it can be different from week to week. This week, I’m just gonna write, without statistics or quotes or citations from other news sources. Time for a change of pace. And the topic, in fact, is pace.

Everyone is exhausted. I mean, there’s an exception to every rule, but I don’t think I know anyone (well, anyone remotely close to my age) who, when asked how they’re doing, would say “Ya know, everything’s on a real even keel, I’m well-rested and focused, calm and centered, finding myself sustainably balanced between work, play, and doin’ nothin’ at all, thanks for asking.”

Maybe I just know a lot of down-trodden people and that’s tipping the scales, but I think we can agree that whatever’s going on for a given individual, modern life is a lot. It tends to feel like we have untenable choices — disconnect and be isolated, or connect and be pulled in a thousand different directions. Disengage and feel useless, or pay attention and be enraged and depressed and terrified about the state of things. Of course, often there’s not much choice about one’s level of connectivity and activity, because to communicate at all is to be plugged into a firehose of information and distraction, and to survive at all is to hustle hustle hustle.

Our beloved town doesn’t make it easier. It’s hard not to feel sapped just walking down the street, seeing all the hunger and need, the folks huddled in blankets, the kids walking in traffic trying to make a buck, the girls on the stroll, all just trying to survive in a world without a place for them. Then there are the physical signs of neglect, the litter clogging the storm drains, the buildings crumbling down around us. You could throw yourself into any number of people and projects, but you’re running late, you gotta keep walking. Widen out your lens, and it doesn’t get any better — an epidemic of hopelessness and pain, a police state that’s out of control, corruption riddled through our government.

Even the things that make city life vibrant and beautiful can be overwhelming. That slam poetry night, that community skills-sharing class, that badass music festival, that civic-minded garden club, that new corner cafe… they’re all full of dedicated, fascinating people working to build their visions into reality, and they’re all imploring you to show up and take part, but you just can’t be there for all of it.

Especially not when everyone you love is in crisis (and maybe you are too). Wages are stagnant while rents are sky-high, so everyone is moving from one living situation to another all the time. Our food and air and water are poisoned, we’re stressed and losing sleep and not exercising enough, and on top of that healthcare costs are crushing, so everyone is sick all the time. Everyone is struggling and falling apart and trying to rebuild all. The damn. Time. We HAVE to be there for each other, we have to be there for ourselves… we do our best, and are crushed when we can’t.

I’m not even going to get into the national and global situations, the way they loom.

The other week, I had a bit of a crisis about the issue of time. I found myself lying awake in bed, turning my life over in my head, feeling stretched too thin and wondering if I really could do everything it felt like I had to do. Eventually, I turned on the light and found a pen and paper, because that’s what I always turn to.

I made a list of my priorities. Then I laid out a grid representing a four week block of time, splitting each day into two rough increments, daytime and evening. Fifty-six increments of time total. How do I spend myself?

Twenty increments of time to my day job off the bat. Sixteen total for the people in my life — significant others, family, friends, babysitting. Four for chores and self-care, two for community gatherings and events, one for a monthly meeting with my housemates.

That left the extra-curricular activities to which I’m most committed… there’s this column, my way of organizing my thoughts and ideas, communicating with the world, and practicing this craft I want to hone. It takes roughly two increments of my time each week for drafting and polishing it, so eight total… damn, that’s a lot of time I’d sorely love to use for other things, but it takes what it takes. Another four for Baltimore For Border Justice, the platform Opal and I are building to turn our desperate need for some kind of societal change into action… not as much as I’d like to give to it, but everything I could spare.

I left a single increment unassigned, because if I felt that my entire life was scheduled, I wouldn’t be able to handle it.

This exercise, as obsessive as it felt on a certain level, was incredibly useful in focusing my mind. It was also terribly sad. I know what’s most important to me, and it’s a huge relief to see that I can make a lot of things work… but I can’t have it all, and that’s a hard thing to face. There were things on my initial list that did not make the final cut, not least of which is more time to my damn self.

Artistic endeavors have to go by the wayside this year, that’s the biggest thing. I’m stepping back from community theater, something I already knew was going to be necessary but that I needed to see in black and white to really convince myself of. The other major takeaway is that I know I can’t take on anything new right now. No new classes, no new projects, very little in the way even of new friendships, which is a rough thing to accept in a world full of such interesting and inspiring people.

So if you’re wondering why I’m not around to help out or hang out as much these days, please know that it’s not you, it’s me recognizing that I have to try to more or less stick to that grid I drew in the middle of the night.

In addition to this personal message, what I want most to say is this — please don’t feel shame if you’re also feeling worn down, if you’re also struggling to figure out how to do it all. You can’t. I certainly can’t. No one can. We have to pick our battles.

I urge you though, if it’s not already a regular part of your life, and if you have an increment of time you can sustainably spare (it’s honestly ok if you don’t), to let one of those battles be about taking action on something that matters to you. There is a joy in action, a lifting of psychic weight. As much as it takes energy, it also replenishes it, especially when you can do it with friends and make it fun.

Yesterday was a great reminder of that for me. I went to bed late and woke up bone-tired, but I got up, made a bunch of hot cocoa, and brought it out to the protest that Opal and I had planned for the annual Mayor’s Christmas Parade in Hampden. Along with a crew of eight friends and fellow activists (we’d thrown this together pretty last minute), we waited several blocks down from the parade’s starting point, signs and banners at the ready.

When Mayor Young approached in his little yellow car, we jumped onto the street alongside him, chanting slogans about his refusal to enforce the anti-gag orders bill (explanation of the issue and a short video here: https://www.facebook.com/BaltimoreForBorderJustice/videos/805263173249275/). We’d just planned to do a quick action, but we ended up getting swept up in the moment and marching in front of him the entire rest of the route, passing by probably thousands of people (it’s a really popular parade, if you’ve never been). There were a couple of people who yelled at us but more who cheered and waved, which was heartening as hell.

The best part by far was when Young stopped to give a speech. We stopped too, turning to him and yell-singing “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back, no more, no more, no more, no more!”, shutting him down and not letting up until he handed off the mic and started to move forward again. If he won’t let victims speak, he doesn’t get to speak either. At the end of the route, I gave an impromptu speech myself to the thirty or so parade-watchers lining the street, and they actually applauded.

Afterwards, I had the biggest, dopiest grin on my face, and we were all chattering away happily. Not all activist actions are going to be as pleasant as a walk in a parade where you get to bring a little karma to your city’s poor excuse for leadership, but every now and then, that’s exactly what it is, and damn is it a good and energizing feeling.

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Events of the Week: The holiday parties are in full swing, and while you can’t make em all (as we were just discussing), here are a few that caught my eye:

If you’re a fan of the timeless genre of horror schlock presented by a cheesy but smokin’ undead host, check out Shocktail Hour With Aurora Gorealis, a monthly late-night film series at Golden West Cafe. They’re showing Two Front Teeth, featuring Claus-feratu (GROAN) this Thursday, 12/12 — bring a gift for the Naughty or Nice gift exchange with Santa and Krampus!

https://www.facebook.com/events/393651188182978/

On Friday night, 12/13, party the night away in support of Baltimore Pride at the Pride Center of Maryland’s December Bash, featuring music, food, dancing, and prizes. You’re always in for a treat with host Rik E King of Pretty Boi Drag, and the Pride Center (formerly the GLCCB) does important work for the community.

https://www.facebook.com/events/456829271618668/

After all that, drag yourself up early on Saturday, 12/14, because you only have until 12:30pm to enter your cookies into SugarBaltimore’s Naughty Holiday Cookie Bake-Off! Suggested shapes include body parts, sex toys, and intimate positions. There will be multiple winners, apple cider (optionally spiked), and, of course, cookies for all.

https://www.facebook.com/events/484008092212648/

Green Event of the Week: What’s happening on the state level in the fight for a livable future? Find out tonight, Monday 12/9 at “Charting the Course for Environmental Change in Maryland”, a info/networking/action-planning session in Fells Point. The event is hosted by the Pearlstone Center and the Baltimore Jewish Council, and sponsored by community solar energy provider Neighborhood Sun. State Senator Sarah Elfreth is the keynote speaker, and a number of other local state representatives and non-profit staff will be leading breakout sessions.

https://www.pearlstonecenter.org/programs-events/event-calendar/event/environmentalchange/ / https://www.facebook.com/events/2631553453598058/

Marching in the Christmas parade. Photo courtesy of Odette T. Ramos, shared with permission.

One Baltimore #26, The 14th

12/2/19

People love to talk about the presidential election, and I certainly get why, it’s mind-bogglingly important. But what turns me off about focusing on it is that we have almost zero control over the outcome. Maryland is tied for 36th in the timeline of primaries, by which point the field will have narrowed drastically. Even then, our state only has 102 delegates, or just 2.5% of the total. If we’re just talking pledged delegates, people who are bound to vote as the electorate votes, we only have 79, or 1.9%. And of course, after the primary, we’re not much of a swing factor.

Meanwhile, there are SO many important elections this cycle over which we do exert control! The primary for the 7th district U.S. House of Representatives seat previously held by Elijah Cummings will take place on February 4th, with approximately a third of the votes coming from Baltimore City. And then there are the city-specific races — Mayor, Comptroller, and the ten out of fourteen City Council districts that are contested this year, all of which will almost certainly be decided on April 28th, the date of our Democratic primary (early voting April 16-23).

I wish that I heard as much analysis about these races as I do about the presidential one. Again, I get that the White House is a terrifyingly big deal and that it dominates the news. All I’m saying is, let’s put more energy where we can actually make a difference. Let’s all commit to taking a hard look at the local races, not just in the week or so before the vote (…yes, I’m talking to my past self here) but with enough time to really make informed decisions.

I probably don’t need to convince you why the Mayorship matters (holy effing hell, have you caught up on the details of Pugh’s corruption? worse than it seemed at first, and it already seemed real bad https://www.baltimorebrew.com/2019/11/23/pughs-bagman-operated-with-impunity-in-baltimores-political-culture/) and I’ll definitely get into those races in future columns. The Comptroller’s race, I already covered (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/09/18/one-baltimore-18-the-comptroller/). But man, these Council seats are a big deal too, especially as more and more people are talking about curtailing our strong-Mayor system of government to shift power in their favor (https://baltimorefishbowl.com/stories/with-legislative-package-baltimores-council-members-seek-new-checks-for-strong-mayor-system/).

Moreover, local elections are more of how we DO influence things at the national level. You don’t need to look back far to see someone jump from City Council to Mayor to Governor to the national stage. O’Malley may not have been a presidential candidate that anyone took very seriously, but that’s not to say that our next local-politico-gone-big couldn’t be.

It was with all that in mind that I attended, along with maybe 75 others, the 14th District Early Forum hosted last Tuesday by The Real News Network. Kudos to Real News and to host Jaisal Noor! The conversation was tight, thorough, and informing, largely featuring audience questions. You can watch a recording here: https://www.facebook.com/therealbaltimore/videos/563077327812472

So, ok, the 14th… which one is that again? The district covers a swath of central-north Baltimore City, from the eastern half of Hampden up through the fancy-detached-house neighborhoods of Guilford, Tuscany-Canterbury, and Oakenshawe just above the Hopkins Homewood campus, across to cover Waverly, Ednor-Gardens Lakeside (my home!), and Original Northwood, around to capture some of the houses on the east side of Lake Montebello, down through Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello, and back to pick up Better Waverly, Abell, Harwood, and the upper halves of Charles Village and Remington.

Currently, the district is represented by the small but mighty Mary Pat Clarke. Clarke has served on the Council for over three decades, starting back when the districts were in a different configuration, gaining the City Council President’s seat for two terms, running for Mayor and losing, and then making a comeback to pick up her current position. She has a well-earned reputation for taking the small issues seriously, showing up, picking fights, and knowing absolutely everyone. Earlier this year, she announced that she would not seek another term, opening the district up for the first time in a decade and a half.

Vying for the position are Rita Church, Joe Kane, and Odette Ramos. So, what’re their deals?

Of Rita Church, I don’t wanna be dismissive, but I can say very little except that she doesn’t seem to me to be a likely contender. She’s the daughter of Rita R. Church, a community activist who served on the City Council from 1997-1999, and has had a variety of jobs ranging from correctional officer to school teacher to case manager. This isn’t her first race, and, in fact, the “Elect Rita Church” facebook page’s “About” section lists the 45th legislative district, 43rd legislative district, AND the 14th council district in various places.

Church’s website is short on policy details, but includes puzzling lines like “…the nature of the truth and not the falsity of non concrete ideas can become part of the political process interrelationship must foster and try and heal the deprivation of subversion that has taken preparation and concealed the economic and political injustices.” She did not attend the forum. In fairness to her, though, you can watch an earlier forum held by DMVDaily.news in which she did take part: https://www.facebook.com/DMVDailyNews/videos/586597125409901/

Then there’s Joe Kane, a large, affable man whom I’ve seen around at the Waverly Giant. He grew up in Waverly and Ednor Gardens, serving in the Army after high school. From there, he came home to study political science at Morgan State, where he got involved with the NAACP and Baltimore Algebra Project, organizing on issues like unionization for the JHU nurses, increased funding for Baltimore City schools, and the fight against the Hopkins private police force (which he spoke about at West Wednesday, which of course I’m happy to see a candidate attending: https://twitter.com/jkane146/status/1116033410345111552).

Today, Kane is back in Ednor Gardens, where he serves in a couple of positions in the local community association. He was also the president of the Waverly Elementary School Parent-Teacher Organization and serves on a city-wide parent advisory board for City Schools. His day job is in IT with the Coast Guard. He’s been endorsed by State Senator Mary Washington and by State Comptroller Peter Franchot (not entirely sure why he’s involved, but cool?).

Finally, there’s Odette Ramos, a very busy woman whose name I’ve seen in a number of places over the years. Raised in New Mexico, she came to Baltimore to attend Goucher, where she developed her own Social Justice major. She owned a small consulting firm for many years and has been very active in local community and political issues. She was the first Director of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (a great source of local demographics information and analysis) and helped found the Village Learning Place (a free community library in lower Charles Village). She’s worked on campaigns like the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and founded Baltimore Women United, a local political organizing group.

Ramos currently runs the Community Development Network, which advocates for and supports groups doing small development projects throughout the state. She’s been involved in state politics for some time, serving as the chair of the Baltimore Hispanic Chamber of Commerce from 2007-2009 and currently serving as a member of the Democratic State Central Committee (charged with overseeing state-level party activities and nominating people to fill vacant seats) for the 43rd legislative district. She has been endorsed by Mary Pat Clarke and by State Delegate Maggie McIntosh.

On many points, the two participating candidates agreed with each other. They both talked about things like tipping the balance of the Board of Estimates, which oversees city spending, away from the Mayor, getting wealthy non-profits like JHU to put more resources into the city, taking back control of our police department from the state, the importance of schools. They’re both clearly highly competent, hard-working people who are invested in the city, and I think they’d both give the role their all. The main difference that emerged between them was their approach — Kane’s was squarely on community organizing, bringing more people to the table, and addressing systemic racism, whereas Ramos’s was more on solutions within the system, tweaking programs, and working connections in Annapolis.

It’s a tough call, but I walked out of the forum on team Kane. Crucially for me, he gave more details about how our out-of-control police department could be reined in and seemed more serious on the topic. I think he would represent a real and needed change, and I found myself agreeing with him when he said that Ramos would make a great State Delegate, whereas his strength is more on the ground. He concluded the forum by encouraging everyone to “find someone who inspires you and work with them,” and it was a good line, because he did in fact inspire me with his passion and humor.

An additional wrinkle — after the forum, it was pointed out to me by a friend (to be fair, a Kane supporter) that, as recently as last year, Ramos’s address was in the 12th district, where she previously ran for City Council. According to this person, her spouse and child still live at that address, and neighbors were confused at the idea that she’d be running elsewhere. Ramos addressed this issue in the DMV Daily debate linked above, saying that she moved because of family issues and pointing out that she has lived in multiple locations in the 14th at various times, and was even president of the Abell Improvement Association at one point. Not to muckrake — people move a lot, and it’s not like I know a thing about her personal life — but the timing does seem convenient.

In Baltimore For Border Justice news, we’re holding another Advocacy Gathering this Thursday, 12/5, to plan for an action in January around gag orders and local police control — please join us, your voice would be a huge help as we work to move the needle (plus there’ll be snax!): https://www.facebook.com/events/564131721072299/

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: Tonight, Monday 12/2, the Baltimore Boom Bap Society hosts their 77th session of live, improvised hip-hop. Their goal is to provide a space for experimentation and collaboration, and to bring hip-hop into conversation with other forms of music. I’ve been lucky enough to wander into their performances before and been extremely impressed. Catch them at Keystone Korner Baltimore, a new jazz club / restaurant in Harbor East.

https://www.facebook.com/events/616450922226476/

Green Event of the Week: At noon on Friday, 12/6, Sunrise Movement Baltimore, Clean Water Action Maryland, the Baltimore Peoples Climate Movement, and Our Revolution Baltimore City/ County are hosting a Baltimore Climate Strike at City Hall. People around the world, mostly children, who have the most to lose, have been striking on Fridays on a regular basis. The changes needed are so immense that it’s hard to have hope, but refusing to go on as if everything were fine is an important start. I’ll be there, hope to see you as well.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2403781533206840/

I’m cutting the song of the week. It was fun at first, but finding new relevant tunes got to be a chore.

Candidates Joe Kane and Odette Ramos with host Jaisal Noor at the 14th district City Council forum last week.

One Baltimore #25, Kirwan

11/25/19

In the last two columns, we’ve seen Baltimore City’s schools through the eyes of local teachers, and it’s no pretty picture. What would it take to reshape such a struggling system into something great? Just five little things, according to a man named Kirwan and his pals. Ok, five huge things made up of a lot of big things. Let’s take a look.

The Maryland Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education (usually called the Kirwan Commission for its chair, former head of Maryland’s university system and owner of the whitest name I bet you’ve seen today, William English “Brit” Kirwan) was charged by the state in 2016 with looking at the best school systems around the world, figuring out how we could make their practices work here, and pricing it out.

They’re finally completing their work now, and these are their big recommendations, summarized (source: https://www.mabe.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Pres-on-Kirwan-FINAL-10-10-19.pdf):

  1. Free full-day pre-school for low-income 3-4 year-olds,
  2. Higher teacher standards and pay,
  3. Improved curriculum with a focus on early college and/or technical education,
  4. More resources for high poverty schools and high needs students, and
  5. An accountability/oversight board with teeth.

Since I was talking to teachers for this series, I asked them for their thoughts on the details of item #2, including:

  • Requiring future teachers to take courses on things like research skills, racial awareness, and effectively managing student behavior, and to complete a year of practical experience,
  • Providing additional scholarships and loan assistance for teaching students,
  • Increasing teacher salaries 10% over the next three years and studying salaries of other professionals with similar education/experience for future increases,
  • Creating career advancement tracks in which teachers with strong performance gain greater responsibility and autonomy.

Not everyone had time to weigh in on the policy stuff, so extra thanks to those who did! Here’s what they had to say, lightly edited for length [content warning for mention of murder and sexual violence against a minor, sigh]:

*

A first-year middle school science teacher at a city school:

I have complicated thoughts about Kirwan. I am definitely optimistic about their findings/recommendations, specifically the fact that they have proposed hundreds of millions of new funding for Baltimore and PG county, which are HIDEOUSLY underfunded.

Requiring teachers to be trained in basic research and racial equity, as well as having practical experience would be fantastic. I definitely think that this training should be district- or state-provided, NOT an expectation of future teachers’ previous education. As a career-changer, I had no teaching experience or technical education before the week-long New Teacher Summer Institute, which was definitely not sufficient for my first year of teaching ever. If we want to draw in new, well-equipped teachers, the best way to do that is to not rely on people spending their own money and time getting a four-year degree with no guidance: we should be paying people to get this vital job training.

Increasing salaries would certainly be nice, but it is faaaar from all we need. It’s nice to get a bigger check, have more financial security, feel appreciated, etc. But the majority of the reason we have abysmal teacher retention is because teachers aren’t getting the support we need. We need curriculum materials. We need smaller class sizes. We need comfortable classrooms. We need an abundance of PSRPs [paraprofessionals & school-related personnel] (social workers, therapists, etc.) to help with student wellness. We need an environment that uplifts teachers and students, instead of trying to keep us in line.

In terms of administrative advancement, I would like to see school administration be a more democratic affair, possibly with administrative duties shared among the staff members, rather than a district-assigned taskmaster.

*

A former middle school music teacher at a city charter school that has since closed:

I think there should be multiple pathways that can lead toward teaching in the public schools, and that training should be able to be integrated and balanced with other responsibilities as a new teacher. Supporting teachers with more resources and pushing for higher pay is definitely huge. I also think there should be more freedom at a local level for teachers and individual schools to be able to shape their approach, based on the needs of their students.

*

A third-year high school technology instructor at a city charter school:

Apart from the 10% salary increase and additional scholarship opportunities, pretty much all those recommendations are already implemented as far as I am aware. I have colleagues who have been in the system for over 14 years who make twice as much, and who have been taking advantage of those advancement opportunities all along the way. Of course those same professionals will tell you about their trauma of watching a child stabbed to death by another child in the hallways, or a gang rape by middle school boys of their classmate.

A part of the problem is that we keep talking about it like there is some magic bullet that will address all this, when the myriad issues we deal with are the result of decades of neglect, and perhaps more importantly that the general public has absolutely no idea of what it is like, or how outstandingly qualified so many of the people working in the system already are. Teachers keep getting pressure to be better somehow. We are training constantly, and part of our constant recertification process is to keep growing our skills each and every year.

The public is offensively clueless, which means the legislature is offensively clueless, which means the top level leadership is offensively clueless, and their incompetence damages a system overflowing with top tier talent that is struggling against burnout on the daily.

*

A long-time art teacher who taught for one year at a city elementary/middle school:

All of that will definitely help. Getting student teachers in the classroom from day one would be good. The federal government setting education as a priority for the future well-being of this country and funding it is critical (and not where we are headed at the moment). And definitely this needs to be a well paid profession.

Part of the problem with what is listed by the Kirwan Commission is that it puts all of the expectation on the teachers as the solution to the problem of education. Some other problems that need to be solved for education to work is for parents and their students to have the following: a place to live, regular and healthy meals, work that pays the bills and provides health insurance. Secondly, parenting classes as part of high school education or certainly required by doctors tending to pregnant women.

It is critical to understand that the onus is always put on the teachers to improve things when it all has to work holistically. And frankly one doesn’t need to throw a lot of money at it.

I visited/taught in schools in Uganda where students were poor but well behaved and attentive in class. I taught a class of 120 high school kids.115 of them were attentive and working and the others were napping. So culture plays into it too. Those parents are paying for their kids education. A friend from India said he routinely had 70 kids in his classes and they learned biology from books (didn’t have fun experiments, etc).

*

A long-time arts teacher at several city elementary schools:

I think more teacher education is imperative. Our country has fairly low expectations for initially starting education jobs. The Urban Teachers Institute give teachers a year of experience under the tutelage of mentor teachers before they enter the classroom. Much better than Teach for America.

Teachers are only required to have two special education classes. After asking around I found out that the teachers feel as though the classes are good, comprehensive. But still not enough. We need more education about trauma, what it does to kids and how it affects us. We definitely need more stuff about privilege and race and how we all fit together. I am a teacher that never wants to do administration, even though I took all the classes.

I think autonomy and oversight should go hand-in-hand with reasonable ways of evaluating teacher performance. If I were to do it all again I would probably rethink my career path not because I don’t love teaching but because I am also a therapist and a parent and a social worker and it is very very difficult. Teacher education needs to take into consideration what teachers actually do, so yes definitely a full year of practicum and more training prior to.

*

I appreciate the point that more money can’t solve all our complex woes. That said… wow, it really wouldn’t hurt. There’s a statistic that Fox 45 (which is all-in on bashing Baltimore: http://baltimorebeat.com/2017/12/21/building-case-sinclair-broadcastings-project-baltimore-offers-right-wing-news-coverage-city-schools/) and Governor Hogan like to quote about how we already have the third-highest per-pupil spending out of America’s 100 largest school systems… but when you look at all the nation’s systems, we’re in the middle on spending while dealing with way more issues than most, including way more ancient buildings. If you’re unconvinced about the need, listen to the stories of the families involved in the ACLU’s lawsuit against the state for letting students get sick in freezing classrooms and otherwise leaving them without basic resources (https://www.aclu-md.org/en/bradford).

So, what’s the price tag, Kirwan my man? For Baltimore City specifically… about an extra $832 million per year (as compared to the 2018 City Schools budget of $1.4 billion per year), once the full spending increases are phased in over the next decade. The price tag for the state as a whole would be $3.8 billion more per year by 2030.

You can probably guess how Hogan reacted to that, if you haven’t heard. He’s called it “half-baked” (rude to say about something that took 26 people three years to write), refused to show up to meetings (https://www.marylandmatters.org/2019/10/29/tempers-flare-over-school-reforms-kirwan-urges-hogan-to-address-panel/), and taken to calling it the “Kirwan Tax Hike Commission.” Meanwhile, he’s holding fundraisers with VIP tables at $25,000 each (https://www.baltimoresun.com/politics/bs-md-pol-hogan-kirwan-cordish-20191014-lpeokeov25btpnbam3kburoapq-story.html), pouring money into his PAC in preparation to fight it out when the legislature takes up the plan this coming year.

Of course, our own lawmakers are dubious too. Of the extra funds that would go to City Schools, Kirwan recommends that about $329M come from the City government, more than double what we currently spend. In the Sun article cited above, southeast Baltimore State Senator Bill Ferguson calls it “definitely an undoable number”. State Delegate Maggie McIntosh of central-north Baltimore is a little more optimistic, talking about raising revenue by legalizing and taxing marijuana (yes plz), sports betting, taxes on online sales by out-of-state companies, etc.

I’ve got an idea to add to the list for making Kirwan feasible — how about police reform? We spent $47 million on police overtime in 2018, that’s a good chunk right there. $6 million to the family of Freddie Gray. $9 million to James Owens and $15 million to Sabein Burgess, both wrongfully convicted by BPD (https://www.propublica.org/article/baltimore-to-pay-largest-settlement-in-city-history-9-million-to-man-wrongfully-convicted-of-murder)… if we stopped all the brutality and wrongful arrests, the savings would really add up! Oh, and think how much less we’ll eventually have to pay out to Keith Davis, Jr., another wrongfully convicted man, if we free him now, versus waiting longer?

#Kirwan

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Events of the Week: It’s officially The Holidays, and that means that our arts & crafts friends are out there tryna get us to Shop Local. Don’t miss the Small Business Saturday events this week offering drinks, reusable bag giveaways, and other enticements. There’s a pop-up shop at The Alchemy of Art on Eastern Ave. featuring all queer and women creators (https://www.facebook.com/events/729205147580354/), another pop-up at Found Studio on Harford Road (https://www.facebook.com/events/1006895912998309/), a multi-level art crawl at the Mill Centre Artist Studios in Hampden (https://www.facebook.com/events/526433814846742/), and Highlandtown Main Street is doing a “walking pastry tour” (https://www.facebook.com/events/3098303563577335/).

Environmental Event of the Week: This Tuesday, 11/26, AIA Baltimore (the local chapter of the American Institute of Architecture) is holding an info session on “The Climate Take Back Plan and Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Buildings.” Experts will share research and a plan for reversing global climate change, focusing on how to cut down on carbon emissions in building construction and operation.

https://www.facebook.com/events/409514833068285/

Song of the Week: “Hello Young World” by Fashawn
No thoughts of failure your future is clear / The young world is now before you / Because the old world oh it couldn’t hold you / You can tell others to sit back and watch it all unfold / See young world you must be patient and ready / And it’s essential to keep on believing in you

Barclay Elementary School in the Abell neighborhood of central Baltimore.

One Baltimore #24, The Toll

11/18/19

Last column, (https://one-baltimore.org/2019/10/28/one-baltimore-23-the-best-the-hardest/), Baltimore City teachers shared the best things (unanimously: the kids!) and the hardest things (inflexible administrators, deteriorating buildings, overwhelming workloads, traumatized students, workplace bullies) about the job. This week, we’re going to look at how all of it impacts the well-being of our educators, and what we can do about it.

While stress in 2019 is a given — is it just me or are ~80% of the people you know depressed and anxious right now?– our teachers have it especially hard. Teaching is regularly found to be at or near the top of the list of the most stressful professions in America (https://wwmt.com/news/i-team/state-of-mind-teacher-stress-levels-on-the-rise), which is itself one of the most stressed-out nations in the world (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/25/us/americans-stressful.html). Add to that the problems of violence and poverty, and a tough situation can become untenable.

When the population you serve is particularly stressed, as our students so often are, not only is your job harder, you suffer from both vicarious trauma (the psychic distress of helping others through their pain, first coined for psychotherapists) and direct trauma (breaking up fights, being attacked). According to information compiled by the Data Resource Center for Child & Adolescent Health, more than half of children in Baltimore City have gone through at least one “adverse childhood experience,” such as suffering extreme economic hardship, witnessing violence, or enduring racism, well above the average for the rest of the state and the nation (https://www.childhealthdata.org/docs/default-source/local-area-synthetic-estimates/adverse-childhood-experiences-among-baltimore-maryland-s-children.pdf). While efforts are being made to address youth trauma in our city (https://www.wbaltv.com/article/bill-proposal-to-help-youth-cope-with-trauma-in-baltimore/28472429), we have a very long way to go before our kids have the support they need.

On top of that, our students and staff have to operate within a system that is drastically under-resourced. There is fierce debate over the amount of funding Baltimore’s schools should receive, which we’ll get into next week when we look at the Kirwan Commission recommendations, but what’s not in question is that we have dozens of schools without air conditioning (https://www.baltimorecityschools.org/ac) or heat (https://www.npr.org/2018/01/18/578731411/baltimore-schools-heating-crisis-a-day-of-reckoning-for-the-city-and-state), and that teachers are having to buy their own supplies and work second jobs just to get by (https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/2018/10/9/baltimore-city-teachers-rely-fundraising-second-jobs-for-classroom-supplies).

So, what does all of that look like on the ground? In terms of the systemic cost, we see it in an incredibly high teacher turnover rate (https://www.wmar2news.com/longform/hundreds-of-teachers-are-quitting-at-baltimore-city-public-schools), which deprives children of experienced educators and costs the system a huge amount of time and money. In terms of the individual toll, I asked eight city teachers (and one counselor — while I’ve focused on teachers, all of this largely applies to other school staff as well) about whether they’d experienced impacts to their physical or mental health as a result of their jobs at city schools.

Here’s what they had to say.

*

A first-year middle school science teacher at a city school:

Oh yeah. I’m physically exhausted by the early hours; my body was not built to function at 7 AM. And there are definitely days that are emotionally draining. Days when I feel like I didn’t actually make a difference, days when the students are so unruly that I feel like a failure as a teacher, days when the principal makes it clear that he is unimpressed with my lack of authority.

*

A former middle school music teacher at a city charter school that has since closed:

Yes, I felt very overworked and did not get proper sleep. I was also trying to remain active as an artist and this was a difficult dual life to support.

The classroom management aspect of teaching middle school, not having mentoring or support in learning those skills at the charter school in 2007 to 2008 definitely heightened my stress levels a lot. I really wasn’t used to having to raise my voice and break up fights, and the lack of support in learning effective classroom management led me not to want to have a similar experience.

*

A third-year high school technology instructor at a city charter school:

Oh without question. I was suicidal for over half the year last year. At the very least teachers in the city system have access to pretty damn good healthcare (thanks to baltimore teachers union), which I have taken advantage of to get help.

[Me: I’m sorry it’s been so hard, but very glad you’re able to access help.]

It actually makes it harder.

[Me: How so?]

You feel like you cannot leave. Relative stability and decent benefits at the cost of a daily dose of emotional abuse for 180 days of the year.

*

A long-time art teacher who taught for one year at a city elementary/middle school:

Specifically city schools? Yes certainly. I had a cold from September through March. I almost quit 3 times because of the overwhelmingness of it. I took every day off that I legally could: sick days, personal business days. I had never done that before. I was so exhausted on weekends. A couple of Fridays I came home and went to bed and slept 12 hours straight. I was age 59 when I taught there. One experienced city school teacher on my floor got sick and never returned.

*

An art teacher who has taught at schools around the city for seven years:

My first year I lost over 30 lbs and cried everyday. That first year one of my students died in a house fire, a 9 year old girl attempted suicide, another student’s mother had a breakdown and killed his little brother who was 2.

I leaned on the school’s social worker and school psychologist for support that first year. I don’t know what I would have done without them providing larger context of the world of education.

[Me: Context along the lines of the whole “you can only make so much change” thing?

Yes, and that this was just a reality in the world. I was just ignorant of that reality.

*

A former special counselor for Indian Ed. students across the district for 11 years:

Definitely. I started to go to therapy while I still worked for city schools. An incident with a principal who removed me/the program from his school actually caused me to vomit later that night. It’s always so hot or so cold, wherever you’re working. Roaches and mice in some places. Violence. It’s a lot.

The interpersonal stuff is worse than all that. I’ve been hit on, groped, cat-called, a lot of times school staff confused me for being a student and I would get corralled for cutting class (which was funny). My car was keyed, my office was tossed. Been called ‘white trash.’

*

A long-time arts teacher at several city elementary schools:

Omg. Yes. I have only had one administrator make me feel horrible (enough to almost stop teaching). But the unchecked behavior from needy kids and a punitive not restorative system is what kills me the most. I go home so depressed from the verbal abuse and hopelessness and noise I NEED the weekend to recover. I love my job but am sooooo excited I have only 4 more years.

*

A former arts teacher who taught for six years at city schools through various programs:

Yes. I was overworked and overstressed and had a terrible time getting sleep. Anxiety also upsets my stomach. Once, on an empty stomach I threw up stomach acid while driving to work. Sorry that’s graphic. This was not isolated to city schools though. I had similar issues working in a high needs school in another district, especially with a particularly toxic principal.

I also ached from head to toe, especially my arms from constantly breaking up or preventing fights.

*

A special education teacher with five years of experience who taught for half a year at a city high school before quitting:

Oh yes — the school environment was incredibly stressful (students’ behavior, lack of maintenance of the building, not having anything I needed in order to teach), plus add to that the feeling of being completely unsupported and even antagonized by administrators. Also the district places a lot of extraneous demands on teachers, mostly related to professional evaluation. I don’t know, because I had not worked in US public schools prior to this experience at BCPSS, but I suspect that some of this is typical of public school districts. However, when you pair those demands with a school environment that makes it impossible to do the actual job (i.e. teaching students), it begins to feel as though your job is to jump through hoops.

Anyway, yes: I wound up deeply depressed and extremely anxious; it affected my sleep terribly and caused chronic headaches. The day I quit, I immediately felt better — even with no job! That’s how I knew I had done the right thing getting out.

*

Thank you again to everyone who shared their story, and to all who are working to give kids a better future.

I want to be clear that the dysfunctions described above are not specific to Baltimore. Public school teachers across the nation are getting sick from stress, selling their blood plasma to afford pencils, and quitting at alarming rates. But that’s not true in ALL jurisdictions in America, or in all places around the globe — it doesn’t have to be this way. So… what can we do? The big-picture answer is to completely reform how we fund and manage our schools, and, again, I’ll talk about that next week.

The more immediate answer is that we do what we can to support the people on the ground. Get involved in your local school, find out what they need, help out, throw a party for the staff, raise some cash. Donate and share local teacher projects on platforms like http://www.donorschoose.org, and help the Baltimore Teacher Supply Swap, which closed for lack of funding this fall, to reopen (https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-reopen-the-swap).

One cool local resource that I learned about in the course of these interviews is the Happy Teacher Revolution. Founded by Danna Thomas, who taught for seven years at Baltimore City elementary/middle schools, the organization now trains educators around the world in developing social support networks. HTR has free mental health & wellness support group meetings here in Baltimore, with the next happening tonight, Monday 11/18 at 5:30pm, and the next after that on 12/16 (flyer here: https://www.facebook.com/HappyTeacherRevolution/photos/a.1446151432136037/2484850484932788/).

On an entirely different note, Opal and I have been taking steps in the last few weeks to get Baltimore For Border Justice off the ground, which I’m deeply excited about. We’re holding an Advocacy Gathering about the gag orders bill (background: https://one-baltimore.org/2019/09/09/one-baltimore-17-voices/) this Thursday evening, 11/21 (https://www.facebook.com/events/1260854087432091/), please join us!! It is crucial that victims be able to tell their stories, so that when, for example, the state FREES KEITH DAVIS, JR., he’s able to talk about what happened and help us stop the corruption that allowed it.

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: Like games, supporting local artists, and free pizza and beer? Baltimore’s gotchu. This Sunday, 11/24, local startup Terrible Games is holding a playtesting session at No Land Beyond for their freshman release, Token Terrors, to see how the rulebook holds up.

https://www.facebook.com/events/786980915057681/

Green Event of the Week: Once a month, the Baltimore Commission on Sustainability (https://www.baltimoresustainability.org/about/commision-on-sustainability/) holds public meetings to discuss the pressing issues facing us as we try to figure out how to craft a livable future. This Wednesday, 11/20, the Commission is considering the question of waste — what are our long-term plans for dealing with it as a city, and how can we do better?

https://www.facebook.com/events/2496622367272849/

Song of the Week: “My Friends” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
My friends are so depressed / I feel the question / Of your loneliness / Confide, ’cause I’ll be on your side / You know I will / You know I will

Dorothy I. Height Elementary School in Reservoir Hill, which was recently rebuilt as part of the 21st Century School Buildings program.

Announcement: two-week break

Hey folks, no column this week or next, as per my “no column if I’m out of town for 3+days or opening a show” rule. I’m on day 3 at Empire City-Con, helping Bleed Geeks vend their awesome reusable cloth pads (https://www.etsy.com/shop/bleedgeeks), and next week I’ll be both going to a work conference AND helping open the Charm City Kitty Club’s newest show, Cliterature (two nights only, Fri 11/8 & Sat 11/19: https://www.theatreproject.org/cliterature/).

Thanks for your patience!

Cosplayin at the con

One Baltimore #23: The Best & the Hardest

10/28/19

If you’ve ever known a teacher who cares deeply and gets to make a difference in the lives of the kids they work with, then you know that teaching can be the best job in the world. Except that here in the U.S., with the way we undervalue the education system in general and the labor and well-being of teachers in particular, it’s also often one of the hardest. And here in Baltimore City, from everything I’ve seen, we make it really, really hard. It’s not ok. And it has to change.

I first knew that something was deeply wrong with the teaching profession in Baltimore when I was a couple of years out of college. One of my good friends had become a teacher at a city school, and when I would ask her how she was doing, the answers were getting increasingly, intensely bad. The amount she had to work in the evenings and on the weekends to keep up was taking a huge toll on her, as was the mind-numbing paperwork, the constant testing, the trauma the kids were facing, just all of it.

It became a trend. My friends who started jobs as city school teachers were driven to dark places. I met other city teachers, people I hadn’t known before they started the job, who seemed to be holding it down, but I was haunted by the knowledge of how hard it hit those close to me. Putting aside the terrible injustice of mistreating dedicated people who just want to help young people thrive, how can a system that does that to its workers possibly sustain itself or perform as it should for those it’s meant to be serving?

Change might just be coming. With the amount it’s been in the news lately, you may’ve heard of the Kirwan Commission, but here’s a quick recap. The commission, formed three years ago by the state legislature, was tasked with studying the best school systems in the world and figuring out how to make ours one of them. It rolled out its major recommendations and funding estimates this past winter, and is now wrapping up its final report just in time for the legislature to consider implementation when the 2020 session starts up in January. It’s going to be a big fight, with the Governor lined up squarely against it for reasons of cost.

In trying to understand the whole Kirwan situation better, I reached out to my teacher friends for their perspectives. Almost as an afterthought, I posted on facebook to ask if any other current or former city teachers would like to talk.

The response was overwhelming, which I should have expected. Teachers in Baltimore have a lot to get off their chests!! We’ll start this week where I started with them, by asking what they found were the best things about the job, and what were the hardest things.

So, what’s the best thing about teaching in Baltimore City? While I feel bad not sharing all the individual responses on that point, the truth is it would be real repetitive reading. I can sum up what every single person said in two words: the kids. Seeing them ask good questions and do creative things, helping them, getting to know them, watching them grow up.

The answers about the hardest things varied more widely and tended to be more thorough, and so, while I apologize for focusing on the negative, it’s those I’ve shared below. While a couple of people were willing to use their names, most wanted to be anonymous, so we decided to go that route across the board. These interview excerpts are lightly edited for privacy and clarity.

*

A first-year middle school science teacher at a city school:

Also the students! Specifically, the conflict between the students’ desires (phones, snacks, taking breaks from class, etc.) and the administration’s expectations of discipline. Obviously, there needs to be some expectation that my students are actually in class, paying attention, etc. But I do feel that there’s too much of an emphasis on consequences, rather than restorative practices.

But also… the students themselves are often resistant to those restorative practices. They haven’t gotten the tools they need to manage their emotions, and they’re not in a social context that enables them to practice those skills. Especially since their school day is dedicated entirely to cramming them full of information that they often don’t even care about. Unfortunately, the system seems wholly uninterested in getting them invested: just controlling them.

*

A former middle school music teacher at a city charter school that has since closed:

It was one of many charter schools that wasn’t very well run. The administration was basically a family business. Director was the husband of the principal. The principal’s father was on the board, and they had no training or experience in education. There were also many problems in the way that they expected teachers to handle discipline issues independently in the classroom without support. Technology and music teachers would sometimes be taken away from their normal teaching and assigned to different duties, disrupting their curriculum to act as substitute teachers or refocusing on standardized test preparation. I did not feel supported at all, and teacher retention was very low in general.

I also felt that they were conditioning the students for jail, having to be escorted in straight lines between classes and the lunchroom for instance. There were also very rigid guidelines as to how all teachers were expected to manage their classrooms and pedagogic approach, which went against many of the approaches that I felt worked well with my students.

*

A third-year high school technology instructor at a city charter school:

Ugh, that is a first place with a lot of competition. The job is hard at the best of times. Children, teenagers, are growing up and figuring themselves out and having a hard time in that process, and they are so inwardly focused, and so involved in their emotional development and social lives, that I, as a strange adult who they see maybe an hour out of every weekday, am just not on their radar. I am just not something they think about beyond their grade (if they care about that). So it tends to feel like I am barely a person to them. Which means taking huge amounts of inadvertent disrespect, and feeling dehumanized.

Again, this is just the nature of the job in the first place, before you start taking into account the vast amounts of trauma that these kids are bringing to school each day, where school becomes this safe place merely by virtue of giving them a space with peers and the chance for supportive friendships. As a teacher, it makes me feel very insignificant and like I do not make a difference. Even if it is not factual, it is a hard feeling to dodge.

*

A long-time art teacher who taught for one year at a city elementary/middle school.

Where to begin….!!!

The school building was on its last legs physically, no potable water (it had to be brought in in the form of a water-cooler and would get knocked over, so they took it away). Fights fairly often, traumatized kids (many, more than average), theft of anything of remote value from my desk and drawers, no heat a couple of winter days, unusable sink in the art room from September 1- June. Unmanageable classes (more my fault than theirs).

I had a third grade that was full of traumatized kids. So out of control that at one point it was complete chaos with kids running on top of the desks. 3rd grades seemed to have a good deal of older kids in it — 10 year olds. I was unintentionally hit by a couple of students.

*

An art teacher who has taught at schools around the city for seven years.

Getting to know the students. Learning my personal limits. I was told when I first started working in schools that “Education is an abyss, and if you pour all of yourself into it, you will lose yourself’.” The hardest part is realizing how little you can actually help a child. After I realized that I alone couldn’t really affect change, my goal became to just try to give a kid a good day. Or at least smile once that day.

*

A long-time arts teacher at several city elementary schools.

Not having the training, time and support to deal with all of the problems kids bring to the table. Administrators (in my case above the school level) that makes decisions that greatly affect your daily life and have no clue. But mostly the first problem.

*

A former arts teacher who taught for six years at city schools through various programs.

Discipline was the hardest. The school didn’t have enough resources to help the kids. We had little to no support from admin, almost no follow through in terms of consequences. There was also a sense of no organization. For example, we would be told we would “push in” (art on a cart) for the day at the last min. Testing week we had a pre-k class dropped off with us randomly because the AP didn’t want to watch them. A personal frustration with all these jobs was that I never had enough hours and had to have multiple jobs.

*

A special education teacher with five years of experience who taught for half a year at a city high school before quitting.

The administration: Completely unprofessional and at odds with the teachers at every step. Special education was clearly an afterthought and an inconvenience; we were in no way adequately equipped to serve the students.

*

A former teacher who spent seven years at city elementary/middle schools.

The grownups. But seriously, I would say the toxic work environment, lack of professional development around vicarious trauma and caregiver burnout. Also the disproportionate workload classroom teachers carried compared to other school based staff. Also workplace bullying.

*

What can I add to all of that except: thank you. Thank you to those who participated in the interviews, of course, but thank you from the depths of my heart to ALL of the teachers. Thank you for giving so much of yourselves under such challenging conditions, thank you for your service, whether for half a year or twenty.

The next question I asked was whether people thought that the job had affected their health. Again, I received a unanimous response: yes. So that’s what we’ll look at when One Baltimore returns, how working in Baltimore City schools is affecting staff physically and mentally, and what efforts are being made to help them cope. After that, we’ll finally get down to the details on Kirwan and how it could make an impact on this deeply difficult situation.

To close — Free. Keith. Davis. Goddamn. Jr.

#BaltimoreCitySchools

#OneBaltimore

Cultural Event of the Week: This Friday, November 1st, marks the start of Brilliant Baltimore, a ten day combo of Light City and the Baltimore Book Festival. The main action will be at the Inner Harbor, with art installations, concerts, talks, workshops, a comic book pavilion, kids’ events, and more spaced out between the Columbus Center (that building on Pratt next to the Barnes & Noble, with the roof that looks like sails) and the various sides of the harbor promenade. There’ll also be events throughout the city, including, parades, block parties, dance parties, disco dancing and drone-making at public libraries, the Gluegunheim (get it?) exhibition of prop art by the Baltimore Rock Opera Society and Fluid Movement (https://brilliantbaltimore.com/neighborhood-lights/the-gluegunheim-in-bromo), and more. Keeping up with it all would be impossible, but catch what you can!

Green Event of the Week: Did you know that the Baltimore region has some of the worst air quality in the country? I’ve been an environmental professional for a long time, but I was still shocked when I found out (might write a column on it). Because it’s invisible, it’s not something most of us often think about — but luckily, the members of the Clean Air Baltimore Coalition do. This Tuesday afternoon, 10/29, they’re inviting the public to join them in meeting with the Maryland Department of the Environment to demand stronger air protections.

https://www.facebook.com/events/3120543151353115

Song of the Week: “What Did You Learn In School Today” by Pete Seeger
What did you learn in school today / Dear little boy of mine? / What did you learn in school today / Dear little boy of mine? / I learned that Washington never told a lie / I learned that soldiers seldom die / I learned that everybody’s free / And that’s what the teacher said to me

The former Waverly Middle School, now closed.