The Last Will and Testament of the American Schoolteacher

On July 7, President Trump reiterated his desire to reopen schools in the fall, as well as his lack of understanding related to how diseases spread, where children live and who with, and the average age of teachers and administrators. Impressively, he accomplished all of this just three sentences: 

So what we want to do is we want to get our schools open. We want to get them open quickly, beautifully, in the fall. And the—as you know, this is a disease that’s a horrible disease, but young people do extraordinarily well. 

A few days later, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos doubled down on the administration’s stance. 

Kids need to be back in school, and school leaders across the country need to be making plans to do just that.

When pressed for a plan, Secretary DeVos had about as many ideas for safely reopening as her now-famous bookshelves have books. 

The uninformed positions held by the president, by the secretary of education, and by many others come despite the fact that summer school teachers have gotten sick and died, despite the fact that the virus is spreading at an alarming rate, and despite the fact that the Center for Disease Control has issued guidelines which, in all reality, cannot possibly be met by the vast majority of schools. In response to this, Secretary Devos called the CDC guidelines “flexible.”

My guess is that you are like me, a teacher who can’t afford not to work, who has student loan debt, a mortgage, maybe a car payment. If so, you may well be weighing your options, having difficult conversations at home. I asked my wife this morning if she thought I should stay somewhere else once school started, as my contracting COVID 19 seems almost inevitable if I am to appear in-person at my school five days a week, a school with two thousand students, a few hundred staff, and a whole lot of tight doorways, narrow hallways, small classrooms, bottlenecks and public bathrooms. She looked at me sadly. Is doing my job going to mean having a Facetime-only relationship with my two children, ages four and three? It will if the Trump administration has anything to say about it.

Preparing for the Worst

If indeed we are being forced to do what science and common sense so clearly indicate is unsafe, if the leadership vacuum in our nation is in fact so profound as to require that civilian lives be risked unnecessarily, and if in fact we as teachers cannot afford financially to shut the system down with our collective resignation, then we are left with only one course of action: Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.

The average age of a teacher is estimated to be somewhere in their low 40s, though at 39 I often feel like a battle-hardened veteran. Given this, many in our profession have yet to take seriously the end-of-life practices that our elders are naturally more likely to have considered.

As a father, there are three things that I either have done, or will do in the next couple of weeks, in preparation for our ill-advised, dangerous and highly politicized return to in-person instruction. I would advise my colleagues, regardless of their age, to strongly consider taking these steps as well. As a side note, I consulted two different friends who are attorneys in different states when creating this list, and before acting upon this advice I encourage you to contact your own.

  • Prepare a Will. This can be an expensive thing to do, but it is also an important one, especially if your family situation is such that your assets may be disputed. Also, it has to be done correctly, so please contact an attorney to see what is appropriate for your unique situation. Whether you’re married, in a long-term relationship, single, or like so many others postponed your wedding due to the pandemic, where your assets—and potentially also debts, wind up is not always straight forward. Even if you’re unmarried with minimal assets, a will allows you to determine whether your savings, life insurance settlement, family heirlooms, and car go to your niece at Stanford, your retired parents or your favorite uncle in Detroit. Having a well-prepared will can ensure that you get to decide where everything goes. Not having one can cause additional and unnecessary grief for loved ones. 
  • Assign Power of Attorney. What this means, in essence, is that you determine now, while living, who makes decisions for your estate if you cease to be able to do so, and you can provide guidance as to what decisions you would like them to make on your behalf. In addition, assigning medical power of attorney in the instance that you are incapacitated is important. You also want to have a back-up power of attorney. In my case, my wife has power of attorney, but knowing that we are together daily and that anything I catch she is likely to catch as well, I plan to select a backup power of attorney.
  • Take Out a Life Insurance Policy. This one my wife and I did a while back, when our eldest was first born. I currently carry nearly a million dollars in life insurance, though I’m considering increasing that figure substantially before returning in the fall. The reason this is so important is that our budget is based on two incomes. Should I die without life insurance, my wife could lose our home, and it would make it harder to pay for things as small as prom dresses or as big as college tuition for our children down the road. I’m far more comfortable knowing that should I pass away, my wife and children are taken care of financially. Most unions and many schools offer some form of life insurance, and if you’re unsure of how much you should carry, there are free calculators available online. My own financial advisor encourages my wife and me to have enough life insurance to match twenty years of salary.

In addition to life insurance, both the NEA and AFT offer resources for teachers in this regard and I encourage you to contact your local representative to find out just what your union can do for you as you consider purchasing insurance or seeking to have expensive legal work done.

I don’t like having this conversation. I didn’t really enjoy writing this piece. I don’t like thinking about my own death, or what will happen to my collection of football cards and my autographed first edition of “Night” should I pass away this fall—diligently doing my job—when the reality is that, in the vast majority of instances, schools should not be back in session. Having said that, these things are important, if not to me then to those I love most dearly. 

I want to end by saying that it is indeed important that we return to in-person classes, and that is precisely why it so vitally important that we not attempt to do so at this time. But if the powers that be cannot see reason, and continue to ignore science to the detriment of the nation, then we must do everything within our personal power to be prepared for the worst – at least until such a time as our current leaders can be replaced with better, more capable ones.

Colorado News