Shame Is Not a Wise Strategy

Governor Raimondo gets a lot right on schools but this time she crossed the line

COVID has devastated us.

It’s not that we didn’t try. It’s not that we didn’t show up. We did. And we did our best. We couldn’t make it work.

These are just two comments I heard from school administrators after Governor Raimondo’s weekly press conference. It would be an understatement to say that she rankled a lot of people with her remarks about schools. I tend to be on her side most of the time and she sure rankled me (and I wasn’t even the target of her scorn.)

Gina Raimondo believes that it is safe for kids to be in school. I agree with her. And I applaud her determination to do right by students and keep them in school and learning as much as possible.

But this time she crossed a line with her tone and her words. She shamed the superintendents who, after tireless work for many months, made the difficult decision to go all-virtual. She told them to “look in the mirror, to “work harder”and to “get creative.” Well, in most if not all cases, they have done all that. And whether or not they made the right call by closing, they have earned the right not to be maligned from a podium by their governor.

I struggle with my tone from time to time and I empathize with her frustration and dismay. I cannot begin to put myself in her place on a good day let alone during a pandemic with COVID cases raging, hospitals filling up and an economy collapsing.

But this was beyond the pale. I imagine how her words landed on the ears of superintendents and heads of schools and all I see in my mind’s eye are their jaws hitting the floor and smoke shooting out of their ears. She shamed them.

That was wrong.

As a parent whose kids much prefer in-person school, I get it. Just today my son said that he wishes he could go in every day (and his school just announced they will be virtual from December 14 til January 15.) One of the main reasons is staffing concerns. And that is what is crippling other schools too. Buildings can’t operate without a sufficient number of adults and when large numbers of staff are absent, school can’t run. Yes, there are some substitutes and perhaps that is a solution in some cases. But in many cases, schools have no coverage for teachers who are out unless administrators—with already very full plates—also become substitute teachers. In addition, pods can’t remain “stable” if teachers are covering for colleagues and mixing with lots of students they don’t normally teach.

Explicit in the governor’s comments was her belief that some people aren’t working hard enough—and I’m sure that’s true. In any organization, especially ones as large as entire school systems, there will always be some people who just mail it in, do the minimum and make their colleagues’ jobs harder. So what? That has been and will be true forever. And yes, at the beginning of her comments she went out of her way to praise teachers and principals and superintendents for their hard work during this incredibly trying time. But whether fair or not, those words of praise and encouragement were completely swallowed up by the dismissive and mean tone she took with schools and districts that have, in her opinion, “thrown in the towel.”

Putting aside the merits of the decision to cease in-person teaching, belittling the educators who made those decisions in such a public and harsh way does not help anyone—instead, it adds fuel to a fire that is already burning too hot for anyone’s good.

I hope Raimondo apologizes for what she said. She can be steadfast in her opinions about the science and schools—and I’m with her on that—without shaming people who, despite what she may think, really are doing their best.