Teachers gave you everything they owed you and more. And it wasn’t enough.
Many educators will tell you they have a love/hate relationship with their work. We love working with children and helping to shape the next generation. However, being a teacher is, at times, being in a constant state of rage and being gaslit. We are clearly the lynchpin of the American economy, but we are treated like the doormat. When COVID-19 hit, life as we knew it grinded to a halt. Schools were advised to close their physical buildings to protect children from being exposed to the virus. Administrators and teachers instantly pivoted to online learning. With little to no guidance from their local, state, or federal governments, schools invented a new way to educate children in the midst of a public health crisis. For a while, we were lauded with memes, long, thankful Facebook statuses, and signs in our yards.However, being a teacher is, at times, being in a constant state of rage and being gaslit. Click To Tweet
That all eventually wore off. Pandemic fatigue set in. Online demands for children to return to school turned into protests. No one could fathom how any recognizable reality could exist without kids returning to school. We were told to care for ourselves, while being tasked with reinventing education, with little to no guidance or precedent on how to do it. And there was constant complaining about how teachers were doing what at first seemed to be an impossible feat. As we always do, we made virtual learning the best it could be. Overnight, we figured out how to fulfill our commitment to educating children, while keeping them and ourselves safe. Still, it wasn’t enough.
Before the pandemic, teachers were already experts in sacrifice. We sacrifice higher paying salaries; few other careers can require a master’s degree and pay just a little over the minimum wage in some states.
Teachers sacrifice their time. We meet with parents outside of their contracted hours, grade papers, and complete lesson plans because there’s not enough planning time during the day to plan and rest. We work on “breaks” to catch up, when we should be resting from working 50-60 hours a week, whether that’s the contracted work of meeting job expectations or the emotional work of caring for and worrying about students.
Teachers have sacrifice written in the invisible print of the contracts we sign. It’s a societal expectation that we give more than we receive and that we bear the responsibility of society’s ills. Even in the most well-equipped schools, we still find ourselves playing the role of counselor, disciplinarian, and caregiver for our most vulnerable students. Far too many of us have had the title of martyr added to our job description.
We should have known America would turn her back on us in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Gun violence, one of the first epidemics to target American schools, has been grossly ignored by legislators for years. Teachers and administrators sacrifice their mental health and sense of safety, practicing intruder drills and ALICE training, all because the community at large refuses to do more to protect us. Teachers have died in their schools and classrooms because teachers are consistently expected to be the front line for mental health issues. And yet, before the pandemic, teachers showed up, in the face of the possibility that a rogue community member would break-in and steal their lives, all because sacrifice is a part of teaching.
The line has to be drawn somewhere. Covid-19 is the line. Teachers simply do not owe you their lives. We owe you high-quality instruction for your children. That’s what we are paid to deliver. And we can do that from the safety of our homes. Remote instruction is not ideal, it is not easy, and for many educators who love what they do, it’s not our preference. But when our state and federal governments have done the absolute least to contain a deadly pandemic, it is too much to ask teachers to risk their lives just so we can get back to “normal.” Things are not normal anymore. Opening school buildings will not get us any closer to “normal” than we are now.
Even if it did, normal wasn’t so great. All children were underperforming in math, reading, and science for decades, and there was no urgency about “learning loss” then. We let them fall behind for years with no calls to action at our local school districts. Local governments completely divested funding, contributing to the achievement chasm between poor and minority students and their more affluent peers. When we sacrificed history and the arts for the standardized tests, no one blinked an eye and worried about how that would affect our students in the future. Startling student suicide rates and teachers spending their planning periods making child abuse reports were part of that “normal” we long for so badly. This was all fine until it affected how much we are able to engage in capitalism. No one should want any part of what was “normal” about education going forward.
There’s a principal who picked up a second shift at Walmart to provide for students that the community would allow to starve. There’s a teacher giving lessons while receiving cancer treatments because students bring her so much joy. There’s a teacher who kept live lessons going while his house burned in the background. They get a collective pat on the back and a few social media shares. They are the extreme example of the dedication that almost all teachers demonstrate daily. But when those same teachers ask the community to support their decision to stay safe at home during a raging, out of control pandemic, those teachers are called lazy, selfish, and uncommitted. People suddenly remember their tax dollars fund education. And while the consistent failure to meet academic standards has never caused such an uproar, nor has the misappropriation of public funds, teachers begging to preserve their health has.
Despite their hesitation, many teachers are going to go back into buildings where they don’t feel safe, not because they believe it’s the right decision, but because they have no choice. The community is acting in its own interest, ready to sacrifice teachers so that we can get back to “normal.” But come next year, the community may be surprised to see that many of the most selfless professionals we have, our teachers, are going to be done being sacrificial lambs. Teachers are listening to what’s being said about their decision to prioritize their own safety. They will remember when it’s time to renew their contracts.
Our communities have always undervalued us because America doesn’t value education. The pandemic has made it clear that our jobs are essential, but our lives are not. America should brace itself for a time that will soon come: educational buildings that are open, without the teachers that make them a school.