One morning I received a call from my Chief Master Sergeant. He called to tell me that three or four of our fire teams would possibly be going to Panama. We should pack our mobility bags and stand by. The year was 1989 and I was nineteen. I remember the anticipation of waiting. My adrenaline was high and there was some excitement. Like I said, I was nineteen and full of ego and false confidence. I wanted to test my training and my nerve. However, I would be lying if I didn’t say I was also scared to death. You would have to be crazy knowing that you are about to be put in harm’s way and not be at least somewhat nervous. I didn’t go on this deployment. It was over pretty quick. My bags were packed a few more times along the way and there was a similar feeling each time.
Now, some will not like to hear this, and that’s okay, but I feel a similar anticipation now. A familiar anxiety of putting myself in harm’s way. Except this time, I’m a teacher. Let me explain before people start to lose it. I am not comparing teaching to war. However, this current crisis that we are in, where the enemy is invisible, is requiring me to once again place myself in a situation that could possibly hurt me or take my life. The anticipation of wondering if you will get sick from a virus that is killing people, or worse yet, pass it on to someone you love, creates a fair amount of anxiety. Be mindful, Covid-19 is a type of war. Its casualty rates are extremely high, and many of its wounded are struggling for breath. This is not a scare tactic, it’s just fact.
I haven’t always taught, but since I have been a teacher I have seen a lot. In Wisconsin, we were attacked with a thing called Act 10. I never saw so many people suddenly look at teachers as the enemy, as if we were the scum of the Earth. Some of the things that people, and our own governor, were saying about teachers made us into entitled, bottom feeders of the working world. Many districts took advantage of this and teachers suffered. It was a time when teachers started to question their chosen profession, and many fled from the field all together.
Throughout the years, there has been similar talk about teachers. It’s usually from far right conservatives, or families that blame educators because their kid didn’t get into an ivy league school. I could go on and on about what teachers and administrators (Yes, admin are looked at as low lifes as well. I’ve been there) have been blamed for, but I will save you those negative comments. For one, the attack on teachers has returned, so you are most likely hearing it again and it’s harsh.
A quick note before continuing. I had the pleasure of teaching for a few weeks in Hungary. This was after my first year of teaching. It was an experience like no other, and I am fortunate enough to still keep in contact with many of the students that I had there. There was a distinct difference in the way teachers were treated. I was invited to dinner at students’ homes, told that teachers were thought of as professionals, not unlike doctors or lawyers, and had similar benefits. The educators there were amazed and disgusted when I told them the realities of our educational system and how teachers are thought of in the United States. This is often the theme in many countries. Why is our country so different? Probably for the same reasons that we are falling behind during this crisis. The attitudes need to change. We can do better.
Last Spring, schools were suddenly closed due to Covid-19 and teachers were asked to become virtual teachers. We had one week to get ready. Of course, there were many complaints from those that would rather place educators and their kids in harm’s way. The attacks came and teachers did what we always do, turned a cheek, sucked it up, and taught. Now, as always, some teachers did very well with virtual and some did not. Some engaged kids on a daily basis and some did not. Some planned meaningful lessons and some did not. It’s like any other practice, there are those that excel and some that don’t. It’s a part of any working system and there are people in roles that are striving to change that.
As we approach the upcoming school year, and many districts are going to start with a virtual model, we are once again becoming lowlifes. The attacks are coming at us from all directions. There are a fair number of community members that are standing up for teachers, and some have even said that if we return, they will not because it’s too risky. Once again, teachers can’t win. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. I will say this, the school districts that are wise enough to start their school year virtually during this pandemic are putting together plans that will look much different than last spring. Virtual school cannot be judged from last spring because we were in a crisis, emergency type situation of turning our schools into something they are not, and haven’t been for decades. Overall, I would say we did the best we could.
Even with a virtual model, teachers are being asked to teach from their classrooms. This, I’m sure, is mostly for accountability reasons. As a special education teacher that works with many students with intellectual disabilities, I was planning on seeing my kids anyway. I was able to connect last spring with most of them virtually in some capacity, and many on a daily basis, but some kids need in person contact. Yes, I am willing, if okay with parents, to put myself in harm’s way to teach effectively. However, it is a totally different scenario when hundreds of kids enter a building. The medical community has given warnings that if we place staff and/or students back into a building, no matter how many safety precautions are taken, people will become ill. I ask, is this acceptable? Is losing 1% of the staff or student population an acceptable risk? By the way, doctors are predicting that the schools that reopen, with just staff or staff and students, will be forced to close within two weeks due to illness. Think about that and the turmoil it will cause.
Yes, the anticipation is high for many of us. I have already heard of good teachers that will take leave or leave the field all together. That will be detrimental to current and future students. I have sat back with my wife and not questioned for a moment if I will return. I will take the risk and roll the dice for the love of my kids and profession. I do hope that everyone will be safe and that students and staff do not become ill. I hope that, if and when people do get sick or worse, that liability does not fall in the laps of teachers and then we will be blamed once again. Teachers are excellent scapegoats.
I will return to my classroom. I will be there for my kids, whether in-person or virtually. Perhaps, over my years as an educator I have made a difference. That’s hard to state sometimes. However, I have had students come to me and say that I helped them get through their school years. Some have gone as far as telling me that I saved their lives because their mental health has been so bad that my guidance was the difference for them. I have had parents literally cry to me in desperation and I am there for support. I have bought food and holiday gifts for families that are in need. Over the years, I have had dozens of students reach out and simply say, “thank you” for being there for them during their tough adolescent years when no one else was. I have spoken to classrooms about mental illness and shared my story, something that feels vulnerable, but I know is necessary so students feel normal with their own depression and anxiety. I have been able to start a Black Student Union to give Black students a voice and a safe place to gather and talk. That hasn’t been an easy journey from some of the hostilities that have come my way, but I do it for the kids. I could continue but I won’t. I know several educators out there that could share their own stories. It’s very difficult for me to admit sometimes that I have had an impact, but if I truly hear the words from parents and students, I know I must have done something right.
So as we approach the current climate and situation, I will, along with my colleagues, take the hate that comes our way. I will move forward because I love my students and I want to see them succeed. However, I also want to see them safe. That is my first priority and always will be. I’m not sure sacrificing 1% is keeping them safe.
Here’s a call. Treat educators: Administrators, teachers, paras, student services, admin assistants, custodians, and librarians with dignity, respect, and as professionals. We work extremely hard. If and when we do return to the building during this global crisis, you are welcome to come see how hard we do work and spend the day in the classrooms and hallways with us, smiling through masks, breathing in and out slowly to bring calmness to our kids.