Somewhere in the last few weeks, our country has lost sight of the role that teachers hold in society. Prior to the pandemic, teachers were seen as academic instructors who taught children of all ages to read, solve math problems, and inquire about scientific topics. Their pay, evaluation, and often reputation, is based on the test scores of their students regardless of said student’s mental health, access to food or basic care, access to technology, or the hours in which their parents work. Similarly, schools are graded, and publicly ranked, based on the test scores of their students. School funding, and reputation, are positively or negatively impacted by these scores. Once again, it does not matter whether or not the children had influences outside of the school setting that could impact their academic performance.
All teachers went to school for at least four years, and most teachers for many more, learning the science of teaching reading, how to manage the behavior of a classroom, and the best practices for assessing student learning. Teachers spend a great deal of time during the summer taking professional development classes to bring technology into the classroom or to better meet the needs of individual learners. Recently, teachers have been instructed in ways to meet the emotional needs of children within the classroom setting as well.
Teachers are in the profession of educating children academically. Yet, there is no doubt that teachers now wear more hats than any other profession. Teachers are therapists, as they listen to children tell their stories of abuse because students trust the person who cares for them each day. Teachers are nurses, as they tend to minor injuries (often with a drink of water or a wet paper towel), feel heads for fevers, and stay vigilant about allergies. Teachers are caregivers, bringing soiled clothes home to wash, shopping for coats, socks, and pajamas as needed, providing toothbrushes and backpacks. Teachers are nutritionists, offering snacks to students who do not have them, and sending home food for kids who may go hungry without. Teachers make sure that children can participate in school activities by providing Halloween costumes, Valentine’s cards for exchanges, hats for hat day, and money for the book fair. Teachers make sure that every child has someone on their side, building them up to feel powerful, smart, beautiful, creative, and unique. The emotional toll is exhausting and the financial strain is hard, but it happens without question because teachers love their students.
Knowing all of this, teachers are still given demands and tasks that do not seem possible to achieve, often by those who have never set foot in the classroom. And yet, the demands are met and goals are achieved. Do more with less, individualize instruction, even more, work more hours for less pay, use your plan time for meetings, spend your money on supplies...the list goes on. And year after year, these same teachers return, genuinely excited to meet their new students, check-in with past students, and create dynamic lessons just waiting for the light bulb of learning to shine.
Today, teachers are being told, once again, that they must be responsible for unrealistic, and potentially unsafe, demands. We are being asked to open our classrooms so that the economy can restart, parents can return to work, child abuse can be identified, children can eat, mental health issues of children can be dealt with, all while a raging pandemic is happening. Believe me, we want to be with our students as badly as parents want us with their children. We do not want to teach online...it was not a pleasant experience (even though we all rose to the occasion fabulously). However, we want to feel safe and supported, both physically and mentally. We want children to feel safe as well. We want to hear scientists, politicians, and doctors talking about our needs as well as the needs of the children.
Just as important though, we need to hear our country talking about how everyone can help children. We need funding to make mental health care affordable for all families and we need providers that can meet with children and their families when the care is needed, not 9 months down the road when a slot opens. We need to make sure that children are not going hungry in our communities, regardless of whether or not school is in session. We need social services, doctors, and community members helping to identify children who are being physically and sexually abused, and then putting plans in place to stop this despicable behavior.
These necessary aspects of daily life cannot fall into the lap of teachers only. Make no mistake, we will help every child who does fall into our lap, while still making sure that each child is adequately prepared for the standardized testing that will be the only indicator of our success, but our children and our teachers deserve more...more attention, more respect, more resources, more support.
The lack of consistency in messages of safety for students and teachers is astounding and stress levels are higher than ever. In Ohio, counties like mine, are rated as a level red (“very high exposure”), with the expectation that residents “limit activities are much as possible”. Masks are required in public while in the “red zone”. Our state has a “10 person gathering size limit”. And today, the WHO announced that air conditioning units should be turned off to stop recirculating air. All of this is being announced to citizens while, at the same time, telling schools that it is safe to open for the fall semester. As a teacher, my head is spinning. Just to clarify, we are to limit our activities while at the same time spending nearly 8 hours a day in a full school building. We are to wear a mask at all times while teaching children of all ages. We are to limit gatherings to 10 people in classrooms with double or triple that number of students. And we are supposed to turn off the air conditioning systems in schools with poor ventilation in the August heat to stop the virus spread. Is it any wonder we are confused and scared?
In a time of uncertainty, schools should not be a guinea pig to learn how COVID affects children and whether or not children spread the virus like adults. The pressure on teachers to keep kids safe through sanitary steps, proper mask-wearing, and socially distancing is tremendous. Knowing this has to be done while not showing any anxiety to the children is daunting. Now add that this all has to be accomplished while teaching academic content to children, the main function of a school, it becomes a nearly impossible task.
Since it appears that most teachers will be returning to classrooms full of children, I beg of you to think deeply and creatively of ways that we, as a society, can help our children be safely cared for when away from school, for ways that parents can work without having to pay high costs for childcare when schools are closed, and how to support teachers now and every day. Teaching is a passion, a way of life, and a part of who I am. There is no other career I can imagine doing. I imagine most teachers would tell you the same thing. Whatever is asked of me this year, I will do it with the same high standard I display year after year. I love my students and treat them as if they are my own children, I will educate them as individual, whole children, keeping them as safe as I possibly can. All of this will occur at the expense of my own mental and physical health. I will leave work each day asking myself if I did enough while at school and I will lay in bed each night hoping I did not bring the virus home to myself or my family. Above all, I hope that no teacher makes the ultimate sacrifice.