As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a teacher.
I remember, at six years old, setting up my stuffed animals in my bedroom as if it were a classroom, all neatly arranged into rows. I would take attendance, teach lessons, and give homework. I would create worksheets, have my father make copies, and pass them out to each “student” along with a pencil. My parents must have thought I was crazy, but I was unknowingly auditioning for my future.
More than a decade ago, I walked away from two promising job offers to begin a pursuit in education. From my very first class, to the last day of student teaching, I felt inspired by the promise of the teaching profession. I knew that teachers were overworked and underpaid, but the respect I had for the profession, and the interactions I would soon have with my future students, more than outweighed those well-known negatives.
I knew it would be challenging. I knew it would be stressful. I just never knew I would one day be risking my life.
Earlier this week, several schools in the northern suburbs of Chicago announced a shift from remote learning to a hybrid model. While several districts in the area began the school year with varying degrees of all-in person learning or hybrid, others chose to begin in remote, citing obvious safety and logistical concerns.
This week signals a definitive change.
This decision came on the same day that Illinois announced 1,466 new cases of coronavirus, a disturbing upward trend that shows no sign of slowing down. It came on the same day that a study from more than 140 state physicians reiterated that the riskiest activity to engage in during the coronavirus pandemic is a large, indoor gathering of 50 people or more. It came the same week that the CDC reported a late-August increase in covid-19 cases among children ages 5-17.
Even with all of this knowledge, institutions that regularly house well more than 50 children ages 5 to 17 made the decision to open their doors in ways they haven’t done since the middle of March.
Little reason for the decision was given. There were no cited studies that this was necessary to benefit student learning. Scant information was given about contact tracing efforts, or what might happen if students or teachers tested positive for the virus. In staff meetings, questions were met with a resounding thud: “Well, that’s something we’re going to have to look into.”
So, why the sudden push to move into a hybrid model, when every metric in our area says otherwise?
The one answer that has been given, time and again, is that parents want as much in-person instruction as possible. In a perfect world, this is exactly what teachers want as well – not one teacher would argue that remote learning fully replicates the in-person experience. It doesn’t.
But it is the safest alternative we have.
I get it, parents. You’re tired. You’ve had enough of your kids. It’s been a really long six months and you just need a break.
But, are you actually headed back to work anytime soon? Are there truly childcare needs that you’re struggling with? Judging by a recent report that states only 8% of employees are actually back in the office, the answer appears to be no.
Where is the regard for teachers’ safety? For the safety of their children? For their own safety?
Earlier this week, I met virtually with a third-grade class. When I asked the students to talk about their weekend, the first few kids in the class told me they had a sleepover with a friend, or relatives visiting from out of state.
No precautions are being taken at home, but teachers are being asked to put their lives on the line?
If anything, it speaks to the continued disrespect and denigration of the teaching profession. Since the Recession, school districts and teachers have been told to do more with less. Classroom sizes have increased. Budgets have decreased. Pressure with regards to observations and test scores only continues to grow. In some districts, teachers have been required to teach remotely from their classrooms, a move that has no merit other than to keep tabs on employees.
Teachers have been cast as enemies in our American discourse since at least the turn of the century. We are maligned as “part-time employees,” or “glorified babysitters.” Our pensions, once a reward for our long-tenured public service, have been mismanaged, underfunded or flat out stolen from.
We’ve felt this disrespect our entire careers, but continued to focus on the job at hand. We have dedicated our lives, our time, and our finances to our students and the all-important pursuit of information and academic enlightenment. We may have been temporarily distracted or hurt by the naysayers, but we’ve never lost that pride.
When administrations all over the country capitulate to the uneducated, and allow them to dictate policy while turning their backs on their staff, it becomes harder and harder to be proud.
We are not first responders, but are being rebranded as such (albeit without the accolades and respect), pushed into the fire with nothing more than a cloth mask, a dispenser of hand sanitizer, and a pat on the back.
Well, a virtual pat on the back, and a decision that was made virtually; you know, because it was too dangerous for the Board of Education to meet together in person.
This is how you lose good teachers. This is how you make people feel like they don’t matter. This is how you weaken a profession.
Many teachers are currently weighing their options, deciding between taking twelve weeks of FMLA leave or a full year off. Others have decided to resign or leave the profession altogether.
I may have always wanted to be a teacher, but I must admit, for the first time in my life, I am wondering how much longer that will be the case. For far too many of us, decisions like we’ve seen this past week may be the final straw.