Being a teacher in 2020 is a real trip. All spring, all summer long, I was constantly checking the news for updates: Will the schools reopen? When? What will it look like? Will it be safe? I read every article, every dispatch from my governor, every long and undecipherable announcement from the superintendent. I would also read the posts in various parents’ groups, and sometimes—when I was feeling brave—wade through the comments.
As I scroll through seemingly endless replies, I generally see two types of comments about teachers. One of them goes something like this:
Teachers are amazing! They work all day teaching our kids, then stay up all night grading papers. They spend their own money to buy textbooks and pencils and paper that the schools should really be paying for. I still remember my second grade teacher Mrs. Flaherty. Without her, I wouldn’t be who I am today!
That’s the kind of comment you usually see, until a teacher opens her mouth to complain. Then the claws come out.
These whiny, pampered, glorified babysitters! They knock off work at 3:00 in the afternoon and take the whole summer off, living off my tax dollars. And then they want to complain about having to do their job!
More often than not, it’s the very same people making both of those comments, depending on the context or their mood or the time of day. They respect and admire their own idealized concept of teachers; actual living, breathing teachers, not so much.
This dynamic has always existed to some extent, but the pandemic has brought it out more than ever. On one hand, people are recognizing teachers as essential frontline workers: after all, opening the schools was the only way we could begin to restart the economy. On the other hand, people go apoplectic at the mere suggestion that teachers have COVID concerns of their own.
When schools were preparing to reopen at the end of summer, we were understandably worried about whether it would be safe to go back. Schools are overcrowded, a lot of the buildings are old and do not have modern AC/ventilation systems, and it was not at all clear that schoolchildren (especially the younger kids) would comply with mask requirements. We talked to our principals, talked to our colleagues, talked to our union reps… and some of us decided we weren’t going to go.
The comments, on Facebook and in local parents’ groups, went berserk. How dare these teachers abandon their students, leaving parents in the lurch? And to make the announcement at the last minute, when everyone else’s plans were already set?! How selfish can you get?
These commenters didn’t acknowledge, didn’t seem to understand, that many teachers are older, making them especially vulnerable to the severest effects of COVID-19. Some of us have other risk factors. Some, though we are not in high-risk categories ourselves, may be caring for an elderly parent or a child with a medical condition. As for waiting until the last minute to announce a decision—nobody really knew until the last minute when the schools would reopen, whether the schools would reopen, what the local infection rate would be, or what safety procedures would be in place. How were we supposed to commit to a plan when we had no idea what plan we were committing to?
If you were thinking of teachers as people in the first place, real human beings with families and medical conditions and hopes and fears of their own—well, you’d still be worried about what to do with your kids. It’s a tough situation. But maybe there would be a little more empathy. You would listen to our concerns and hear them as similar to your own, rather than dismissing them as selfish or whiny.
Yes, teachers get to complain.
Well, school has started, and most teachers have returned. In my region, at least, the worst fears have not been realized: while there have been plenty of reported cases, K–12 schools in my state have not turned out to be superspreader events … at least not yet. But some regions across the country have experienced outbreaks. Teachers have died as a result of getting COVID while teaching. And even for those of us who are not fearing for our lives, there are still new worries, new challenges.
School districts across the country are employing a “hybrid” model, where students spend half their days at school (in person), and half their days studying remotely from home. But of course teachers need to be in the building (and potentially at risk) every day. In many districts, they are teaching both cohorts at once—speaking (masked) to the students who are there with them in the classroom, and simultaneously streaming their lessons to the students who are tuning in remotely.
We know how to teach in the classroom, and this past spring we had a crash course in teaching online (via streaming platforms like Zoom). But consider what it takes to do both at once: You’re writing a problem on the board, while also screen-sharing to display the problem on Zoom. You’re scanning the classroom for raised hands, and at once checking your laptop for any questions that were dropped in the chat. You are reminding a Zoom kid to display his name properly, while also reminding a kid in the room to adjust her mask; while you’re trying to figure out which kid on Zoom is using the Annotate feature to scribble all over your PowerPoint, the bell rings and it’s already time to go around disinfecting all the students’ desks.
So yes: teachers get to complain.
This is all so new, and we’re all just figuring it out. You’d think this would be a time for administrators to back off a little and give us some space, right? Wrong. Some school districts have rolled out a new and improved version of the Danielson rubric—the tool many states use to rate teachers’ performance—for grading teachers on how well they are managing this near-impossible task. Principals have already begun auditing/observing classes (via Zoom or in person). Even some teachers who teach fully remote classes have been required to do it in the school building (as opposed to working remotely from home)—so administrators can pop in and look over our shoulders.
Of course, with the new safety protocols, students are not permitted to linger or loiter in the hallways. Now every teacher is also a hall monitor, making sure the kids glide from class to class without pausing to visit a locker or a cute classmate. Nevertheless, the principals still expect us to decorate every bulletin board along every hall—because of course the hallways need to be adorned with student work, even if no one but the principal is allowed to stand and look at it?
Yes, teachers get to complain. We get to complain about being on the front lines, going into poorly ventilated buildings and potentially exposing ourselves to risks, so that children can go to school and parents can go to work. We get to complain about paying for our own PPE, in addition to the pencils and school books we have always had to pay for. We get to complain about teaching in ways no one has ever taught before, and then being rated on how well we did it, being held to impossible standards. We get to complain about all this and more. Until every teacher is properly protected and properly paid, getting to complain is one of the few perks we’ve got.