From A Teacher: I'm Definitely Not 'Sitting At Home And Doing Nothing'

by Rachel Cockrell

Being a teacher in 2020 is a lot like riding a roller coaster. You can’t blink without missing a hairpin turn, a nausea-inducing drop, or a crazy twist. Back in the spring, I was a hero. We’d been doing remote learning for about a month when I gave birth to my son. Instead of taking the six-week leave that I had initially planned, I took a week of sick time and then went back to teaching virtually, newborn in tow. I felt like Wonder Woman. I was doing it all, and while most of my students were empty black voids on a Zoom screen, a few of them noticed and sent me notes of appreciation. I love my students, and I didn’t want to just leave them hanging right in the middle of the virtual craziness. Remember back in the spring? When everyone praised teachers, saying they deserved to make more money, be appreciated more often, and that schools should be better funded? Hang on while I bask in that warm and fuzzy memory for a moment…

Fast forward four months. It’s August of 2020. The new school year is coming up fast, and the world has a LOT to say about teachers once again, but this time, none of it is warm or fuzzy. Any fellow teacher can attest to the feeling of whiplash we all experienced once the summer was over and it became clear that this whole COVID thing wasn’t going away. In what felt like an instant, the same parents who were praising us for being unsung heroes all of a sudden started criticizing us for being “lazy good-for-nothings” who just wanted to “sit at home doing nothing while they receive a paycheck.” It was a frustrating argument, especially when I saw it coming from people who I knew were currently sitting at home in their pajamas, doing their jobs and still getting paid for it. We were so confused. Everyone else was working from home? Why couldn’t we?

On top of that frustration, many states refused to recognize teachers as “essential workers,” preventing us from receiving government funding for PPE, COVID-related sick or quarantine leave, or any kind of concessions for at-risk teachers who were concerned for their lives. How could we not be considered “essential”? The President of the United States kept talking about how important schools were for the economy. The world was, apparently, going to fall apart without us. Yet, we weren’t “essential”? If you’re confused, imagine how the teachers felt.

Mint Images/Getty

Getty Images/Mint Images RF

Yet, the nature of a teacher is to be compassionate and caring. We tried to raise a stink, and in some areas we were almost heard, but when it came down to it, we did what we’ve always done: we just took it. We added a global pandemic to our already crazy burden because we are teachers, and if we didn’t do it, who would? We know that if we don’t do our jobs, it’s our students who suffer. And none of this is their fault. It’s our greatest strength and our greatest flaw. Teachers consistently give up their own safety, mental stability, and well-being for the sake of their students.

Now we’re one semester into the craziest school year of our lives, and I’ll say what we’re all thinking: this year has been, and is going to continue to be, completely useless.

Seriously. We should call it a wash, let the kids run wild, and start over next year. My students are learning a little, but I don’t know how much they’re actually retaining. There’s too much else going on in their lives to worry about whether or not society would have ever allowed Jay Gatsby to truly achieve the American Dream. And I don’t even blame them. I spend more time these days as an impromptu therapist than I do teaching literature.

On top of that, many school districts are still holding teachers to pre-pandemic expectations. I am teaching about 135 high school students in person at a school of about 2,200 students. Thankfully, my district has made masks mandatory at all times while anyone is on school property, but that’s still a lot of breathing bodies in a small space. Social distancing simply isn’t possible. The furthest I can spread out my desks from each other is about three feet from one student’s head to the next. My district has also given students the option to attend school two or three days a week. About a third of my students only come to school Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. A handful only come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We call these “blended learning students.” The rest come all five days. And I am expected to teach them all the same.

If you’re wondering, yes, that is impossible. Every lesson I make has to take on a virtual format for the blended learning students, BUT my administration doesn’t want us to just stick our in-person students on a computer and have them work in classrooms without live instruction. So, I also have to create an in-person version of each lesson for the students who are in the room on that day. I bet my lesson planning hours have tripled this year. And that doesn’t even touch on the jigsaw that is trying to organize a mock exam for my AP students, who have to take their tests in-class. Something that would normally only take two or three days all of a sudden becomes a two-week venture.

All of this craziness would be just a little bit more bearable if it felt like anyone cared or noticed at all. And while I’m sure there are parents and administrators who do, they get lost in the overwhelming crowd of complaints and accusations. I am a new mother who gave birth at the beginning of an unprecedented global pandemic and chose to risk my health and my son’s health to teach in-person, because that was the only viable option I had. I deal with anxiety every day about sending my son to daycare, about teaching in a poorly-ventilated cesspool of teenagers who are still young and stupid enough to believe they are immune to everything, and about making sure those same teenagers are OK.

In spite of that, a parent still complained to my principal that I wasn’t doing enough to ensure my students were understanding my content. I wanted to scream at this person that content is the LAST thing I’m concerned about my students understanding right now. I would rather make sure they understand they are loved. I would rather make sure they understand that they have a responsibility to protect those they love from this virus by wearing their masks correctly. I would rather they understand how to think for themselves and stop getting all their information from social media. I would rather make sure they are OK! That complaint wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for the fact that everyone I work with has a similar story from this year. Everyone expects us to keep things exactly the way they were before, but that just isn’t reasonable.

If teaching in 2020 is a roller coaster, then we’ve been on a free-fall since August. There isn’t a single teacher I know who isn’t overwhelmed and overworked. There isn’t a single one I know who feels appreciated or seen. Whether or not it’s true of every parent and every administrator, right now, all of us feel like we can’t meet society’s expectations and it’s killing us. We are drowning and no one is willing to throw us a life preserver. Instead, we’re just told what not to do, what we need to do more of, and how we can be doing better.

I hope other teachers will forgive me for being bold enough to speak for us all when I say, nay beg, the general public to please, give us a fucking break. Now more than ever, if you are not a teacher, please don’t criticize us. Don’t speculate on what you would do in our situation, don’t pass judgement on your child’s virtual, on-site, or hybrid learning. Don’t assume that you or someone you know could do it better. Don’t expect us to be able to provide the highest quality education in the middle of all this nonsense. Every time you feel yourself about to be critical of a teacher, stop. Instead, send them a note thanking them for everything they do and asking them how they are. No one asks us how we’re doing, and that would go a long way to resolving whatever issue you think you have.

We’re doing the best we can with no proper training, tools, funding, or preparation for teaching in a pandemic. We are doing our best to give our students grace. We ask for the same thing in return