Year 19 in the Classroom
Some years, about the time we start school, I write a rumination about what’s on my mind as summer ends and classes return. In the past, I’ve been thinking about funding or politics. This year, it’s life itself— life and death. I enjoy teaching and I’m thankful for it. I’m also thankful that both I and my family are generally healthy. I got vaccinated last winter, so I’ve got that going for me, too. But watching the news and seeing the situation as it stands right now, I’m reminded that every teacher doesn’t have what I have. Neither does every student.
Last month, when COVID-19 began to surge again, a vocal minority of parents began publicly opposing public health measures like masks and virtual learning. While I agree with them completely that masks are uncomfortable and that in-person learning is better, their stance is causing some teachers, staff, and even students to make life-and-death decisions about whether to come to school this year. As resistant parents say, I’m not going to do this, or You can’t make my kid do that, teachers with autoimmune problems, diabetes, or cancer are having to say: It’s quit my job or possibly/probably die. Others who have elderly relatives living with them or children with health problems are having to do the same thing, knowing that catching the virus might mean bringing it home to infect somebody they love. (This is happening among custodians, secretaries, and lunchroom workers, too.) Then, when those teachers quit, somebody has to pick up the slack. Their classes can’t just sit there without a teacher, even when no qualified person applies. Class sizes can get larger, and social distancing can become impossible.
I write all that to write this: as I begin year nineteen in the classroom, I’ve seen some things and been through some things but nothing like this. At this point, I have taught through a major national reform, a global economic collapse, years of inadequate funding, two major state-level reforms, a state takeover, our school burning down, and a global pandemic, but I’ve never seen anything as absurd as what I’m seeing right now. As a teacher who has lived with fear and anxiety during the era of school shootings, I understand why the fear and anxiety over COVID-19 is leading some teachers to quit. In Alabama, where I teach, the 2016 Students First Act says that teachers must give thirty days notice and cannot quit their jobs within thirty days of the first day of school. I feel certain that this law was conjured up out of the realization that teachers were fed up and acting on that frustration. But the circumstances this year are more dire than normal frustration.
Given what I’ve experienced and learned while teaching, I can understand a lot of things. I understand why a bunch of veteran teachers retired when No Child Left Behind said, in 2003 – 2004, that they weren’t “highly qualified” and would have to go take college classes again. I understand how, five years later in 2008 – 2009, the Great Recession led to the massive funding cuts that eliminated thousands of teaching positions. After teaching through all that, I understand why Governor Robert Bentley said, in 2016, that our schools “suck” and why enrollment in teacher training programs (education majors) had fallen by 45%. I also understand why we’ve had a teacher shortage since the late 2010s: many laid-off teachers found new careers, and the colleges weren’t churning out enough newbies. But I don’t understand this situation now.
During my career, I’ve heard people ranging from know-it-all acquaintances to governors and legislators proclaim that the humanities are worthless and should be eliminated from public schools and colleges. Studying the humanities – literature, history, sociology, etc. – gives us opportunities to grow in empathy. If you ask me, we need the lessons of the humanities more than ever, as people begin to regard each other in transactional terms where disagreements become an affront to one’s values or a violation of one’s freedom. What happened to simply caring about each other?
I dislike inconvenience and discomfort as much as the next person, but I also realize that these facts of life appear daily, even constantly. I’m inconvenienced every time I stop at a traffic light, and I experience discomfort every time I am too busy to take a bathroom break. So, if the inconvenience and discomfort of a mask and social distancing are all it takes to help other people stay alive, then I’ll do it. If putting up with some inconvenience and discomfort will keep even one person from dying or keep a child from being orphaned or rescue someone from being isolated and lonely during virtual learning, then for goodness’s sake, let’s put on our masks, space ourselves, and get to the business of teaching and learning.