As I’ve seen over and over again throughout my 16 years working for the New York City Department of Education, when society faces a crisis, the general public tends to lay it at the feet of teachers and insist that we find a solution. Rather than giving us the support and resources to actually tackle the problem, they tell us to use grit and resilience to make it work.
We have no power to redistribute wealth, for example, but we’re expected to counterbalance the disadvantages of poverty and bring poor students’ academic achievement up to the level of their wealthier counterparts. We can’t ban assault weapons, but we’re supposed to keep our students alive by teaching them how to crouch and hide quietly in a darkened classroom.
And now? Folks want schools to remain open during the surge of the Omicron variant during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, students and staff are testing positive for COVID right and left, creating hugely disruptive mass absences, and yet we are charged with maintaining normalcy — whatever that means — for the students’ sake. When educators suggest that holding in-person classes during this time doesn’t make sense, we are quickly labeled selfish.
“Remember back before you had kids, when you had all the answers? Now that your kids are here, you don’t want any less for them, but you understand that reality is complicated.”
Parents may understand how teachers are feeling. Remember back before you had kids, when you had all the answers? Now that your kids are here, you don’t want any less for them, but you understand that reality is complicated. Promises that sounded easy to commit to — exclusive breastfeeding, a strict bedtime — can prove nearly impossible to implement when faced with the bundle of surprises that is your child, and the bouquet of challenges society throws your way.
So you also understand how teachers may feel whenever a bunch of politicians, and the public at large, feel entitled to weigh in on how we do our jobs. It’s nice to see that we finally have their attention, but a lot of them are clueless when it comes to daily obstacles. Attendance in New York City schools on Monday, for example, was a dismal 67 percent, and principals were left scrambling to fill staffing shortages from teachers who needed to be in quarantine.
Keeping the windows open to prevent contagion sounds perfectly reasonable, but New York City weather has been in the 30s this week, and the street noise and construction sounds are constant. Or, you can tell me to teach just like I normally would in spite of universal masking, but the kid in the back row can’t hear what I’m saying because my voice is muffled. So when I point out that current conditions make it hard for me to do my job, I’m not refusing to work, I’m simply sharing my reality.
Politicians and some parents are quick to jump to the assumption that teachers are trying to get out of having to go to work, or that for some reason we prefer working remotely. I honestly don’t know any teachers who’ve expressed either of these desires. We all have a curriculum that we’re trying to work through, and most of us get frustrated when school cancellations force us to change our plans. We also have to contend with students re-adjusting to school and the communal life of the classroom every time there is a disruption. It’s exhausting, and while I’ll admit to feeling a little excitement in years past when a snow day was called, in general, teachers like to stick to the calendar. It makes our lives easier when students are comfortably accustomed to school routines, and most of us would rather teach a week straight through than deal with one of those random, mid-week holidays.
“As far as remote learning, no one hates it more than teachers — it snatches away all the rewarding parts of the job.”
With the exception of those of us here in New York who, under the old system, had to “borrow” sick days (which had to be repaid through years of perfect attendance, leaving many of us perpetually in debt) in order to construct brief maternity leaves, most teachers I know also have a bank full of unused sick days. This is because we don’t want our students to miss out on valuable instructional time and it’s also because, for most of us, taking a sick day is a last resort given what will await us when we return.
In the pre-COVID days, many of us came in to work while ill, because we know how much our continued presence can mean to a kid, and also because the recovery from a sick day is usually worse than any illness. Substitutes, who are often our own colleagues called away from a much-needed prep period to plan their own lessons, can misplace plans or photocopies get lost in transit from the main office, and as soon as students smell the promise of a substitute their behavior starts to unravel. The next day, you return to find that the classroom has been overturned, and students, angry that you were gone but unable to express as much, continue misbehaving until they are satisfied that you’ve earned back their trust. It’s just not worth the recuperation period unless you’re seriously ill.
As far as remote learning, no one hates it more than teachers. It snatches away all the rewarding parts of the job—those moments of personal connection—and leaves us with the least fulfilling grunt work of incessant emails.
Teachers like meaningful work. We are genuinely committed to our students, who hold us accountable to serving them far more effectively than any mandate or politician.
So when we’re saying that the conditions on the ground are so ridiculous that we can’t do our jobs, you can trust that we’re being sincere.
When newly-inaugurated mayor Eric Adams was asked about how New York City schools are supposed to function with the staffing shortages caused by Omicron, he responded in part, “I know there are questions about staffing. I know there are questions about testing. But we’re going to change those question marks to an exclamation point. We’re staying open.” I’m a language teacher, and I’ll give him points there for turning the topic of punctuation into a rhetorical flourish, but he’s not getting credit for answering the question, because he didn’t.
Instead of, again, expecting teachers to magically fix all the ways education has been shortchanged, we should put resources into our schools. Send the testing kits to get the job done and the healthcare workers to oversee it. Hire more psychologists and social workers to follow up with students that are struggling. Realize that no, teachers actually can’t be two places at once, and hire enough classroom educators to work with students in small groups — either remotely or in-person.
The stress and uncertainty that families are facing right now could have been prevented if schools had the resources they needed before the pandemic began. The current question of whether or not to go remote again isn’t a result of teachers’ lack of ingenuity. It reflects society’s lack of commitment to care for our children.
Before you go, check out our gallery on Cute & Stylish Kids Face Masks.
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