At the end of last year, I had a sinking feeling that the following year, this year, would be the worst school year teachers had ever seen. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought, perhaps, that the third school year dealing with a pandemic would be a challenge due to fatigue. It was evident our third school year would be a continuation of social distancing, masks, and a general sense of not knowing what was coming next or when we will see the light at the end of the tunnel. Often, it feels like there is a light. The world catches a glimpse before we are enveloped in darkness. Over and over again.
Just when we think we have the right vaccines or the right medication, innumerable uncertainties abound. People have concerns about the efficacy of vaccines and medications, the speed with which these things were developed, and for many people, previous experiences with doctors and scientists have left them fearful of these vaccines. We have people who have made their own choices about what to believe, for many other reasons. People are frustrated. Without significant vaccination rates, we face continued mutations and forms of the virus that will get past our immune systems — particularly the protection vaccines initially offered to those who participated. And we still know so little about a virus that has caused so much harm. Millions of people around the world have lost loved ones and suffered from the virus, and its lasting effects physically, emotionally, and financially.
So where do teachers fit into all of this? Why is this year so hard? To start, it is the nature of our work to be empathetic to our students and their families. And what this means for teachers is that the amount of pain and suffering we have seen and felt is significant in our students’ lives and in our own lives, much like those in the medical profession have experienced.
But what I realized today, is why exactly this year it is excruciatingly hard to be a teacher. It is the third year in a row we have had to completely redo, undo and reinvent everything we know about teaching. The first year we closed. Most had never taught this way before. We worked, from early in the morning until late at night for the last four months of school in 2020 trying everything we could to take what we knew worked in a classroom and reconstruct it in a virtual space. At the same time, many of us, like many parents at home who were not teachers, had to not only reinvent teaching but do so while caring for our own children in our homes. It was exhausting. But we did it. Everyone did.
The second school year, last year, was different. Many of us, like myself, returned to the classroom in September, desperate to just be in a classroom with children. I did not care what I had to do to be there in person with those kids. I told them every day we had to be grateful for each day we got to be together in person. It was a challenging year having to learn new subjects to teach, and figure out how to teach while keeping students six feet apart from one another. Again, I had to completely relearn how I taught in a classroom.
My tables were gone.
My books were gone.
My bean bag chairs were gone.
My small areas for kids to work were all gone.
I had to learn how to teach reading without books. And not only how to teach science, but how to conduct science experiments outside where we try to spend as much time as possible. I had to learn to teach outside. I had to learn how to teach students to work outside. In sheer desperation to be in school with students, we did whatever we had to do to be there.
This brings me to our third school year contending with a pandemic. Rather than six feet apart, students are three feet apart. Half of the class at a time gets a fourteen-minute mask break every forty-two minutes. When kids work in groups, we have to figure out how to manage mask breaks. Students don’t know how to work in a group, because it’s been so long since they’ve done this. They are sad, angry, and sometimes destructive because they don’t know what to do with their feelings. We have to manage what they do on their chrome books. Make sure their masks are on when they are not on a mask break. Check the list of students who aren’t supposed to be in school and make sure they are not in our classroom. Monitor who needs virtual instruction while we are teaching in the classroom and devise ways to teach students in the classroom and at home at the same time. We have to contend with students who get so upset when they don’t feel well because they are afraid that the nurse will send them home and they will need a Covid test to return to school. We have to make sure students are not on other personal devices like phones and doing inappropriate things online during our classes. And we have to figure out again what kind of instruction is most effective given these parameters.
And here is where we are breaking. We have done this. We completely re-created ourselves as teachers in the first year of the pandemic to adapt to moving our classrooms online. We transformed yet again to allow us to be back in our classrooms while keeping everyone safe. This year it continues, with social distancing, masking, synchronous learning with students in school and at home. We have adapted, changed, bent over backward, and turned ourselves inside out to do whatever we had to do to meet our students’ needs.
But the system within which we work is static. It is inflexible and immutable. As we have done everything possible to meet our students’ needs, no one has looked at what we have needed in order to do. The system has marched on, seeking reading benchmarks for students, the creation of midterm exams, or the implementation of state assessments and teacher evaluations. How we are measured, what we are expected to do, has not changed a single bit since before the pandemic. Even as an infinite amount of responsibilities have been added to our workload. We continue to be evaluated by a system researchers deemed a failure. This inflexible thinking goes against all that we know about human behavior.
We cannot continue to ask teachers to rewrite their entire profession while the system within which it exists remains static, relying upon methods that have proven to be failures. Teachers will continue to bend until they break.