I was brought to tears a few minutes ago watching a video that a friend posted on Facebook. The entire faculty at his school had sent to the entire student body photos of themselves sheltering at home while they tried to maintain some continuity of instruction and community they had so painstakingly constructed since the beginning of the school year and which was now at risk of evaporating. So many teachers I’ve been in touch with are grieving their loss of the daily encounters with students that inject meaning into their work lives. They miss their kids so much that they’re mourning the loss of those precious moments.
This is true for elementary, high school and college teachers alike. One high school teacher (who happens to have been my student when she was in high school) said (and I paraphrase), “I didn’t sign on to be a long-distance teacher. I want to be with my students every day so we can discuss and argue about ideas face-to-face.” But in the new reality, she will invest herself in crafting the best possible approximation of real classroom exchange. The same is true of my son-in-law who teaches gifted and highly motivated Ivy League undergraduates. And my wife who works with graduate students in an MFA writing program. Finally, one of my favorite second grade teachers is reacting viscerally to the lack of physical contact with her students. She wants to hug them and watch the touching ways they interact with each other, but now she has had to make do with FaceTime exchanges with her loveable kids.
I don’t think the general public has any idea of how much teachers love and are dedicated to their work. The public image of teachers in the U.S. has been so sullied in recent years that it’s blinded people to the deep connection most teachers feel to the students who are their temporary charges. Perhaps the current experience of so many parents trapped at home with their children and at sea about how to create a rich and orderly educational environment for them will build a new appreciation of how difficult the work of teachers really is. A non-educator wrote to me after I posted a long account of the work of one teacher as she was growing into the fully formed professional she has become. “I had no idea what went into being a good teacher – so much planning, so much thought, so many decisions and choices.”
Everything I’ve been saying about teachers and teaching is multiplied by many degrees when the students a teacher is working with are low-income kids of color. The safety net that more privileged kids can count on to cushion their falls and keep them safe is much more frayed and sometimes non-existent, so the teacher’s work becomes even more consequential. The current suspension of normal schooling makes all of us, especially teachers, painfully aware of how rigged the system is against less privileged children. My 9-year-old third grade granddaughter is having a grand time being temporarily home schooled, so much so that she has announced that she never wants to go back to regular school. She has two parents who are educators with guaranteed salaries. They live in a spacious house which allows them to spread out or gather together as they choose. They have a reliable internet connection with an adequate amount of hardware. Every day they post photos of the day’s nature walks, art projects, math and social studies activities that would warm their heart of any progressive educator.
But what about the many students who are living in cramped conditions that make doing their homework difficult in normal times but are now cooped up with a number of siblings and unhappy parents who may have just lost their jobs. If they’re not lucky enough – as is likely the case – to live in a school district that is sufficiently well -resourced to have sent their students home with chrome books, they may have no computers or no internet access. Their dedicated teachers are charged with the task of how to carry on under these conditions, lest their kids slip further behind in this rigged educational game. Some have realized that almost every family has a smart phone. How can they design learning activities that make use of the existing resources? There’s a good chance that a large chunk of the current school year, possibly the entire remainder of the year, will be lost, so what the teachers are planning and designing as we speak are not stopgap measures, but what education will look like indefinitely.
The media is full of stories about the heroic doctors and other hospital staff who are putting themselves in danger every day and endangering not only themselves but their loved ones. They deserve every word of praise that has been uttered in their behalf. We’ve also come to recognize the contributions of everyone who is part of the food distribution chains that are keeping those of us who are homebound fed. Everyone who is working at a job that doesn’t allow them to hunker down in their safe homes is displaying courage.
I would like us to find an additional place on the honor roll of heroism for the teachers who are keeping the wheels of education spinning. They may not be risking their lives in the exercise of their duties, but they are protecting our precarious future by keeping their students engaged in the kind of learning we need to maintain some semblance of a civilized society. Please show them some love too.
On a personal note, after 75 years in the classroom, beginning in kindergarten, I am also missing the bracing classroom encounter with my students. I stepped away from that long before the pandemic, but I did have a schedule of visits to classrooms that filled a good portion of my weekly dance card. I have no direct responsibility for the education of the children whose classrooms I visit, but the visits add a sense of purpose to my life. I offer observations and encouragement to the teachers and hope that my words yield some indirect benefit to the students in those classrooms. I know from all the years I spent with my own students how much I cared about them and invested myself, not just in their learning, but in their whole lives, insofar as they allowed me entry. I never had to experience the enforced and unwelcome distancing teachers are experiencing because of the pandemic, and my heart goes out to them.