Teachers are scared, and here’s why

  • Concord High School teacher Heidi Crumrine was named New Hampshire Teacher of the Year in 2018. Monitor file

Monitor columnist
Published: 8/13/2020 3:56:51 PM

When teachers tell you that they are scared, you should listen. Let me explain.

We willingly enter a profession knowing that it is woefully underfunded, that we will have to supplement our classroom supplies or materials with our own money, that we might be assaulted by a student, that we could be shot by an intruder. We are used to not having soap or hot water in the bathroom, trash cans that aren’t always emptied, and having a box of band-aids, tampons, and snacks in our desk drawers for our students. We buy books, we buy bookcases, we buy comfortable chairs, we buy birthday crowns, we buy donuts, and special pencils. We wipe noses, dry tears, hold hands and offer hugs. None of it phases us. When I hear a loud noise in the hallway, my mind first flashes to wondering if there’s been an armed intruder. No teacher will tell you that this is unusual. I wonder how many adults wonder the same in their workplaces. I’m imagining that most do not. Not much fazes a teacher. 

So when teachers tell you that they are scared, they mean it. 

Especially when it can endanger not only our own lives, but those of our families.

There has been much banter in the media, among politicians, and across dinner tables about what the return to school this fall should look like.  Much of the dialogue has been about the reopening of schools. Everyone has an opinion. Since everyone was once a student themselves, everyone feels entitled to that opinion. However, just because one has attended a school, does not mean that same person understands how a school runs.  

Let me be clear. Regardless of the way that it happens, all schools will reopen in September. Teachers will be teaching and students will be learning. What that looks like might be very different from what we expect and what we understand, but just because something is different and unfamiliar does not mean that it is invalid. 

I have a lot of questions about the nature of the vitriolic language that has been used to describe teachers who are asking valid and hard questions about the safety of our schools. The first and most important is this: Do we realize that everything that makes our schools extraordinary are our teachers? When we shame them, we shame our schools, and when we shame our schools, we shame our children. 

From there, the questions become even more overwhelming. When we say that we want our students to return to normalcy, to return to school, do we realize what that actually means? Do we realize that it means a six year old could be in a classroom and not allowed to be hugged by her teacher when she cries? Do we realize that it means when a ten year old has a fever he will likely be sent to the nurse’s office and and then alone to a quarantine room to wait for his parents to pick him up? Do we realize it means that recess will no longer be about running with friends and playing games? Do we realize that all of the ways that teachers personalize their classrooms with books, pictures, furniture, and collaborative spaces will not happen? 

Furthermore, at what point does the teacher’s need to enforce social distancing, mask usage, and adherence to various rules get in the way of the teacher’s ability to teach? At what point does all of that get in the way of the student’s ability to learn? In our efforts to create a sterilized and seemingly safe environment in our return to normalcy, are we building up the barriers that we seek to break down when students come to school? 

What all of this really means is that COVID-19 has revealed to everyone the systemic and all-encompassing ways that our teachers have been covering for our entire society for decades. When I give my 13-year-old student a tampon on the sly, it’s because I love her, but it’s also because our society is not effectively supporting her as she grows into adulthood. When I buy my student a birthday present knowing it’s the only one that he will receive, it’s because I love him, but it’s also because our society does not value our most vulnerable citizens. When I give my student $3 to buy her lunch, it’s because I want her to eat, but it’s also because I know that she is growing up in a world that won’t take care of its hungry children.

We cannot blame the teachers, the administrators, or the school boards. They have been placed in an impossible situation by the deplorable lack of leadership at the state and federal level. When we worry about how parents will be able to work if schools don’t open, or how children with special needs will receive services, or how our hungriest children will still receive their food, or how to protect children living in abusive homes, we shouldn’t be blaming the people who have covered for these situations all along. Our schools have become a panacea for fixing all of the problems of society, and now we have a problem that our schools just can’t fix. That’s not the teacher’s fault; it’s everyone’s fault. 

What now? Community problems need community solutions and it’s time to brainstorm solutions for how to make those services accessible. Just because it has always been a certain way does not mean that it always has to be that way. What if we move away from our traditional ideas about curriculum and allow our teachers and students to be more creative, innovative, and curious than we have ever been able to try before? What if we used this time to our advantage and considered the notion that if we are no longer bound by the four walls of a classroom, teaching and learning can mean something different, something more purposeful? We are living in the midst of a pandemic. What a remarkable time to reimagine what it means to be a student and a teacher in our world.  

Teaching is not the same as being a nurse. Teaching is not the same as being a vet. Teaching is not the same as working at a grocery store. Teaching is not the same as any other profession and that is what makes it so wonderful. However, it is not a carte blanche career option for solving all the problems of society. It’s just that we often have worked to cover up those problems. Only now we can’t. We cannot prevent an insidious virus from killing us with cute bulletin boards and inspirational posters on our walls.

Teachers are scrappy, smart, and creative. We want the same things as everyone else: A safe, high quality, and equitable education for our students. But when we tell you we are scared, we mean it. It’s time to listen.

(Heidi Crumrine, the 2018 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year, teaches English at Concord High School.)


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