An Open Letter To Teachers Everywhere

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Before I begin, I should note that I’ve taught high school English since the year 2000. I still teach to this day.

That being said, to my fellow teachers, I hope you are well. We are a routine-oriented lot who thrive on knowing what to expect, so this summer has been particularly difficult in that regard.

Hopefully, by now, you are getting some concrete plans. For instance, within the last few weeks my district has shifted to remote learning for students and then, a bit later, remote teaching for the instructors as well. Needless to say, we all exhaled a collective sigh of relief when that news arrived.

For those of us fortunate enough to be teaching remotely from home, I offer this one piece of advice: be the best you’ve ever been.

There are many ways to interpret that statement, but let me lay some groundwork before I expound upon it.

Everyone is currently stressed to the point of breaking.

School administration is being hit on all sides by the public, the business world, and politicians. They cannot please everyone right now. The phone calls, the emails, the texts, the social media comments–I’m sure it feels like a deluge. It’s hard to be an administrator at the moment.

Parents are also at their wits’ end. Their entire schedule has been thrown off-kilter and they are trying to work while providing childcare for their kids. They realize that they will soon have to also help with school work as best they can. I can easily imagine the pressure of trying to make sure the kids are on the correct Zoom call and checking in for attendance while the parent is also trying to fulfill their work obligations. Furthermore, parents are worried about their kids’ mental health. So many things are forcing their kids out of routine. Sports, music, clubs, youth groups–they are worried about what effect these omissions will have on their child’s well-being. It’s hard to be a parent at the moment.

Members of our community have had their lives disrupted. Even if community members don’t currently have a child in school, as taxpayers, they are still entitled to an opinion and should have the opportunity to voice that opinion. Some members think it’s dangerous for schools to be in session and every precaution should be taken to keep all members of the community safe. Some members believe the virus is not so great a risk that we should deny children all of the benefits that come with attending school such as education, supervision, food, shelter, and other services. It’s hard to be a member of society at the moment.

My point is, teachers, that everyone around you has a vested interest in how this all plays out, and everyone is on edge. Consequently, everyone will be watching you. Your administrators will be watching you. Your students will be watching you. The parents of your students will be watching you. If working from home, your neighborhood will be watching you.

My district has told me since the day I got hired that the teachers in our district are the best of the best. I’m guessing every district says that, but even so, we have to exceed that description. We must surpass even our own professional standards. As teachers, we are accustomed to being in front of students the vast majority of the day with very little downtime. The public is going to expect that same rigor even if we are working from home.

Therefore, teachers, be your best selves. Do not slip out for some time in the pool during the workday. Don’t be seen mowing the lawn during the workday. Don’t go shopping during the workday. Don’t go on vacation during the workday. I would advise you to even stay off social media during the workday. Do not give anyone any reason at all to doubt your professionalism.

Is this fair? Probably not. I know plenty of people in other professions working from home who have no qualms about doing any of those things. But teaching is different. We are judged in ways most other professions are not. There are dozens of reasons as to why this is the case, but the bottom line is that it’s true and we must act accordingly.

It’s correct that everyone’s “best” is going to look a little bit different. Some of it depends on our subject area, some of it depends on our technological prowess, some of it depends on our personality, some of it depends on our living conditions, but the most basic thing we can do is keep up appearances by sticking to our contractual hours and saving chores, errands, and personal desires for after the work day.

Teaching is an incredible responsibility. We are counted upon to guide the nation’s future. Yet, we must do better than we’ve ever done before during these difficult times.

I wish you all good health. I support you. I respect you. I stand with you.

A Teacher’s Thanks To District 87

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As many of you know, I teach high school English. (Yes, I am the epitome of the clichéd  English teacher who thinks he’s also a writer. It’s true that I even have sports coats with elbow patches.)

I wanted to take a moment and thank my employer–District 87.

It’s been a long ride with District 87. I started teaching with them in 2002. Other than a two year sabbatical when my first child was born, I’ve been in the same building in the same hallway–and almost every room in that hallway–for sixteen years. We’ve been through a lot together.

In fact, I didn’t think there was much that could surprise me anymore when it came to teaching, and then the Covid-19 pandemic arrived.

The weeks leading up to the official “shelter in place” were confusing. Like you, we heard all kinds of contradictory reports. When the order issued to stay home, none of us knew exactly what to expect.

District 87 did two things that I find exemplary.

First of all, they implored us to “do no harm” to students. They reminded us that maintaining positive relationships and assuring students’ well-being took top priority. They encouraged us to error on the side of caution, to be gentle, to have an open mind, and to emphasize kindness. In my opinion, District 87 recognized that trauma takes all kinds of different forms, and no matter how well individuals were dealing with the situation, it was nonetheless somewhere on the trauma scale for all of us.

Which leads me to my next point. District 87 treated its teachers just as compassionately as they urged us to treat our students. District 87 goes above and beyond in fulfilling the various needs of our students. We are not just an educational institution. I feel that we are also very much a social services entity. As a result, I personally think that sometimes we want to do so much good for the kids that teachers become physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. One of the first things that District 87 did after we were all sent home was to alleviate our fears as much as possible. District 87 demanded that we take care of ourselves and our families. They acknowledged that there is no way we can teach like we did in the classroom. They made a point to let us know we would all continue to be paid and that they wanted us as safe as possible.

I have not once felt pressured, judged, or stressed by District 87’s leadership during this pandemic, and for that I am deeply grateful.

To my employers, I say “thank you.”

 

Working Hard, Or Hardly Working? My Answer Is … Yes?

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The other day someone asked me if I’m working more or less than I did before the COVID-19 outbreak. I thought about it for a few moments, and I found that I could only logically answer “less.”

As a teacher, I spent about eight and a half hours at work every day before the pandemic. That doesn’t include any assessing, lesson planning, or prep work I did at home.

Now, with my wife working in the house as well, and two children under twelve years of age trying to learn remotely, I cannot honestly say I’m working eight and a half hours every day at my job.

I can’t.

It’s impossible.

There are far too many interruptions, distractions, and general necessities that come with a family spending all day together, every day.

However, even though I’m working less hours, I honestly feel like I’m working harder than ever before.

There is no routine now–not like there is when I’m at work during an average school day. As a result, I do a little work, we make lunch. I do a little work, I go outside and watch my kids as they play. I do a little work, we help our kids with their lessons. I do a little work, we make dinner. Do you see the pattern? The pattern is that there is no pattern. As hard as we try to establish a routine, it’s impossible due to the nature of our jobs and the circumstances.

Ultimately, there is no work “shut-off.” I’m thinking about work all the time. I’m at least reading–if not answering–emails at all hours of the day. It used to be that when I walked out of my place of work at the end of the day, that was it–the end of the work day. That mindset no longer exists.

I’m thankful that I work for a very humane district. They are stressing the importance of both physical and mental health, not just for the students, but for the employees as well. They have made it very clear to put health before work, which I greatly appreciate. However, teachers are self-motivated people who thrive on routine-oriented, multifaceted tasks. We like spinning a thousand plates at once, but we also like clearly established patterns.

I’m sure you’re probably in a similar circumstance–we all are. This is hard. It’s hard on kids, it’s hard on adults, it’s hard on everyone.

One Month Later …

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I took this picture of my classroom on March 16th, which was a Monday. I didn’t have any students that day–they had already been told to stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. I spent the day in an empty classroom. It became obvious that we would not be back for a while, so as I walked out of the room at the end of the work day, it dawned on me to take a picture and commemorate the moment. I suspected we wouldn’t be back for several weeks.

I literally took this picture before I closed my classroom door, and, as of today, that was one month ago.

One month.

I have to admit, that’s pretty surreal.

While I’m fortunate enough to still be in contact with my students via technology, it’s very, very odd not to share the classroom space with them any longer. I spent roughly eight and a half hours a day in this room every weekday. I spent more waking hours in this room throughout the week than I did in my own home.

When a teacher leaves for the summer, the mind is mentally prepared to step away for some much needed restoration. However, I don’t think any of us were ready for the emotional ramifications of this unexpected quarantine. We didn’t get to say goodbye to our students. Most of us didn’t realize the significance of the moment when we said goodbye to our coworkers. Furthermore, I’m not sure any of us were ready to partially relinquish our professional identities on March 16th.

We’re still working. We’re still in contact with our students. We’re still encouraging learning. None of it feels the same, though. My identity as a teacher relied on having students physically in front of me. I liked making them laugh and seeing them smile. It was important to me to make a positive impact on a daily basis, no matter how small.

I miss my classroom space, but I miss having that space filled by my students even more.

One month … and counting.