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Why Teachers are Afraid to Go Back

 

Opening schools to in-person learning is an extremely emotionally charged topic right now for parents and teachers both, and for good reason. With almost half a million Americans dead of COVID and worries about mental health crises from isolation very serious, there seem to be no good answers. In fact, one of my students recently told me that “there are no good options. There are only less worse options.”

If the science says it’s safe and the district has a plan, which where I live has been approved by our very conservative Alameda County Public Health Department, then why aren’t all teachers excited about going back?  As a former classroom teacher, I want to explain this. Hint: It’s not about the science.

The first thing you learn as a teacher is that you won’t make enough money. We joke about needing a rich spouse or family money but it’s not actually funny, because it’s so often true, especially for beginning teachers. The reason I am no longer in the classroom is because I can’t afford to live alone while teaching, and this breaks my heart. In addition, even in schools
that have generous PTAs or foundations, many of us still pay for a certain amount of supplies out of our own pockets.

The second thing you learn as a teacher is that there is an enormous gap between well-intended plans and actual practice in the classroom.  We’ve heard about safety precautions before. We are very used to being told things will be safe.  But in practice, it just doesn’t happen.  We work in schools that can’t even keep soap in the bathrooms.   

Here’s an example.  One year, my school district had a thorough training on bloodborne pathogens. We knew that we had students with transmissible diseases such as HIV and hepatitis (although we didn’t know names) and the training was great and made us feel like we could deal with this safely. We were told that the custodians had all the supplies and knew to not clean up blood without gloves.

The next day, a student of mine had a massive nosebleed. After we got him settled, I called the custodian. She came and, upon seeing the puddle of blood, said, “Oh no. They won’t give me gloves so I don’t do blood.” She gave me a roll of those nonabsorbent brown school paper towels, sprayed a little of some cleaner on the blood, and I was on my own. I had learned the safety protocol and believed the science. But the theory and practice were miles apart.

This mistrust built up means that even if we believe the science, even if we trust Dr. Fauci, and even if we want to go back (as many teachers do), we still have real concerns about whether the promised safety measures will actually be delivered.  Dr. Fauci hasn’t been in a classroom in California, and teachers in California have consistently experienced undercompensation, underperformance, and underdelivery from the federal, state, and local authorities. 

When we try to bring this up, we often get one of two unhelpful reactions. The first is something along the lines of, “I know! I could never do it. You’re such a hero. You’re so selfless.” This just puts us on a pedestal and serves more to make the community feel better about underpaying us because at least they consider us heroes! The second reaction is a justification about how we get summers off and only work 9-3. I’m not going to get into that here except to say that, now that I am self-employed, I work almost all the time, year-round, and it is not even half as exhausting (and it is much less time) than teaching in the classroom.

So how can we move forward on this issue?  There is so much that districts and teachers can do, and this burden of figuring this out is principally on them.  But I know parents want to go back and are trying to figure out how to help make it happen.  For those parents, here are a few tips.  


How to Help:

First, parents and PTAs can help by supporting teachers financially, with supplies, and with volunteer work.  Teachers may be more willing to return if they know that they will have enough PPE and hand sanitizer in their classrooms, not just through district promises but through parents who are willing to buy these things if the district fails to come through.  Consider reaching out to tell your child’s teacher that if we go back, you’ll have his or her back on basic supplies. 

Second, parents and PTAs can invest in family education to support these safety measures.  Teach your kids how to properly wear a mask.  Practice following the safety measures at school.  Model respect for teachers.  You should do this all the time, but it’s especially important now because teachers will be managing an enormous task of safety compliance in addition to the already hard job of teaching.

Third, parents can -- and should -- be careful in their language and model respect for teachers, even if you disagree with choices that the various labor associations are making.  Even if most parents are wonderful, there are a handful who make the dialogue toxic and make everyone even more defensive.  And it’s not just messages on Facebook or social media - it’s language at home that gets passed along to your kids.  Humans are such that 95% positive and 5% super critical feels like we’re doing everything wrong.  Some things I’ve heard that are actively counterproductive include:

  •     “We pay your salary, so you should do what I want.”
  •     “Teachers aren’t even working right now.”
  •     “Teachers are being lazy and just want to stay home.”
  •     “The unions are holding kids hostage.”
  •     “Teachers just don’t understand the science.”  
  •     “If a teenager can go to work at McDonalds, teachers should go to work at schools.” 

Teachers don’t go into this profession for the money or the glory.  We do it because we desperately DESPERATELY want what’s best for your kids.  We want to be a team with you - we see your pain and your kids suffering.  And we want to have confidence that it is safe to return, not just as a matter of science and data, but as a matter of lived, real-life experience in the classroom.  Parents can play a vital role in helping this happen.  





 

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