This week, I felt the powerful effects as my administrators made the choice to stand by their teachers. I felt the effects as my administrators heard that we, the teachers, were breaking and chose to reach out and work to understand what we were living and then used that understanding to motivate them to take bold actions to step in and help us to hold the fragile breaking pieces together.
And I will tell you this. Their decision. Their choices to help us, they did not make a single one of us think, okay, now we don’t have to work so hard. Instead, they made us all feel a great sense of relief that allowed us to recommit ourselves to working harder than ever to best support our students and their needs. But we are now able to do it in a way that does not sacrifice us or our families quite as much.
But not every educator is so lucky. In fact, too many are not. And so, for them, I write this post. Because I believe that when we share our stories, we can work to help others understand us. In fact, one of the very first lessons that I teach my fifth grade students each year is that writing our stories, sharing our stories, gives us the power to help shape and define how others see us. And right now, I think that the world needs to see that the teachers are breaking.
Last week, I sat in a virtual faculty meeting and watched my coworkers, my fellow teachers, cry as we came together to discuss ways to navigate this new world of online teaching. We spoke of the work that we were already doing and the added work that still needed to be done. And I watched as my fellow teachers began to reveal the cracks that we had all been trying so desperately to cover up.
Because for many of us, we do not want to complain. Because for many of us, we love our work and we love our students and we are grateful for the privilege of being a teacher. And we also know too well, how quickly this world can shift. How we, as a country, seem to only operate in one of two dangerous and harmful extremes when it comes to teachers. We seem to swing between the narratives of “teachers are heroes” and “teachers are not doing nearly enough and we demand more!”
Now I want to stop here. Before I say anything else. Because I know that already someone is reading this and thinking, “Those teachers should just be grateful that they have a job, when so many others are not as lucky.”
And I get that. I really do. This is an awful time for the world.
But here is the thing. Systems that take advantage of their workers are often allowed to continue taking advantage of their workers because they convince those workers and others that they should just be grateful that they have a job. And I believe that we have reached a point in all this awfulness, that teachers need to start pushing back as we are pushed to, and beyond, our limits.
Because if we continue to push teachers past their limits, then teachers cannot think critically about what we are doing for our students. When we are forced to operate in pure survival mode, then I believe there is a much greater potential that we will do harm to our students. And when we, as teachers, start to break, there is no way that we can fully be there for our students. And that’s why now is the time for us to share our stories.
Because the teachers. We are breaking.
I have watched it happen over the past few weeks as teachers have shared, online and in person, their frustrations and desperation and cries of, “This is not sustainable!”
I think that all teachers are at their breaking points. We have all been asked to do an impossible thing. An impossible thing on top of all the other impossible things that the world of education demands from us. And many of those who were in tears at my faculty meeting are those of us who are trying to teach other people’s children while also trying not to neglect our own children who are supposed to be learning in our homes. And it is a losing battle.
I have a daughter. She is seven. She is the absolute light of my life. And while I try to be there for other people’s children, I am very surely failing my own. My daughter goes between my house and my ex-wife’s house. She is with me four out of five days during the school week. When she is with me, it is just her and me. There is no other adult. There are no siblings. It is just the two of us. I have pretty much fully given up on her eLearning, though I try to work in as much reading and writing and math as I can to the things that we do throughout the day. At this point, I have seen her very fragile academic skills regress and I have had to give myself permission for that to be okay. I have to trust that one day, she will learn what she needs to learn, even if that day is not today. Because today, we are just trying to survive.
I am committed to getting her through this crisis and I am also committed to getting my students through this crisis. But to do that, I have had to make adjustments. For me, here is what that looks like: After I put my daughter to bed, I begin another three hours of school work. I look through student work, I provide feedback, I answer emails, I answer questions from students. I am often up until 11 or 12 at night doing the work that will support my students and their families the next day.
And on the two days that my daughter is not with me, I spend almost every single minute of those days preparing instruction for the week ahead. I attempt to take a curriculum that was built for conversations and face-to-face interactions and I attempt to transfer that onto an online forum. I create smaller versions of the charts that would hang in my classroom and I photograph them to share with my students. I create slideshows that model for my students the work that I am asking them to do that week. I record lesson after lesson after lesson in an attempt to provide my students with the instruction that will support them and move them forward in the way that I believe is best for them. I spend hours recording the read alouds that I will post throughout the week because I believe that if anything can hold our community together while we are physically apart, it is a shared reading experience. I do all of this ahead of time because I have realized that it is the only way that I can manage this all and manage my own child as well.
And during the week, when my students need me, I find a way to be there. I have set up ways for us to check in with each other every day, I look through the work they are doing as they are doing it and I leave comments and feedback to make them feel seen and also to support them in moving forward in their work. I have created multiple platforms for them to use to stay connected to each other and I have found ways to let them know that I am connecting with them there as well. I am emailing with students and their families constantly. I am on the phone with parents when they need me. I have set up sessions with students who need extra support. I have set up one class meeting every week where we just check in and chat and look at each other’s pets. Often, my daughter joins us on these calls (and often that is the most stressful part of our week). I have set up an additional time during the week when students can Zoom with me if they have specific questions about their work that they need help with. And I have worked all of this around my own child and the schedule that we have.
It has been so much. But I found a way to make it work. I am exhausted. I am at the very edge of what I can manage. But I am making it work. Other teachers have found their own ways to make it work. One teacher spoke at our meeting about getting up at 5 am to get her work done before her own children woke up and before her husband, an essential worker, had to leave for the day. It is an awful way to live and an awful way to teach, but we are making it work. We have found a way to do it.
And that is good enough.
Until we are told by the world that it isn’t enough.
That is why we are crying. Because so many of us are giving so much. We have been taking away time from our own families to be there for our students and their families. We are doing it not because it is all mandated, not because we have been told we have to do all these things, we are doing it because we love our kids. Our students and our own children at home. That love has pushed us to do more and to give more and for many of us there just isn’t another option.
And then yet somehow, we are made to feel, by the world, that it is still not enough.
Sometimes that feeling comes from the media as article after article details the problems with the way teachers are teaching. Other times, that feeling comes from worried parents. Parents who are seeing their own children struggling, who are worried that schools are not doing enough to help them. Parents who go to Facebook or other social media outlets and begin to discuss.
So through the media and social media people’s problems with educators are broadcast and other people want to fix them. And I get that sometimes it seems like these are easy problems to fix. Asking one more small thing of teachers shouldn’t be a big deal. Right?
Except the weight of those decisions are not always felt by the people who make them. Instead, oftentimes, they are felt intensely by those of us who are already standing on the very edge of what we are able to do and then are being asked to do just a little bit more. But that little bit more, comes on top of all the other work that we are already figuring out how to do. And suddenly, it feels impossible. A small ask, feels like a huge demand. And that is why there are tears. Because we are standing on the edge already and just one more thing has the capability of pushing us right over that edge.
Too often in education, mandates are made as quick reactions to complex problems. They often are attempts to quickly stop a problem before we even take the time to investigate that problem and how it is affecting our students and what variety of ways there might be to fix any needs that are not being met.
Because if the conversation really centers around children, then we would start not with a mandate, but by, instead, asking questions like, “How are you allowing your students to feel a part of a community? How are you working to meet the needs of your students and their families? How are you checking in on your students mental health and well-being? How are you being there for your students?” And then we can have a conversation. We can work together, as a team of parents and teachers and students and administrators to think about the myriad of ways that we can support our students. We can honor the fact that our students are all different and we are all different and there is no one right way to do all of this.
But all of this is hard. All of this is messy. It seems easier, sometimes, to just make one, consistent rule and demand that everyone follow it.
But what I have learned is this, complex problems cannot be solved by simple rules and mandates. Difficult problems that seem to be solved simply have not really been solved at all. And I have never faced a teaching problem more difficult than the one we are currently in, so to think that there is any one easy answer or one way of doing things that is going to fix the problems that our students are facing, that seems impossible to me.
Instead, what I think we need is to take a breath. To take a pause. To have difficult conversations. To listen to the realities that we are all living in. To hear the stories of others. Because, ultimately, I think that is what has helped my own district. We stopped. We listened to the stories of students and of parents and of teachers and of administrators and we used those stories to gain better understanding. And from a place of better understanding, we are able to make better decisions. And when we lack understanding, we stop and reach out and ask for more stories.
And I guess that is why I am writing this. Because maybe someone will read it and it will help them to reach a little bit better of an understanding.
Maybe there is a teacher who will read this who will feel a little bit less alone and maybe a little bit more seen.
Maybe there is a parent who will read this who will decide to reach out to their child’s teacher with concerns and to share their family’s story first with the teacher before turning to social media.
Maybe there is an administrator who will read this who was about to ask one more thing of their teachers and will instead decide to ask, “What are you already doing to support your students? How can I help you to do that?”
And maybe not. Maybe this was just for me. Because I needed it all to be said. And that will be good enough, too.