Risking Teachers' Lives

I am a very introspective person, an INFJ to be specific, and as such, I am capable of spending hours a day in quiet deliberations. Writing helps me distill those reflections down to something that is well thought out, encouraging, and hopefully, wise.

I do not claim to be a fountain of wisdom. As a matter of fact, if you looked at the earlier decades of my life, you would probably find that I acted wisely about as often as a stopped clock displays the correct time. Despite the years characterized by foolishness, something remarkable has transpired in recent years. After trying to do things in all the wrong ways, I have discovered pearls of wisdom which had been hiding in plain sight.

Introduction to Wisdom

The training in wisdom begins early. If you had kept recordings of your parents from when you were a child, you would hear an endless stream of things like:

Don’t touch that stove. You’re going to burn yourself.
Don’t run with those scissors. Do you want to cut yourself?
If you don’t turn off the video games and study, you are going to fail Algebra and have to retake it in summer school.
If you don’t brush your teeth, you’ll get cavities. Do you really like having the dentist drill holes in your mouth?

Having survived childhood, we move into our teens and explore new ways to act foolishly. This cycle of foolishness and awakening keeps repeating, and all along we have, hopefully, reflected on our choices and gained wisdom.

Having lived now for 60 years, I see things much more clearly than ever before. Some of the things I see more plainly are unsettling and even disturbing.

What Will You Believe?

In my economics classes, one of my most repeated questions is: what are you going to believe, what people say or what they do? As an example, I will propose to offer a bonus to anyone willing to come to school at 6:30 in the morning for a 45-minute tutorial before first period. Many students will promise to come to the sunrise session, but experience tells me few will actually show up.

A friend once told me of his boss who, in public, always flashed a huge grin, warmly shook hands with the workers, and said all the right and affirming things. But away from the spotlight, the man was icy and grim, and his actions were downright condescending.

I don’t have to tell you which version of the man his employees believed.

In the Ghostbusters movie, the team’s’ low budget commercials conclude with them saying in unison, “we’re ready to believe you”. I am ready to believe that teachers are respected and appreciated, but what I will believe is how we are treated.

A Shocking Response

When I was a college student, I worked as a substitute, and occasionally ran into some of my old teachers. One such educator, who I will call Mrs. Brown, had been my math teacher when I was in the 7th grade. Nearly 20 years later, I discovered that she taught advanced high school math, and I was both surprised and pleased to run into her again.

Mrs. Brown had been a very outspoken teacher when I was in her class in the mid-70s, and time had only made her bolder. I introduced myself and told her I was studying to become a teacher. Her response shocked me, “Well, I am very sorry to hear that”, she said. “Teachers are not paid enough and don’t get any respect.”

The bitterness in her words stunned me, and I did not want to believe what she said was true. Still, from her matter of fact delivery, I knew she believed what she was saying. The brief exchange left me with nothing to say, and I left her room praying my experience would be different.

Reassessing the Grade

Looking back at the past 24 years of teaching, I would give teachers pay and respect a grade of 67 with a curve to 70. Call the 3 points extra credit for the many lasting friendships I enjoy with teachers and former students.
The last several weeks have caused me to reassess that grade.

At the federal and state level, I now see how undervalued teachers are. To many politicians, we are noisy cogs selfishly complaining about working in dangerous conditions. And like cogs, when we are worn down or undependable, we can be put aside to be replaced with a fresh one.
If that were the final assessment, I doubt many people would stay in the job. Fortunately, many of us are blessed to work with administrators who both honor and care for us. This helps on a day to day basis, but these folks can only do so much, as they are as far removed from the halls of power as we are.

Risking Teachers’ Lives

However reckless many teachers see a return to face to face instruction, it looks like that has been predetermined, regardless of the risks. Many who had the options have already chosen to resign or retire from the jobs they loved. Others, with few alternatives in a down economy, will be forced to return.

As I see things, whatever the state or district policies, teachers must do whatever they can to protect themselves and their students from Covid-19. At the same time, we cannot allow ourselves to get mired in the slough of bitterness or depression. I know that is easy to say and much harder in practice but gaining character and wisdom most often comes as a result of the tough times in our lives.

Let me offer a concrete suggestion. To avoid those negative feelings, focus on supporting and encouraging your fellow teachers and students. If you occupy yourself with that, there will be little room for bitterness.

We also need to encourage ourselves. Remind yourself of the value you have given to your students and colleagues. Go back through that box where you keep all the little notes students and other teachers have given you over the years and read the personal accounts of how much you are valued. I am sure you will consider those assessments to be more honest and reliable than the attitudes of decision-makers who have never done the job.

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