Despite starting in my in mid-30s, I began my teaching career as every educator does, as a very green newbie. Over the 12 years, I spent at my first school, I rose from being a novice, teaching geography to bored freshmen, to a department head lecturing to GT students in Advanced Placement classes. My way through the various high school social studies classes was positively smooth compared to my moves through the school building.
Touring the School Building
For 12 years, I taught in 9 or 10 different classrooms. I once joked that I was the only teacher touring my high school. At first, I taught in whatever rooms were free during the period my class met. Yes, I was a floater. Some teachers were gracious and accommodating to me while I was in their rooms, while others welcomed me like I was a pernicious timeshare salesman.
Looking back, I do not think badly of the less-welcoming teachers. They were booted out of their rooms during their conference periods and had to become floaters too. I have been on the other side of this too and I know how disruptive it can be.
Rooms of my Own
Beginning with my third year I got a classroom of my own. Home sweet home, it was not. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the room. It had the same ancient blackboards and rattling air conditioners found in other rooms. It even had windows that were covered in Venetian blinds installed, no doubt, in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration.
Over the years, teachers were moved to locate each department in a specific area of the building. Later, someone decided that each grade level needed a specific section of the building. This move was supposedly “research-based.” (Now, when I hear that expression, my eyes glaze over. Has there ever been a tried and discarded educational policy that wasn’t originally hyped as “research-based”?)
Then it was discovered that the shock of all shocks, we had asbestos in the building. Even though most asbestos in old buildings was sealed inside concrete and harmless, this was a time of media-induced hysteria. I would not be surprised to learn that Meryl Streep had testified before Congress on this issue. (By the way, 5G networks are the new asbestos. Just ask John Cusack.)
Asbestos abatement occasioned several moves in one year. To get classes out of the building, the district brought in dozens of portable buildings. Mine had come from Huntsville ISD but had what looked like bars on the windows. Hmm.
The Back 40
Of any teacher, my building was the farthest away from the main building, and I do not remember seeing any administrators go by in the time I was out in what I called the “Back 40”.
One day, the fire alarm went off in my portable and we filed outside onto the soccer field. The teacher with the room closest to mine had evacuated her students too, but from what I could see, we were the only ones who had left the school.
The alarm was directly inside the door of my room and was deafening. Unlike a normal fire drill, the alarm did not stop its bellowing. Eventually, I got on the phone and shouting over the alarm, asked the office about the fire drill.
Just Carry On . . . Like Normal?
“Fire drill? We aren’t having a fire drill”, came the reply. I finally connected with an assistant principal who told me he would check on it. I asked him what I should do in the meantime and was told words I would hear from administrators many times over the years, “Just carry on like normal.”
After 90 minutes of Orwellian “normalcy”, the alarm finally stopped.
Since that time, I have heard those words spoken in all manner of circumstances. When the heater in a stifling building would not turn off, we were advised to “carry on like normal”. No power and streams of floodwaters running down dark halls? “Carry on like normal”.
Somehow, I doubt we will hear those words when we go back to our campuses in a couple of weeks, but that will be the implicit hope of every school. On 9/11, I remember an email that asked teachers to, “as much as possible, keep things normal” in our classes. Nobody understood the enormous implications of what happened on the day the twin towers fell, but almost everyone knows what is at stake with COVID-19.
The Year of the Ever-Changing Normal
I am afraid that almost nothing about school is going to be normal for a while and we might as well be honest about that. An optimist might call it “the new normal.”
For our students and colleagues, the only thing we can make normal is our concern and care for them.
Making a Better Normal
The Homecoming is a 1971 TV movie that became a Christmas classic and launched the long-running series, the Waltons, Set deep in the Blue Ridge mountains during the worst years of the Great Depression, the narrator, Earl Hamner Jr. closes the film with these words,
“Christmas is a season when we give tokens of love. In that house, we received not tokens, but love itself.”
In days when hugs, handshakes, and even physical proximity are out, we must be more deliberate in the way we communicate our love and support for each other. It is a very difficult chore we are being given, but if we practice it enough, maybe it will become normal.