Being a teacher has a way of making you think you can outlast anything. For the last fourteen years, I have stretched my check enough to barely cover my own home and still found a way to buy extra card stock, maxi pads, and incentive candy for my middle school classroom here in Houston. I have watched as students formed a line outside of my door to cry or talk or just hang out with me. Some have even called me “mom” by mistake. I have not flinched at the long hours, the two-hour round-trip commute, the papers I have had to take home to grade while my own children beg for their mother. I have spent endless hours refereeing hallway brawls and locker-talk mediations. I carry a Swiss Army kit armed with tissue, referral slips, and a listening ear.
I have even learned how to turn mandated drills into our personal survival game. Every month, I lead a caravan of students through imaginary flames. I coax them to shelter in place for invisible hurricanes, though they all lived through the rising waters of Hurricane Harvey. I am there when daytime storms become reminders of how fast Houston can become Atlantis. I see when their anxieties levitate through the roof, and hold their hands during power outages. And when we talk about what happens if an intruder enters their school, armed and ready to shoot, I have always assured them that I will be there to protect them—even if all I have is a rubber band slingshot and a handful of prayers.
But as Texas joins the list of states announcing the return of in-person learning and of schools reopening in the fall—with the Houston Independent School District announcing online classes for the first six weeks of the new school year, then options for in person learning—I am unsure of how to keep myself and the children I look after safe. Back in March, we thought that distance learning was enough to escape the pandemic’s grip: teachers, myself included, spent formless days transforming group activities and curriculum into digital tethers to keep our students engaged and our bodies unharmed, only to have half of our students lose all motivation to complete a semester in which grades didn’t count, and the other half struggle with weak or nonexistent Wi-Fi or sharing a single computer with every student in their home. HISD tried to provide enough resources, but no one was prepared for this. The summer has offered no relief from the plague of fears surrounding our pending return, either. I understand the challenges of distance learning, but I am not ready to return to my role as a live action hero.
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I have seen multiple models online, from teaching groups of students every other day to full in-person instruction with insufficient social distancing, all contingent on the restraint and perfect behavior of children. But no proposed solution seems to fully take into account the fact that teachers’ intellect, passion, and creativity are being dangled off of a cliff, not to mention the risk of rising numbers of coronavirus cases in Texas. While bars are shutting down again, we are still being asked to prepare for a maskless classroom as if the world around us weren’t a giant contagion. We have spent endless summer nights lying awake and planning every possible outcome to keep your children convinced that things are normal. We are exhausted and outmatched. And while we are always the first to think of the children, it is time someone thought of the teachers.
As a teacher, I work hard—sometimes too hard—to ensure that my students have sharpened their critical thinking skills and are more in tune with what’s going on in the world. I am an overplanner and sometimes that takes its toll. When I first started teaching middle school, I took hours of essays and reading-comprehension short answers home with me every week. I had the daunting task of preparing my students for the STAAR reading and writing exams. I faced pressure from my principal and the district to improve scores and I was determined to help my students perform well, even if I had to stay up all night writing individualized feedback.
After seeing me burn the candle at both ends, one of my mentors asked me, “What would happen if you dropped dead tomorrow?” My mind drifted to mourning children, large poster boards with my face on them, and a moment of silence held over the school’s PA system. A recapping of all the great times and interesting things they had learned in my class. But her answer quickly snapped me back to reality. “They would hire a substitute.” This was her way of reminding me to take care of myself. But it is hard to think of yourself when you care so much about the youthful faces staring up at you every day, and about helping them succeed.
We are the ones who routinely spend every fall contracting every strand of the cold virus at once. The ones who work endless nights in the face of those joking about our ineptitude and low pay. We are the ones rising early to bring doughnuts to First Period and help struggling students find their footing, and the ones sacrificing our lunch breaks for tutorial time. We hold our pee for hours on end while donning a smile. Now, we find ourselves trembling at the sight of our own students, unsure of how to confront where we are now.
I want to tell you that I am not afraid of what happens next, and that I am strong enough to wake up every day and pull myself from a pit of depression to risk even more and teach. That I will be able to look my students, your children, in the eye and not cringe; that I haven’t priced seventeen different kinds of plastic full-body suits. But I have. I do not have the choice of not returning, and my school district has promised a virtual teaching option only for the first six weeks. I am an equal provider in a two-income household, but my autoimmune disease and elderly parents make this adventure more risk than reward. Texas is determined to get back to normal, but it seems to be doing so at the greatest cost.
For thousands of students, teachers make a second home possible. We are the passionate leaders chaperoning their clubs, cheering with them during their victories, and helping them through rough patches. And if we return too soon to our classrooms, we cannot promise that we will have the strength to turn them away.
So the next time a boy breaks a child’s heart five minutes before they enter our classrooms, or the moment a child ask us to sit with her and explain a close reading, or the final breath we share in a laugh together could really be the end. I shudder with fear that the potential inside them that could be vanquished, and also in knowing that if we had just waited a little while longer, we would all be equipped with enough resilience to survive.