Going back to school was always an exciting time for me. School was a shelter that kept me going even when times were tough. After my father died school gave me a sense of normalcy when my world felt so upside down. When my mother had mental breakdowns school provided me with a sense of purpose and control in a life that felt as though it was skidding off the rails.
Every July I would plan and anticipate the coming of the new adventure in the classroom. I bought clothes, shoes, supplies. When I was still a student I wondered who my teacher would be. When I became a teacher I wondered who my students would be. I thought of being together with my friends again. Everything about the time felt shiny and new. It was like starting with a blank slate, an opportunity to learn and change for the better.
Even after I retired from more than forty years in education I still went out in July to buy new pens and pencils and to freshen my supply of paper. I enjoyed back to school sales and somehow felt the same joy of anticipation that I had known since I was five years old. I eagerly read the posts from teachers with whom I had worked and I lived vicariously through their preparations. Eventually I had to admit that I missed working with students too much to just enjoy my new found freedom. I found tutoring jobs and taught mathematics to young people who were being homeschooled. I was still part of the educational world if only in a small way.
This year is so different. The usual teacher and student anticipation has become trepidation. The joy factor is absent as teachers consider the need for a new kind of supply closet, one filled with disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizers and extra masks. Their planning centers on how to keep students sufficiently distant from one another in a room so small that such a feat seems impossible. Teachers understand that the usual sights and sounds and smells will be very different from anything that they and their students have ever experienced. Understanding this fills them with a sense of gloom which late at night sometimes becomes a feeling of doom.
The world of school as we have come to know it will not include knots of friends playing together at recess. There will be no relaxing over lunch or trading of chips for a bag of cookies. Gatherings in the hallway will be prohibited. Teachers who have always been all things for all of the people they serve will have added responsibilities that will be exhausting both for the labor involved and the sense of responsibility incurred. They will be the ones continuously cleaning the desks and supplies. They will be the ones enforcing the safety rules. They will be the ones watching for signs of physical or mental trouble in their all too tiny classrooms where the virus has the potential to lurk in every corner.
Teachers understand better than anyone how different things will feel and be. Children will only see their friends from afar. The smiles and facial expressions that enliven relationships will be covered with masks. Only the eyes will tell a story and many of them will have difficulty focusing on learning when everything feels so wrong. No matter whether classes resume in person or remotely a deep sadness and sense of fear will hover over everything. School will not be a haven of routine but a haven of uncertainty. Being there or not being there will be equally difficult.
Teachers and their students are now part of a grand experiment and nobody can say with any assurance what exactly will happen. I can only predict that teachers will put every ounce of their dedication into to trying to make the most of an horrific situation. It is what they do. It would be nice if we would support and appreciate them as they grid themselves like soldiers going off to battle. They are quite naturally frightened because they know of the dangers they may face as they care for the most important treasures that our nation has.
Schools are getting threats of loss of funding if they don’t do things a certain way even as educators understand that one size fits all theories never work. People who have never ventured into a classroom to actually care for children all day long are creating policies that hinder the kind of flexibility that is a necessary part of teaching. There is much talk about what parents need and what students need but very little about what teachers need. There is even renewed criticism of the entire educational system because in truth it is impossible to structure learning in a way to please everyone. The outcry is leaving teachers wondering if anyone even cares about the incredible duties and dangers they are being asked to embrace without question.
The school bells will be ringing in a month or so. Many of them will be virtual. Others will be in person. It will not be the same. The routines will be different. The challenges will be many. We can only hope and pray that we are making the right choices. What we do matters greatly. We should hear what our teachers have to say. It is something we don’t tend to do very well. Perhaps now is the time we start.