Teachers Are Tired of Pretending to Be Okay
TV Washington’s Dispatch from Georgia
This piece is part of a series from teachers on the ways their classrooms have changed over the last year. Read others here.
There is a scene in James Cameron’s critically acclaimed film Titanic, when the band, led by violinist William Hartley, famously continues to play as the ship sinks into the Atlantic Ocean. A similar scene plays out at my school every day. Our school is sinking and we, the teachers, continue to play.
Allow me to elaborate. I recently observed a student being ushered out of the building as she clutched her chest. The security guard whispered to her, “Are you having trouble breathing?” Very obviously in distress, the student managed to nod yes. I continued to the copy machine to retrieve the week’s hard copies. She had just been eating inside a classroom with 25 other students, maskless, for 30 minutes or more. By the time I headed back to the classroom, an ambulance was pulling away from the building, again. Back in my room, and much like the members of William Hartley’s band, I grabbed my instrument, a blue Expo marker, and updated the daily agenda.
Why was the sick student being escorted by the security guard, anyway? It’s because the school is severely understaffed. We don’t have a nurse in our building. The data coaches are working as substitute teachers, and the head custodian has been spotted passing out school lunches. Most teachers are regularly asked to give up a planning period to help cover classes for teachers who are out sick or waiting on negative test results before they can return to the building. Teachers who show up for work are discouraged from gathering for lunch as a part of the district’s mitigation strategy, though students are often forced to eat in the classroom. My colleagues and I have been meeting in secret; using that time to decompress, and to be in community with other teachers, has been essential to keeping me above water so far.
Oftentimes, the prolonged ringtone of my classroom telephone serves as a warning signal that several students are about to go missing. The first question is, “Do you have this student in your classroom?” My response is, “Yes, but he has been absent the last three days.” After a few follow-up questions and a request to send the names of all students who sit directly in front, behind, or beside the student to the school’s administration, my role in what I assume to be contact tracing is done.
The next day, that area of the classroom is vacant, and I have one or two parents requesting work for the next 10 days. I struggle to find an appropriate answer for the student who has noticed all the empty seats and wants to know where everyone is. I don’t want my students to have to play along. I want to acknowledge how weird our world has become. The conflict is tiresome. I find myself looking for distractions to ignore those types of questions, like a loud student in the hallway or another student question. When I’m forced to address the widespread absenteeism, I pivot, without the benefit of a conductor’s baton to exaggerate my gestures. “Listen guys, we are here. We know what we are here to do.”