A Teacher Gives the Tea.
I’ve figured out what is wrong but it’s going to take a while to explain so bear with me. I’ve been teaching public high school for 20 years. I have 2 teenage children of my own…I think I can qualify for teenage expert status. School is different this year…and I’ve spent 5 months trying to put down in words how horrible it is to be a student and a teacher right now. I get it now. To be frank, we’ve completely fucked things up for our children. It’s dark and we need your help to fix it.
Public school was not healthy before the pandemic. Our curriculum did not serve our students. Our buildings were falling down. Our teachers weren’t supported and our forced methodologies failed to meet the goals and interests of 21st century families. We gave an immense amount of standardized tests to validate our broken system, and our kids had little connection with the outcomes of their learning. We were given curriculum to follow, making it known that our school systems did not trust our expertise and did not acknowledge our creative minds. Our teachers took over roles that belonged to parents, taking power away from families and giving too much responsibility to already overworked educators. We forced children to endure active shooter drills to prepare for violent attacks. Educators were blamed for every problem in our country, and then were expected to save our students by shielding them from bullets with our bodies.
Somehow I was able to find joy in this environment. I was able to recognize the light in my students’ eyes. I was able to have discussions with kids which made me feel like I was flying. I could almost ignore our crumbling system with my classroom door closed. The community I had within 4 walls was strong and my students worked hard because we were all connected. And my colleagues, they were fire. I believed in us. Of course I had students that had bigger issues going on than I could address as a teacher. I was frustrated a lot. I came home from school in tears many days. Teachers knew that we were not teaching our children the way they needed to be taught. We longed for real change and while we were marching for more funding and dreaming about new paradigms, we were forced to teach curriculum that we knew was harmful to our students. I was struggling, but I was fueled by the laughter of my kids, my secret plans to inject critical thinking into my lessons, and the extraordinary feeling that I was contributing to the future of our country.
After almost two years of pandemic learning, I long for the light that I used to see in my students’ eyes because now it’s gone. We can all feel it. Teachers need fuel to burn our candles at both ends and our fuel is gone. Some of my students have stopped coming to school. Some of my students come to class, put their ear buds in, put their heads down, and go to sleep. Some of my students sit down in their chairs which are (socially) distant from the rest of the class, take out their phones, and FaceTime with their friends or parents, ignoring their classmates and me completely. A few of them stay outside my classroom, prop their phones up in the hallways, and make TikToks, not even acknowledging my presence. A few are hungry to see me and communicate their love, but cannot concentrate on their work or on our discussions. Phones are on their lap and they are constantly looking down. My compliant students do their work but there is no joy in it. There is silence where there once was happy engagement. One of my own daughters explained it like this: “I can’t hear anyone through their masks so I don’t even try to talk to people. I do my work and watch the clock until the bell rings. Then I talk to them on social media at home.” School is joyless.
Student’s lives have transformed at home during the pandemic and it is permanently changing the way they act at school. Some of my students leave class early to go to work. They have more responsibilities at home. Relationships have been strained. A few have run away from home. Being alone, losing family to COVID, and being forced to act like adults for so long have increased mental illness and anger, and decreased attention spans and problem solving skills.
Collectively, my students are sadder, but also meaner. There are more fights and more bullying in the hallways. There is less respect for adults, and more reliance on TikTok challenges instead of reaching out to relieve stress and depression. There is an unhealthy and almost toxic sense of social disengagement that is being felt every place in school. Teachers are feeling all of this. We have to enforce correct mask wearing, try desperately to convince students to put away their phones, and scream to be heard all day. We don’t see many other adults anymore oh…and there are no substitute teachers. We are the substitute teachers. Oh also…everyone hates us and blames us for all of this.
We can’t go on field trips, we can’t hold assemblies or invite in speakers. There are no pep rallies and lunch is 20 minutes long. The only time students see each other is during fire drills. We have to police the hallways and the bathrooms because the smell of marijuana is everywhere. The kids are not OK. Meanwhile, our leaders act like we all are getting back to normal. Our administrators in central office put out testing schedules and enforce new curriculum. All systems go…there is learning loss to fix. We are being expected to introduce new content always. We need to remediate. We need to enforce the rules. We need to ignore the overwhelming environment of loss and anger and press on. We have tests to pass and kids to graduate.
And this? This is why I say we have fucked things up. The way we should be responding to this crisis is exactly opposite of what is happening in schools. This is why good teachers are quitting now. This is why I am ever closer and closer to quitting myself. It is isn’t our salary…we adapt to little compensation. It isn’t our working conditions. I wear layers of sweaters to school and have given cute names to the mouse family in my classroom…and am able to move on. We see ourselves contributing to the harm and misery of the people we love the most. We had a chance to change everything. We had these pandemic years to transform public education. We could have reset our priorities, started to teach kids to love themselves and where they have come from. We could have embraced collective healing, true equity, and community engagement. Teachers could feel the potential of this moment. But we failed our students. We came back to the classroom having to accept our roles in the continuation of the way things were. This doesn’t work for us. We can’t be complicit.
Teacher are by character, optimistic. We have to be. We teach to affect the future. When we can’t see a future for our students, we can’t endure what is required of as educators because we are contributing to the harm by staying in our roles. We can’t see things continuing like this. Our students are not ok. There is no light in their eyes. They are exhausted, disengaged, hopeless, and cannot visualize a different world from this one. When someone young can’t find themselves in their classrooms, they find themselves on social media. It’s not that they are on their phones all the time, it’s that they have rejected what they can gain from building a future with us.
It’s all of our faults as parents and as citizens. We didn’t rise up and demand change. We relied on people who have no interest in our children’s futures to take control again. I know we were all dealing with a lot of shit…but this particular crisis will affect our families and our country for decades to come. We need to pause everything. We need to stop teaching standards…or better yet, write new standards. Our children need time to heal, to relearn how to relate to other human beings. They need outlets for their anger and grief. We need to stop the drive to push out new workers for our economy and see our babies for the potential that they are. If the only way to make this happen is for teachers to quit, then so be it. We need radical change.
That’s the tea. No cap. (Look it up)