One night a few years ago, I woke myself up mid-nightmare. I remember bolting upright in bed, chest tight. “Why aren’t you listening to me?” I shouted to the dark room.
I don’t remember who, in my dream, I’d so desperately wanted to listen. I just know they weren’t, and that something awful would happen because of it.
This frustration bordering on panic, or maybe dread — my reaction to not being heard — is how I’ve felt since the pandemic began. I’ve taught high school English in Baltimore City for over a decade; every year, it seems educators cry louder for help: fewer standardized tests, more autonomy over lesson planning, less disruption to our schedules. Despite the insistence, and validity, of our voices, educational leaders at local, state and national levels ignore our concerns — which is especially troubling now that we’re teaching during a global health crisis.
As a supporter of public education, I believe this refusal to listen to teachers will likely result in alarming consequences, both in the short and long term.
Teacher burnout isn’t new; nationwide, a lot of us are underpaid. All of us are overworked. While no one becomes a teacher to receive appreciation or accolades, we also don’t sign up for public scrutiny. I wish it stopped at the criticism on social media every summer and snow day: “Well, unlike teachers, I’m going to work today.” Instead, teachers aren’t trusted to write our own curriculum or use our own judgment when counseling students. Despite this apparent lack of faith, our workloads get increasingly larger, and in some places, include expecting teachers to use lethal force.
Though respect for educators has continued to diminish, there was a fleeting time when America seemed to treasure teachers: the early days of lockdown, when we scrambled to transition to virtual instruction. Back then, we were not only lauded for our professionalism, but parents and guardians got a glimpse into our world, recognizing how much patience and multitasking each moment of the school day requires.
Later, when teachers were among the first Marylanders to receive the coronavirus vaccine, part of me was humbled by this privilege. I also didn’t want it; I knew the vaccine wasn’t a silver bullet that would make it safe enough to return to the classroom. Because our schools have been in disrepair for decades, many Baltimore teachers didn’t trust our district to make substantial safety improvements so quickly. Our bathrooms didn’t have soap and our water wasn’t drinkable. My classroom at the time was over 110 degrees in the first and last six weeks of the school year. These conditions risk our health during ordinary times, let alone during a public health crisis.
Rather than listen to our apprehensions about returning to school buildings, people like the governor threatened and insulted us. In fact, many of the same people who condemned teachers for our concerns were reluctant to return to in-person work themselves.
While it’s always annoyed me that educational leaders make decisions about policies and curriculum without having been in schools — let alone classrooms — for years, it’s become downright infuriating during the pandemic. Since the start of online teaching, people who hadn’t taught in this format for a single day determined the results they expected Baltimore teachers to deliver. When teachers pointed out impediments to meeting these outcomes — students sign into Zoom, but aren’t actually there; many don’t have reliable access to technology — we didn’t receive assistance or collaboration. Instead, we were reminded of the expectations and left to figure it out on our own.
In the spring of 2021, when I transitioned to hybrid instruction — simultaneously teaching online and in person — I didn’t bother seeking instructional support. Only a minority of educators had been asked to attempt this impossible task, so I couldn’t even commiserate with most of my colleagues about performing two jobs at once. I was experiencing health issues during that time, so I submitted a doctor’s note outlining an accommodation. It in no way interfered with my ability to teach; it simply made sure I could tend to my health while doing so.
My request was denied.
Needless to say, I knew to brace myself for a demanding year. Besides managing our own reverse culture shock of returning to the classroom, teachers also had to weather our students’ adjustments. Almost none of them had been in a school setting for a year and a half; their primary source of structure and socialization had vanished overnight. For a population already too familiar with tumult, the loss of in-person school was especially considerable. It’s not uncommon for my lovelies to lose family members to gun violence or incarceration. Financial hardships can mean leaving one home and moving to another without warning. When school buildings closed, they surrendered yet another form of stability.
But educational leaders didn’t build time into the school year to account for these upheavals. School communities were expected to operate as if the pandemic hadn’t happened, wasn’t ongoing. During virtual instruction, many students’ good habits withered and academic engagement plummeted. Students are even more distracted by their phones than they were before the pandemic, and their willingness to complete homework or study outside of school hours is minimal. Teachers and administrators weren’t given the space to help students rebuild, and we certainly weren’t supported in addressing other harmful effects of the pandemic. The only acknowledgement of these continued, unprecedented challenges was an unenforced mask mandate; otherwise, we were expected to carry on as normal.
Even worse than uninformed people ordering teachers where to go and what to do are those who (wrongly) tell us how things are in school. In January, while I was recovering from COVID-19, which I undoubtedly caught at school, a Hopkins public health official raved on Twitter about how effective our district’s coronavirus policies were. I was among a number of teachers who pointed out the drastic differences between what’s written down and what’s real. Her response to us — people who have dedicated their careers to other people’s children, and been in school buildings for months — was, “Let’s make children a priority for once.”
We have. We do. We will. Even if it’s at a cost to us. This year, my lovelies were almost unanimously relieved to be back in person. Like so many other teachers, I listen to, and believe, students when they say what’s best for them. And I firmly believe this is a matter of great public concern. I’m committed to giving my lovelies what they need to succeed.
I just wish educational leaders did the same for teachers.
Kerry Graham teaches high school English for Baltimore City Public Schools and is a Creative in Residence for The Baltimore Banner.