Saints and Demons: Teaching in the Age of COVID

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Years ago, I was a science teacher. One weekend I was with my wife at one of our local shopping malls, walking between stores in the main concourse. I’m not a big fan of malls, big box stores, or other places with lots of people so I was carefully scanning the crowd ahead when I saw them.

Two of my students.

I was wearing a baseball hat (the ultimate teacher disguise), so I recognized them before they noticed me. I watched as they drew closer — talking, laughing, being junior high students. Then one of them noticed me and we locked eyes. I could instantly see a change in demeanor — not fear, but uncertainty. That look that people get when they see something that doesn’t quite mesh with what their brain tells them they should be expecting. Quick whispers were exchanged and now both students were staring at me. They were silent, but I could “hear” their internal monologue.

“It’s Mr. Delp.”

“What’s he doing here?”

“Why’s he wearing a hat?”

“Why isn’t he at school?”

We approached each other and exchanged genuine smiles and brief pleasantries. As we parted ways, out of the corner of my eye, I could see one of the kids throw a quick glance over his shoulder — just to be sure he had actually seen what he thought he had seen. A teacher who wasn’t in school.

If you are an educator, I can almost guarantee that you have experienced this same scenario — or something very similar. The shock and surprise from students (and sometimes even parents) that you would be out in public, away from school. I’ve never experienced this in a bad way, or felt any disdain, but there always seems to be some awkward level of surprise that I am able to materialize beyond the confines of the school building. After all, I am a teacher (or now an administrator) — doesn’t that define the extent of my existence?

My grandmother was a life-long educator and I remember stories about her early days in the education profession. She gave up a lot to be a teacher and the expectations seemed to border on absurd. Rules about dating, parties, dress, shopping, and visibility outside of school. I remember thinking it sounded more like she had joined a convent than the education profession.

But, I am here to tell you that educators do have a life away from school. They have families, grocery shopping, weekend soccer games with the kids, and health challenges. They clean houses, do laundry, fix dinner, and sometimes care for parents who are aging, or in poor health. They go out to restaurants, help their kids with homework, run errands, pay bills, and mow the yard. Not only do they exist outside of school, but they face the same challenges experienced by others in our society.

Enter the COVID pandemic.

Now our teachers are back teaching and struggling to balance professional and personal commitments. Just like all of us. They are planning their instruction, providing emotional supports, cleaning and sanitizing classrooms, monitoring mask wearing, and attempting to socially distance students. The health and well-being of kids — academically, physically, and socially-emotionally has never been a greater concern. Good teachers take this seriously. They truly want what is best for kids. But remember, they also have to deal with their own commitments, responsibilities, health, safety, and well-being both in the classroom and outside of school. It is a big ask.

Here is my concern (and an obvious generalization). As a society, we tend to say the right things about teachers. We applaud the work they do with kids. We acknowledge the sacrifices they make. We express appreciation for the value they bring to our communities. We understand that good teachers do so much more than teach content. They counsel. They reassure. They encourage. They positively influence our kids. We thank them for their efforts. We send gift cards and notes of encouragement. We praise their dedication and sacrifice.

We say and do all of the right things. Until the actions of educators are no longer deemed convenient for our society.

If teachers express frustration related to funding or salary, they are asked what they expect, “You only work 10 months out of the year.”

If they raise questions about personal safety, or that of their families, during the COVID pandemic, they are told, “Do your job. You knew what you signed up for and parents need to go to work.” Or, they are shamed with statistics about the increase in cases of domestic abuse, depression, and teen suicides. Tragedies, to be certain, but also an extremely heavy (and unfair) burden to drop at the feet of educators.

Another generalization. Perhaps it is simply a sign of the times, and indicative of our current level of national divisiveness, but I am alarmed by how teachers can be raised nearly to the level of sainthood if they are willing to martyr themselves at the expense of their own well-being while being demonized as selfish and lazy if their actions do not fit the “selfless teacher narrative” or are deemed inconvenient for others. It is a dangerous and unnecessary dichotomy that drives good people out of the profession.

Teachers deserve our respect and admiration, but not our worship.

They need us to understand that they do have a life outside of school and (as is true for all of us) COVID has altered the way that works.

They do not deserve to be vilified, or cast as selfish, for choosing to make commitments beyond teaching a priority — even their top priority. Especially during a pandemic.

This week, I posted this question on Twitter.

It drew a reaction. After reading through the comments, I responded.

Teachers are not saints. They are not demons. They should not be martyrs. They only need our understanding and permission to be human.

Hang in there everyone — teachers, parents, students, community. Take care of each other. Remain hopeful.

Better days are ahead!

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