Submitted by MJ Ubando
I was in high school the first time I realized teachers were actual humans. Standing behind the ice cream counter at the movie theater where I worked, I saw a math teacher, Ms. P., and a special education teacher, Mr. N., in line to buy tickets— holding hands. The sight floored me. My previous teacher sightings were strange but practical: Mr. R. shopping for tomatoes at the grocery store; Mrs. E. at Macy’s with her daughter. But two teachers with their fingers intertwined, dare I say, dating? Was that even allowed?
Since I started teaching nine years ago, my students have reacted like I once did when they encounter me in the real world. There is an initial double-take, a jolt of surprise as they try to process my presence outside of our classroom. Many pretend that they don’t know me or remember me. If I’m feeling feisty, I make it a point to say hi anyway, “Hellllo Sarah. Make sure you don’t ditch my class Monday.”
Other encounters are more welcoming. I’ve had students wave furiously at me from drive-thru windows, run around cashier counters to give me hugs, students who smile and fist bump me as we cross paths on a jog. Once, during a holiday weekend, I spotted one of my favorite students perusing sunglasses in L.A. It was a startling moment for each of us, a reminder that both of our lives not only existed outside of our classroom, but also our city.
In his essay, “In Defense of Our Teachers”, Foo Fighters frontman, Dave Grohl, acknowledged the humanity of educators from his own unique experience: his mother was a public school teacher. Growing up, he watched her “rarely have a moment to herself” as she often graded papers “well into the night” and worked several side jobs to “supplement her meager $35,000 annual salary.” Reading Grohl’s essay the first time was emotional for me and not just because the Foo Fighters are frequently featured on my “pumped up” playlist. The recognition and empathy Grohl showed through his words is a rare experience for teachers.
Teachers are used to being thanked. When I first tell people what I do for a living, I generally get two reactions: “I’m so sorry. I could never do that.” or “Thank god for people like you.” Every year, I gain five pounds during Teacher Appreciation Week from all the buffet coupons and free food we get. In scattered boxes or pinned onto various cork boards, I keep a rotation of thank you letters and cards from students. Every teacher I know has a similar collection. On the most difficult days, it helps remind us why we do what we do.
But while we appreciate the outpourings of gratitude, what teachers seldom receive is an honest gesture of understanding, even more so, such a public display of defense. Being an educator is one of the most public jobs, because education is a shared experience. Everyone has been a student. People pay taxes which pays for school. Parents remind their kids to do their homework. Students take classes to become our future nurses, lawyers, entrepreneurs, politicians. In one way or another, everyone has some personal investment in education, which means, everyone has an opinion on it.
Still, no one knows school like a teacher, because we are the ones who actually make it possible. We are the frontline workers. Yet, like so many essential professionals, we rarely get a seat at the table where the most essential decisions about education are made. Worse off, our voices are so often painfully ignored by those who seem to always have a seat.
As Grohl wrote, “America’s teachers are caught in a trap, set by indecisive and conflicting sectors of failed leadership that have never been in their position and can’t possibly relate to the unique challenges they face.” Only teachers or those who love a teacher can possibly understand what it means to live and breathe education. And unfortunately, they are the only ones who seem to understand why it is so difficult to be a teacher right now.
Grohl’s essay came out back in July, when the notion of returning to school under the threat of a pandemic was just a terrifying possibility instead of a nightmarish reality. Since then teachers and their supporters wrote letters, sent emails, spoke at and watched eight-hour long school board meetings. We cited the reasoning of educated scientific professionals who argued the right way to reopen. When none of that worked, we held signs and marched through streets to remind the public and our leaders that we deserve to not only be seen but heard.
Yet still last week most teachers here in Washoe County returned to their classrooms to teach behind masks, six feet away from our students. Just a week before, we had to speed read through the countless handouts, procedure manuals, and webinars thrown at us just days before school returned in an attempt to train us through contradictory and confusing guidelines about how to teach and keep our students safe.
We balanced this while gutting and disinfecting our classrooms with diluted soap water and while planning lessons and assignments for a new frontier of teaching none of us have ever experienced. Despite our fear, we prepped and planned and waited to welcome our students. We did the same when parts of our world literally started burning and the district and school board were suddenly deeply concerned about the state of the air we breathe. Contrary to what some believe, we continued to work (some us from home, many of us still from our classrooms). Several teachers took the time to reach out to our students to check on their well being even though so many of our top leaders have yet to check on ours.
If you’ve ever wondered, this is what it’s like to be a teacher. Like our leaders so often remind us, we are masters at creative problem solving. We are chameleons who adapt to threatening environments. No one spins plates like we do. We thrive in spite of our anger and our anxiety or long hours and low pay. When there are no resources, we make or buy our own. We arm our students with pencils and nourish them with secret granola bars. We build our students up in spite of others breaking us down. We go to work even though we are called “lazy” and “selfish” or, like one WCSD teacher last week, we go even when we receive a hate letter in the mail calling us “losers” who need to “teach, shut up, or quit.”
On our third smoke day, students stayed home but teachers were asked once again to make something out of nothing. In the span of a few hours, we were tasked to prepare two weeks worth of lessons for the inevitability of distance learning. A reality that the district finally acknowledged as a possibility. A reality that we should’ve been preparing for five months ago. A reality that we are still not promised even with rings of fire and rising COVID cases.
As I write this early Sunday morning, I have no idea what school will look like tomorrow. I’m not sure if I or my students will be there and the technology that I am using to teach and communicate with them has been glitching all weekend. As I review this essay Monday evening, four of my students have been “excluded” from my classroom (essentially quarantined): two for being symptomatic, others for possible COVID exposure.
A fellow teacher asked what this means for the rest of us; what are teachers’ next steps? The answers are: a test and then a wait-and-see.
Today was the third day of school and the second day we’ve seen these kids.
If you’ve wondered, in 2020, this is what it’s like to be a teacher in most places but especially in Nevada, a state with one of the lowest per pupil spending rates in the country and ranked 50th in education, a step up from 51st where we have been for the last four years.
For what seems like forever now, Nevada teachers have been conditioned to persist under grueling and inconceivable circumstances. We’ve gotten good at it. It’s the main reason why, despite our 50th ranking in funding and support, Nevada is 35th in academic achievement. I am a product of the Washoe County School System. It is where I found teachers who inspired me to teach, who taught me the language and exemplified the bravery necessary to write this essay even though I am terrified I, too, will start receiving hate mail.
But just because teachers, students, bus drivers, custodians, librarians, support staff, administrators, and even our district have learned to cope, to flourish under these harsh environments, it doesn’t mean that we should have to. It isn’t right to keep expecting us to.
A day after the protest and march my partner, teacher friends, their partners, and myself teamed up to organize—a protest that drew over 200 hundred teachers and community members—Superintendent Kristen McNeill published her own opinion piece where she reminded us that “we are educators first and foremost.” Regardless of my criticism, I do not envy the difficult decisions Dr. McNeill and our school board face during these challenging times. I do not believe this has been easy on them.
Still, what education and teachers need right now are not motivational speeches full of condescending metaphors veiled under some fake banner of unity. What we desperately need are leaders who are not afraid of making responsible and informed decisions even if they are unpopular, leaders who take the time to actually engage in open and transparent conversations, leaders who offer well-thought out solutions, who listen and amplify the voices of their employees and constituents instead of shaming them for speaking out.
As Grohl said, “Until you have spent countless days in a classroom devoting your time and energy to becoming that lifelong mentor to generations of otherwise disengaged students, you must listen to those who have.”
Instead of reminding us to do our jobs, our leaders should remind themselves to do their own.
Teachers need to remember that our jobs cannot possibly mean being everything to everyone. It is a lesson we have to relearn time and time again. Teachers begin our education careers as instructors. But as the teacher cliché goes, we soon start wearing more and more hats: coach, guardian, therapist, social worker, nutritionist, lawyer, police officer. We have split ourselves thin and bent our time and sanity in unimaginable ways for our kids. Yet, we never asked to be martyrs, and the aiding in our own extinction is becoming less selfless and more self-destructive.
Teacher guilt is real, and it is powerful. It is why so many of us rarely take days off and when we do, we demand our subs leave us detailed notes. It’s why we grade and plan even when we take days off. In all the discussions about education I’ve been following over the past few months here and across the country, one that has haunted me came from Amanda Coffman, a teacher in Kansas whose comment during a school board meeting turned into her letter of resignation.
She began with a metaphor: “Teaching is like a bad marriage—you never get your needs met, but you stay in it for the kids.” Make no mistake, our students are the only reasons we teach. They are the only people who make this job worth the unjustness and disrespect. But like anyone in an abusive relationship, educators must consider what the witnessing of our mistreatment is teaching the people we influence the most.
Teachers never forget that they are teachers. This profession is too consuming to ever forget. Instead, what our community and our leaders need to remember is what I learned behind that ice cream counter years ago: teachers are human beings first and foremost. We are parents, grandparents, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, people who have lives and loved ones beyond our profession and our classroom. Though teaching is what we love to do; it is not the only thing we are.
Toward the end of her speech, Coffman stopped speaking to the board and began addressing her students, leading a final lesson on self-worth and mutual respect. She said, “Just because you can accept less for yourself doesn’t mean you should.”
I do not endorse, but fully expect, the mass exodus of teachers that will follow what already has become a tumultuous school year. But for those of us who remain, it is our responsibility to advocate for ourselves the way we teach our students to advocate for themselves. It is our responsibility to model the kind of bravery and outspokenness we require of our students. It is our responsibility to love ourselves as much as we love our students. It is the responsibility of our community and our leaders to listen and help us rebuild an education system that impacts us all. If education is truly essential, then each of us must do what we can to ensure that it matters.
MJ Ubando is a Filipina-American who teaches English and Creative Writing in Washoe County. She was raised in Reno and is adulting in Sparks. She graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011 and earned her Master of Fine Arts from Sierra Nevada University in 2019.
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