Here's What We Aren't Saying About Making Teachers Teach In Person

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As a teacher, you usually spend the beginning of September welcoming a new group of students. You ask how their summer was. You make them introduce themselves and share a fun fact. You get to know which ones are going to be quiet and shy and which are going to be your new class clowns. As we all know, this year is very different for teachers and students. But if you talk to teachers, you realize that what has happened to them in COVID is not a result of this one, enormous disaster; it’s the result of policies and beliefs that are decades old.

Here is a window into the mental health of teachers at this time of year usually: they lie awake at night wondering how they will manage the challenges that back-to-school season usually brings. How do I make sure students feel comfortable and happy? What happens if I have a rowdy class? Do I have enough books in my classroom library? Will they like my new, custom bulletin boards?

The larger question is: why do we always expect teachers to give more than anyone can or should?

We hear bits of this internal monologue every year as ClearTheList, an organization I founded in 2019, works to help public school teachers get the classroom supplies they need so they don’t have to pay for them out of pocket. (Think about that for a moment: without outside assistance, public school teachers have to stock their classrooms on their own dime.) What began as a private Facebook group for a few teachers quickly turned into a network of communities with about 120,000 teachers — and in the course of sharing their supply lists with us; they often open up about how they are feeling about their work. Teaching can be alienating and isolating. It is just you up there in front of a whole new group of students with nowhere to immediately turn if things get tough in the middle of a lesson.

In a normal year, we help teachers by clearing their supply lists, making sure they know they’re not alone, and also discussing larger structural changes that could help positively affect teachers and students: additional funding from partners, more local support groups so that teachers can lean on each other, and more. We hear from our community that, most years, this support helps bridge the gap between what teachers get and what they need.

We have never encountered the crisis, especially the mental health crisis, we’ve seen among teachers this school year. They are worrying about their students more than ever (what if a kid loses their mask at lunch? How do I rearrange my classroom for safer social distancing?), but they are also worried about surviving. We have heard countless stories of teachers trying to save up enough money to buy PPE for themselves if they are required to be in classrooms. We know of teachers who were unable to hold classes for weeks at a time last spring because they had contracted COVID-19, and no substitutes were available. We also know teachers who had to put on a brave face for their students during remote learning while dealing with losses of loved ones due to the virus. According to NPR, in August 82% percent of K-12 teachers were concerned about returning to in-person teaching this fall, and 77% of teachers were worried about risking their own health by if they went back.

We’ve been able to marshal monetary donations, and we hope the community that ClearTheList provides has helped, but the lack of societal support for and even the condemnation of teachers in a year of impossible choices is stunning. We have heard it all: they just don’t want to work, why do they think they are different from other essential workers, why do they get to stay home while I go to my job. There are good answers to each of these questions, but the larger question is: why do we always expect teachers to give more than anyone else, more than anyone can or should?

The response to teachers in this crisis sheds light on how much we value them: enough to want their services, but not enough to pay them fairly and not enough to keep them out of harm’s way.

We know from other countries like Finland that when you give teachers adequate financial and social support, you get teachers who feel seen and heard. They pass that sense of security on to their students. If you are a kid whose teacher is calm and confident in their surroundings, you are more likely to believe that you are safe and supported, at least during school hours. When kids feel safe, they can meet academic challenges and excel. It is what we introduce in beginner chemistry as a chain reaction, the kind that leads to a permanent state change.

Many of the challenges facing educators this year are new, but the response to teachers in this crisis sheds light on how much we value them: enough to want their services, but not enough to pay them fairly and not enough to keep them out of harm’s way.

As this strange, difficult school year continues, ClearTheList will continue to support teachers in every way we can (and we invite anyone and everyone to join us in this mission), but we hope one of the lessons of this fall is that we need to re-evaluate how we treat our educators so we can do better in the future.

Courtney Jones is the founder of ClearTheList Foundation, a 501c3 organization that connects educators with donors, organizations, and corporations that join together to purchase needed classroom supplies that school budgets don’t cover. ClearTheList was recently accepted into Facebook’s Community Accelerator program, with the goal of reaching even more teachers looking for help. You can make a donation to ClearTheList Foundation or sign up as a volunteer to help make sure all the donated supplies received are the best quality for our students.