Friday, April 3, 2020


Art by Gregg Chadwick

This might be a shameful thing to admit, but I will say it: I’m glad to be safe. I feel guilty. And I feel sorry. But I also feel safe and glad.

There was so much about teaching middle school that was hurting, it’s hard to even know where to begin. So I guess I’ll begin with the parts that have been good: my students, their spirit, our spirit, the pure thrill of innovation and bursts of success where you least expect it. Their joy and humor. Their sharp, incisive wit. Their love. How we all come together around whatever obstacles are in our path that particular day. Just how they come into the room and everything falls into perfect, chaotic sense.

But there’s a fair amount of fear there, too. And anger. And powerlessness.

Outside of my own classroom, there is no room for all the space I take up…even when I make myself small, squeezing my too-large body through the tightly packed chairs at staff meetings in the library, squeezing my too-large voice back into my throat. There are facial expressions I’ve learned not to make, empathy I’ve learned not to feel, and a bottomless well of words I can’t say without the grown-ups side-eyeing each other, glancing anxiously at the clock.

There are broken things everywhere that I am not supposed to notice or try to fix. There is a piece of my voice that no longer makes any sound. Counterintuition is the new intuition. There are families who would have loved me and stood by my side back in the early Floor Pie days who hate me now, scolding and shaming across IEP meeting tables. There are speeding buses everywhere, ready for someone to throw you under. And there is always someone to throw you under. Bonus points if you trusted them enough to be within those throwing arms’ reach.

There is sexism so baked-in that I buy into it myself. “We need more male teachers.” There is rape culture that I haven’t been allowed to call rape culture. “The teacher creates the culture in the classroom.” There have been braying jokes about girls and female colleagues and myself that I wasn’t allowed to take seriously. “He’s just a baby.”

That summer, five years ago, the school district HR person had laughed patronizingly when I’d called in the midst of a disappointing job search. He’d all but patted my head when I said “I want to work in an elementary school” as if I’d said “I want to be a princess.” He steered me toward middle school instead.

I tried so hard to be happy about it. I worked so hard to bring the spirit and joy I found in working with younger students to this darker, scarier space. I searched for the good, and I truly did find a wealth of good. I’ve connected with so many students and families. I’ve learned so much from incredibly talented colleagues. I’ve even been able to make significant positive differences now and again.

Still…there’s fear. There’s anger. There’s defeat and a sense of powerlessness. There are ruthless, narrow cracks and corridors to navigate. Even before the quarantine, I knew it was starting to break me.

Working from home is not a vacation. It’s a whole new job – new technology, new challenges to calibrate for social equity, the pedagogy of distance learning, and plenty of raised angry voices telling us (1) how much we’re failing our students by not providing enough lessons, and/or (2) how unfairly we are overwhelming our families with all these relentless lessons. I’m plenty busy. I’m just a lot less broken than I used to feel. I’m safe, surrounded by my kids and cats and husband, and even though this plague might kill us all before next year, these last few weeks have felt like the strangest of blessings.

Honestly, I don’t feel as guilty about that as people probably want me to feel.

We public school teachers were supposed to be rushing into the burning buildings next week, saving the city by providing childcare for the folks who are actually saving the city. First they asked for volunteers. Then they made it mandatory. Then the union stepped in, and now they’re at least trying to make some sense of it – working out safety measures, hazard pay, a generally less behind-the-scenes shady approach to the whole endeavor.

Providing childcare won’t be mandatory for us teachers now. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who hate us for that, but honestly, it shouldn’t be. You don’t want your child in the care of someone who’s being forced to be there under duress. Just trust me on that. You don’t. Honestly, you don’t even want your child in the care of some well-meaning non-ECE professional. But I know most of the world just can’t see it that way.

For example, in a letter to our school superintendent last week, our mayor said this:

[T]his is an emergency where our community needs help now. No one can stand on the sidelines. Every organization and every person has a new job description: do what is needed. The well-being of our children is the responsibility of us all, but it is the core mission of our public schools.

And, okay. She’s not wrong. These are unprecedented times and each of us has a duty to bring our best to the situation.

But I don’t consider any of what I’ve done these past five years – or now, or ever – equivalent to standing on the sidelines. It feels so fundamentally hateful to even suggest it; so irresponsible and so uniquely Seattle to guilt-trip vulnerable people – who are, let’s face it, super-easy targets for this brand of shaming – into harm’s way without so much as a mask or a thank-you.

How I wish that, instead of shaming us tired and broken and PTSD’d teachers, that our city could find a way to recruit an army of talented, dedicated, willing early childhood ed professionals to take this on, and (for the first time in the history of education) pay them what they’re worth.

The city may have just realized that teachers and childcare providers are “essential,” too, but we’ve known it all along. We’ve been fighting and hurting and holding everything up with every last shred of our strength all along. Maybe I’ll offer my childcare services once things make a little more sense and the details have been sorted out. For now, though, I need the littlest breath of peace and space to heal while I figure out how to do my actual job under these extraordinary circumstances.

I hope that’s enough. I’m sorry if it isn’t.

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