In the fall of 2003, Garry and I came out to Virginia for a wedding. Little did I know at the time that Virginia would become home for the next thirteen years of our marriage, bringing with it tremendous change in our family, our ministry, and our daily lives. In 2014, we thought we were leaving Virginia permanently when we moved out to Central California for a new ministry position. However, as He usually does, God had other plans for our family. In the summer of 2015, we moved back to Virginia, and we have been serving in ministry in Culpeper for the last six years. The last six years have been challenging for several different reasons, but the challenges have made us stronger as a family and as ministry partners.
This last summer, we went out to Colorado to help my mom and stepdad after my stepdad had open heart surgery. We started to feel the pull then to move back West, a pull that has called to us again and again during this strange pandemic year. We thought it best to stay put for another year because we did not want any major changes in my position as a teacher or in our ministry role during COVID. A few months ago, the pull became stronger after I learned that my stepdad was once again in the hospital. In conversations, Garry and I both determined that we needed to head back West to family, friends, and familiarity.
Over the last few months, we have started to put the plans together for yet another cross-country move. A few weeks ago, I was offered a position at a high school in Monument, a school that seems exciting and progressive. We have been in conversations about ministry opportunities in Colorado, but for now there is no ministry position for Garry at least not in the traditional sense. We are hopeful that God will provide housing, transportation, moving expenses, and all that we will need emotionally and physically to make this move to Colorado.
This move is taking sacrifice. Virginia has been home for many different reasons, but home looks different now than it did fourteen years ago. Our need for belonging has changed over the years, and at this point in our lives, we belong with our family. We need to celebrate holidays and birthdays with our families, especially after spending so much time apart over the years. Our son needs a sense of family as he is preparing for life on his own. And we need to minister and do life in an environment that we are more suited for. We have loved living in rural communities over the last fourteen years, but we are city folk at heart. We need something new but familiar at the same time.
Please be in prayer with us as we await God’s leading for somewhere to live and a place to minister. We are excited about what God has in store, but we are also anxious about all of the details that need to fall into place. Remember that love is always a sacrifice. Be encouraged to sacrifice for your loved ones today.
Over the last school year, I have come to see more and more flaws in our public school system. The problem is not necessarily within the schools themselves but within the communities where these schools are located. Teachers, administrators, counselors, and support staff work hard daily to provide the best possible education for each of our students: those who will struggle, those who will do the minimum to pass, and those who will excel. We commit ourselves to differentiating our instruction so that we meet all of their needs, and we provide meaningful opportunities for students to interact with the material for our courses. In the middle of a global pandemic, we have all learned new ways to teach our students, and most of us have excelled in teaching in a virtual and hybrid environment.
I will probably upset many people by what I am about to propose, but after being a public educator for more than twenty years, I feel that I have some experience to speak candidly about this. The problem in public education is much larger than what each individual school staff can do to support student success. It goes beyond what happens day-to-day in each school building because the problem is in each of our homes and in our communities.
The problem is a lack of interest on the part of some of our students and a lack of involvement from some of our parents and guardians. During this last school year, students in the high school where I teach have mostly been attending school in one of two ways: 100% virtual or two days a week in-person and three days a week at home. For the most part, students have completed assignments when they are in school and when they are at home. However, for about 20% of my students, they have had difficulty focusing on assignments both in class and at home.
Some students have just disconnected completely from school work. With only two weeks left of their senior year, I have some students who have simply stopped logging into class and have lost the initiative to submit assignments. Some of these students sit in my classroom four days a week and have time to complete virtual assignments while they are in class, yet they do not submit assignments or ask for help when they are struggling. Other students have avoided completing writing assignments or research assignments, believing that they will be able to pass the class by turning in notes and reading questions. Some have resorted to searching for information on Google, hoping to find the answers to the assignments that require them to do their own critical thinking. Plagiarism has run rampant in this virtual/hybrid environment. Even though some of these students would have struggled with motivation if they were in the building five days a week, this school year has required more self-direction which some students just don’t have.
Because some of our students are struggling with their initiative and motivation, teachers, counselors, and administrators have worked tirelessly this school year, attempting to reach out when students have disconnected from school work and when they are failing classes. This has resulted in more phone calls, emails, letters home, and conferences than in any previous school year. The connection has been made between school and home, but it seems that for some there is an obstacle that is impeding the connection between home and school.
As a parent of a high school graduate on the Autism spectrum, I understand how difficult it is to help students to connect with their school work. I am blessed that my son graduated from high school at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic because I know that it would have been a challenge to get him to focus on his school work in a virtual environment. He struggles with an addiction to technology and is often sidetracked by distractions online that would make it very difficult for him to tune in to online classes. As a parent, I understand that it is not always easy to get students to complete assignments or to care about each of their classes like their teachers would hope.
However, there needs to be some responsibility on the part of parents and guardians when it comes to students completing their work and staying connected with their classes. I do not want to minimize the reality of all of the problems associated with parenting during a pandemic, especially since many parents must work from home and provide an environment conducive to learning for their children, sometimes including elementary school students who need more one-on-one attention than middle school or high school students. However, in the digital age, there are so many ways that schools can communicate with parents that are more convenient than thirty years ago when I was in high school. Most schools have online gradebooks that parents can access at any time of day. Many of these online gradebooks can also be downloaded as apps on smartphones, and parents have the option of setting up notifications for daily or weekly updates. They can even receive notifications when their children have missing assignments. Despite the availability of this tool, some parents do not access their children’s grades and seem surprised when teachers call or email, communicating the fact that their child is failing the class or is in danger of failing.
I am not going to say that public education is perfect. I acknowledge that there are many things that we can do better: identifying mental health crises, supporting students in high risk groups, communicating with parents and the community, encouraging students who “fall through the cracks,” and recruiting more diverse teachers and support staff. As a product of public education and a public school educator, I know that there is a lot more that we can do to support our students so that they meet the goals that they have for their future success. I know that all of us would agree that our students’ education is a top priority in our society; however, it is difficult to see how valuable our children’s education is when some stakeholders do not regularly stay connected with what is happening day-to-day in public schools.
Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of ways that communities support public education. Volunteers help to provide well-needed tutoring for our students to develop their skills in reading, writing, and math. Local companies provide gifts as a way to reward our students and to say “thank you” to our teachers and support staff. Parents provide encouragement when teachers feel overwhelmed.
We can do better, though, as a community committed to the advancement of our students, through communicating the needs of our students, our schools, and our families. Instead of blaming one another, which happens more often than I would like to mention, let’s work together, using all of the resources we have available to help our students succeed. At the end of the day, that’s what public education is all about.
I have tried to stay out of this conversation for quite a while, but the conversation came to me this week in my classroom. One of my students stumbled into an argument about the recent statement by Dr. Seuss Enterprises to cease publication of six of his lesser known children’s books. My student was serving in a local restaurant, and he unintentionally upset a patron after another customer asked his opinion about the movement to “cancel Dr. Seuss.” From our conversation in class the next day, he seemed to give a pretty thoughtful opinion, expressing that he was concerned that over time more things might be “canceled” which could lead to erasing or rewriting history.
For almost a year, people around the globe have been pushing for racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and otherwise distasteful images and ideas to be removed from public view as a way of sanitizing history and popular culture. Some have been seeking to scrub our past so that we do not have to be concerned about offending people in the present. This has included removing confederate flags from public places, dismantling statues erected to memorialize confederate generals and other national figures who had ideologies that are in contrast to today’s views of equality for all. These movements have led to some very serious and concerning protests around the world and the fear that if we begin removing images from our past that are offensive that it may lead to erasing anything that might be deemed “inappropriate” in the future. It seems that many of these fears are based on book burning crusades in Germany in the 1930s and Ray Bradbury’s warnings of censorship in Fahrenheit 451.
As a literary scholar, I usually become concerned when anyone begins talking about changing or erasing our past, especially through literature. For example, in 2011, New South Books published a “sanitized” edition of Mark Twain’s classic, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as a way to try to make the novel more palatable for educators and students studying the novel. This included replacing the 219 instances of the “n word” with the word slave. The CBS news show 60 Minutes produced a thoughtful insight into the issue, featuring interviews from students, teachers, and professors who expressed their points of view on teaching only the original text vs. teaching a more appropriate and less offensive version. At the time of the interview, I was teaching the novel and found the 60 Minutes video as an opportunity to discuss the issue with my students. Unfortunately, the perspective of my students was not very diverse because I was teaching in Southwest Virginia at a school that was predominately white. Looking at this issue ten years later, I wonder if more students would see the value of “sanitizing” a novel like Huck Finn so that it could still be used in a high school classroom without being offensive.
This past summer, the cancel culture issue came a little closer to home after The New Yorker published Paul Elie’s article, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” which clearly proclaimed that O’Connor was a racist. The article was published in the midst of social unrest throughout the United States (and around the world) due to the murder of George Floyd and continued police brutality in the United States. As an O’Connor scholar, I feel that Elie took advantage of the opportunity to publish his views of O’Connor’s racism while people were pointing fingers at the history of racism in the United States. No one who studies O’Connor would deny her racism; however, her views of race were changing as her life came to an end in 1964. This change is evident in a few of her final short stories, including the classic “Revelation” in which O’Connor directly attacks the hierarchy of social class evident in the South in the 1960s. As a result of Elie’s June 22 article, Loyola University Maryland removed Flannery O’Connor’s name from one of its buildings, and the university president stated that she does not “reflect Loyola’s Jesuit values.”
One of Maya Angelou’s most famous quotes was referenced in an interview with Oprah Winfrey and has at times been misquoted. She stated, when talking about her past, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” In reaction to the recent movement to “cancel Dr. Seuss” and other offensive materials, I would argue that because we know better in 2021, we should do better. We are able to recognize racially offensive material, and we should not subject children to those images or ideas. The six Seuss books that have been pulled from publication have offensive images about Asians, Africans, and Arabs. Other than concerns that this movement may lead to the movement to “cancel” other authors, I’m not sure why people around the world have reacted so viscerally to the idea of ceasing publication of books that clearly present racist points of view for no discernible purpose. I have yet to see, read, or hear a clear argument defending these specific books and their literary or educational value for children around the world. This movement has led to yet another knee jerk reaction from those who are terrified to move into the 21st century where we respect and celebrate diversity and those who want to protect tradition and the past.
In the midst of the cancel culture movement, I would suggest that we strategically consider what needs to be cancelled, erased, or sanitized in order to prevent unnecessary offense today and in the future. If we know better, we need to do better. If we know that something is obviously racist or demeaning to women or overtly offensive, we might want to consider shielding sensitive populations from viewing or reading it. This means that children should not be exposed to racist imagery or stereotypical views of men or women. This view might not be popular amongst some in society, but I would argue that exposing children to these images and ideas does more damage than harm. So, do better.
Doing this is not simple. Most things that are crucial to the development of society are not simple. I would argue that many people who push for canceling certain aspects of culture do not always understand all of the facets of a historical figure, work of literature, or pop culture icon. They follow along with the crowd without taking the time to find out all of the information for themselves. We live in an “either/or” society which leads people to think that there are only two points of view about any issue. This is not just simple minded; it is also incredibly dangerous. Polarized thinking always leads to book burning, erasing or rewriting of history, and trying to sanitize the past. Just read 1984.
Understand that there can be a balance between preventing offense in the future and addressing potentially hurtful ideas and images in culture. Without the opportunity to read some of the most notoriously banned books, we would not be presented with the opportunity to discuss euthanasia, racism, prejudice, misogyny, political unrest, the Holocaust, religious persecution, drug abuse, violence, slavery, and the list goes on. We can have both: preventing our children from experiencing unnecessary offense and opening conversations about difficult issues. When we know better, let’s do better.
Over the last few weeks, I have had several conversations with fellow teachers about a phenomenon that none of us can seem to explain. As hybrid teachers this school, we have come to rely more on virtual forms of communication to connect with our students throughout the week. We use announcements, email, chat, video conferencing, and feedback on assignments to communicate with our students. Despite the different ways that we reach out to them, it seems that some of our students still have difficulty communicating with us when they are struggling in our classes. We post different ways that they can get a hold of us, including our classroom phone numbers and our availability for office hours. Some of us even provide one-on-one video conferencing weekly for students who are especially having difficulty. And yet, so few of them actually reach out with questions or concerns about the assignments, about their grades, or about how they are doing in general.
I know that there are some educators who do not have the best reputations for communicating clearly with students and parents. Some teachers do not respond to emails from students or parents in a timely fashion. This last week, one of my virtual students indicated that some of her teachers in the past have taken up to four or five days to respond to her concerns through email. Now, we are all busy as educators, especially this school year in light of all of the ways that we need to deliver our instruction and communicate with our students. However, responding to a student’s concern is of paramount importance for educators. These responses should be quick and informative to help our students, especially those who are learning 100% virtually. They do not have the ability to talk to us after class, before class, after school, before school, during lunch, or between classes. Their only form of communication with us is through email, chat, video conferencing, or a phone call.
Despite the fact that some teachers are not the best at communicating with parents and students, this problem goes much deeper than that. There is a distrust between school and home for many families, especially in communities that have had bad experiences with public education. If a parent or grandparent has had a negative experience with a school, with an administrator, with a teacher, with a class, or within the school community, this is often communicated to current students. This is not the problem. It is completely appropriate for parents and family members to express their concerns about the difficulties they have experienced in the past with their education. The problem is that sometimes the community does not know how to move forward, and they wind up rejecting the opportunities to trust the current teachers, administrators, and school climate.
I do not teach for any other reason but for the benefit of my students. I have a deep concern for them, just like I do for my own son. I want them to succeed not just in my class but in their lives after high school. I want to hear how they have used lessons from my class in college, in their lives in the military, in their careers, and within their families. I want them to graduate from high school on time so that they can celebrate this achievement with their families and friends.
Most educators have the same mindset. We are educators because we value our students, their families, and our communities. We believe that education is the great equalizer. We believe that education opens doors that were once closed. We believe that education gives students the understanding that they have a voice that matters and the tools to use this voice.
I don’t understand why a wall has been built between home and school. I don’t understand why many people in our communities don’t trust educators. I don’t understand why so many of us who have dedicated our lives to public education are seen as the villains in society. These false depictions of educators have damaged the relationships that students could build with their teachers who are committed to their success in school and in life.
Over this last school year, in light of COVID-19 shut downs, society has placed microscopic scrutiny on public education. In the spring, everyone loved us because they saw our creativity and care in reaching out to their children when we were forced to shut our doors but continue the school year. They yelled at us, and sometimes cussed at us, when we wanted to protect our own health and the health of our loved ones when we said that we wouldn’t return to in-person instruction without safety protocols put in place that were based on CDC recommendations. We’ve been applauded, ridiculed, denigrated, and encouraged by the communities we serve. And we continue to get up every day, prepared to teach the children in our communities with care, ingenuity, content expertise, wisdom, and dedication.
If you have added to the discordant voices that have built distrust between students and teachers, please stop it. One of my colleagues tells her students to stop fighting her when she is just trying to teach them. I want to ask the public to stop fighting us as well. We are honestly trying to help develop the minds and souls of our children. We are committed to their education, and we desire for them to have meaningful lives. We may not always agree with how to go about this. We may not always have the same worldview as those in our community, but we do have this in common: we want our children to be educated for their own benefit and the benefit of our world.
Over the last months, I have witnessed more of my brothers and sisters in Christ get seduced by politics. Some of them have pledged their allegiance to rhetoric of hate and false patriotism. Some of them have fought against other brothers and sisters, proclaiming that those who support the “fill-in-the-blank” political slant are supporting a movement to destroy the Church and life as we know it as Americans. Others have been led away from the Truth by putting their hope in politicians to rescue the nation from a decline into injustice, postChristianity, and destruction. More than anything, they have lost sight of the Gospel.
In my humanity, I’m grieving. I’m confused. I’m hopeless.
I worry about the state of the Church because I have witnessed brothers and sisters clinging to the idols of liberalism and conservatism alike. In December 2020, staunch Trump supporters and QAnon disciples participated in The Jericho March, a horrifying mimicry of “the Biblical story of the Israelite army ritually marching around the walled city of Jericho” (Dreher). In his article from The American Conservative, Rod Dreher outlines the March which included passionate oratory from Eric Metaxas, author of a well respected biography of martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, conflated speeches that combined Christianity with nationalism, and a disturbing use of a shofar (a horn used in ancient Jewish religious ceremonies) that was painted red, white, and blue and called the Trump Shofar by some in attendance.
Some Christians even defend this event and others like it because they feel justified in defending democracy and Christian values in America. They are sadly lost, misled, and deceived. They have heard “what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3). And they are looking for vindication from perceived injustices, but instead of seeking God, they are getting caught in the trap of conspiracy theories, nationalism, and conflated lies.
On the other side, things are just as dismal and frightening. Christians can be easily persuaded to support social causes because of the call in Scripture to defend the weak, fight against injustice, and to love our neighbors. We want to protect the plight of the orphan, we want to help the refuge, we want to uplift the outsiders. We are reminded in Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Sometimes this call to act justly and to love mercy leads to the idolatry of social causes. We may confuse social justice with the Gospel message and get lost in doing good works without making sure that these causes are inline with the Gospel and with the Holiness of God. This may not seem too bad to some; however, if we are excusing sinful behaviors in order to defend the outsider, then we have forgotten that God is a holy God. Politicizing moral issues and social justice can lead to excusing sin and condoning antiBiblical actions and mindsets. And sadly, minimizing the effects of sin can lead to the belief that since God loves all people, hell doesn’t exist. There are no consequences for sin and heaven is for everyone. This completely guts the Gospel message that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) but that through the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, all can be saved and redeemed from sin and an eternity apart from God.
Today, I call on my brothers and sisters to check their motives, to ask themselves some difficult questions. First, why are you supporting a specific political candidate or political party? We need to remember that all men and women are flawed and no political party is perfect. All men and women can be transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Jesus Christ. However, if a political candidate is speaking hate and division, then we need to consider their witness to the world, especially if they are claiming to be a follower of Christ. Hate and division have no place in the Kingdom of God. Love and unity are central to the Gospel message and must be the message that Christians around the world are proclaiming into a lost and dying world.
Second, what are you doing to advance the Gospel message? Are you spending time loving your neighbor, even your neighbor who is different from you, who your political party argues is your enemy? God does not see Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative. God sees individual people who are made in God’s image. To God, each of us are precious in His sight. If we continue fighting against one another, instead of loving one another, we will let the real enemy win: the enemy who is seeking our complete and utter destruction for eternity.
Finally, where are you getting information that you believe and that you act upon? Are you spending your time scrolling through social media, hoping to find something that confirms your cognitive biases? Are you spending your time reaching into the dark web, hoping to find conspiracy theories that justify your feelings of hatred and fear of the “enemy” of your political party or political ideologies? Or are you spending your time, leaning into to the Father, looking to his Truth so that you can push aside all of the messages of division, politics, and temporary distractions?
In the end, I would rather be wrong about my own politics than to be wrong about the Gospel and how I love my neighbor. I would rather find out that the conspiracy theories were all correct than to destroy my witness in the world for Christ Jesus. If our political beliefs are more important to us than how we advance the Kingdom, then the enemy has already won.
Let us collectively repent for having hearts that are conflicted because of what we have seen in the news. Let us collectively repent for allowing ourselves to be distracted by political ideologies that are contrary to the Gospel. Let us collectively repent for spewing hate toward our neighbor, whoever our neighbor may be. Let us love one another so that the world may know Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.
Part of living in community is experiencing the consequences of other people’s actions. This happens in the community of our families, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, and our churches. On a much larger scale, this can happen in our individual cities, our states, our nations, and ultimately, other people’s actions can affect the entire world.
To be honest, it makes me angry that there are times when other people’s poor choices affect my life in negative ways. I try to live my life in such a way that my choices affect people in a positive way, but I cannot trust that everyone chooses to live this same way. I am far from perfect, and I know that my words and my actions have hurt other people. However, I hope that these choices have made small ripples in the lives of those around me. I also hope that these choices have only affected those closest to me. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how much of an impact, both positive and negative, my choices have made on the lives of others. At least, not yet.
In the midst of a global pandemic and a polarizing presidential election, I have seen more and more how other people’s poor choices can affect large groups of people, including our entire nation in the United States. I cannot say without a doubt that the information that we read and hear from the mainstream media is 100% accurate. I am not that naive to believe everything that I hear because I recognize that every media outlet is biased.
Despite the fact that the media is biased, I do choose to believe health officials when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic. I choose to trust the medical wisdom that journalists provide through the informed advice of organizations like the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and my local health department. I choose to believe that it is best for us to keep our distance from one another, to avoid large gatherings, to wear masks when we are with people outside of our immediate family, and to wash our hands regularly.
I am not ignorant to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has not been politicized. Of course it has. This has happened in all avenues of government, from small town politics to the Oval Office and Capitol Hill. Sadly, the American public has suffered because of the lack of a central message when it comes to mitigating the spread of COVID-19. We have heard mixed messages from government officials, including the current presidential administration. We have been told that it is safe to shop, it is safe to rally and demonstrate, it is safe to go to school, it is safe to fly. Yet, here we are with 13.4 million cases and over 266,000 COVID related deaths since March 2020. The numbers have not stopped growing, and in fact, they have skyrocketed since the beginning of November.
Today, I read an article about what I would consider to be a “control group” when it comes to the practice of mitigation strategies based on the advice of health officials. Currently, the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma has experienced very small percentages of COVID cases and COVID related deaths because their tribal leadership put strict mitigation policies in place in the spring of 2020, including mask mandates and protecting their elderly population. They have not experienced any shortage of PPE for medical workers, and they have been able to share PPE with surrounding non-native communities in Oklahoma, a state that has experienced a frightening increase in COVID cases due to loose mitigation restrictions.
This isolated example of the Cherokee nation demonstrates that when there is a strong central message about something as potentially dangerous and devastating as COVID-19, that groups of people can follow the plan and help to prevent unnecessary tragedies within a community. This example is not isolated to the Cherokee nation as we are seeing similar cases in nations like Vietnam where strict, early lockdowns and mask mandates has helped to curb the spread of the virus.
Now, of course, any skeptic can choose to disregard data from any other nation, especially a nation that has had a history of government policies contrary to our own in the United States. However, I choose to stick with the science that suggests that social distancing, avoiding large groups, and mask wearing curb the spread of COVID-19. I also choose to believe that a nationwide plan would be more effective than the chaotic approach that has happened in our nation. And I also believe that the reason for our high positivity and death rates is due to people making bad choices because they have chosen to disregard science and follow politicians.
I am tired of facing the consequences of ignorant people. When it comes to a global pandemic, individual communities can make a huge impact on whether or not the virus spreads. Sadly, one of the wealthiest nations in the world has had a disjointed response to the pandemic based on political games. And we are losing this game.
So who has suffered from those who think that mask mandates are unconstitutional? Health care workers like doctors and nurses who are witnessing PPE shortages and increased numbers of patients with more serious symptoms related to COVID.
Who has faced the unnecessary effects of those who continue to host large gatherings with no social distancing and no mask wearing? Teachers and other educators who have to continue providing quality education while wearing masks, meeting virtually with students, and facing criticism from local politicians who are threatening to further cut school budgets.
Who has experienced tragedy from irresponsible political rallies and unsafe political demonstrations? Small business owners who have to lay off employees, shut their doors, and file for bankruptcy.
Today, we are all dealing with the backlash of bad choices from our federal government to our average citizens. We are losing loved ones. We are losing jobs. We are losing hope. And I am angry. I’m tired of other people’s choices affecting me in such a tragic, horrible way.
Stop complaining about losing your rights because you have to wear a mask in Wal-mart. Stop arguing about whether you should reschedule or cancel your holiday parties. Stop making your bad choices and ignorance affect everyone around you.
Think outside of yourself. Protect those who are at risk of complications from COVID-19. Wear a mask for others. Stop making this a political problem when it is a health crisis. People’s lives are literally on the line.
As more schools are beginning to return to in-person instruction, many are going to be adopting a hybrid or blended model which usually includes a “day off” from students so that schools can be cleaned and teachers can plan and grade.
Don’t be fooled: this is not a day off for educators. We are still working, sometimes more strenuously than we do when students are in class. If you want to know what it’s really like, I encourage you to keep reading.
Here is an example of a usual Wednesday for me:
Get to school at 7:00 and prepare for my Google Meet classes with my three blocks. This includes sending out an announcement with an agenda of what we will discuss. This might also include preparing materials to review for students to see virtually.
While waiting for my students to come to my Google Meet at 8:00, I grade any assignments that were submitted overnight, I respond to emails from students and parents, I check attendance from the previous day (this means checking Canvas to see who has logged in since the previous evening), I send reminder emails to students who have not checked in or submitted assignments.
I host three Google Meets during the day from 8-8:50, 9-9:50, and 11-11:50, typically with only a few students in attendance for each class. One of these meetings includes working one-on-one with a student who has difficulty transitioning from one item to the next. Oftentimes, I walk him through finding assignments on Canvas, opening assignments in his Google Drive, giving step-by-step directions for assignments (multiple times), waiting while his Wi-Fi or the school Wi-Fi catches up with what he is trying to complete, and catching up with him from the week before.
During my planning period (10-11), I put lessons together on Canvas for the next week, which includes posting directions, attaching Docs for them to complete the assignments, and a walk-through video explaining the directions for students who need audio directions. I add rubrics for assignments that need them and insert graphics to try to make the assignments more engaging.
After my Google Meet with each of my classes, I eat lunch, usually taking only about 15-20 minutes because of the ever growing list of things I need to do.
From 12:30-3:15, I continue posting assignments, updating grades, responding to emails, conferencing with individual students about writing or research assignments, calling home, checking attendance, sending student email reminders about assignments, checking in with counselors and administrators about students who aren’t participating in classes, updating my Google Slides with directions for my in-person students (because, yes, I teach Monday-Tuesday and Thursday-Friday), looking ahead at the next part of my unit plans to prepare new lessons for a few weeks out, participating in required school meetings (virtually or in-person), preparing materials to send home to students who do not have Wi-Fi, and on and on.
Some people think that Wednesdays are days off for teachers. Again, looking at the way that I use my Wednesdays, teachers are using every minute in the day to provide the best possible education for their students, regardless of the fact that we see some of them in-person only two days a week and others we see when they attend Google Meet or individual conferences.
Understand that some of our students never check in for virtual meetings, they do not respond to phone calls or emails, they do not complete assignments (even when we print assignments for them to complete on paper and prepare packets for them weekly). Understand also that teachers will be responsible for doing whatever we can to ensure that students have multiple opportunities to complete assignments so that they pass our classes, including providing 2-3 alternate modes of delivery for them (virtual, on-paper, and contract).
Please tell us again that teachers’ jobs are easier this year because we are teaching virtually or because only a quarter of our students are in our classes at a time. And we are doing all of this without any hope of a COLA raise this year or in the foreseeable future.
During my first few years of elementary school, I struggled with reading. I don’t really remember how I learned how to read, but I know that it was difficult for me in first and second grade. Part of that might have been because my home life was in chaos with my parents’ divorce and the fact that I attended three different schools as a second-grader. I don’t know exactly what changed other than an encouraging teacher in third grade, Mrs. Saremi.
My mom tells the story that when I was a baby, the pediatrician told my parents, “Because of the problems she will have with her vision, she might have a difficult time in school.” My parents asked people in our church family for prayer, and other than the first few years of elementary school, I never really struggled in school. Of course, part of that might be because I learned to develop grit – the ability to persevere despite obstacles in life. I became the type of person who wanted to prove people wrong. I thought to myself, “Ok, doc. You think I will struggle in school? Let me prove you wrong.”
This school year is a difficult year for educators, students, and families because of obvious reasons. Educators are trying to figure out how to teach virtually, blended, and a variety of both. We are all brand new teachers, learning new technologies, making more phone calls and sending more emails than ever before, and posting announcements that give the same information over and over again.
Students are learning a new way of learning. They are not used to learning from home with all of the distractions that their home life might bring to their education. And to be honest, some of them are drowning in assignments only four weeks into this new school year because they haven’t learned the power of time management. Yet.
Parents are learning how to best support their children. They are talking to teachers more often than in the past, seeking ways to understand what each teacher wants from their child. And multiply that by the number of children they have at home, learning in this new environment.
There is a psychological theory called learned helplessness that many of us develop when we face trauma. This may cause us to give up in certain situations even if we have the ability to overcome some type of obstacle. Sometimes students learn this behavior if they have difficulty with certain aspects of their education. And unfortunately, some educators and parents have enabled children by providing them with support that they may not always need. The worst example that I saw of this behavior was a tenth grader who would not do his work in my class one day because he did not have a pen or pencil to complete his work. Instead of asking for a pen or pencil or getting up to get one, he waited until an adult in the classroom brought him a pencil. This is learned helplessness in the classroom.
Currently, learned helplessness is a luxury that none of us can afford. Because of the limited access that students have to educators, some students are in need of learning grit. Along with some educators and some parents, they need to unlearn learned helplessness. They need to seek out the resources they have at their disposal. They need to become advocates for their education and their futures. Developing tenacity and perseverance are necessary in overcoming some of the obstacles that we are faced with in life. And right now, we need to be tenacious. We need to persevere. We need to persist in this battle against apathy, depression, anger, frustration, loneliness, and ignorance.
I learned at eight years old that reading made me come alive. It gave me an escape. It gave me hope. It gave me insight. It gave me compassion. It challenged me. It helped me to develop grit.
In elementary school, we had competitions for silent reading throughout the year. We could earn prizes for meeting certain goals in our reading, and I wanted to be the best. I decided that I wanted to read Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, a book that was 384 pages. That’s a lot of pages for an eight year old, but I put my mind to it. I didn’t allow my struggle with reading, my sometimes messy home life, or my own insecurity to stop me from reaching my goal. And when I finished the book, I was so proud of myself for reaching the end. It didn’t matter what the prize was for reading the most pages. In fact, I don’t even remember if I won a prize. The prize for me was reading a book of almost 400 pages at eight years old.
Some people might think that I have learned the power of positivity to overcome obstacles in life. That’s not true. I don’t subscribe to unnecessary positivity because I have found that sometimes positivity becomes toxic if it’s not grounded in reality. I am a realist. I struggle in life. I cry. I yell. I curse. I have moments when life feels fragile, like tissue paper. But I move forward because at a young age, I learned grit.
Grit acknowledges that life is hard, but grit does not allow for learned helplessness. And right now, all of us need some grit. We need to put aside whatever excuses we have. We need to seek the resources that we need to move forward. That doesn’t mean this will be easy. It will be difficult. But it will be worth it in the end.
Over the last few weeks, I have heard and seen various opinions about what life is like for teachers returning to teaching after five months away from their classrooms. As usual, some people continue to blame teachers for the complications of virtual and blended learning formats, not taking into consideration the fact that some of us did not receive training on a learning management system until one to two weeks before students “returned” to school. Others think that we feel less stressed out because some of us are teaching to empty classrooms, virtually connecting with our students through various interfaces instead of in-person.
Both are wrong. The problems are not our fault, and no we are not happy to be teaching to empty classrooms.
As usual, others seem to think that they can speak for educators. Bureaucrats and politicians have been doing it for years, so how about everyone else in society?
We need to hear from educators themselves. However, there are reasons why we aren’t talking.
Some of us aren’t talking because we are scared. We are scared that we might offend someone from our school board, our administrator, our HR director. We are scared that if we aren’t having as many difficulties with the new LMS that our co-workers will be angry at us for making this seem like it’s easier than it really is. We are scared that people outside of the classroom will speak for us because they apparently know what’s better for schools than the educators who are on the front lines every day.
To be honest, I’m tired. Just like everyone else during this pandemic, this political nightmare, this social crisis, this natural disaster of a year. I’m tired.
Teachers are just like everyone else. We are not superheroes even though right now we are being tasked with the responsibility of solving problems that are not ours to solve.
We are not trained to solve all of the technology problems that might arise with a new LMS, with bandwidth restrictions, and with remote learners who still don’t have Wi-Fi access even though this is 2020. And yet, on the news, it seems that if a school system is having difficulty with part of this new virtual environment, it must be the fault of educators. We didn’t prepare enough. We didn’t practice all of the things. We didn’t make sure that all of our learners had devices and Wi-Fi. There cannot possibly be any other reason why schools can’t get with the program with reliable and 100% virtual classroom environments for 100% of students.
We are not trained to manage the emotional and social well-being of all students. The very concept of SEL or social-emotional learning has only been around for about twenty-five years. However, most educators have been given little to no training in SEL strategies in the classroom. Even the most well-meaning teachers are not fully qualified to help counsel every student who is experiencing the same trauma as the rest of society in the midst of a pandemic, a contentious political election, rampant social conflict, and terrifying natural disasters.
Thankfully, according to Counseling Today, there is on average one school counselor per 455 students in public schools across the country today which is higher than the recommended ratio from the American School Counselor Association. However, it has taken school shootings and an increase of teen suicides for schools to have access to that many counselors. And now in the midst of the chaos which is 2020, many in the U.S. are proclaiming that sending students back to schools is best for their social and emotional well-being. In preparing K-12 administrators to return to school this fall, the Centers for Disease Control suggested the following:
Schools are crucial to the infrastructure of communities, providing a safe and secure environment for children
Schools provide critical instruction and academic support
Schools provide support for the whole child – emotional, social, psychological, and intellectual
I agree with all of these roles for public and private schools. We are a crucial part of our society as a whole. However, we are often vilified because we do not seem to do enough, or what we are doing is not fitting a particular religious or political worldview.
We are tired. We are under appreciated. We are undervalued. Please don’t speak for us. Please do not blame us for all of the nation’s problems. We are not your scapegoats.
Today, it seems that people either think that educators are superheroes or villains. We are neither. We are human beings with human feelings. We are fallible creatures who do not know all of the ins and outs of all of the new technology. We have families and social lives. We are experiencing the same trauma as everyone else in this messed up COVID world.
And we are unique individuals who have chosen to spend our lives educating our nation’s children. We love your kids. We want the best for them. We want to have them all back in our classrooms. We miss their jokes. We miss their awkward moments. We miss their laughing in the cafeteria. We miss their music in the hallways. We miss their smiles and their tears.
We are not happy that they are at home, learning in this weird environment. We are not less stressed because our classrooms are empty or almost empty.
More than anything, we are tired. Just like everyone else. Please give us grace. Give us patience. Give us time, and we will get this figured out.
But please don’t speak for us. We have voices, just give us time to figure out how to use them again.
The last five months have been difficult for most of us. Over the last five months, many of us have experienced a trauma that we never expected to experience in our lives. We have undergone different stages of grief because our “normal” lives have been upended. Along with the changes to our “normal” lives, COVID-19 has brought to light inequities that some of us thought no longer existed in our nation. We have been reminded of our nation’s history of racism and classism as some groups of people have experienced lack of medical resources and those who have to work to survive have been shoved to the front lines as essential workers.
Some of us have also experienced personal tragedy during the last five months. Perhaps a family member or close friend has died from complications due to COVID-19. Maybe a loved one has lost a job that has put undue financial stress on the family. Some may have had to say goodbye to a family pet or two during this time. And others of us have struggled with depression or anxiety perhaps for the first time in our lives. Sadly, a few of us have had questions about our faith.
As I was reflecting this morning on the last five months, I felt a weight on my spirit. We are hurting, we are confused, we are lost, we are angry. Some of us are trying to be hopeful, but it is difficult to stay positive when it seems that each day brings another stress or another tragedy. Just this week, millions of people on the East Coast have lost power due to Tropical Storm Isaias, and at this point, many of them will not have power restored for at least a week. In normal circumstances, it can be an irritation to lose power. However, given the last five months, losing power could be the one thing that pushes someone over the edge emotionally and psychologically.
It just so happens that over the last few weeks, my daily Bible readings have come from the exilic period of Biblical history. This includes the Babylonian captivity and the eventual destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. This includes the prophecies of Jeremiah, most well known as the weeping prophet. To put it mildly, the exilic period of Biblical history can be depressing, especially if our focus is on the tragedy and consequences that the people of God experienced during this time.
This morning, my readings moved to the prophet Habakkuk, one of the lesser known prophets of the Bible. Habakkuk prophesied during the time period before the fall of Jerusalem, when the elite of Judah had been taken as captives into Babylon and the poor had been left behind. During the first two chapters of Habakkuk, the prophet calls out for God’s help, feeling despair that God is not listening. The prophet feels abandoned by a God who said “never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”
However, in the third chapter of Habakkuk, the prophet is reminded of God’s salvation. He is reminded of God’s goodness and God’s glory. His hope is renewed even though all that he sees around him is desolation.
Habakkuk’s reflection on God’s goodness in Habakkuk 3 is what we need today:
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
able to tread upon the heights.
Habakkuk 3:17-19 New Living Translation
Some of us feel as if the fig trees have no blossoms and that there are no grapes on the vines because we have lost jobs, and we don’t know where the groceries are going to come from. Some of us feel like the fields are empty and barren because we have lost loved ones. Some of us feel like Habakkuk when he cries out, “‘Are we only fish to be caught and killed?” because each day seems to bring on a new tragedy, stress, or irritation.
However, today let us be reminded of God’s provision and protection in our lives. Let us be reminded of another exilic prophet, Jeremiah, who proclaims in Lamentations 3, “The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, ‘The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!'” (Lamentations 3:22-24 NLT). Let us also be reminded of the words of Hosea, a prophet of Israel who warned the people before Israel’s fall to the Assyrians. He calls to the people,
Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces;
now he will heal us.
He has injured us;
now he will bandage our wounds.
In just a short time he will restore us,
so that we may live in his presence.
Oh, that we might know the Lord!
Let us press on to know him.
He will respond to us as surely as the arrival of dawn
or the coming of rains in early spring.
Hosea 6:1-3 NLT
We are not abandoned. We are not destroyed. We may feel struck down from every side, but our God of salvation is with us. Let us rejoice in the Lord though the fig trees have no blossoms and the olive crops fail.