The start of the school year is quickly approaching, and for many of you it’s looking vastly different from the usual back-to-school routine.
Normally we’d be back-to-school shopping: clothes, pens, notebooks. Then we’d be checking our schedules. Teachers: how many kids, any familiar names, supply and books I’ll be teaching? Students: Are my friends in my class, will the teachers be easy or difficult or give too much homework, lunch?
This year will be exciting for myriad other reasons: will masks be provided by schools? Do I need to buy my own plexiglass? Are my fears about being around 30 germ-carrying students valid? There are countless more questions to ask before sending your kid to a child care center.
It’s beginning to feel a bit dystopian for all of us. I think a lot of people fear that we’re in a pre-apocalypse. I remember when I was in third grade, when the Challenger space shuttle exploded and the TV we were watching in the library went to snow, and they turned off the TV and my teacher said in a very calm voice that it was OK to be scared, that it was OK to cry. She didn’t add to anybody’s fear. She told us the truth — that everyone on the shuttle had died just then — but she didn’t elaborate on what that meant, and she was very careful not to show too much emotion herself, even though every teacher had been rooting for the teacher on board.
Something that stuck with me, and something that I’ve said to other teachers on 9/11 and other times in recent history, is to not scare the children.
For those of you who are parents reading this, rest assured that identity as teachers means that no matter how despairing it seems on the outside, most teachers will maintain the same care, compassion and rigor— it’s why we chose the profession.
I went into education because I wanted to help kids feel safe and cared about, while preparing them for, well, this. It was never about SATs or ACTs, or “Romeo and Juliet.” I’ve spent my whole career preparing my students for the world: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Any student who had me as a teacher always knew this was a possibility. And because they passed the SATs, I have the same confidence that they were prepared for this.
Teachers want to be back in the classroom more than anybody else, so if they have reservations about being in the classroom, we should probably take that seriously. My school has more than adequately prepared for re-opening, and there is still fear and tension.
For many years I have been prepared for fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, school shootings, and now a deadly pandemic. My parents, who were students in the ‘50s, prepared for atomic bombs, and it seems silly today that students used to practice hiding under their desks and covering their heads as a response to an atomic bomb. It seems just as silly now to send kids to schools in which it’s going to be difficult to monitor safety against an invisible threat; however, if anything were to happen to any of my teachers or their families because I didn’t adequately advocate for their safety and best interests, you should know that I would feel responsible if they had to deal with death due to COVID-19.
For some this is a statistical equation, that the collateral damage will be worth it for the sake of educating America’s youth. For others of us, we want to prevent dangerous situations as much as possible.
For me, I just have questions. I feel like if I were to get sick, I would recover; I don’t necessarily enjoy wearing a mask — although I bought one for my students so that I will look like the Cheshire cat.
Sometimes I think the measures are extreme and the politicians overreact, and other times I see pictures in history books and read about other deadly viruses and I’m grateful that I live in a time where virology and immunology are so advanced.
2020 has revealed the darker side of human nature, but I have hope and I know many teachers do too that students will rise to the occasion. I’m a capitalist who believes healthy competition can do volumes in situations like this. Students will still be competing to get into the top colleges. Students will still be preparing themselves for SATs and college essays. Students and parents don’t want to fall behind, and we live in an age of digital ease in which books are available, Wikipedia is available, and Amazon brings books right to our doors. There’s never been an era more prepared for continuing education during a global health crisis.
I can’t speak for every teacher. I can’t even speak for every school. But the sooner we realize that we’re all in this together, and the sooner we realize that we really truly have the same objectives (meaning that we want the best education for our students in the safest possible environment), then we can begin working together for solutions.
Dear teachers: Give the students the best education you know how. Show them we are worth $200,000 even though they will continue paying us a fraction of that. Be empathetic to the parents, as this is the most time they have spent with their children since they could walk. They weren’t prepared for this. They can’t send their kids to the office and call anyone to pick them up. The parents are now our students too. Show them the same patience, and repeat it to yourself a thousand times like it’s the first time you’ve said it. Smile.
Dear parents: We’re sorry your kid won’t behave for you. We like your kids, except that one, but that one thinks she or he is my favorite. I pray so much for the kid who gives me a headache, that by April they couldn’t possibly know the migraine they gave me because I spent so much energy on caring and teaching. Please be patient with the teachers. Very few of us played a role in the decision whether or not to open.
Dear students: Welcome back to “school” in whatever situation we find ourselves. Do your best work every day. It might stink right now, but with your help, this could be a great year. It will give you stories to tell the next generation, and it will give you an opportunity to bond with your own generation for the rest of your life.
We sincerely feel badly that your older siblings missed their prom and graduation. We want you to enjoy the first day of school. We want to see your face. We want you to be able to take off your mask for your yearbook picture.
I can’t make any promises.
Michael Brennan has been teaching for 20 years. An avid reader, he likes to write screenplays, poetry, and novels. He is also an actor, and director. Brennan completed his bachelor of arts degree at Eastern Nazarene College, a master’s degree at National University, and he is currently working on a doctor of theology degree at Northwind Theological Seminary. He has taught 3rd grade through college, every subject.
In Michigan, Brennan both attended and taught in the Hartland Consolidated Schools District, as well as Livingston Christian School, Hazel Park Alternative Secondary School, and Lansing Community College. Currently, he is teaching at an academy in south Florida, where he is the chair of the English Department.