OpEd: Who will speak for me? Reflections of an Antioch classroom teacher during a pandemic

By Elizabeth Terry, Antioch High School science teacher

My day starts early, and I do mean early. Stumbling into my kitchen, groggily grinding the beans, trying to clear the leftover fog of sleep, I begin to think about the day ahead. It’s 3:30 am when that god touched ichor finally hits and I’m thinking clearly enough to do my daily crosswords. I find the Washington Post’s crossword extremely difficult, but the NY Times’ puzzle fairly mundane. At 4 I’m ready to get myself ready for the day, have breakfast, then make the 30 second commute across the hall to my digital school room readying myself for the day’s lessons. It is now 5:30. As I power up my computer, the new one which I purchased to meet the moment of this odd teaching year, I’m reminded of an earlier time when I would get to school at 6 am ready to prepare the day’s labs, and I again wonder at how drastically different, yet still similar this school year has been. I click on Facebook and begin to again read the hateful comments on our local “news” outlet about how lazy teachers are being. Despite an overwhelming sense of crushing depression, I snap out of it and begin the day’s grades, with the news on in the background.

My ears perk up when the anchors are talking again about school closures. The anchors are railing against teachers, and I sit stunned, when the guests on the program again echo the anchor’s sentiments. The familiar anger takes over and I wonder who will speak for us. Who will advocate for our lives? After all, I remember a few short months ago at the end of last year when my profession was lauded and celebrated. Now, I feel spat on daily, hesitant to declare that I’m a teacher. The depressing part is that this is oftentimes coming from our friends and our families. I question how a profession who has one of the lowest ratios of education to salary could possibly be the cornerstone of society, as if somehow the fate of western society rests on our underpaid shoulders. I, like many of us are angry, burnt out, and frustrated because no one in power, not in the government, not in the CDC, nor in the current administration is actually sticking up for our lives. Instead, we are being vilified, crucified on the altar of the economy. Our efforts over the last year aren’t even seen let alone recognized. It’s enough to make a person quit.

They say we aren’t working. These comments are made by folks who took what happened last year as their measure of what is happening this year in our virtual classrooms. But what many people don’t know is that teachers have actually very little voice in the decisions that county health and school board make. During the March lockdowns, we were told that we couldn’t teach any new concepts, instead it was review only. More importantly, the students were told that they would pass regardless of their activity. And as teenagers often do, they did nothing. There was no incentive to do anything other than that. As a classroom teacher, I worked very hard to put together lessons that would inspire my students, even in a pandemic, I created digital lessons which were fun and engaging. Lesson that few students even showed up for. This included my AP kids. We were told to offer grace, which we did, and we did what teachers always do, we made it work. This was, of course, not ideal, but we made it work with what we had. I look back and think of all the glowing praise of our efforts and smile. It felt good to finally be recognized for the hard work we were putting in. But as a veteran teacher of 17 years, I knew the public good will wouldn’t last.

During the summer, myself and several colleagues and friends trouble shot the new program that we would be working on. We learned entirely new platforms, we taught ourselves how to use the district tools that were provided (without training I might add). We then taught our colleagues their uses as well. We waited anxiously to know how, when, and in what form we would start school again – we were quite literally, the last to know. The school board decided to delay opening, which meant the following year we would not have much of a summer, but what the board wants, the board gets.

The start of school saw a steep learning curve. As our students had never had technology before, we are in a title-1 school district after all, they had zero knowledge on how a PC operates. It was a brand-new digital world for them. We taught them how to use their computers. Soon they were using Word, PowerPoint, chatting in Teams, saving, and using the new programs. It was a struggle, but we made it through. We had to create all of our lessons over again, this time figuring out how to make it work in a digital environment. I teach 3 laboratory sciences. I had to completely redo all of my documents so that students could use excel to graph their data. Then I had to teach them how to use excel. Though frustrated at the drastically slower pace of learning, our students were learning and progressing through our curricula. This was hard, but we did it.

On top of our teaching duties, we had to reach out to students who were not coming. We had to figure out a way to get them into the classroom. We had to simultaneously offer grace, while holding high expectations. We had to speak for our students and watch out for their mental health, while no one was watching ours. And still, we did it. My students have tracked horse evolution through 65 million years, they have learned how to calculate carrying capacity, they have made survivorship curves using gravestone data and compared it to covid numbers. My biotech students have done Gel electrophoresis, learned how to use a spectrophotometer and have done macromolecule assays. All online, all virtual. However, if you read the public comments, we are lazy, the students aren’t learning anything, and we should take our slothful butts back into work or quit.

It’s now 8 am. I’m done entering grades, and I need to set up the electrophoresis chamber for the lab I’ll be doing in 1st period. On tap today is a DNA fingerprinting lab for first, and we will be doing a case study in my ecology class on competitive exclusion of bullfrogs. At 8:40 I am in class. I teach for an hour, going back and forth between my kitchen/lab, to my office/classroom. At 9:40, I finish up my attendance logs, and take a break between classes. At 9:50 am I get an email about a student who won’t attend today because she’s feeling blue. I call her and we chat for a few minutes in between classes. At 10:20 its time for class number two, followed by a short lunch break. During my break, I catch up on emails and grade the class warm-ups that were submitted by the first two classes. At 12:30, I teach my last class of the day. But I’m not done yet. I have office hours in the afternoon where I tutor struggling students. I send chats to those whose homework I’m missing, in the vain hope that at least some in my fourth period will turn in their work. And then I make the mistake of checking my Facebook.

“DISBAND the CTA (California Teachers Union)” I see in emblazoned headlines across my news feed. I know I shouldn’t but I click it anyway. Apparently, as a teacher I am a do-nothing, morally bankrupt individual who just doesn’t want to work. Huh, I think, I wonder what I’ve been doing all day? I’m so tired of this. What the petitioner doesn’t understand is that teachers have little voice in the decisions to go back to school. This is a decision run by school boards. Additionally, it isn’t the school board’s decision either, rather the decision is made by the county health department. The county decides whether or not we can open based on the case data. The parents should be pointing the fingers at themselves. If they want the school to open, they should be wearing masks, using social distancing measures to drive down the cases.

The originator of the petition stated that “there has been no instances of Covid being transmitted from children.” You see I know, according to the Covid Monitoring project, that there ARE cases of high school students not only acquiring covid, but also transmitting it to their families in an asymptomatic way. As of this writing, 657,667 cases of students and staff have acquired Covid . Locally, I have 3 high school kids who are positive, and one was very sick. I also know that as a person who is on the older side, with an autoimmune disorder, I’m likely to die from this disease. If any of those three had come into school we would have all been on quarantine. In my house, which frankly I don’t go out from, I have zero chance of picking up COVID. Going back into the classroom increases my risk by 100%. Teachers are merely asking for two things before going back. One, to be vaccinated, have people in their households vaccinated and to have the safety items in place. I think to myself I didn’t sign up to be killed at work. Also, as stated, we don’t have anything to do with the decision to lock down anyway, but the public, frustrated, have no one else to blame but us. I’m just so tired, and I think, who will speak for us?

Teachers don’t want to be out of the classroom. We desperately want to see our students. However, we also don’t want to potentially die from our employment. Other professions have safety standards, why can’t we? Many of us work in dilapidated conditions, left behind from years of little to no improvements, left behind for getting equipment we need to do our jobs. As a science teacher I routinely spend at least 1000 dollars every year on supplies. No other profession is asked to pay for their supplies. Imagine telling a firefighter that she has to purchase her own hose…yet that is what we tell teachers to do. I had to purchase all the equipment I use to do my job. Why? Because the district laptops have 8gbs of ram, and the program we use, Teams require 8gbs, so you can’t have anything else running on your laptop, otherwise the whole computer crashes. Along with that computer, I bought two monitors, a webcam, and more. Yet, I’m being greedy and lazy, according to the authors of this asinine petition.

The CDC says teachers can go back to school, without being vaccinated IF proper mitigation is in effect. That IF is important, I can’t open my windows in my classroom, and neither can my friends because the one window pole we had has been lost. Therefore, no-one in my hall can actually open their windows. We are lucky that we HAVE windows as some of my colleagues teach in an interior classroom. Our school won’t have the “proper mitigation” any time soon. The good news is that the vaccines are starting to roll out. But it takes a minute to get an immune response. By the time our teachers are vaccinated, and we would have gotten immunity, there will literally be a month and a half left in the year. It is my suggestion to just ride it out. I think this for two reasons. First, the students are now used to the routine. If we came now, it would be a huge disruption, and if we went into quarantine due to a case, that would be worse. Secondly, hybrid offers us 1 day of instruction. I’m barely covering enough curriculum on 2 days per week, I can’t even imagine how little I will get through with one day of instruction.

I am sick of people, including folks in the Biden administration saying teachers should go back because “this is who they are.” As if we are all Mother Teressa. Um no, this is my profession. This is what I was trained to do, this is my art and my craft. But more importantly, this is my job. This job pays for my house, my children, my car, etc. I don’t work for free, and it is unfair to expect me to. We don’t expect doctors to work for free because its “who they are.” The only reason it happens to us teachers is because, in my opinion, teaching is viewed as “women’s work.” I guarantee if this profession was dominated by males, our salaries and our respect would rise dramatically.

Finally, I would ask the public to understand that unions, those that are meant to protect the health and well-being of our sector are made up of people. Men and women who sacrifice their sleep, their money, and their time to the education of your children. We are the people who make up the “union” and deserve some small measure of the respect that we are due. For all the days that we work during our unpaid summers, to the endless nights that we stay up grading papers, for the donated time we put in making phone calls to struggling students. Because if we don’t get that respect, if we are not recognized for the value that we bring to society, if we are not paid a fair wage that recognizes our talent and contributions, you may just find your students being educated by google – and that would be a tragedy.

It’s 5:25 I finally log out of my computer. That’s a 12-hour shift.

According to her LinkedIn profile, Terry is the Antioch High School Science Department Co-chair, Biology Chairwoman, Biotech program Lead, teaching AP Biology, Lab-Based Ecology and repeater Biology. She’s been a teacher at the school since August 2009. Terry’s education includes a Teaching Certification in 2003; BA Biological Sciences in 2002 – San Jose State;  AA Liberal Arts in 1998 – Foothill College; AA Liberal Arts in 1998 – De Anza College; and an EMT Certification in 1992 – San Francisco Community College.

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