Over the last few weeks, I have had to make a very difficult decision: do I return to teaching in-person or do I teach virtually? This is the decision that teachers throughout the nation are having to make in light of the widespread cases of COVID-19 across the country. Some teachers with medical concerns have had to make a more difficult decision: do I return to the classroom and put my life in danger or do I resign from teaching or retire early? These are decisions that no one should have to make, but here we are.
Thankfully in my school division, teachers have been given options based on their health as well as their personal preferences: teach in-person, teach virtually but in the school building, or teach virtually from home. Each one of these choices has risks. For teachers who teach in-person, they may be putting their lives in danger by working alongside of students and other educators who may or may not have been exposed to COVID-19. Likewise, students are putting their lives in danger as they are working alongside of others who may or may not have been exposed to COVID-19. For teachers who will teach virtually in the school building, they risk losing the personal connection they may have with their students because their classes may seem artificial as they are teaching remotely while in the same building as their students. For teachers at home, they risk the personal disconnect with students but also the loss of connection with their co-workers and the supportive environment of most school cultures.
None of these options are perfect. None of these options are right for everyone. Each of us are required to make this decision with our specific circumstances in mind: our own health and emotional stability, the health of our family members, the health of community members that we are in close contact with throughout the week. Again, each of these options comes with specific risks.
I have not made my own decision lightly. When I was given the option of choosing what I prefer, my instinct was to say that I wanted to teach virtually outside of the school building like my co-workers with health concerns. I wanted to stand in solidarity with my co-workers who should not go back into a school building until after the virus is under control in my region of the country. I wanted to show that many teachers are uncomfortable teaching in the school building in the hope that my county school board would vote for 100% virtual learning for all students.
But that’s not what happened. My county voted for an opportunity for blended learning for students who want to return to in-person instruction and a 100% virtual opportunity for students who want to remain at home. I will not go into my immediate reaction to the results of the school board vote because at this point, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what I will do this fall as a public high school educator.
It has been almost five months since I have been in a classroom with students. It has been almost five months since I have interacted with my co-workers Monday through Friday. It has been almost five months since I have felt the satisfaction of a lesson well-taught. It has been almost five months since I have seen a lightbulb go off over a student’s head as they have finally “gotten” something. And to be honest, most of me has been very sad about what I have missed.
This school year, I will be entering year 19 as a public school teacher. This school year, I will be entering year 26 as a public school educator, having spent my college years as a classroom aide, writing tutor, and substitute teacher. School is my life. Teaching is who I am.
In Colossians 3:23-24, Paul writes, “Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ.” When I started working in public schools at eighteen years old, I had not yet made the commitment to sacrifice parts of my life for the sake of my students. However, as I began to understand the baggage that my students carried with them and the social context in which I teach, I began to recognize that my role as a Christian public educator was to sacrifice some of myself for them.
When I am in a classroom, I make daily sacrifices. I sacrifice my psychological comfort since I am by nature an introvert and as a teacher, I am constantly “on.” I sacrifice my physical safety since I teach in a society of school violence. I sacrifice my emotional comfort since at times my students suffer tragedy and trauma. I sacrifice my professional integrity since I live in a nation that vilifies teachers. I sacrifice my personal finances since public school have been defunded for at least the last fifteen years.
These are all choices I have made. These are sacrifices that I am willing to make as I work willingly as though I was working for the Lord rather than for people.
So what have I decided to do? Given the choices I have been offered, I want to be in my classroom with my students. Even though this school year will not be the same as it has been in the past with all of the mitigation plans in place like masks, plexiglass barriers, and six-foot social distancing, I miss being in a classroom with students. I miss our interactions. I miss class discussions. I miss their ridiculous jokes. I miss them.
And more than anything, I want to offer them hope. I want to help them feel safe. I want to give them comfort. I want to distract them from the mess that has been the last five months. I want to assure them that things will get better.
Because they will get better.