The room where it happens

It has never been more challenging to work in the field of public education as it has been this school year. The classroom is a sacred place upon which the very foundation of a fruitful society and an educated electorate is built. The process of teaching and learning has fundamentally changed (not necessarily for the worse) while the smaller merry-go-round of students rotates in and out of the classroom within the larger Ferris wheel of entire schools themselves opening and closing and using various hybrid schedules trying to make everything work the best we can. If that seems dizzying, that’s because it is. Meanwhile, many of us live with or take care of elderly family members and have comorbidities ourselves. Many of us are facing the stress of lost loved ones and of spouses losing their jobs. Many of us have our own children—whether young or old—that we are worried about and have to make difficult decisions regarding their safety. Yet, all of us are called to return to the classroom, to the room where it happens.

In observance of American Education Week, which always comes during the week before Thanksgiving Break, I would like to take a moment and observe some of the unsung heroes that make school happen. Without these people, nothing would happen in the room where it happens.

Anyone who has ever worked in a school building knows that its success depends on its support staff. Secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, nurses, and teacher’s aides are all invaluable parts of the school. While their individual responsibilities vary from one building to the next, this group of people is often overlooked and taken for granted. They truly deserve to be paid more money for all that they do and school buildings would fall apart at the seams without them.

Each year that I have been a teacher, I have never known a year when we had an abundance of substitute teachers. Given that most substitutes are typically older, retired, and at a higher risk of developing serious complications of COVID-19, the substitute shortage this year is especially acute. Teachers are having to quarantine for days or weeks at a time due to either contracting the virus or being exposed to or living with someone who has. Substitutes are stepping into classrooms full of young people every day and risking exposing themselves to COVID-19 for a modicum of money. That makes them heroes in my book. Regardless where you live, if you are able, please consider registering to be a substitute teacher. Students (and especially their teachers) need you now more than ever.

School and district administrators have put in countless hours behind the scenes planning and replanning and rethinking school so that the children and all of the employees are as safe as possible. They have been placed in nearly impossible situations balancing operating a school with public safety. Oftentimes, there simply are not any good answers and they’re tasked with choosing the most palatable option and then explaining and defending that option to stakeholders.

Finally, to my fellow teachers who stand on the shoulders of the aforementioned giants that make it possible for us to enter the room where it happens every single day: Change has been the only constant for us as we work with young people who are experiencing their own traumas. We were not trained in this new way of doing school, and while we’re in charge of teaching our respective curriculums, we’re also keenly aware that, first and foremost, we are teaching people. Balancing our home and work lives has always been difficult, but it has also never been more important.

I want to thank the National Education Association and the American Legion who met in 1919 to seek ways to generate support for public education. It is because of them that, in 1921, the United States observed its first American Education Week. As a proud member of the Coffee County Education Association (which is a subsidiary of NEA), I want to thank everyone who plays a role in making school happen. It truly takes a village. Especially now.

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