Crisis in the schools

A return to a normal that was never good enough.

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SOURCETomDispatch
Image Credit: Modern Governor

It feels odd to admit this, but I miss the stillness of the first few disorienting and terrifying weeks of the pandemic, when the noise and hustle of my world quieted down. In March and April of 2020, spring somehow seemed more riotously colorful and gratuitously lush. Choruses of birds replaced the sounds of cars in my neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. Gone was a traffic-filled commute and the energetically grueling weekday rituals of my past 17 years teaching at a large public high school. My house and my family became the locus and focal point of my day. Our tiny universe contracted, as we navigated the first year of the pandemic together, an island of three.

On returning to in-person school for what many hoped might be a “normal school year” in September 2021, I realized that a not-so-subtle shift had occurred in me. I was relieved to be back in the building with my colleagues and overjoyed to see my students in person instead of on Zoom, but I felt crushed by the sensory overwhelm of it all.

Being at school was both eerily familiar and strangely scary. The building itself seemed to roar and echo as voices bounced off every surface. Everywhere, bodies pushed too close. The required social distancing of that moment simply didn’t exist. We careened into and away from each other in the hallways, everyone oddly awkward and unstable, wary of the potential threat of the virus and of one another. The sheer volume of shared togetherness felt terrifying. I left school each day hollowed out from speaking so many words and interacting so closely with so many students and colleagues.

The visceral challenges of being back among 1,800 other humans during a raging pandemic would, however, prove just a precursor to an avalanche of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The effects of two years of pandemic schooling, both virtual and in-person, have taken their toll on all of us: students, parents, and teachers alike.

Recently, the chaos inflicted by the Omicron variant, including growing staffing shortages that range from missing substitutes, special-education aides, and school nurses to nutrition workers and bus drivers, widespread mental illness, and political strife have left our already struggling public schools in tatters and the people running them (myself included) exhausted. While public discourse has centered around who should be blamed for school-building closures, harassing librarians and teachers in an effort to ban books from our libraries and classrooms, and arguing about critical race theory that’s supposedly being taught in our high schools but isn’t, educators like me have been focused on simply trying to make sure our students are safe and supported in a time of unprecedented hardship and uncertainty.

So it comes as no surprise to me that, according to a study recently done by the Oregon Education Association, 37% of educators in Beaverton, the district where I teach, are considering leaving the profession at the end of this school year. In neighboring Portland that number rises to an alarming 49%. Those numbers represent the cumulative exhaustion of a workforce drained of its energy and resources and of a system no longer able to maintain the people it relies on to keep the very school doors open.

A return to a normal that no longer exists

Zoom-learning was soul-crushingly devoid of the laughter and energy of a traditional classroom and could never serve as a replacement for hands-on learning. However, it did, at least, offer a glimpse of the possibility of running schools in a different way, one that might include a learning experience more responsive to the educational, social, and emotional needs of all students.

It was a deeply flawed model, put instantly and chaotically in place when not every student had access to a sufficient WiFi connection or even a computer. Forged in reaction to circumstances novel and dire, it favored the privileged and the most disciplined, while putting so many students and families under incredible stress. Still, it did offer the potential for the sort of change that might include much-needed reforms in a system rooted in antiquated, inequitable, and unsustainable ways of operating.

Our online schedule was more flexible, with longer breaks built into the day. On Wednesdays, we had a full asynchronous day to meet individually with students, connect with parents, and collaborate with colleagues. And because we built our new curriculum from scratch with far fewer requirements from the district and state, we were able to focus on creating more meaningful content. And here’s a sad irony: poor online class attendance allowed us a glimpse of the potential benefits of smaller class sizes and more one-on-one time with students.

Having proved capable of building an entirely new system in just a few weeks, many of us hoped that, when we returned to our schools, we might be able to make necessary and positive changes there, too. Instead, fears of learning loss from the previous year coupled with calls for a “return to normal” forced all of us back into well-worn and established patterns of how schools do school — a complete denial of our experiences of the previous year. The first bell still rang at 7:45 am with hour-and-a-half-long classes stacked up one after another. Back were the same old too-large class sizes, the frenetic and unrelenting pace, the usual standardized curriculum and testing, traditional modes of assessment, outmoded graduation requirements, and the general drudgery of the secondary-school routine.

The only real changes were our COVID protocols: universal masking, trying to keep three feet of distance in cramped spaces filled with 30 to 40 students, and inflexible seating charts meant to help with future makeshift contact tracing. Even our usual active-shooter lockdown drills had to be canceled because you can’t safely cram 40 students under tables in the corner of a classroom in the middle of a pandemic.

While I was incredibly grateful for the added layers of safety, they only intensified the carceral aspects of school. Security guards wandered the halls, doors were locked to outsiders, no matter whether they were volunteers or parents. Strict rules were put in place around how we could gather, who could leave the classroom and when, who could eat where and when, and how we could come and go. All of this sapped joy from the experience of finally being back together.

And then we started to fall apart

After the adrenaline rush and novelty of being back in the building together wore off, students started to fall apart. Fights broke out daily. The numbers of students wandering the halls, cutting classes, or simply not showing up increased. For those who continued to attend classes, behaviors once kept under control by an engaging curriculum, positive relationships, and effective classroom management only seemed to intensify. Unable to regulate their emotions, some students would yell or burst into tears; others were unabashedly defiant. For the depressed and the anxious, behaviors ranged from agitation to complete shutdown. For those in need of an escape, numbing behaviors became far more pronounced. And if given a break in the middle of class, the students almost universally retreated into the world of their phones, leaving the room silent as each scrolled furiously, their masked faces illuminated by blue screens.

While connected by the experience of a worldwide pandemic, so many of them are processing the fear, uncertainty, social isolation, and political and cultural chaos individually. Some of my students and colleagues (just like some of your friends) are doing okay. Maybe it’s luck or privilege, thickness of skin, unwavering resilience, or simply denial. But many of them are really struggling and just for the record: exhausted, traumatized, and demoralized adolescents and grown-ups don’t make for the most thoughtful, engaged, or high-achieving students and teachers.

In our school, administrators, trying valiantly to support those students with the most serious mental-health challenges, created a “Wellness Room” where, when feeling overwhelmed, they could sit for 30 minutes and try to regroup. However, our school psychologist and social worker — we only have one of each — couldn’t possibly assist all the students in need of immediate mental-health support. Such services just aren’t available in public schools, even in the best of times. It’s no wonder then that, mental healthcare providers in Oregon are raising the alarm that behavioral healthcare systems are imploding.

Struggling to do more with less

To make matters worse, we’re operating with fewer staff than ever before. A shortage of subs across the nation has left schools with too few teachers, bus drivers, nurses, and food-service workers. Since the beginning of the year, teachers and administrators have been forced to cover other classes, losing essential prep time and leaving work previously done during school hours for later. The Omicron wave only intensified the situation.

My question: How do you run a school without enough staff? Some school districts in Kansas are, for example, responding to teacher shortages by lowering the education and age requirements for substitutes, offering the job to anyone with a high-school diploma. In essence, the pandemic continues to reduce our presence to that of a warm adult body, an incredibly demoralizing thought for a dedicated teacher who is also a highly trained professional.

The weight of all these issues falls squarely on our shoulders and we’re already exhausted by the struggles of living through the ongoing pandemic, while being stretched to the limits of our professional abilities. Despite my desire to help my students any way I can, I’m not a trained mental healthcare professional or a social worker. And honestly, I find it strange that our schools — and, more specifically, we teachers — should be left responsible for providing services a more humane society would prioritize and make widely available to its children. I want to use the skills I’ve been honing over the last 20 years to do what I do best, which is educate.

Why I teach

People sometimes recoil when I tell them that I teach high school. All of us have stories from those years that carry profound emotional resonance. Often, the scars of adolescence are deep and school can play an outsized role in creating them. However, the high-school classroom can also be a place where, thanks to the right teacher, the right group of classmates, or a particular subject matter, we discover something special about ourselves. That’s why I love working with adolescents.

For the most part, teenagers have not become numb to the magic of our world and are remarkably open to learning and changing. Often, they love and feel deeply. On days when my own sense of despair creeps up on me, their earnestness can act like a balm. In many ways, that reciprocal relationship of ours was part of the job I simply took for granted before the pandemic. I then benefited simply by being in proximity to their hopefulness, passion, and openness, just as they were benefiting from the way I shared my curiosity and love of learning.

So I find myself grief-stricken by what’s been lost in the classroom during these last two years. I miss seeing their faces. I miss watching them flirt and build new friendships. I miss catching their sudden expressions of unmitigated joy. I feel for my students who spend seven to eight hours a day, five days a week, in such an anxiety-provoking environment. I continue to observe the toll the chronic stresses of climate change — yes, the heat and flooding in the northwest have been fierce this year! — political strife, and a seemingly unending pandemic, have taken on student optimism. More than ever, it feels as if we’re urging students to make themselves more vulnerable by investing in a future that’s increasingly hard for them (and us) to imagine. And this year, many of our students have proven unwilling or unable to do just that.

We all deserve more

I have real empathy for parents who feel let down by schools. Wanting your child to be cared for, feel safe, and receive a high-quality education isn’t too much to ask. Unfortunately, when we rely on public schools (beset by problems long before the arrival of the pandemic) to be panaceas, how could they come out looking like anything but abject failures? What single institution could possibly solve the complex web of issues that afflict our society?

As for teachers working within that system, no matter how well intentioned, hardworking, or compassionate any of us may be, we’re going to have a hard time personally combating, no less solving the problems we face on a societal level. Every gesture of kindness, care, or even real engagement stands in danger of getting lost in a larger story of failure. Honestly, though, what system isn’t failing us right now, perhaps our political system above all?

For 18 years, I thought I could go it alone, closing my classroom door and trying to create a little utopia where students would feel safe enough to be creative and take risks. For the most part, I felt that I could make it work. Then the pandemic hit and the scale of the issues became so large and complex that I had to admit there was no way I could address it by myself.

None of us are equipped as individuals to fix what’s now broken. We have neither the energy, nor the resources to do that. So, listen to me when I say that teachers are shouting their SOS to you right now. Please send help. We can’t go it alone.

Copyright 2022 Belle Chesler.

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