Hampton, Virginia

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With national leadership urging schools to reopen this fall despite rising cases of COVID-19, classroom teachers are facing bewildering choices. Already undervalued, teachers are weighing the dangers of in-person instruction against the effectiveness of online learning, with little certainty about either. Students are isolated, parents are exhausted, school districts are scrambling to make responsible decisions, yet teachers themselves are being asked to carry most of this burden, risking their lives and their families’ lives to do their jobs. Even a superhero would be daunted. As we approach the start of the 2020 academic year, we asked U.S. K-12 teachers to tell us how they’re feeling and how they’re planning for the year ahead.

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Countless times throughout my career as a public educator, I’ve been called a hero. Unless it’s coming from a student, it’s almost always cringe-worthy. I’ve been called a hero for teaching high school instead of college. I’ve been called a hero for suffering through budget cuts and low pay. I’ve been called a hero for teaching “those” kids. I’ve been called a hero each of the eight times I lost a student to gun violence. Usually, it’s in casual conversation or on social media, always from someone outside of education. They might mean it. Sometimes I think they’re aware of their mildly condescending tones; often they’re not.

When schools closed in March, American students and teachers were tossed into the tumult of remote learning. The teacher-as-hero memes and posts from flustered parents praising their children’s teachers flooded social media. We needed raises. We were the real MVPs. Some of us felt vindicated, but most of us were wary.

I worked from home March-June. I taught seven classes. I was alone with my two-year-old son. His preschool closed. It was just the two of us — and my job. I texted, emailed, called, and video chatted with my students seven days a week, sometimes in the middle of the night. My students cared for younger siblings, sick grandparents, took new jobs at grocery stores and fast-food restaurants, all while maintaining their educations, sometimes despite impossible hurdles. In awe of their resilience, I read their poems and short stories, essays about Dickinson and Clifton and Cummings. I missed them terribly, and they missed me. But we all agreed on one thing: We were doing what we had to do to stay safe. The sacrifices were brutal, possibly heroic.

Around mid-July, when the school-reopening debates began in earnest, the tone changed. Teachers became the problem. Now we’re lazy. We don’t care about kids. We don’t want to do our jobs. We’re responsible for reigniting the American economy. We’re babysitters. We should find new jobs if we fear the return to in-person learning. We should be quiet and do what we’re told. Our love for our families is selfish. We certainly aren’t heroes.

Maybe it’s us who need the heroes. My students, all students, need heroes. Millions of American teachers need heroes. Our families need heroes. Everyday I read the data. I read obsessively about what teachers and students are facing across this country. I’m a mere spectator as our fates are volleyed around in political ping-pong matches on national, state, and local levels. I watch decisions being made that have absolutely no regard for our well-being. I watch the system sputter along as if death won’t touch it. I know what it will take for the game to stop, but the names are too many, the price too great… I can’t write the actual words. The only reality that’s clear to me as we plunge into this school year: The heroes we need won’t show up.

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Jessica Ratigan is a poet, teacher, and mother of one ebullient toddler. She received her MFA from New York University’s Creative Writing Program in 2007. Her poems have appeared in Blackbird, Hunger Mountain, and other journals. She teaches English and Creative Writing in Hampton, Virginia.