The Unsung Heroes of the Classroom

January 4, 2021 by

Like many people, I looked forward to 2020 long before it came. For five years “May 16, 2020” has been emblazoned in my brain like a glowing count-down timer. On this day, my course of studies was set to be over, celebrated in the company of family and friends, and a new chapter of my life as an “actual” grown-up begun.

I don’t need to explain why all this didn’t happen.

Now, as I grade homework and plan lessons for my students at our community’s tiny private school, I realize that I am one of very few from my graduating class to be seeing my students regularly in person. Behind masks, but still in person. Almost all of my classmates have been lucky enough to find jobs, but most of them are sitting in front of computers, struggling with the myriad challenges of virtual instruction – in addition to the learning curve that already faces first-year teachers.

My peers should be the best people for this job. We, much more than our parents, are digital natives. We took a technology course every semester for four years. We were required to use smartboards, audio-visual equipment, online learning platforms, real-time feedback from student devices, and assistive technology while student teaching. We thoroughly discussed the pros and cons and best practices of technology integration. We wrote papers on the difference between retrofitting old teaching methods with new technology and finding new tech-integrated ways to teach.

But really, nothing could prepare us for this.

We came to education because of the kids. But they have been reduced to talking heads, trapped in a little square on the screen; or at best, a pair of worried eyes above a mask, six feet away behind a plastic divider.

Teaching was a thankless job before the pandemic – a career path chosen because of passion or necessity, never because it guarantees financial success. (“Marry rich” is the oft-quoted advice from senior teachers to education majors.) But my classmates, and thousands (maybe even millions) of other teachers in this country chose the job because we love working with young people and love being the person who can make a difference in their lives. With personal contact eliminated or severely restricted, our motivation, inspiration, and purpose are receding. Teachers are burning out and warning that while they are doing their best, it is not sustainable.

But the teachers’ perspective is only one part of the story. Above my desk hangs a photograph of the twenty-seven fifth graders I was teaching a year ago in Morgantown. I know their names, their stories, their interests, and their challenges. And I know that many of them must be struggling especially right now.

student raising their handPhoto by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

How is Collin’s mother coping with having a very active, barely verbal sixth grader with autism at home all the time? I know she loves him, but she does not have the training or the time to provide the specialized instruction he needs to learn – because he definitely won’t be sitting for long stretches focusing on a screen, even with the best teacher in the world on the other end.

What about Cindy, who was just becoming comfortable enough with her significant physical disability to speak up in the classroom and let others see how amazingly smart, funny, and lovable she is? What will a year or more at home do to her self-confidence and social skills?

It’s hard to even think about DaShawn and Tyrone, who come from such dysfunctional home situations that they often aren’t physically safe, never mind cared for and supported in their education.

How are these kids going to survive the pandemic? And how will it impact the rest of their lives?

The photograph hangs by my desk as I reflect on botched lessons, struggle with how to bring my students up to speed after a semester of remote learning, and work through mountains of prep. The picture reminds me how lucky I am to be here right now. I’m lucky to have a classroom big enough for my students to be spread six feet apart, windows that open to create a healthy draft, healthcare workers who screen me and my students daily, and a system in place to protect my students, their families, and our community.

As I write these words, I know that what I’ve called luck would more accurately be called privilege. And I can’t help but feel some guilt when I think of the many teachers who work harder than me and whose students are worse off than mine because I know they would do anything to give their class what I am able to give mine.

To my fellow teachers, especially those in their first year: I know that you are being asked to do the impossible with not even half the resources you need. But isn’t this what teaching has always been? (To some degree at least?) Aren’t we used to meeting the impossible with little support beyond our own faith in what we are doing?

We all know that this can’t last forever. Someday we’ll be back in classrooms face-to-face with students and then they will need us more than ever. It’s time to keep doing what teachers do best: accept the challenge of the impossible, and meet it with nothing less than our best.


About the author

Anetta Shirky

Anetta Shirky

Anetta Shirky lives at the Mount Community, where she teaches the fifth and sixth grades.

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