In my job as an education reporter, I frequently hear from parents and teachers complaining about overcrowded classrooms. These days, that usually means 25 or more students at a time.
I don’t argue the point. The smaller the class size, the better, in every way.
I think back to my sixth grade class at Bryant (Alabama) School. Due to a construction project, we were relocated to a small building on campus. There were 44 kids in my class.
About half were girls, and of course they were angels. Of the 22 boys, at least half were rowdy, to put it kindly.
So how’s this for a recipe: Put 44 kids in a crowded room, with maybe 30 attempting to learn, while the others were setting the trash can on fire.
At the same time, my sixth grade teacher, the only man on the faculty, was suddenly promoted to principal. He replaced a young man who was new to the community. The new guy had been threatened by an angry parent, so he left one day and never returned. (He may still be hiding out, and I wouldn’t blame him.)
So my 43 classmates and I were in the hands of a substitute until a qualified replacement could be found. That would take a while, and in the meantime, the inmates ran the asylum. The sub teacher was overwhelmed. She had not signed up for combat duty.
I share that story to say that in my school career, it never got any worse than that. Learning conditions were not ideal, but most of us made it to seventh grade with no permanent scars.
Fast forward to the notorious year of 2020. Many teachers and students have horror stories that put mine to shame. These teachers had envisioned a career of dreams. They would find a grade level or subject they love, prepare lesson plans, nurture bright-eyed, eager children and then do it again tomorrow.
Our new reality doesn’t quite work like that. The job description for “teacher” should now include sanitation expert, mask enforcer, distance compliance officer, disinfection specialist, nurse, computer technician and remote learning guru.
So yes, my sixth grade sub had her hands full, but at least she wasn’t coping with a pandemic.
Recently, I asked my Facebook teacher friends a couple of quick questions: “How’s it going, in this crazy new world? What’s working, and what’s not?”
I told them they could reply publicly, for everyone to see. Or they could send me a confidential message, so that only I could see it.
The public responses were mostly positive, and I am sure they were truthful. Every school is different, and in some cases the school leadership and parents are working together to ensure a clean environment, considering the masks, the distancing, and other COVID-19 distractions.
But the ones who communicated with me privately painted a different picture. As with most of us, their summer vacation was not very restful. Teachers were reluctant to travel, so they spent their summer planning how to approach their new challenges.
Would they continue to conduct class remotely, while coping with spotty internet connections? Or would they venture into the potentially dangerous world of crowded school hallways?
When some of the teachers returned to school, they were promised ample supplies of wipes, tissues, paper towels, disinfectants and cleaners. They were assured extra cleaning crews would be on hand around the clock, making sure surfaces would be scrubbed, trash cans would be emptied and risks would be minimized.
Sadly, that has not always been the case. In my home county, after a few weeks of phased-in attendance, the doors were finally opened to all, five days a week. Almost immediately, several buildings were closed again for sanitization and contact tracing. When a positive case was reported, it was back to the home computer. Entire cheerleading squads and sports teams were under 14-day quarantine, with lucrative, rivalry football games canceled for the first time ever.
Our innocent optimism of six months ago is gradually giving way to the grim possibility that we could be living under these conditions for several more months, and maybe even a year or more.
Successful schools have always been about building relationships. This year, that is happening like never before. Out of necessity, teachers are reinventing the wheel, one day at a time. School buildings have come alive, with a vibrant heartbeat.
Kids are adapting, because that’s what they do.
Let’s salute our teachers, aides, staff members, cafeteria workers, cleaning crews, bus drivers and administrators. You are making the best of a bad situation, and yes, we see you.
Ordinarily, I would say, “Hug a teacher.” We can’t do that, but we can offer our appreciation, our prayers, and our support.