Teaching is hard. It is a challenging enterprise. Don’t take this as whining, mind you. Teaching should be hard. It should push, challenge, stretch – force the teacher to continually be the learner through each day, month, and year as the career continues. Teaching isn’t the same day after day. It’s a new ballgame every morning with adjusted rules on the fly. It is one of the greatest careers to be pursued in life. I’ve got two years of teaching middle school under my belt, and am starting my third year in an alternative high school. I know the hard work of being a teacher, of learning how to manage material, translate the relevance to students, and find new methods and means to teach the standards using a plethora and panoply of pedagogies. I’ve lived, breathed, and cried it. Through it all, my mantra was, “hold fast”. Today, that phrase means so much more as we continue to navigate, duck, dodge, juke, and push through this multipart never-ending story of COVID-19.
I’m no expert in the world of teaching. I may know the hard work, but I’m still learning and figuring out how to be the best teacher I can be on an hourly basis. I do know what it’s like to muck my way through a swamp or two. 38 years around the sun has taught me how to hold on. A better phrase I picked up on is, “hold fast”. I’m an English teacher, and meaning is my business, so I went to the dictionary. The definition of “hold fast” from Oxford Languages is, 1) “[to] remain tightly secured.” and 2) “Continue to believe in or adhere to an idea or principle”. The phrase is used in plenty of naval films, the most recognizable to you might be “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” in which one of the characters has the phrase tattooed on the fingers of his hands.
It can feel like we’re on a ship in the midst of an ongoing battle or storm as the virus has returned with a vengeance. Teachers are once again experiencing stress, anxiety, and worries about how this is all going to work with the various methods and means being put in play. From hybrid to A/B in person schedules, to full in person, to remote, and back again – the pace has threatened to become an inhuman marathon with random twists, turns, and detours. It was hard being a teacher before, but it was a type of hard that was accepted, and part of the job. Now as this season stretches into overtime, the hard has taken on a different meaning, a different feeling, and a differing experience. That meaning, that feeling, and that experience – it’s like nothing experienced before, even in the maudlin months of spring ending with May – this is almost a mutation of the hard.
You see it through social media reactions from teachers across the country. You see it in statements from teacher’s unions. You see it from parent protests at school board meetings. You see it from school board meetings. You see it from press releases from superintendents. The hard we have in our hands today is not the hard that it was before. For some, it is too much. The weight and the pressure has pushed some to leave the profession, and still, others to calculate and contemplate an early exit in the months or year ahead.
I feel it, I see it, and I hear it. Between fellow teachers in my area on Facebook, and teachers around the country on Twitter – it’s there. I don’t have a golden ticket to fix it all. I don’t have a miracle elixir that’ll take us back to before April or that’ll get us out of the storm and battle of today. What I can do is to hold fast. The first part of the definition of the word is to, “remain tightly secured”, which is rather easy to follow in this 2020 experience. Wear a mask, stay 6 feet apart as much as possible, and avoid large gatherings as much as possible. Follow the recommendations, encourage others to do the same, and keep it all on lock every hour, and every day. I can do this. I can manage this. I can control this. It’s a button I get to push and a lever I get to pull.
The second part is the harder definition to accept and own. To, “continue to believe in or adhere to an idea or principle” isn’t the easiest thing when the idea or principle is teaching and education. There is no doubt that in-person learning is the best for kids in the short run and the long run. Stories about kids failing, kids becoming disconnected, not engaged, and drifting to video games and other distractions – it’s all becoming a reality check for the teaching world. Kids need to be in school, and we need to be teaching them in person. But ay, there’s the rub. To adhere and believe in that concept requires teachers to accept that they may either experience exposure and be put into a 14-day quarantine period – and that it’s an accepted risk. That running the risk of contracting the virus is something that can be accepted, conquered as a fear, and become a somewhat normal part of the teaching experience and environment. There’s a lot in that to unpack, and there’s a lot there that needs discussing and discourse. Everyone has a feeling, opinion, idea, or justification for any number of directives for schools, teachers, students, and parents. When I said it was hard, I meant it.
There are risks with each choice made in this ongoing gambit. Remote learning keeps exposure chances low but it is not a great way to learn long term. In-person is the best way to learn but with an elevated risk for exposure, quarantine, and eventual staff shortages that will close a building until staffing is back to acceptable limits. There is no Road to Rome.
I don’t have an answer to what should be done for everyone and anyone. I know in my soul, in my heart, and my mind that working through the risks, the dangers – that it’s worth it if we can help our students learn in the best way possible. It’s scary. It’s unnerving. It’s unsettling. It is all of those things and more. It’s the part of “continue to believe” that I’m holding onto. That I knew the risks going into this job. I grew up in the pre and post-Columbine world. I’m aware of the dangers in the job. I’ve accepted it. I cannot choose to fear the possibility of such a thing happening. The fear would undo me at every step of every lesson of every period of every class. Within my professional persona, life, and being – I chose courage for myself. I’m certain this belief will strike some folks in a varying amount of ways described in adjectives of their creation. I’m not asking anyone to subscribe to my current position. I’m hoping to explain, reflect, and understand for myself the feelings, ideas, and beliefs I’ve been wrestling with since this season started in March.
Am I completely convinced that this is the right thing? No. I’ll continue to carefully consider my position as this thing continues, and adjust my hands on the helm to better define my heading on my journey. That’s the thing about being a life long learner – always learning, always listening, and always contemplating and considering.
I have my heading, for now. As Captain Jack Sparrow would say, “Bring me that horizon.”
Hold fast me hearties, yo ho!