Opinion: Don’t ask teachers to be martyrs

Parent says: We ask a lot of teachers. Let's not add their health to list.

Charis Granger-Mbugua is a National Board Certified teacher and Spelman graduate.

A Cobb resident who is now a stay-at-home parent, Granger-Mbugua addresses how the country has gone from celebrating teachers for their quick response to the pandemic shutdown in March to condemning them for their concerns about returning to classrooms as the virus surges this summer.

By Charis Granger-Mbugua

It almost seems like a lifetime ago: that fateful day in March, when schools across the country closed their doors. Uncertainty about a novel virus that would quickly become a household name, loomed over the heads of everyone—from parents to postal workers, teachers to taxi cab drivers. And one of the biggest uncertainties, of course, was the 55 million students in the United States being told to stay home and continue their education virtually.

Parents quickly became de facto teachers, juggling jobs and their children’s learning. Zoom meetings and virtual ballet classes became the norm and the cry around the country was ubiquitous: Teachers are our heroes. We need them, our children need them. Why, oh why, have we not been paying them more for the often-thankless job they do day after day, month after month, year after year?

For a brief moment in time, a profession that has long been overlooked and minimized, despite its critical role in shaping the minds of leaders and legends, was given its due reward: respect, admiration, value. For once, teachers were being recognized wholeheartedly, unequivocally, globally for the unending work they do to not only educate our children, but also encourage them, inspire them, challenge them, grow them, love them. Because that’s what teachers do.

And then, spring stumbled into summer, and those long, hot summer days started racing toward the beginning of the new school year. Suddenly, the national conversation turned towards the reopening of schools. The president and his education secretary made bold and sweeping statements that despite the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases across the country, and our inability to flatten and maintain a flattened curve, schools must reopen. Children must go back to schools. And teachers, many of whom are considered part of the vulnerable population because of age, underlying conditions, and immunodeficiencies, must return to the classroom. Never mind that it might be a matter of life and death.

How quickly many across our country seemed to turn on teachers. With the stimulus check spent and the novelty of the experience gone, our personal needs, many of which are no doubt necessities, fueled the darker sides of our humanity: selfishness, entitlement, avarice took root.

No longer were teachers being extolled as unsung heroes.

Now they were type casted as lazy, needy, demanding. “How dare they expect districts and local leaders to give assurances that they would be safe?” “What about the doctors and nurses, police officers, and grocery store clerks who have been working throughout the entire pandemic? What makes teachers any different?” “I pay property taxes and I want my school opened or my money back!”

As a former classroom teacher and a mother of two young children, I have a somewhat unique perspective. I’ve seen and lived both sides of the coin.

As a working parent, I’ve struggled to find child care when my young children were sick, and I needed to make it to my classroom before the 7:45 morning bell. I feel, at my very core, the need for my children to have the structure, normalcy, and exposure to a variety of different experiences and people a classroom environment often offers. I know the heartache of worrying about bills being paid if I don’t return to work.

As a teacher, I understand the daily sacrifices made for our students. I know what it means to wipe away the tears of my teenage students struggling with heartbreak and brokenness. I have comforted a classroom of wide-eyed children when a gun was found in a classmates’ bag. I have celebrated students overcoming obstacles many could not even fathom, from fleeing war-torn Syria to walking thousands of miles across desert to a better future.

And I know teachers want to be in classrooms.

But we cannot—we should not—ask them to forgo their own health and safety, and that of their children, grandchildren, elderly parents, and all the other people that teachers support outside of the classroom as well.

Teachers should not be required to be martyrs. Yes, they did sign up for this job. A job that requires them to spend hundreds, sometimes thousands, of their own dollars to provide basic supplies to students. A job that asks them to stay after school for band concerts and football games. A job that demands countless hours in the evenings and on weekends to create engaging and rigorous lessons that help our students reach their fullest potential.

But teaching should not be a job that requires the very life of the teacher.

Perhaps we, as a society, should hold our government more accountable. Instead of demanding schools open, how about we demand our elected leaders do more to curb the pandemic—like mandating masks, providing more than one stimulus check, freezing rents and mortgages, extending unemployment benefits, requiring companies to creatively support working parents who must also…parent.

And instead of complaining on social media and in the comments sections about why schools should not open virtually, why don’t we rally together as a community and find ways to support each other. Let’s be solution oriented and talk about how we can support the single mom, the student with disabilities, the child without access to technology through micro schooling, co-ops, and good old-fashioned neighborly love.

Because what good are schools without healthy, and living teachers? Let us not forget what we all thought back in March—teachers are magic. And we need them.