I got an email from my school district yesterday marked -ACTION required- in the subject line. It was a survey for staff asking about our confidence and concerns about in-person, distance, or a hybrid of the two. We had been given a similar survey at the beginning of the summer, but now, as they finalize what the start of the school year will look like, they need our opinions again.
As I opened this survey, my husband who works from home pandemic or not, came out and sat in the living room with me. One of the short answer questions was taking me awhile to respond, so since he was just sitting there, I enlisted his help.
“What are some of my concerns or ideas with going back to school to teach in-person? I already wrote the comfort of wearing a mask all day.”
“Yeah definitely wearing a mask for 7 hours, and the ability to teach well while wearing one.”
I typed that out and paused. There was something else really gnawing at me. Something else about going back to school to teach in-person with so many new safety protocols in place that was bothering me even more, but I just couldn’t put it into words.
“I think I am more worried about the mental health or emotional toll if I have to constantly remind students to stay away from one another or not touch something until I wipe it down.”
My husband countered with, “I don’t think that’s about mental health, that would be more of students tuning you out after hearing your reminders one too many times. Most students will probably come to school having better health and safety awareness. Plus, it’s less about wiping everything down and more about making sure they know not to touch their face, so hand sanitizer is more important.” He then went on a tangent about how our use of too much sanitizer could also be making things worse/this virus stronger, something I have considered too, but we’ll save that conversation for another time.
I agreed with his perspective, but that wasn’t quite what I meant.
Then I remembered yet another Facebook post I saw (I really need to start limiting my screen time). Here it is:
I described the photo to my husband still needing some help putting my concerns into the right words, “I don’t want to teach behind plexiglass.”
My husband, ever the pragmatist argued, “But that’s how everything is now. Look at all of the stores. That’s just how it is.” While I sat there trying to digest this notion, he then lightened my mood by recalling a memory of a buffet restaurant his dad loved going to when he was younger. He described how this restaurant had a single person standing cubicle area that you would stand in and the food would come by on a conveyor belt instead of people walking around to get their food. “Maybe teaching can be like that now.” He was trying to be funny, but I found it a bit horrifying.
I had a very emotional reaction when I saw this photo for the first time. Nope, this is not what a classroom should look like.
I am unsure as to why exactly it breaks my heart to think of our classrooms turning into desk cubicles or tables separated by plexiglass. If this is the new teaching normal, I don’t want any part of it. That is my gut feeling.
That is my huge concern if returning to school in-person. Just thinking about all of this while writing this post is making me heartbroken. I don’t want my own children to grow up learning behind plexiglass. I don’t want to get to know my students behind plexiglass. The idea of having to teach this way didn’t seem to bother my husband at all, so why I am I having such a strong reaction to plexiglass if it seems to be our new normal?
I settled on writing something like ‘unsure of how new safety protocols will affect learning and relationships’ on my survey, and before I began to overthink it, hit submit.
But of course I did begin to overthink and question why I had such a strong, negative reaction when I saw that photo. Why can’t I accept having plexiglass barriers in the classroom as the new norm? Why does it bother me so intensely?
Because teaching is so much more than just putting information into the brains of young people. It is about relationships, and I am really struggling with how to build trust with all of these recommended safety precautions. I am afraid that there will be so much stress and fear and caution that there will be a guard up causing those relationships to not be as strong as they could be.
I see that photo and I have a difficult time seeing past it, envisioning a plexiglass classroom environment where there are no more high fives, or side hugs, or kneeling beside a student, or even sitting next to a student. Our proactive circles will need to be measured out with each student sitting at least 3 feet apart, and a student embracing you in a hug because they are having a really difficult day may become a thing of the past.
These moments may seem insignificant to outsiders. These safety measures may not seem that big of a deal to those who haven’t spent years in a classroom, and so what if these little moments are no longer?
But to this teacher, and probably to many, these are the moments. Important moments. Relationship building moments. These little moments make our profession special and worthwhile and are the crux of creating a true learning environment.
I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what the right thing to do is, but everything in me screams that it shouldn’t be a classroom full of plexiglass.