There is no denying that making the choice to become a teacher is making the choice to become a part of an incredibly demanding field. In fact, as I sit here and write this, I am looking at a copy of my job description as a high school teacher. In this job description there are twenty-one “performance responsibilities” listed, including items such as:
• Foster students’ achievement gains from baseline assessment levels to be evident in pre/post tests comparison results, standardized test scores, and portfolios
• Pursue further education and supplemental credentials
• Assess students’ development (psychological and academic) through clearly defined rubrics
• Promote and enforce Code of Conduct
• Identify those students who exhibit exceptional thinking styles and behaviors and implement and/or accommodate those exceptional needs
• Attend parent/teacher meetings and conferences
• Initiate and present innovative ideas for special projects, school functions, field trips, extracurricular activities, and clubs
• (My personal favorite) Perform other duties as assigned
This last point I mentioned above causes some conflicting feelings for me. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect to see “teacher will maintain a healthy work/life balance, ensuring that both physical and mental health are well taken care of”— no matter how nice that would be. But perhaps this is why we are seeing teachers exit the field in unprecedented numbers–the lack of understanding from administrators, parents, and legislators that teachers are people too. Yes, we signed up for this job. Yes, we spent years in higher education programs, putting ourselves in substantial amounts of debt to accept jobs that pay far below what should be accepted based on schooling, hours, and demand of the job (a fact that I am happy to see becoming a mainstream belief). And most importantly, yes, we chose to do this because of our love for the cultivation of the minds of young people, the excitement of the “ah-ha” moment in the classroom, and the understanding that we have the ability to truly impact the lives of our students–we did not choose this for the paycheck, nor “summers off” (which truly does not exist anymore between working summer school, only being paid for 10 months of work, having to accept second–or third–jobs to make ends meet, etc.).
While I could sit here and write pages upon pages about the importance of protecting the mental health of teachers, something that is disturbingly unaddressed in today’s society, I will save that for another day.
What I want to do is return back to that one particular “performance responsibility”: Perform other duties as assigned.
At the end of May every year, my students take a huge, state-mandated standardized test. This test, in reality, is used as much as an assessment of my performance as a teacher as it ever is used as an assessment of student performance. The results are featured in school report cards that are public, focused on by administrators and district and state education leaders. And before I go any further on a tangent about the issues with this practice in and of itself, I want to tell you about my experience this particular May.
My classroom is designed with one door that leads to the hallway, and on the opposite side, an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. My students and myself have learned to love the benefit of the natural light in the classroom. I was tasked with proctoring this particular test, meaning that while the students are taking the test, I am not to use my own computer, read a book, grade papers, etc. but instead, I am to walk around and ensure that students are progressing, staying awake, and following all proper procedures for the test. As I was walking around, I stopped by the windows and leaned my back against one of the panels, enjoying the heated surface from the beautiful day outside. I was observing the students when I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I immediately spun around and looked out the windows…just to find everything exactly as I expected, nothing out of the ordinary, and nothing that could be deemed threatening.
You see, one of the “other duties” that aren’t specified but are included in that final point above, could simply read, “protect the lives of your students in the case of an active shooter in or around the building.” This was what had fueled my panic as I stood with my back against the window that day in May. May 25th. The day after the horrendous tragedy at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
As teachers, our lives revolve around the academic cultivation of the minds of our students. But what some don’t realize is that, in addition, our lives revolve around the psychological and physical well being of our students as well. We would not be effective educators if we walked into our classrooms each day, delivered our lesson, and walked out. Instead, each day we internally take note of which students seem to be struggling, who seems to be off that day. We learn about our students' backgrounds, the families they come from, the traumas they have endured. We open our ears and become a sounding board for their family struggles, challenges with friends, and the overwhelming struggle of growing up and attempting to find themselves. All of these become common practice on a daily basis. While the lessons I come up with each day are supposed to check the boxes of engaging, informative, and rigorous, there is always the unspoken box that says “and do this while making sure your students are safe and protected.”
As a teacher, we fill countless roles and we wear many different hats. However, not once while completing my graduate studies, did I take a course on “how to protect the lives of your students in the event of an active shooter.” I did not take a class on hyper-vigilance of students, parents, or community members that could potentially enter the building one day with a goal of destruction. I did not take a class that taught me the best methods for stacking furniture in front of my classroom door to ensure that even if someone was able to open the door, they would not be able to fully enter. I did not take a class about what classroom objects to hand my students that would inflict the most damage on a potential school shooter in the event that they gained access to the classroom. I did not take a class on how to seek out the best locations in every classroom, lunch room, or bathroom to ensure that my students could go undetected from a potential active shooter. And I did not take a class on how to have a discussion with a classroom full of teenagers about the devastation, destruction, and heartache that follows yet another school shooting.
But here we are. Four years into my teaching career, and I, as well as every other teacher in the country have had to master each of the aforementioned skills. We have all learned to pull into the parking lot in the morning and scan quickly in case there is a vehicle that is unfamiliar. We have learned to be exceptionally cautious, and outright weary, towards any visitor in or approaching the school. We have learned how to be hyper-vigilant regarding commentary, drawings, pieces of writing, and social media posts of our students in hopes of being able to seek something out before something goes wrong.
A few days after news broke of the tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, a student came up to me uncomfortable at the “appearance” of a visitor in the school. If you know anything about teenagers, you know they typically do not mince their words. This particular student said, “I don’t like the way that guy looks. He looks like he could shoot up this school.” Again, how do teachers learn to develop the skill set necessary for the aftermath and fear left in the wake of these events?
I cannot begin to imagine the heartbreak, trauma, and life altering challenges that are faced by the teachers and students in Uvalde, Texas and all other schools and districts that have been impacted by shootings in schools. The mental health of the entire nation truly takes a nose-dive in the wake of these events.
When teachers sign their contracts at the start of each new school year, and take note of the “perform other duties as assigned,” it is now common knowledge what is included under this umbrella. Teachers are struggling right now. We struggle when we hear of these tragedies and then show up to school the next day and stand in front of the innocent faces of the students under our protection. We struggle when we walk into a classroom and instinctively take note of the exits, windows, and best “hiding” spots.
We struggle with an exceptionally debilitating level of guilt when thoughts cross our mind such as “I signed up to teach, not to be placed on the frontlines of flying bullets.” But daily, we get up, get dressed, and walk into our buildings prepared to do just that if ever the situation were to arise. My heart goes out to every teacher in this country that struggles with this particular “hat” we are wearing. It breaks when I think of the fear that can catch each teacher off guard at the sight of an unfamiliar face or the involuntary flinch at an unfamiliar sound. I feel the anxiety and stress on the shoulders of each teacher that comes with having to step into the shoes of a counselor to facilitate these devastating conversations following yet another school shooting. And I feel the pain of each teacher as we read and hear of these events and have the thought that it easily could have been us.
As a teacher, and in the world that we are currently living in, I turn to WhiteFlag. There are many days when shouldering all of this can become too much. There are days in which my fears and anxieties over the what-ifs become debilitating. WhiteFlag gives me my outlet. My ability to relieve my mind and know that someone is there to listen. Without hesitation, I turn to WhiteFlag and know that no matter what fear, stress, burden, or guilt is overwhelming me in that moment, I am NOT alone.
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