Member Voices: I’m a teacher. Why am I considered expendable?

By Justine Galbraith

In the timeless movie “Almost Famous,” main character William Miller loses his temper. “Who am I to you?” he shouts. “WHO AM I TO YOU?”

Jill Galbraith

He is yelling at a groupie – er, Band-Aid – with whom he had just spent the night, who was now tossing him her laundry on his way out the door. William cannot believe that someone to whom he was so central just a few hours before is now treating him like the help.

Every time I see parents insisting on in-seat learning at school board meetings or politicians demanding that we “open” schools with no regard for the lives of the educators, this film quote comes to mind.

I am a teacher. Who am I to you?

Am I central to what you need for your children? Essential to the functioning of society? Or dismissible? Or worse, disposable?

Schools have picked up the balls dropped by other institutions of our society for years. Hungry? School will feed you. No mental health coverage? School counselors are there. Parents’ workday longer than school hours? Latchkey is available before and after school. Gun violence creeping into our most sacred spaces? Active shooter training is given to teachers.

Schools have long been tasked with problems that are not in our power to solve (and then criticized if we’re not keeping our test scores in line with those of other countries). For the past year, we have been charged with propping up society during a pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clearer than ever that schools are essential – not just for learning, but for the actual functioning of communities.

Parents – let’s be honest, mothers – have had to leave their jobs because their children were too young to be unsupervised during virtual school. School is childcare.

Parents, politicians, mental health professionals and many others have lamented the effects of isolation on students. Similarly, there is concern that educators — mandatory reporters — cannot spot the warning signs of child abuse if they don’t physically see their students. School is mental health, and all too often, physical safety.

Many have worried about food insecure families whose children get breakfast and lunch at school at low or no cost. Are those kids eating? School means food.

Parents insisting on in-seat learning and sports cite the need for socialization for kids. Schools are social hubs around which communities revolve.

What about exercise? Are kids moving enough? Getting outside enough? Gym class just isn’t the same in a student’s bedroom; there’s no one at home to have recess with. School is exercise and time outdoors.

In summary, school provides food, safety, childcare, mental health, social life, exercise and community. Oh, and learning.

In the past year, we have seen that society begins to crumble without schools. Parents cannot work without the child supervision it provides. Social life ceases, young friendships are strained, social workers, teachers and counselors cannot emotionally support students the way they do every day in person, despite valiant efforts to connect online. Hunger becomes a problem for many. And of course, learning stalls and achievement gaps grow.

So again I ask: Politicians, parents, community members: Who am I to you?

I am a teacher. I, and millions like me, prop up the system that makes American life work. We’re working harder than we ever have, converting units and lessons so they’re accessible digitally, figuring out how to rig our often-inadequate technology, attempting to manage a population in front of us and another one online, simultaneously.

But our hard work isn’t enough, as it turns out. Around the country, districts are reopening buildings while the pandemic rages on, ignoring the pleas of educators that we be given time to be vaccinated first. It turns out that teachers, despite our hard work, must also be willing to sacrifice our health, our lives and those of our families for your children.

The data tells us that adults are at higher risk of COVID-19; the older, the higher at risk. Children are at risk, of course, and we teachers are concerned about them. In most districts, however, parents can elect to keep their children home. Most teachers do not have this choice. When we are ordered back into buildings, in most cases, we must go, or quit.

“If school opens and teachers don’t want to return. They should be fired. [sic] You signed up for this,” posted one parent on Facebook as my district communicated plans to return to a hybrid model. “Thank you for not waiting for the vaccine!” said another.

For whatever reason that is particular to their families, these parents need in-seat school. And apparently, this need leaves no room for concern that their children’s teachers, like 500,000 other Americans, could die.

All over Michigan, school boards have ignored the pleas of teachers that we not return to in-seat learning until we can be vaccinated. Elected officials demand that schools be “opened” (a vexingly inaccurate phrase – learning has never been shut down) and give deadlines for doing so with no plan to ensure that those implementing the return to buildings are safe.

Society, who are we educators to you? We are essential, no? Our communities stop functioning when we aren’t there to provide childcare, food, mental health support and socialization. Yet as important as we apparently are, we are not important enough to protect. If we die, I guess there’s faith that there are enough replacement cogs waiting to be plugged into the system.

Propping up society during a pandemic has never been within schools’ ability to do. Still, we have tried really hard. We’re working more than we ever have, creating digital versions of lessons only to have them doomed by technology failures. Many of us are in mental health crises of our own. In return, could those who make it all work perhaps get vaccinated before we’re exposed to children from dozens of households in outdated, poorly ventilated buildings? No? Cool.

Sadly, we’re used to this. Various forces in Michigan have long informed us of our value: low salaries, diminishing health benefits, continual attacks on our ability to organize, excessive red tape as we choose among retirement options and politicians who cut funding or withhold school funding as they play political games (ahem, Michigan GOP). We’re even expected to shield your children when hails of bullets rain down, as they inevitably will again once schools are fully physically opened.

We have a teacher shortage in Michigan for all these reasons, and it’s growing. Ask an educator if they would want their children to follow our footsteps into our field. Precious few of us do.

Now, educators have asked for a few more weeks of safety at home so that we can be vaccinated, and we apparently aren’t worth that. “Vaccination will take too long,” we’re told. A few months of hybrid school (the worst of both worlds, I might add) are worth more than our health, we hear. “Kids need to be in school,” they say. Teachers don’t matter. Because it’s not a concern if we die; someone will replace us. Parents just need to get back to work.

So again, who are we to you? If we’re indeed essential, tasked with propping up our entire society: Pay us. Care about our health. Value our LIVES over a few months of your kid’s education.

If we’re what we suspect – expendable, disposable – be ready for more of us to walk out the door. Many of us already have one foot out.

Justine Galbraith is a middle school teacher and MEA member in Troy. She has been teaching for 16 years.

Editor’s Note: MEA is committed to helping members raise their voices for safety in returning to school. This piece is one of several written by MEA members sharing their thoughts and concerns, as published in Michigan Advance. Stay tuned to MEA.org and local media outlets for more, or read past pieces on Member Voices for Safety.

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