I don’t have children. But I gather, from people who do, that dropping them off in a place where they’re safe and intellectually stimulated for hours at a stretch is pretty crucial to staying employed, fulfilled and relatively sane. If parents sometimes forget all the work that teachers, school administrators, daycare employees and the like put into a given day of wrangling semi-feral young humans, it’s because they have to focus on getting other stuff done for a while, otherwise it wouldn’t get done.
Which may explain why a ton of people — as schools nationwide close down to stem the tide of Covid-19 infection — are now in awe of the demands we make on educators.
If you cast your mind back to a time before this plague, and think about how the U.S. education system is typically discussed in periods of less glaringly obvious catastrophe, you’ll recall that while we talk a big game about how wonderful teachers are, we’re less inclined to give them the support they need.
It’s not just a matter of their individual salaries, either: In the first weeks of an exponential pandemic, we were sending kids to public schools that don’t have soap dispensers, let alone the soap to fill them. A staggering 75 percent of American school districts report student meal debt — the kind of figure that might give a moral society pause, but in ours gives rise to a genre of local news story that spotlights students as young as five years old for their heartrending efforts to pay classmates’ outstanding lunch tabs. Not even when teachers advocate for these basic necessities for their students are they taken all that seriously: The baseline conjecture in any such debate is that, if anything, they’re too well accommodated.
When it isn’t the goddamn Wall Street Journal pushing up their glasses and announcing that, well, technically, it’s a “myth” that teachers are underpaid, it’s the public and politicians reacting to pressure from the biggest unions by calling them entitled and “greedy.” This happens even when the labor organizers are pushing for smaller class sizes and additional support in the form of nurses, librarians and social workers — you know, the changes that would most benefit the kids. Somehow, these reasonable demands are made to sound like petty complaints from bigshots who spend their days loafing around a palatial staff lounge, getting high on the sodium fumes of cup noodles. Besides, don’t they take off the entire summer for vacation? And aren’t they falling short in reorganizing their curricula to raise scores on meaningless standardized tests?
One hopes these attitudes will be among those to shift in the midst of the coronavirus panic, along with the knee-jerk repudiation of universal health care, etc. Even the libertarian dweebs prone to the argument that their tax dollars shouldn’t pay for the collective development of other people’s offspring could now stand to think about the reality of entire generations attaining adulthood in a state of woeful ignorance. Maybe they’re fine with the Boomers dying today, but in another 20 years, they could be at risk from youths that put little stock in the nuances of germ theory or the effectiveness of vaccines. Yes, teachers are a gift to us all — childless or not — because they shape a future consciousness that will someday soon be tasked with handling unprecedented events like, oh, worldwide transmission of a potentially fatal new respiratory disease.
So yeah, as with almost everything else about the way we live, Covid-19 has exposed a systemic problem here: precarity of our educational infrastructure due to the habitual undervaluing of the people holding it together. It would be nice if it didn’t take the threat of apocalypse to show us what we’re doing wrong, but here we are. And the thing is, teachers are still making do, like the heroes they’ve always been. A month ago, it was buying the class pens and pencils with their own money, and today, it’s figuring out how the hell to adapt their lessons for a bunch of isolated kids on laptops. Again and again, they answer the call.
Let’s not forget that when we reach the other side of this.