Opinion: A letter of encouragement, and some words of warning, to my fellow teachers

Nearly a month ago, I was asked to consider writing a letter of encouragement to teachers as they start another difficult school year. I did not procrastinate in drafting the letter, nor did I forget about the task. Quite the contrary — I’ve been thinking about what kind of encouragement I can give to fellow teachers amid a conquerable but artificially endless pandemic and the cliche attacks on public education with this year’s new McCarthyist scapegoat, the manufactured scare of critical race theory.

Suffice to say, I didn’t find a lot of encouraging things to write. 

A few weeks ago, I heard my friend Peter Mishler address a group of grades 8-12 English teachers at the end of a professional development day. His message came from one of the chapters of his book, “For All You Do.” I don’t say this as just his friend, but his book is a must-read for teachers in this era of education. It is not pedagogically instructive, nor is it a flavor-of-the-month endorsement of some educational fad or hashtag. It’s a jarring little book in that it asks teachers to do something that comes unnaturally to them: to take care of themselves. More specifically, to protect themselves. To think of themselves as people first, teachers second, and not a resource to be exploited, a la “human capital,” as school boards sometimes refer to us.

As we’ve learned throughout the pandemic, society struggles to function without teachers, but it also struggles to compensate them for their efforts. We hear no shortage of thanks and gratitude; we are even lauded as “heroes.” Yet when we dare to protect what is most precious to us — our lives, families, livelihood, careers, and content — we are either directly called or made to feel selfish.

This year, teachers, we are on our own. 

We will be thanked, but we will not be kept safe.

We will be called heroes, but we will not be advocated for.

We will educate students, but we will be scrutinized in cynical, political theater. 

And at 350 words, I still haven’t written an encouraging one. Let’s try.

Since we are on our own to protect ourselves and the integrity of our classrooms, let’s encourage one another to do the following:

  • To advocate clearly and directly for our own well-being. We are the source of our own energy and creativity, and that must be honored and protected. If others will not protect or honor us, it’s up to us to draw clear, non-negotiable boundaries around the parts of our lives that are most dear. Our time is our time. Our health is our health. This is not selfish; this is humane.
  • To teach the truth. The virus is a very real threat. Masks and vaccines work to combat this threat. This is scientific; this is true. Racism has been and continues to be an oppressive force in this country. It’s not a theory; it’s history. This is true. Let us teach the truth honestly and directly, ask questions of our students that make them reckon with ideas beyond themselves, and do so without fear of reprisal. This is the job. This has always been the job.
  • To find a concrete way to positively change education and channel our energy in that direction. We all know that we work tirelessly to help people within a system that can be imperfect and impersonal. Let us ask: Whom does the current system benefit? Who is left out? Who is directly harmed? By investing time in productive, critical dialogue, we can avoid feeling helpless in a system that resists empowering individuals to enact global change.

Let us take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others. Good luck this year.

This commentary by Aaron Schwartz is published through a Creative Commons license from The Missouri Independent.

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