Teachers don’t have a choice in this mess. Let’s act like they matter.
Stephanie Hayes | The classroom is a calling, and it's tougher than anyone knows.
Krista Schilling, center, an art teacher at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, joins a protest at the Pinellas County School District headquarters on Tuesday.
Krista Schilling, center, an art teacher at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, joins a protest at the Pinellas County School District headquarters on Tuesday. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Jul. 16, 2020
Updated Jul. 16, 2020

Each year, there is the “Great American Teach-In.” Perhaps you are familiar with this event. People from various careers come to classrooms to talk about their jobs. It is always perilous to follow, like, a helicopter pilot with drug-sniffing dogs when your best trick is, “Here is a cool reporter’s notebook and a fun-size Hershey’s.”

In any event, speaking to students for even an hour feels like being beaten with a lacrosse stick. Why? Because teaching is very hard, and those of us who don’t work in schools have no earthly idea.

Do you have kids? Cool. Now imagine 30 at once. Make sure to keep them quiet but engaged. Teach them to reduce fractions but watch out for behavioral problems. Be someone they can joke with, but someone they respect. Know what to do when they have a bathroom accident, when they fight, when they smell funny, when they destroy a book, when they can’t or won’t learn.

As Florida’s leadership rushes to reopen schools five days a week with COVID-19 cases and deaths higher than ever, some parents have a choice. If we are privileged enough to stay home with kids, we can keep them out of the building for now.

You know who doesn’t have a choice? Teachers.

We already ask them to buy their own supplies. We ask them to stand between our children and bullets. Now we are asking them to contend with a lethal virus.

My mom is a lifelong educator in Ohio and Florida, now retired. She still does online tutoring. Virtual teachers have a whole different skill set, she said. How can teachers be expected to do both? And disinfect things? And watch out for their own safety? And attend to the emotional needs of their students?

I grew up in the back of her high school classrooms, watching her grade papers. I heard sweet, funny stories. There was the kid who stopped by on the way to a job interview with a chain running from his nose to his ear (hey, it was the ’80s).

Then, there was the student who threw a desk across the room multiple times. The three different girls in one year who reported sexual abuse. The boy who asked her to help him get into drug rehab.

She’s watched heartbroken as teachers adjust to even darker routines, holding active shooter drills as one school after the next falls victim to gun violence. And now this.

“What those teachers have to do now, between the usual drama that the kids bring in and the fact that we are in danger… honestly, I gave up on how they treated teachers after Sandy Hook,” she said. “It’s all part of the same game. It’s just a different death sentence.”

In a normal year, teachers might be happy with Kleenex, a Pepperidge Farm gift basket or one of those purses with a plastic bladder that holds an entire bottle of wine. But we have to do better.

Gov. Ron DeSantis recently signed a base pay increase for teachers, a move that’s not without criticism because of who it excludes. It still represents a bridge to greater respect. Now, state leaders should send a message that it is not acceptable for educators, administrators and school employees to get sick or die as a result of doing their jobs.

Teachers will keep on being teachers, though. Not because of the money or perks (ha). Because it’s a calling. Because they care about our children. And because for many kids, school is the only safe place in their lives.

“They’re still going to give that kid a hug if they have to,” my mom said. “Because that’s what they have to do.”

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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