The Perils Confronting Classroom Teachers

            My first teaching position was in a preschool organized by the local recreation department. Students ranged in age from two to almost five. They had to be potty-trained, but they still peed on chairs, floors, carpet and outdoor equipment. They weren’t supposed to arrive sick, but they did. They wiped snot on everything in the room, from puzzles to paint brushes. They coughed on everyone and sneezed without thoughts of the safety of others.

            It wasn’t any better when I taught Kindergarten and Third grade. The older students still had accidents when urine pooled under their desks. One boy opened his desk and vomited inside where textbooks and materials were kept. Another threw up on my desk, covering attendance records, my grade book and lesson plans.

            My next full time position was as a Special Day Class teacher for fourth and five grade students. No longer did I have to deal with urine, but these kids, like the younger ones, loved to hold my hand. Considering where those hands had been, like digging deep inside nostrils, and taking care of bathroom needs, all most likely without using even a tiny bit of soap. It was no wonder that disease spread rapidly and constantly.

            Even when I moved to the high school I was not spared the contamination students brought into the room. They coughed and sneezed without protection. They came with pink eye and the flu. They distributed bronchitis and pneumonia germs with equanimity.

            Throughout all these years and changing circumstances, there was one constant: I fell ill. If I was lucky it was just a slight cold. If not, it was pneumonia. As an asthmatic, both were dangerous.

            Advance into the present. Parents want their kids in school and teachers love sharing the classroom with students, not teaching over the Internet. However, what has changed over the past thirty-plus years since I first took over a classroom? Nothing.

            Parents will still send sick kids to school. Kids will still wipe noses and cough all over everyone. Kids will pee and poop and vomit. Kids will want to sit on the teacher’s lap and hold the teacher’s hand. Kids will contaminate materials despite limited sanitation unless done by the teacher, who is then touching possibly contaminated objects.

            Imagine yourself in that classroom with little or no protection. Most classrooms lack AC and those that do have no windows to open to provide some circulation of air. Most classrooms have windows on one side of the room and only one door, on the same side. Some teachers installed ceiling fans in their rooms, at their own expense, but those fans do not provide sufficient circulation to keep people safe.

            Elementary classrooms generally have a sink, but not all do. Those with sinks often have empty soap dispensers. Unless the district provides sufficient sanitizer, the teacher has to buy it. There is limited cleaning done as maintenance are on a tight schedule.

            At my last position, the room was allotted three minutes of cleaning time. That meant a quick sweep of the floor and empting trash cans. Desks were cleaned by me or not at all. I only had time to clean them once or twice a week, at most. Think about the germs that developed in between?

            My students shared textbooks, crayons, markers, rulers and other materials. They were never cleaned. We had one set of dictionaries that were shared by two teachers. They were never cleaned. I shared an overhead projector with two other teachers. It was never cleaned.

            The entire time I taught, over a span of thirty-three years, we never had a pandemic such as the one the world faces today. The flu, yes. Pink eye, yes. But COVID-19? No.

            Considering that districts pack thirty-four students in most classrooms, squeezed together in poorly ventilated rooms, in-person teaching is a disaster peeking around the corner. With little kids the desks can be further apart, but not six feet. High school students have much bigger bodies and so desks are often inches apart.

            Elementary teachers are figuring out ways to use corrals to keep students’ emissions behind Plexiglas or cardboard. If it’s cardboard, how does the teacher make eye contact when the students’ eyes are hidden? You can’t put cardboard corrals around high school desks. Perhaps Plexiglas would work.

            Who’s paying for these dividers? Cash-strapped districts or the teacher? Are teachers expected to supply these devices just as they buy tissue, crayons and paper?

            While I am glad to be retired so that I am not worried about the germs floating around my classroom, I sympathize with teachers who do. If I was still working, I’d have to quit rather than risk my health.

            Parents want their kids in school. So do teachers. In order to make it work, responsibility has to be shared. Parents don’t send sick kids to school or kids who’ve been exposed to the virus. Teachers try to keep the classroom as safe as they can with the support of the district. Districts provide the PPE necessary to make the environment as safe as possible, even if it means buying industrial-size fans for every classroom.

            This is a huge dilemma for which there is no tidy answer. The virus is predicted to be with us for a while. What are the stakeholders doing to prepare?

            That’s the most important question to the most serious threat to public health that we’ve seen in modern history.

The Teacher’s Report

Mrs. Adams gripped a math test, correcting mistake after mistake.  Her oversized glasses slipped down her nose making it difficult for her to see the backwards numbers. Even after pushing them back into place, the child’s writing didn’t become any clearer.

She picked up another paper, placed marks here and there, sighing as she worked. The next paper, that of Shelly Winters, was one hundred percent correct. Mrs. Adams wrote a giant Excellent at the top in purple ink.

A smile crossed her face until she saw the next paper in the pile: Billy Chalmers. Something about that boy made her curly gray hair stand on end. She tried to like him, but it was difficult.

With furrowed brow she found Billy slumped in his desk chair. She sighed, knowing that his paper would be riddled with errors. She hated using all that red ink. No matter how many corrections she made, Billy made no improvement.

Mrs. Adams was not known to be kind. Her reputation was one of distributing cruel remarks and harsh with punishment toward those who offended her sensibilities. This was not a good quality in a second grade teacher. In fact, her personality worked in reverse: her students did not prosper and none of them developed a love of learning while in her classroom.

Students learned because they were terrified of the scathing words that signified Mrs. Adams’ displeasure.  She never smiled, never offered praise or compliments on work well done.  There was never any laughter in her classroom: students were to be seated quietly, at all times.

The only student who seemed to escape criticism was little Shelly. She was a bright, pleasant child, always clean and neatly dressed. Her mother was also the School Board President which was probably why Mrs. Adams never directed her wrath at the child.

Billy was not so lucky. His nose poured no matter the season. His clothes were torn and faded, his shoes had holes in the soles. His hair was greasy tangles that fell below his ears. Breath? Repulsive. There was nothing about Billy that motivated her to want to teach him. In fact, he repelled and disgusted her.

So when Mrs. Adams looked about the classroom and finding the student she sought, she commanded, “William Chalmers, come here immediately!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy said as he shuffled to the front of the room.  As he stood next to his teacher’s desk, his downcast eyes begged for kindness..

“The answer to question number three is incorrect.  Go back and fix it,” Mrs. Adams rumbled.  She thrust Billy’s paper into his face, then without a word of encouragement waved him off and then returned to correcting the remaining tests.

Billy did not leave the side of her desk.  Despite his fear of angering her, Billy mumbled, “But I don’t know the answer.”

“What did you say, young man?”

“I don’t know the answer, Mrs. Adams.”

She stared at Billy as she put down the pile of tests and picked up her spanking ruler in one svelte move. His eyes widened as the ruler rose far over his head, then came down with lightning speed on his left shoulder, striking with so much force that Billy fell to the floor.

“Get up off that floor, Mr. Chalmers, and quit sniveling.” She watched as a tearful Billy pushed himself into a standing position, picked up his now wrinkled paper, and turned toward his desk.  “Do not approach this desk until you have completed the assignment.”

She did not see the tears coursing down his face, or the embarrassed flush to his cheeks.  Her focus had returned to the remaining tests, resuming her glower as she scanned each one.

By the time Billy was seated his tears of pain had turned to tears of anger. “I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams.  I hate Mrs. Adams,” Billy mumbled over and over.  He could barely see the numbers on the paper through his tears, but he picked up his pencil and erased his previous calculations.  He reworked the problems, getting the same wrong answers.  So he did them again, and again, and again, checking the clock now and then hoping that the time to go home would soon arrive.

After the fifth attempt Billy was pretty sure he had the right answer, so he sheepishly walked to his teacher’s desk and handed her the paper.  She said not a word as she took the paper from his outstretched hand. Not expecting anything other than an insult, he simply returned to his desk and sat silently, like all his classmates.

“Students,” Mrs. Adams screeched, interrupting the strained silence.  “Please put away your pencils and books.”  In unison all desktops opened, materials were put away, and tops were gently closed.  “Stand.”  Mrs. Adams pushed her bulky body out of her chair, stood, and walked slowly down Billy’s row until she stood next to his desk.  “Give this note to your parents when you get home,” she barked as she handed Billy an envelope.

“Yes, Mrs. Adams,” Billy sniveled.

“Class dismissed.”

Billy streamed out of the room as his classmates joined the throngs pouring into the hall, and out the front door.  He walked the blocks home behind a couple of boys who lived on the same block.

When he got to his house, without saying goodbye, Billy walked in the door.  His dad was in the kitchen, cutting celery into tiny pieces.  He smiled when he saw his son.

“Hi, Billy.  Did you have a good day today?”

“No. Mrs. Adams doesn’t like me.”

“I’m sure Mrs. Adams likes all her students,” he said as he scraped the pieces into a bowl.

“Then why was I the only one she yelled at?”

As he added in cream of celery soup, his dad said, “Maybe she’s trying to help you learn.”

“If she wanted me to learn, she’d be nicer,” Billy said, brightening for the first time that day. “I liked First grade a lot.  I did real well because my teacher made things fun.”

“School isn’t supposed to be fun.”

“But if Mrs. Adams smiled it would be better.”

“That’s the way it is, Billy.  You don’t always get nice teachers.  Mrs. Adams is a good teacher.  Her students always get the best awards.”

“Oh,” Billy said as he handed his dad the envelope. “She sent this note home.  I think she wants you to call.” Billy stood nervously rubbing his left shoe on top of his right one while his dad opened the envelope.

Mr. Chalmers pulled out a folded piece of binder paper.  He looked it over carefully.  A huge smile lit his eyes as he said, “Congratulations!  You got an A+ on this Math test! You should hang this on the refrigerator for your mom to see when she gets home.”

Disbelievingly, Billy took the paper from his dad.  Written in purple ink at the top of the page was not only the grade, but also a huge happy face.  Billy held his paper as if it were made of fine china, pulled a magnet from off the refrigerator door, and pinned his paper in place.

He skipped outside to the back yard where he ran in circles screaming, “Yes!” as he pumped his fists into the air.