Walsh’s Wonderings: What not to say

This might be the first time in decades we haven’t been drowning in Back to School sale ads by early July. There’s no doubt this will be a school year unlike any other, so perhaps it’s time to chat about what not to say to teachers as they head back to school this year.

For instance, “Guess you teachers will have to get used to working again now.”

Actually, we never stopped. Without warning, teachers were forced to craft, pilot, and deliver a remote curriculum within days of the governor’s decision to close the schools in March. We then had to work harder than ever to keep our students invested and looked after. We weren’t just working harder, either; I averaged 14-hour days over the spring semester troubleshooting and adapting my curriculum. (And I don’t even have children of my own to worry about.) The extended screen time permanently damaged my eyes, necessitating a new eyeglass prescription. My back and neck still haven’t recovered from sitting in front of a computer for so many hours. Even before the pandemic hit, most teachers I know are in their classrooms well before their non-teaching friends and family ever hear their morning alarm clock; if anything, we welcome the hard work ahead.

“Must be nice not to have to work over the summer.”

It must be! Most teachers wouldn’t know, of course. Especially this summer. In the event we get shut down again, most of us have been tasked with writing a second curriculum so we don’t lose momentum. Many of us have had our teaching assignments changed as a result of building changes, necessitating the mastery of a whole new curriculum weeks before delivery. We’ve also had to do research on how to deliver curriculum using different technology due to district decisions and the expiration of free access to many online services provided last spring. Many of us have served on reopening committees and joined hastily created book clubs to crowdsource new solutions in this unprecedented period in our history. This has been the most stressful summer of my career.

“Must be nice to get paid to do nothing over the summer.”

Wow, wouldn’t it? Again, teachers wouldn’t know. Most of us get paid for 10 months, not 12, so we’re spending our summer doing all that work I listed above for free. Must be nice to get all this extra work for nothing, huh?

“Guess you’ll have to get dressed for work again.”

OK, point taken. I did enjoy being able to wear a shirt, tie, and Hawaiian shorts on Zoom. That will be missed. Moving on.

Some of you might want to offer comfort as teachers go back to buildings without a proven plan to ensure the safety of students and staff. For example, an empathetic nurse might say, “We nurses were scared, too, but we got through it and so will you.” First, thank you for your service! We’re eternally grateful you chose such a noble profession, especially when that means literally putting your life on the line while working with COVID-19 patients. However, you chose to go into the health field to address these health risks; you were specifically trained and allowed time to practice to prepare for them. Teachers were not. We’re entering a literal petri dish of adolescents who are too young to exhibit the kind of self-control and sound choices necessary to limit a contagion with hundreds of people under one roof. (Anyone who thinks teachers will be able to adequately ensure either has never taught in a classroom.) As such, this well-meaning comment does not come off as helpful as much as condescending.

“You must dread going back to school.”

I can speak for almost every teacher I know when I say nothing could be further from the truth. Distance learning was challenging in so many ways, but none more so than in how it robbed us of our personal contact with our students. I love my job and want to go back so much it makes my keyboard hurt. I don’t dread going back to school. I dread my students or colleagues getting sick. I dread the idea of shepherding a student through the grieving process if they lose a friend or family member.

We’re in the midst of a generation-defining global pandemic; I don’t know the “right” thing to say. I only know to be as understanding as possible during a period when so many of us are struggling. If I had to pin it down, I guess I just want someone to tell me I can still wear my Hawaiian shorts to class.

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.com, contact him at RobertFWalshMail@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.