Do you remember when teachers were heroes? It was a pretty great week. I got a couple of Amazon gift cards from my students and a really nice email from a parent about how committed I was to making my remote learning videos engaging. On social media, celebrities and national leaders were sharing their appreciation for educators and the difficult work they do. But that was during the early days of the pandemic … when we all showed a little more grace.
Since then, the public discourse on education has become increasingly toxic, nasty, and divided along ideological lines, making it a rough time for teachers. Between burnout, blame, and political hostility, some are asking how much more they can take. It’s true that the pandemic is putting us all on edge, but it sometimes feels like society may be losing sight of teachers’ humanity altogether.
It’s time we find it and recenter the conversation.
Depending on which side of Twitter you’re on, you may have seen this for yourself. On one hand, you have those who now feel that America’s educators are actually villains, not heroes, and our hawkishness on COVID is to blame for prolonged school closures and remote learning frustrations. As the argument goes, these failures—coupled with the threat of critical race theory (CRT) in our classrooms—are responsible for widespread, unnecessary harm to the wellbeing of our children, and it didn’t have to be this way.
In the other corner, there are plenty of folks who would have you think that teachers are blameless and that schools and districts are undeserving of any criticism thrown their way from the public. In their view, the intense, ever-changing dynamics of this moment don’t just make teachers heroes; they make us victims, too.
But the underlying problem with this schism unfolding before our eyes is one that’s all too common among education debates, and particularly those played out on social media: When competing extreme viewpoints prevail, the humanizing middle ground gets lost in the shuffle.
When schools closed for in-person learning in March 2020, they did so alongside thousands of restaurants, theaters, and mom-and-pop stores where people had become accustomed to gathering—something we no longer knew how to do safely as the threat of a mysterious, novel coronavirus emerged. Whether and how schools could have reopened safely as the “novelty” slipped away has rightfully become a point of contention, but one over which teachers have held little real control.
Furthermore, as for critical race theory, nearly all teachers say that their schools are not requiring or pushing them to promote CRT in their classrooms—and a majority would even be opposed to such requirements. Nevertheless, ten states look poised to proceed this year with educational “gag orders” that could limit discussions on race and gender in U.S. history.
These controversies carry emotional weight for everyone involved, making them perfect targets for politicians looking to translate constituent passion into easy votes and cheap political points. But somewhere in between, the humanity of those working to make schools work is coming under fire. You don’t have to look hard to see they’re hurting now, too.
For me, they’re the teachers who lost homes, automobiles, and loved ones in the recent tornados across Western Kentucky. They’re the educators who show up every day feeling miserable from the effects of “long COVID” but never think twice about phoning it in. They’re the third-year teachers who can barely remember what teaching was like before the pandemic, wondering if it will ever get any better. And it will. But some things are going to have to change first, and it begins with this narrative.
Let’s start by admitting that America’s schools are far from perfect. Student achievement has been stagnant for years, and gaps between student groups are significant. And let’s also recognize that because teacher quality has long been cited as the most important in-school factor behind student performance, sitting idly by and blaming poverty or culture or a lack of “personal responsibility” for our failure to bring about educational justice is irresponsible. But let’s also acknowledge that placing these complex problems squarely on the backs of teachers—human beings who cannot teach students well when they themselves are sick, burnt out, broken, or demoralized—is also misguided.
Nearly two years into this pandemic, our golden opportunity to “reimagine education” and come out of this crisis with something better for our children has yet to bear the fruit so many had hoped for. By failing to recognize the humanity of those who make the work possible, it never will.