Risking Teachers' Lives

I am a very introspective person, an INFJ to be specific, and as such, I am capable of spending hours a day in quiet deliberations. Writing helps me distill those reflections down to something that is well thought out, encouraging, and hopefully, wise.

I do not claim to be a fountain of wisdom. As a matter of fact, if you looked at the earlier decades of my life, you would probably find that I acted wisely about as often as a stopped clock displays the correct time.

Despite the years characterized by foolishness, something remarkable has transpired in recent years. After trying to do things in all the wrong ways, I have discovered pearls of wisdom which had been hiding in plain sight.
The training in wisdom begins early. If you had kept recordings of your parents from when you were a child, you would hear an endless stream of things like:

Don’t touch that stove. You’re going to burn yourself.
Don’t run with those scissors. Do you want to cut yourself?
If you don’t turn off the video games and study, you are going to fail Algebra and have to retake it in summer school.
If you don’t brush your teeth, you’ll get cavities. Do you really like having the dentist drill holes in your mouth?
Having survived childhood, we move into our teens and explore new ways to act foolishly. This cycle of foolishness and awakening keeps repeating, and all along we have, hopefully, reflected on our choices and gained wisdom.

Having lived now for 60 years, I see things much more clearly than ever before. Some of the things I see more plainly are unsettling, and even disturbing.

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Faith in the Pandemic

In less than 2 weeks, I will walk back into my school building with other teachers for the first time since early March. That, of course, is subject to change because plans are apt to be revised when your school is near the epicenter of a COVID-19 hotspot.

Recently, a teacher from another part of the state asked me how firm our local districts’ plans were. I responded that most local districts’ plans were detailed and firm, but the plans were built on a foundation of Jell-O. Any little wind of change could completely upset plans that took countless hours to formulate.

It is a given that these plans will not please everyone and a recent informal poll of a teachers’ group I lead indicated that 80% of teachers were suffering “a considerable amount of anxiety” over the prospects of returning for face to face classes.
I did not attempt to break the respondents down into demographic groups, but I do know many of my fellow Christian teachers told me they were struggling with anxiety. Moreover, I have been battling anxiety personally, as I am in a high-risk group.

I have heard some Christian teachers express the view that they were not anxious about the prospects of catching the coronavirus. Some take it farther and convey the idea that no believer should fear to work in a potentially virus-rich environment. It seems like a spiritually perceptive statement, but is it?

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Despite starting in my in mid-30s, I began my teaching career as every educator does, as a very green newbie. Over the 12 years I spent at my first school, I rose from being a novice, teaching geography to bored freshmen, to a department head lecturing to GT students in Advanced Placement classes.  My way through the various high school social studies classes was positively smooth compared to my moves through the school building.

In 12 years, I taught in 9 or 10 different classrooms. I once joked that I was the only teacher touring my high school. At first, I taught in whatever rooms were free during the period my class met. Yes, I was a floater. Some teachers were gracious and accommodating to me while I was in their rooms, while others welcomed me like I was a pernicious timeshare salesman.  

Looking back, I do not think badly of the less-welcoming teachers. They were booted out of their rooms on their conference periods and had to become floaters too. I have been on the other side of this too and I know how disruptive it can be.

Beginning with my third year I got a classroom of my own. Home sweet home, it was not.  Not that there was anything particularly wrong with the room. It had the same ancient blackboards and rattling air conditioners found in other rooms. It even had windows that were covered in Venetian blinds installed, no doubt in the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. 

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Thinking about the choice between online only learning and returning to regular classes reminds me of a scenario I share with my economics classes:

Assume you could put seatbelts on every new school bus produced each year for $100 million. Further assume that all kids would wear the seatbelts and, as a result, 3 children who would have otherwise died in a bus accident, would be saved.

Then I pose the question: Would you vote to spend $100 million a year to save 3 students’ lives?

After students have had time to write down their answers and the rationale behind their decision, I will take a vote. The results are usually about 90 % in favor of spending $100 million a year to save 3 lives and 10% opposed.

There is great eagerness in the votes of the 90%, but only a sad resignation in the responses from the NO voters. The spenders are given a chance to defend their votes, and the comments are very predictable. Most of the arguments boil down to the belief that every life is precious, and we cannot put a dollar value on those lives.

Then it is time to hear from the people I jokingly refer to as “the cold-hearted crowd.”

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I tend to spend a great deal of time thinking about the future, and I doubt that I’m in the minority in that. For most of us, this is at least partially a byproduct of our jobs. Each year from the middle of August until the end of May, hardly a day goes by that the specter of upcoming classes is not on a teacher’s mind. 

Many jobs have similar demands and result in a preoccupation that is neither comfortable nor encouraging. As the weeks and months pass, the constant demands of the jobs can become a grind. Amid the daily grind, many of us will find ourselves thinking about a future, a time or place that is a respite from our present struggles. In the modern vernacular, it is us going to “our happy place”. 

Normally when I return to work in the blistering month of August, I am thinking about the joys of football season, cooler weather and celebrating the holiday season with my family. In January, when all of that is in the past, the happy place becomes spring break on a cruise ship and eventually the extended time off during the blessed summer break.

With the specter of the virus over us, everything we usually look forward to is shrouded in a fog of uncertainty.

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Faith, Fear and the Wrong Wolf

The News: US returns to 1,000 coronavirus deaths in a day and officials warn pandemic will only get worse  (CNN)

God: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

John 14:27

Folks, I cannot add anything to God’s Word, but I would like to offer advice on how to apply this to our lives.

First, we must recognize that the words in these passages are commands. We are told “do this” and “don’t do that”, and these are contradictory to the way many think about our lives.

We often hear people say things like “I can’t help how I feel”.  To that notion I have 2 responses:

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Do you remember the toughest teachers you ever had?

I do not mean the ones that held you to high standards in their field of study. Tough graders make accomplished writers, mathematicians, and economists.

The tough ones I remember tended to be generally disagreeable people. Some were cold and acerbic; others were more brash and volatile. Some had the persona of Army drill instructors talking to bumpkins fresh off the bus, and sometimes those bumpkins were young teachers.

My wife remembers one such teacher. This woman would spend the passing period between classes standing in the girl’s bathroom and shouting the time until the tardy bell rang. This was punctuated by pronouncements of the doom that would befall anyone who was late to class.

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I am waking up this morning at a hotel in the shadow of Kyle Field in College Station. It is a vast structure with a dignity that is rare among football stadiums.

On games days, it is packed with excited fans engaged in a collective effort to cheer on their team to victory. While I have never been to a game at the stadium, it seems familiar from all the games I have seen on TV.

Watch any game played at Kyle Field and you will notice Aggie fans standing the entire game. This is a throwback to 1922 and a game when King Gill, a former Aggie player was called out of the stands to suit up and join his school’s team which had been decimated with injuries.

We stand at the forefront of a new school year, one that promises to be unlike any in the past 100 years. As teachers, we often feel we have too many hats to wear, and each year when we return we find the district has a new collection of Stetsons waiting for us.

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Tomorrow marks the beginning of my 24th year of teaching, and despite the many years that have passed, I remember well my first day as a teacher. In truth, my clearest memory is of the first hour of my first day as a teacher.  

Incoming students had to locate their name and room number on lists taped to the walls around the school, and then find their way to their homeroom class. Some students arrived early and waited in the hall outside my classroom, even though the door was open. It seemed nobody wanted to be the first to enter the room, but when the first bell rang, they slowly started to filter into room I shared with the tennis coach, a veteran of more than 30 years in the profession.  

At that point, I didn’t even have 30 minutes of experience to call on. 

After the tardy bell rang, the principal came on the speaker, gave the standard boilerplate first day greeting and made a few announcements. When that ended, I, the newly certified teacher, had to speak the first words I’d ever say to a class. With little confidence in my voice, I announced I was going to start by calling roll.  

Taking attendance at the beginning of the period is what teachers do, and I had performed this task many times as a substitute, but this was different. For the first time I was calling out the names of my students, ones for whom I had a great and continuing responsibility.  

About 10 seconds into calling the students’ names, I realized the paper I was reading from was not steady, making it more difficult to read. I paused, looked down at my hands and realized I was holding the class roster as if I expected someone to come along and rip it out of my shaking hands at any moment.  

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My wife and I lead what we consider to be simple, unassuming lives.

We still live in the same modest house we bought over 30 years ago when we were in our mid-20s. That’s a time in life when many couples buy their “starter” homes.

Fast forward 30 years and most starter homes in our area are far larger than the house we bought, Based on a couple of decades of conversations with young couples, I doubt the majority of them today would want to begin their lives together in a home that is a cracker box by modern standards.

We never up-sized when our family was growing and have no plans to downsize now that we are empty-nesters. In other words, our starter home is likely to be our “finisher” too.

If you were to look up the demographics of the suburban Bay Area of Houston, you would see many spacious, elegant homes owned by people much more affluent than a couple of teachers–one full-time and one a part-timer.

It was odd to me when our boys were growing up that their friends were much more likely to hang out our little place than host our sons in their often newer, more spacious houses. At the time I couldn’t understand why our humble house served as a hub, but I now think that, to many kids, our simple abode felt more like home than the houses in which they lived.

As with our home, a pattern of modesty and simplicity covers many other areas of our lives. When we cruise we almost always book inside cabins, which allows us to cruise more frequently in cramped simplicity than once a year in relative luxury. Allthough I usually book small, windowless cabins, I try to book them on floors where they are across the hall from the high-end suites. This mimics the placement of our home where we live in one of the most modest areas of an affluent community.

In our home city we can expect a responsive government and dependable services. In the same way, we know the cruise lines are going to take good care of the people spending big bucks on the most desirable and expensive cabins. For us, bunking in proximity to some of the most opulent quarters on the ship means we will never have to worry about being assigned to an inexperienced or inattentive cabin steward.

With that type of planning it could be argued that we don’t want to live as simply as we claim, and I would not have you believe that we lead lives of asceticism. In truth, we like some of the better things in life, but mostly as a change of pace. Like poor Cinderella who got to attend the ball in style before the clock struck midnight and it all went awry, we enjoy the little luxuries of cruising before returning to reality.

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