On Monday morning, on my way to school, I killed a squirrel.
Accidentally, of course. It darted out in front of me before I even had a chance to respond. That has never happened to me before, and I felt awful.
In the past, I have spared several creatures’ lives and always felt very relieved to have done so. But not this time.
I headed on to school, feeling sad about that poor squirrel. My 8th grade daughter, in the back seat, was incredulous that her mother just killed a squirrel and kept on going. But what was I supposed to do?
This year, I’m teaching 8th grade English. At my daughter’s school. She is not in my class, but many of her friends are. It’s been interesting. It’s only my second year at this school, but last year was all virtual for me, so it’s my first year in the building.
On Monday, we were entering our second week of state testing, my least favorite time of year.
I’ve written several posts about standardized testing and how I feel about it. In short, I hate it. I hate everything about it. The colossal waste of time. The feeling for students that the year is somehow over academically, even though we have a month left. The feeling of the school day dragging on for endless hours, even though class times are shorter because of the looooooooong testing block. The feeling of being completely thrown off schedule and the fatigue that comes with that. The stress of the tests themselves and the utter powerlessness I feel about them. The fact that half of my evaluation as a teacher (and our evaluation as a school) is based on these tests makes my blood boil. I could go on and on about how I feel about these damn tests and the misplaced importance put on them.
True, last week’s tests had gone smoothly. I was completely exhausted by the end of the week. Even though I had taken no tests myself. Proctoring these tests is mind-numbing, soul-sucking work, mind you, and it leaves you feeling depleted.
So I tried to psych myself up as we entered the building. Tried not to think of that poor lifeless creature I left on the road.
Testing got off to a good start. Even though I hate the tests, my students have to take them. So I try to be as encouraging as possible. The don’t know how I really feel. At the end of the testing period, with about 15 minutes to go until we headed to our next class and lunch and recess (which we were having every day of testing even though we usually only have it once a week!), we heard a schoolwide announcement.
“We are in lockdown.”
“We are in lockdown.”
Goodness me, what a ridiculous time for a drill. That was my first thought.
My co-teacher and I took the appropriate lockdown measures: locked the door, covered the window, moved students to the other side of the room, turned off High School Musical 3 (don’t judge)(my students chose this for the remaining 30 minutes of class after the test ended), and waited to find out what was happening.
Normally, if there’s a drill, we get an email or a text or some kind of information stating that. They come around and check that doors are locked and hallways are clear and then the drill ends and we carry on. But we didn’t hear anything… 5 minutes passes… 10 minutes… 15…
We wondered if this was a drill after all. Our teacher text chain was going crazy trying to figure it out. A colleague had seen the police arrive, so we deduced this was probably not a drill. But then, what was happening?
It’s not difficult to imagine any number of life-threatening scenarios while you’re in lockdown at a school. Hello, Columbine… Sandy Hook… sadly, the list is endless. But we heard nothing but silence outside our door, so we tried to keep calm.
Students, who are not supposed to have their phones on their person but do have their phones in their backpacks, were asking what was happening. They were antsy and getting anxious. We told them to keep those phones put away. We were honest and said we didn’t know what was going on but would tell them when we found out. My co-teacher and I, both of us moms ourselves, were as reassuring as possible. We didn’t know for sure if it was a drill or for real, but we were all safe and would figure it out soon.
A student came up to us about 15 minutes in and said, you know a student had a gun, right? That’s why we are in lockdown. And then she sat back down.
Well, no, we did not know that. But we were freaking out and texting our colleagues to get any information at all. Yes, others had heard that too. Rumors travel with lightning speed in a middle school.
Finally, we heard an announcement that the lockdown was over and we would resume our schedule. We also got an email stating a student had been caught with a gun and some marijuana, and that student had been taken into custody.
And then we went on with our day.
Lunch came and went. Then recess. Then back to our testing rooms for an afternoon math test. The mood seemed different to me. I keep saying to myself, someone had a gun at school. Someone had a gun. A loaded gun. But it wasn’t registering. It didn’t seem real.
It also didn’t feel like we should keep testing that day. But of course, we did. Nothing stops the state test.
We had a brief faculty meeting after school where we were thanked for getting through the lockdown. And we were congratulated on a great day of testing.
It was surreal.
Later that evening, the gravity of what happened hit me after speaking with my daughter. She had actually been in the classroom with this student.
My child was in the room with a student who had a loaded gun.
My child had been in the room with another student who had a loaded gun.
In. The. Room.
That hit me hard. Though it does seem the student had the gun with no intention of causing harm to students, it’s still horrifying. It seems she had it for protection for a drug deal she was planning on conducting after school.
But still. She had a loaded gun in the building. And drugs. In our school. In my child’s period 2 classroom.
Oh my God.
Let me pause for a minute to acknowledge the horror of this child’s life. A 14-year-old girl was evidently selling marijuana. A child. A child was selling drugs. A child acquired a gun. A child felt she needed to protect herself while selling drugs. I can’t wrap my brain around that. She had already been kicked out of her previous school before coming to our school. What her life must be like for her to be selling drugs and carrying a gun… it just breaks my heart. It is so awful and heartbreaking. I didn’t know her, but I can’t imagine what her world is like. And now her life is forever altered.
But it could have been so much worse. I can’t even bring myself to imagine what it would have been like if that gun went off, intentionally or unintentionally. Yes, it could have been much worse.
My daughter seemed fine after school. She had seen the bullets fall out of the student’s pocket when the student was asked about where her phone was. My daughter didn’t immediately know what they were. But when the student was taken out of the room, she realized they were bullets. She didn’t know the student had a gun. She didn’t know this student at all, actually.
But later that evening, an ominous threat was being sent around on SnapChat. It said the student was out of custody and back home and she was planning to “come to school tmr with the bloods and shoot up the school.” My daughter saw this and showed me. She was scared. She wondered if it was true.
I reported it to the administration, and they had already seen it and sent it to the police. Again, rumors travels fast. It wasn’t true, of course. The child was in custody. She would not be at our school ever again.
But my daughter’s anxiety was rising. And I think it hit her then that she was in the room with this child. With a gun. And it freaked her out.
By this time, the Moms’ group chat I’m in was very active and several were saying their kids were going to stay home the next day. That number kept growing. My daughter came to me and said a lot of her friends were staying home. She said she wanted to stay home because she was worried.
I didn’t know what to do. I had to go to work. We were testing. I couldn’t just stay home. But I understood how my daughter felt. So I made the decision to let her stay home and take a mental health day.
The rest of the week dragged on without incident, thankfully. Quite a few 8th graders were out that next day, but everything was “normal” the next. Testing went on as planned — nothing stops the state test from happening, after all. It is of the utmost importance. #snort
But I felt different after Monday. Like I’d been knocked over and off course. I felt more exhausted than I had been, more restless, less patient. Like I’d reached some sort of limit.
This year has been the most difficult year of my 19 years as a teacher. Prior to that, last year was the most difficult. I taught virtually the whole year last year, and it was a daily challenge to get through it. Though there were some high points, it was just depressing. I thought it was the lowest point in my career. Until this year.
Teachers all over are feeling the same way, for a variety of reasons. Many are quitting. I don’t yet know what I will do next year.
When I reflect on why this year has been the worst, it’s not a simple answer. There are several issues:
1. The pandemic. We are not fully recovered from the disruption to our regular routines. We are traumatized by what we collectively went through – lives lost, the fear we felt about getting Covid or trying to avoid getting it, the panic, the anxiety, the sadness and hopelessness of it all. But here we are in school, trying to get back to “normal” even though things aren’t normal. Many children suffered socially and emotionally and boy, does it show in their behavior. Discipline issues this year have been very challenging, and it’s because many of them weren’t in school for a year and a half. I can only hope next year is better.
2. Inept and ineffective leadership. The leadership in a school building can make or break a school. When there is poor leadership and a lack of communication, everything suffers. Morale sinks. Chaos ensues. Being in constant reactive mode really wears on you. And then, surprise, surprise, teachers leave. And when there’s poor leadership on up the chain of command in a district, it just feels hopeless. Like if you ask to see the manager, but they’re not helpful either, then what do you do? It’s extremely frustrating.
3. Toxic work environment. See above.
4. Living in a red state. I love living in Tennessee, but when it seems your state legislature doesn’t trust you to teach or really care about public education at all, it’s disheartening to say the least.
5. My inability to ignore all the things listed above. Some teachers, bless them, are able to close their doors and carry on, blissfully able to shut these things out entirely and not worry about things they can’t control. I am not one of these teachers. Though I do — thankfully — have the ability to separate my negative feelings outside the classroom from all the positive things that happen inside my classroom. But all that outside “noise” has really affected me this year more than ever. Like, it’s too much for me to bear. Even though I’ve had some amazing students this year, I’m left feeling like I’m not sure this is the best thing for me to be doing anymore.
Like I said, these aren’t simple reasons. If any of this were simple, it would be very easy for me to decide what to do. But it’s not. I love teaching. I love building relationships with students and seeing their growth over the year. I love the rhythm of the school year. So when it comes to next year and what I want to do, I’m having difficulty figuring it out. And this week didn’t help.
I made it to Friday.
I have been looking forward to today for a long time — two years, actually! And it couldn’t have gotten here at a better time after such a challenging week.
I took the day off from school to fly to Philadelphia for the 6th annual Network for Public Education National Conference.
The first NPE Conference was held in Austin in 2015, and I was there! I’ve attended every year except 2019. This conference was originally scheduled for March 2020, but we all know how that year went.
Every year I’ve been to NPE, I leave feeling inspired and hopeful about advocating for public education. To be surrounded by people who feel the same passion about public education is to feel you’ve found “your people.” It’s amazing. And I could really use that right now.