back to school

‘I Think of Little Fingers Wiping Snot on My Shirt’

Photo: Drazen_/Getty Images

Teachers often get flak for the weeks-long summer breaks other people assume they take. “That’s always a bit of a misconception,” says Bethany Kirkpatrick, who teaches English and French in North Carolina, “but it’s particularly untrue this summer.” Instead, as parents and children have waited to learn their fate, educators across the country have spent the past few months scrambling to strategize and plan for whatever will greet them when they begin a new school year. Four teachers spoke with us about everything they’re worrying about in anticipation of their return to virtual and in-person classrooms.

Tegan Terzich

English-language specialist, public elementary school
Antioch, Tennessee

We had a tornado the week before the pandemic. Two schools had been demolished, and the district had shut down. They were trying to figure out how to get those students into other schools; then lockdown began.

The transition felt very lonely. The community I serve has a lot of immigrant families, and we only have one translator for a school of 800 children. There were all these children we were trying to reach, and we couldn’t call them or speak to them. So it was a big, instant disconnect.

As teachers, we have bad habits. Most of us are so dedicated that even if we think something is bogus, we say, “I’m going to smile and do it anyway, because I know it’s for the kids.” It is my calling to work with children and make their lives better. So if they say we’re going back to school, I would do it. I would go; I would make the best of it. But I would be scared. I think of how often a kid will literally cough in my mouth. I think of the little fingers wiping snot on my shirt. I’m not a germaphobe, but when I think about how there is this super-contagious thing, and no one knows the long-term effects … that part makes me nervous.

Now that we know more about the virus, we’re doing more things in person: showing up at homes, knocking on the door, dropping off some school supplies, waving hello. To me, it seems like the most genuine way to get these kids excited about school again. We’re also going to do a parade through the neighborhood and other little things to encourage the parents, some of whom don’t have good relationships with schools and government agencies.

But taking away an epicenter of a community is going to be devastating. If we don’t have a brick-and-mortar school this fall, our disadvantaged kids are the ones who will be left in the dust. To me, that’s the scariest thing. So many are stuck at home with a lack of food, without clean clothes. They may be quarantined in a place that isn’t happy or healthy. Some of them are 5, 6, 7 years old, and it’s all they’ve known. Those are the ones where it’s like, how do you help them online? What’s the better option? To be physically healthy in a tough environment at home, or to be mentally more healthy at school but physically sick?

Armaris Siurano

Science teacher, private high school
Ponce, Puerto Rico

I teach my students a lot about the immune system, viruses, and bacteria. So when this happened, I was like, “Oh, I can use this in my class.”

Our school is a Microsoft school. The transition wasn’t as difficult for us because we already had a lot of technology integrated into our classes. All my labs, activities, homework, and books were already online. But, to be honest, I kind of miss my actual lab. I miss being in that environment. Online teaching, a lot of people are saying it’s the future, but I don’t think it can substitute for the experience of grabbing something and touching it. You can tell a kid, “This is a chemical reaction.” But when they do it themselves, it stays with them.

One of the best parts of last year was Students Day. We didn’t teach classes, we just had a Zoom meeting with our homeroom. I told my kids it was optional, because I know that some of them like to sleep in, and I didn’t want to make them get up at 7 a.m. I have 23 students, and 20 came. Afterward, some of the boys were like, “Miss, we’re going to go play videos.” But the girls stayed online with me — the girls who would usually stay after school and organize everything and draw on the board. We just started chatting. Everyone gave house tours. It was, “This is my house, this is my room, this is my cat, this is my brother, this is my favorite snack.” It was fascinating! It was a glimpse into the lives of my kids that I never would have gotten otherwise. The fact that they wanted to stay … it was beautiful, it was rewarding, it was special. My son decided to interrupt, so they got to see him, too.

The saddest moment was the last day of class with my tenth graders. I’ve taught them since seventh grade. They were babies; I’ve watched them grow up. That last day, when I told them, “This is it, it’s been an honor and a privilege,” they didn’t want to leave. They kept telling me how much they missed me. It was a bittersweet ending to the school year with them.

I’m completely stressed out when I think about going back in person. I love my students very much, but not all of them follow the rules. My worry would be to bring something home to my son. If I get sick, I’ll deal with it. But if my son gets sick because of me? No. I just don’t want to picture it.

I think teachers are essential workers, because we ultimately form the rest of the workers. We’re the ones who inspire the lawyers, the firemen, the scientists. We are the ones that are educating the future.

Bethany Kirkpatrick

English and French teacher, K-12 charter school
Rocky Mountain, North Carolina

Where I live, the principal of a nearby middle school just died of COVID-19. It feels personal to teachers. It’s a small town, and people know one another. It feels very present.

I serve on our school’s reopening committee. The logistics of it are tough, but the emotions of it have also been really important. We have pregnant teachers worried about walking into the building. We have elderly teachers who don’t know whether they’re more scared of being infected by their students or having to teach using technology they don’t really understand.
I’m better situated than most, because I’m younger and I feel comfortable with technology. The older teachers have really mentored us in the past. Now we can help them out with technology.

When I think about being remote, the biggest thing for me is an aphorism that feels relevant here: that students don’t care what you know until they know that you care. The beginning of the year is all about building relationships with students. Showing them, I care about you, I believe you can succeed. How do I build relationships across the digital divide? How do I let them know that I believe in them when I’ve never met them?

It’s going to be technological creativity that makes the biggest difference. In the spring, when we went remote, one of the first things I did was make a teacher Instagram where I could really just bother my students in their private lives. If they’re already on Instagram and they see an English assignment or a note from me, then I’ve met them where they are. I’ve made myself as accessible as I can. That ended up being a really powerful tool. Students would use DMs to ask questions, and I used the video feature to work on their assignments with them. They would be sending me DMs at 3 a.m. with questions about homework.

My school is about 95 percent Black. Last year we began my English class with a book called The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. It tells the story of a 16-year-old girl who chooses to speak up after she watches her best friend be killed by the police. That book was a really important place to start the year, because it allowed us to talk about a lot of issues impacting society. A lot of students said it was the first book they ever loved, and the first characters they ever cared about. This fall, having those types of conversations is going to be even more important, given everything that’s happened on the national stage. But it’s heartbreaking to me that we won’t be able to have those conversations in person. It helped us understand each other’s priorities and values, which made a trusting relationship in the classroom.

At the end of the day, it’s very easy to fall into the story that we don’t know what the future holds, except that it’s going to be difficult. If we tell that as our story about the fall, that makes us less creative, less innovative, less excited. I’m trying to embrace, in person or virtually, that my goals for students are the same. That they gain knowledge, they feel supported, they feel empowered. Making sure those same goals apply to this new context is energizing. It’s not, How are we going to get through this? It’s, How can we make this the best experience we can for our students?

Keenan Lee

First-grade teacher, public elementary school
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

I teach in an inner-city school, and a lot of our students don’t have access to technology. Our model was online, but we had teachers from every grade videotape themselves, and that was played on a public-access channel on TV. In case you didn’t have internet, you could get the lessons that way. I had a few students who were not able to join the Zoom meetings due to not having the technology, or the parents had a work conflict. So we did optional Zooms on Saturdays. Being able to see them felt so important, so that they know I didn’t abandon them. If I didn’t see them at all, I’d call them every week and send them the updates. I could let them know that I missed them, and that we’d be back together soon.

One of our last Zoom meetings of the year, we stayed on a lot longer because the students were really enjoying talking. One little girl got really sad and started crying, because she didn’t want to leave. It made me realize that the kids miss us, and that we do play a pivotal part in their lives. We’re like their second family — we see them every day. A lot of my students, their parents’ lives weren’t able to stop: They had to continue to work throughout the pandemic. I felt like we had to fill a void when parents weren’t able to be there.

I just don’t feel comfortable going back to fully face-to-face in the fall. Latinx and Black communities are hit hardest, and I have really severe asthma. I worry about what would happen to me if I get sick. But I worry more about the children. I know my students have trouble getting access to quality health care. If they get sick, then what? They’re in first grade, and they can’t wear a mask all day.

‘I Think of Little Fingers Wiping Snot on My Shirt’