Sunday, October 4, 2020

Putting Your Own Mask on First

Teachers are a hardy bunch. We have self-trained ourselves to remain polite and calm in the face of abuse. On my first day of teaching, ever, I wrote Miss Snyder on the board, and a faceless voice from the back of the room said, "Oh good, she's not married. No sloppy seconds." I immediately erased the Miss and shifted to Ms, and went on with the lesson, refusing to give the comment further attention. At 9 months pregnant, I cleared a room of kids after a fight broke out in a pottery classroom and got the two boys in line. Just one boy, really, as the other was bleeding on the floor. Both had a good foot of height on me, but I had the grizzly bear attitude of a mom to be. And I was pretty sure they wouldn't dare hit me.  

But this is ridiculous.

Admin keeps reminding us to take time for self-care and sending us links to mental health professional sites. They want teachers taking care of themselves so we can better care for our students. And I think these messages are all coming more and more because they must know we're all starting to lose it. In person and online, teachers are talking openly about randomly bursting into tears at the smallest thing because WE'RE ABOUT TO BREAK! But we keep forging ahead, making it work, because it's in our DNA to do that with a smile and a gentle voice, compassionate to everyone but ourselves. At no other time have so many teachers felt like they're not measuring up to expectations, felt like they're failing at their job. As much as we're trying to do the best for the kids, the kids are going to notice the stress and exhaustion taking its toll. 

A doctor on Twitter cautioned teachers about overworking, suggesting taking breaks and getting adequate rest. It was on par with telling an irate victim of an injustice to just relax. Pretty much every teacher responding said more or less the same thing: "Gee thanks, but it's just not possible to do this work and manage any level of reasonable self-care!!!" One posted a Hyperbole and a Half image to show what it looks like to lesson plan, grade, and track down missing students at once, while 'resting':

It's not just the workload, which is continuous. We've made it through that first year of AER when we were all somehow convinced that we had to accept late work right until the last day of term, and then we ended up chasing kids all year and having a semester's worth of marking waiting for our fair and just hand to offer exceptional feedback within two sleepless days and nights before report cards were due. And then we wised up and focused on the rules differently, and we made some clear boundaries for ourselves with cut off dates. We survived the work. Already some teachers are getting that, despite having 110 hours of class time, we still have to cut the curriculum substantially. It can't all get done the way as could be expected under normal circumstances, and that's okay. We're going to be "good enough" teachers (h/t Winnicott).   

And now we've just been told to call every single parent of our students to personally discuss their midterm grades by the end of next week. No, they don't have a list of parent emails. And half the phone numbers don't work. And then a few that work end up being the parent's workplace, and they get VERY ANNOYED about being interrupted at work to be told their kid is doing fine at school. And a few want to have a family meeting to review my strategies to get their child, two years away from applying to university, to come to the online meets and learn at least half of the curriculum expectations. So things are busy, absolutely.

But, beyond the workload, it's stressful watching the province, the board, and our own admin follow rules that make our lives even more difficult - unnecessarily difficult. It's one thing to feel like we're all in this together, and, together, we're going to get to the other side of it, authentically supporting one another!! It's quite another to feel like we're the pawns that are being played and allowed to get sick and even die in order to provide profits in an inequitable economic system, supported with platitudes and links to helplines. It makes me think of this little scene in Ken Krimstein's beautiful graphic novel, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, in which Arendt recognizes a moment to escape the camps, but her friends all think they'll be safer if they just follow all the rules:

We have far too many people following inane, live-threatening rules!!

In secondary schools, a quarter of all teachers are on their prep at any given time. With the new system, it means two weeks in a row without a class. It doesn't mean a two-week vacation, as some might suggest.  It's an insane blur of time to do all the prep work necessary, at once, to teach three classes, so that there's time to present lectures and field questions all day and mark all night while classes are in session. But it means no time to re-jig if necessary or re-teach ideas that need further development on the fly. There's NO TIME to react to student feedback on understanding because that would mean tossing the lessons prepped, and there's NO TIME to re-prep lessons during the in session weeks. And I totally appreciate why this schedule is necessary, to keep student movement in the building to an absolute minimum. But it IS quite a thing to manage.

The stupid part, the added burden, is that all those teachers working to prepare lessons are made to do it from within the school building. And all the teachers teaching exclusively online classes are also made to do it from within the building. And all staff have to stay for 75 minutes after students leave. AND, the inside of this building isn't following the same rules as anywhere else.

Masks must be worn inside all buildings - except in schools.

Our social circles are all on pause - except in schools.

We've been cautioned to stay away from each other - except in schools. 

My classroom was taken over in case they need space to isolate students. I made a home for myself in a corner of an office where people come in regularly for supplies, the landline phone rings for people who are never in there, and the internet moves at a snail's pace.

"We found a space for you!!" (Is it good or bad that the radiator doesn't work?)

Aviators, because I am too cool for school (and to keep the sun out of my eyes).

My elbow was touching the back wall of this very tiny area as I took this selfie. Jeans, a t-shirt, and hoodie will be my uniform this year. I'm not dignifying this gig with my typical work fashions, and it's a step up from the pyjamas I wore last spring. But I also lived in track pants in my last year of uni when I likely did the best writing I've ever done, so I don't believe there's any correlation between dress and work habits. 

I covered the return air above my head to stop air being sucked towards me AND to stop giant clumps of dust from falling into my laptop while I work. My desk is just a scrap of wood sitting on the rad, and I use piles of books as a footstool to keep from destroying my lower back. But I have a window at least. And it OPENS!! Of course I made the best of it and made it all homey, but why couldn't I just be AT HOME??

I don't wear a mask so my online students can hear me better and see my entire face, but it means jumping up to put one on whenever someone comes in suddenly. I put a sign on the floor 6' away that says, "I can hear you from here!" because of the number of people who think my area is so cute and come right up to my "desk." It's not just a problem that they stand 2' away from my face, but that they're effectively blocking in a claustrophobic which makes my animal brain fire up, and I snap, "Go BACK six feeeetttt!!!!"  Blarg.

The floor sign helps. 

And then there's the constant noise echoing through the halls from movies playing and teachers with mics talking with all the doors open (the only way to get ventilation). We could easily come in for assigned duties and rotate on-calls for emergencies. No other profession insists on-call staff sit in the building all day every day. 

ETA: I forgot to mention that this cubby is a cut out from the bathroom next door, so I also hear everything that goes on in there, too. You can sometimes hear a toilet flush on my recordings!

ETA MORE: The window leaks when it rains!! Without me noticing, it filled the little ledge above my "desk" before overflowing in a big waterfall onto my pages of notes for today. Luckily I grabbed my laptop just in time!!

 Admin just has to say something like, "The official rule is that you have to be in school, BUT we have no intentions of policing that. Just make sure you show up for supervisions and be available for on-calls if called in during an emergency," and everything would be so much easier on us. It's just that simple. Really. 

I called in sick in order to work from home on Thursday, and I was required to be replaced by a supply teacher who hung out in the library all day doing nothing. She couldn't even take attendance for me because it's based on any contact, and students were emailing me questions about the work, which counts as being present in school. So I had to do attendance and work with students all day while I was home absolutely sick of it all. It's all so ludicrous - absolutely absurd.   

In a recent article in The Atlantic, Zeynep Tufekci reported on the importance of paying attention to the "k" factor, a measure of dispersion:

"Multiple studies from the beginning have suggested that as few as 10 to 20 percent of infected people may be responsible for as much as 80 to 90 percent of transmission, and that many people barely transmit it. This highly skewed, imbalanced distribution means that an early run of bad luck with a few super-spreading events, or clusters, can produce dramatically different outcomes even for otherwise similar countries. . . . In study after study, we see that super-spreading clusters of COVID-19 almost overwhelmingly occur in poorly ventilated, indoor environments where many people congregate over time. . . . Super-spreading can also occur indoors beyond the six-feet guideline, because SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen causing COVID-19, can travel through the air and accumulate, especially if ventilation is poor. Given that some people infect others before they show symptoms, or when they have very mild or even no symptoms, it’s not always possible to know if we are highly infectious ourselves. . . . Cheap, low-sensitivity tests can help mitigate a pandemic even if it is not overdispersed, but they are particularly valuable for cluster identification during an overdispersed one. This is especially helpful because some of these tests can be administered via saliva and other less-invasive methods, and be distributed outside medical facilities. In an overdispersed regime, identifying transmission events (someone infected someone else) is more important than identifying infected individuals. . . . Both transmission and illness risks go up with age, and Sweden went all online for higher-risk high-school and university students—the opposite of what we did in the United States. It also encouraged social-distancing, and closed down indoor places that failed to observe the rules. . . . A relatively quiet period can hide how quickly things can tip over into large outbreaks and how a few chained amplification events can rapidly turn a seemingly under-control situation into a disaster. . . . Japan also focused on ventilation, counseling its population to avoid places where the three C’s come together—crowds in closed spaces in close contact, especially if there’s talking or singing—bringing together the science of overdispersion with the recognition of airborne aerosol transmission, as well as presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission. Oshitani contrasts the Japanese strategy, nailing almost every important feature of the pandemic early on, with the Western response, trying to eliminate the disease “one by one” when that’s not necessarily the main way it spreads."

Schools are a perfect storm of conditions necessary for the spread. Anybody who doesn't need to be in the building should be working from home. Even worse than Ontario, Quebec teachers have been told to return to work while waiting for tests results if they display no symptoms even if a member of their household tests positive.

And to think just before all this happened, we were actually marching up and down in the slush, fighting for better working conditions!!


Ford is stubbornly refusing to close schools even with, allegedly, one York school with 150 infected students. Apparently the teachers in contact with those kids will be off for two weeks, so supply teachers will be brought in to teach their other classes because, even if the teachers feel well, they're not allowed to teach from home. 

Listen. Here's the thing. We're all really, really hard workers, and we're totally willing to take one for the team and step up and get our hands dirty in this mess, BUT not just because Ford started down this path and is embarrassed to retrace his steps, and not just because we've been told to do it. Forcing us to stay in cramped corners of the school to prep and mark and teach online has to be necessary to save lives or to help students or to something. But it's not. It's just a bizarre means of excessive control adding to a litany of stressors that are going to destroy far too many of us. 

They're not choosing to be unkind, and I believe they want us to feel supported, but what they're doing is dishonest and thoughtless. It's precisely Arendt's bureaucratic banality

ETA - my reaction to a comment about the onslaught of mental health emails we're getting from boards now instead of actually changing our situation:

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