The Pandemic Crushed Teachers. After Uvalde, They Wonder ‘What More?’
On the day that a gunman walked into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and carried out the deadliest school shooting this country has seen in a decade, an English teacher in St. Augustine, Fla., was on her lunch break, watching online as her local school board meeting erupted into an agitated fight over library books.
In suburban Dallas, a teacher was at the end of her rope after what she said had been her hardest year in almost two decades in the classroom. Even as the second semester drew to a close, many of her students, 10 and 11 years old, still needed instructions for basic tasks, and some were routinely absent altogether.
And in the Atlanta area, a 31-year-old teacher went to bed worried. Would her elementary school be next? Just before falling asleep, her husband promised that, should the worst happen, he would take care of their 2-year-old son.
Across the country, teachers have limped to the end of this school year, weighed down by pressures that were accumulating even before the Uvalde shooting last month.
Schools had gotten off to a promising start — classrooms open, vaccines more widely available, learning underway. And while some teachers enjoyed relative normalcy for the first time since the pandemic began, others found that this year ended up being among their most difficult.
All over the country, students were behind in core subjects like reading and math, while many showed signs of anxiety and depression. At the same time, teachers in some school districts were caught in political battles, as efforts to ban books increase and lawmakers in many states seek to limit instruction on sexuality and racism. In several cities, teachers went on strike over pay and Covid-19 protocols.
For some teachers, the news that 19 children and two teachers were shot to death at an elementary school in Texas was a final gut punch.
“I’m just angry,” said Octavio Hernandez, a middle school math teacher in Davenport, Fla., who said he knew of at least 20 students hospitalized for mental health emergencies in the past two years.
“They want us to be a police officer, a counselor,” said Mr. Hernandez, 42. “Oh, and don’t forget to teach. And when you teach, teach this way — and don’t mention anything that is going on in the world.”
In the days after the Uvalde shooting, plenty of teachers did what they always do. They showed up to school, cheered students on at graduation, and brought in homemade cupcakes to celebrate the year. But some described doing it all with one eye glued to the classroom door.
“It has been emotionally and mentally exhausting,” said Lateefah Mosley, 47, a teacher in Decatur, Ga., who was coming to grips with a mass shooting that targeted Black shoppers at a supermarket in Buffalo last month when the shooting in Uvalde unfolded 10 days later.
Ms. Mosley teaches fourth graders, the same age as those attacked in Texas. In the faces of the 19 slain children, she saw the faces of her students. In the teachers, she saw herself.
“You think, by the grace of God, it wasn’t me,” she said. “But what makes me any better than them?”
Overall, schools are relatively safe for the country’s 54 million students and nearly four million teachers. But school shootings are becoming more common, and the tragedy in Uvalde represented many people’s worst fears.
The shooting resurfaced debates about arming teachers, and in Ohio, the governor indicated he would sign legislation to make it easier for teachers to carry guns. A Gallup poll conducted after one of the nation’s deadliest school shootings — when 17 people were killed in Parkland, Fla., in 2018 — found that 73 percent of teachers opposed teachers and staff members carrying guns in schools, with 20 percent in favor. More than half of teachers said it would make schools less safe.
“We don’t have enough funding to even buy paper and pencils for kids, and you want us to have guns to protect ourselves?” Ms. Mosley said, echoing a sentiment shared by other teachers who said that, whatever their view on guns, they simply did not have the bandwidth.
Guns are only the latest way that the country’s political wars are increasingly encroaching on classrooms.
On the day of the Texas shooting, the school board in St. Johns County, Fla., was considering a proposal to ban books from school libraries, including those that include transgender and nonbinary characters and address white supremacy. Megan Young, an English teacher at a district high school, heated up leftovers of rice and meatballs, shut her classroom door and spent her lunch break online, watching as the meeting devolved into shouting and name-calling.
Though the endeavor failed by a vote of 3 to 2, the rancor bothered Ms. Young, who sees books as a way to foster a love of reading in her students.
Nationally, efforts to ban books are on the rise at the same time as a wave of new legislation that seeks to limit how teachers can talk about issues seen as politically sensitive. When the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, goes into effect in Florida this summer, it will constrain how teachers can talk about sexual orientation and gender identity.
In her classroom, Ms. Young said, a parent objected to a lesson asking students to analyze the persuasiveness of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” versus a corresponding letter by eight white clergymen.
The increased scrutiny is bewildering to Ms. Young, 33, who recalled how, after the Parkland shooting, she brought a leather belt to store in her classroom first aid kit, in case she ever needed a tourniquet for a student.
“It’s being literally entrusted with their lives,” she said, “but not entrusted with choosing curriculum.”
Teachers in public schools make an average of about $65,000 a year and have been among the most trusted professionals, alongside nurses, doctors, military members and scientists. But as schools shut down and social fabric frayed during the pandemic, trust in teachers declined.
For some, the competing pressures have been enough to walk away.
“I needed a change,” said Kathy Macken, 62, a math and science teacher in Richardson, Texas, near Dallas, who is leaving the classroom after 19 years to do intensive tutoring with smaller groups of students.
After being out of school earlier in the pandemic, her fifth graders came back this year in great need. Even as she tried to help them academically, Ms. Macken said, she spent much of her time trying to keep them calm and focused: Get out a pencil. Write your assignment in your planner. Please, no iPads during story time.
She had to scale back a favorite science project — where students build terrariums to take home — because she did not have time.
And in the last week of school, a lockdown interrupted an outdoor field day. Amid tug of war and fun in a bounce house, students were hustled back inside. Ms. Macken huddled with her students on the floor of her darkened classroom while the police investigated a report of a teenager walking down the street with a rifle.
It was one of a number of scares around the country in the days after the Uvalde shooting.
Dan Plonsey, a math teacher at Berkeley High School in California canceled final exams and called in sick last week, after a student was arrested in what the authorities described as a plot to attack the high school. The announcement came after a year of Covid absences and a student suicide, and days after the Uvalde shooting.
Mr. Plonsey, 63, considered his sickout one small act of defiance against what he described as an American society grown numb to grief.
“What is wrong with us?” Mr. Plonsey asked, as he packed up his classroom last week. “Why do we just do business as usual day after day?”
“Let’s bring some humanity,” he said. “Let’s be sad for a few hours.”
Other teachers did their best to maintain normalcy.
Kathleen Ingraham, a music teacher in Alpharetta, Ga., spoke with her husband about who would care for their son should she be killed in a school shooting, then got up and went to work the next morning. She was scheduled to lead kindergartners in song for their graduation.
Standing on a stage in the school cafeteria, under a colorful banner that read “kinder-grads!” the children sang:
I’m growing up — way, way up.
I’m growing up with hopes and dreams, making my way in the world.
We’re growing up — way, way up.
We’re growing up with hopes and dreams, making our way in the world.
Ms. Ingraham smiled for her students, who were too young to know about Uvalde. But when the music stopped, and her job was done, she slipped behind the stage curtains. Out of sight, and as quietly as possible, she wept.