A contributed perspectives piece by Melissa Weaver
When I was a teacher, I loved the sound of my shoes clicking on the tile floors on the way to my classroom. I loved the sound of laughter behind the doors, murmurs and discussions and stories being read aloud.
Now, ten years later, I walk the corridors at my children’s school as a parent and volunteer. I get to hear the laughter and the murmurs but moving amidst the hallways and pausing in conversations, I get to hear and see some pretty heavy stories, too.
Our school saw three teachers and various staff leave already this year, each for various reasons, professionals who have dedicated their lives to working with little people but no longer able or desiring to work in what has become an unsustainable environment in many ways.
A teacher teared up when I brought in granola bars, calling me a “saint,” as if I was offering her a raise instead of basic human dignity.
I’ve seen educators trying to balance lesson plans with children who aren’t potty trained and staff trying to answer phone calls while kiddos who in an ideal world would have a one-on-one aide bounce in the office for parents to pick them up to try again tomorrow.
Second grade teachers are working with children who don’t know all their letter sounds because of the fragmented mess of pandemic early-childhood, and the weight of these snatches of stories settles around the building like asbestos. The middle school girls’ bathroom walls say, “eno gh,” the rest of the encouraging decals peeled off long ago.
If you were a lamination-cutting-fly-on-the-wall like me, I’d want you to hear, really hear what’s being breathed out in exhaustion by those to whom we entrust our children:
In the potluck line of a teacher-appreciation breakfast: “This is so nice! We can almost imagine we won’t feel slammed up against the wall the rest of the day.”
In the storage room waiting for the printer: “I’ve done this work for ten years and this year, I have struggled more than ever before to come in each day. And that’s saying something because I love my job.”
In an email after a brief note of praise, “You don’t know how much I needed this. I’m tearing up. I’m home sick but I feel like I’m drowning in preparations.”
In church between songs, “I get almost physically sick with the amount of data I’m being given and asked to do something about in terms of reading scores.”
“We need to call mom because he said he threw up three times yesterday and just walked in carrying a trash can.”
“My own child has too many absences, too. Everyone’s constantly sick and district policy is that I’m supposed to have doctors notes now.”
Family and friends give us glimpses as well. A high schooler tells us at dinner that she’s relieved that one of her teachers has taught for more than one or two years, that her gym class has 30+ kids and that teacher shortages mean some staff without education training finish their requirements while filling in for content classes.
These stories literally keep me awake at night at times. In fact, I wrote this piece while the house was pitch black.
Why do I share them, though?
In her nuanced and poignant novel Piecing Me Together,” Renée Watson creates an exchange between her teenage protagonist and her mentor where the older woman shares about her grandmother:
“She’d say sometimes, it’s just good to talk it out, you know?…my grandmother called it bearing witness…I didn’t get it as a kid. I mean, nothing got resolved, necessarily, so I thought it was silly to just sit and rehash everything that was wrong with the world…I think what my grandmother was saying is that it feels good to know someone knows your story, that someone took you in…she’d tell me, it’s how we heal.”
I share these things to bear witness. I don’t necessarily have the answers to what can fix the train-wreck of the educational system in which I used to move. It sometimes feels that at every dinner, playdate or grocery store conversation, other parents and I rehash and swap fears that our children may not have staff at their schools or that our teacher friends cannot continue this way.
I think we owe it to the human beings that come to work with our kids each day to know their stories, to take them in and somehow heal together.
And yet, to close, I want to bear witness to not just the trauma but also the beauty I get to see that those outside a school might not get to experience:
I’ve seen teachers dancing with their children way after hours at a family-school dance, whirling in the disco ball in a sequined mumu while the PE teacher leads the moves.
I’ve seen assistants kneeling before a completely dysregulated child and with such openness and warmth listen to why he was upset.
My child’s teacher bravely leads discussions about hard history in a climate as a nation that demonizes doing do, while my other child’s teacher hatches eggs and makes habitats for crickets and collaborates to do science buddies with older kids.
The nature trail is blooming with fairy houses, and clubs create opportunities for learning cooking, board games or violin. The counseling room has a calm-down area with a forest backdrop and twinkling lights, the stage is spread with an entire cardboard and recycled miniature village from a STEM night, teachers sit on hard bleachers at city rec league basketball games to cheer their students. High school students can become CNAs before graduating, put on elaborate musical productions, and celebrate cultures from dozens of countries.
It’s outrageous the hope and determination educational professionals are showing in the midst of a dehumanizing system, and I wish everyone knew it.
To all the teachers and staff out there. I see you. I hear your stories. I lament the ways we have failed you as voters and citizens and parents and a culture. It should not be this hard to do what is one of the most important jobs in the world.
To the rest of us, may we listen to what those in our halls are experiencing and needing, so that they can keep nurturing, instructing and creating in a mixed-up, tired world.
Melissa Marquez Weaver is a former English/ESL teacher who lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where she cares for her husband and three young children, more pets than they planned on, unruly gardens, and her neighborhood. She serves as co-coordinator of Christian formation with Immanuel Mennonite Church. As part of her position, she writes a blog called A Light So Lovely. Her first poetry chapbook, Welcome, Stranger: Poems of Making and Keeping Our Children, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2021, and her work has appeared in Ekstasis Magazine, The Christian Century, Bravery Magazine, Menno Snapshots, Mothers Always Write, Anabaptist Witness, The Anabaptist Journal of Australia and New Zealand and Transforming, a publication of Virginia Mennonite Missions.