Less than a month stands between me and a potentially life-altering decision. It’s a decision that keeps me up at night and weighs heavily on my heart and soul. Next month, school will begin again under circumstances that have never been faced in my lifetime. Within each school building, there could lurk a disease that will forever scar the lives of students, educators, staff, and community members.
We do not yet know where, when, and how severely COVID-19 will spread in our school buildings. What we do know is that some will die, some will forever be affected by a poorly understood virus, and all involved will learn lessons only in hindsight about undeniable need for clear leadership. School districts, and everyone in them, are the test subjects of a very dangerous experiment.
Educators across the country are being tasked with impossible decisions that not only impact the children and families we serve but will alter our own lives in ways we cannot predict. America is in the middle of a raging fire, and this fire—the coronavirus pandemic—is claiming the lives of hundreds of people a day. If we had prepared correctly and used the past six months wisely to continue mitigating the spread, many of those human beings would still be alive today. A precious life is so much more than the statistical data rattled off on a graph with no deeper acknowledgment. The death that surrounds us every day has been in vain, as we continue to overlook the scientific research.
The truth is that schools are not reopening in person because education is valued."
What makes this conversation even more painful is how divided and polarized this nation has become. With the new focus on teachers and education, leaders who have failed to contain this virus are changing the narrative. It is left to educators to prepare for the unknowns that our very leaders refuse to honestly face.
I lie awake thinking about when I will be asked to re-enter my school building. Is my life purpose to face a raging pandemic in person because our schools have not mastered the technology for successful remote instruction? Because we fear the prospect of children falling behind more than the possibility of death? Is my life’s purpose to follow the orders of leaders who refuse to value life over economic wealth? What value have I placed on my own life? Do I think it’s my duty to face the consequences of the mistakes leaders made and sacrifice my soul on this earth for the greater economy? Should I speak out or tolerate the decisions made for me and pray I make it out alive without an illness that might last a lifetime?
These are questions that swirl around inside of me, taking away the joy of the safe days I have left. With every passing day, I can’t help but feel powerless in the face of the negligence and unfair responsibilities being placed on all of us. With every passing day, I become more anxious about how I can protect my life and those of my children.
I’ve been a teacher for nearly 15 years. In that time, my sole purpose has been to teach students the love of learning and to help them realize their life potential. I have reached hundreds of students in my life so far. Simply put, education is my life’s purpose. But never had I imagined needing to choose between my life’s purpose or my life.
In a month, I will be making decisions that either safeguard my life expectancy or potentially cut it short. In a month, I will either choose my life’s purpose or my actual life, all because leaders didn’t lead us as they should have.
Ignoring educators’ voices, ignoring educators’ humanity, and ultimately ignoring the lives of children is worse than shortsighted; it is immoral. Students need more at this very moment than socially distanced classrooms, where they are masked and separated to satisfy some sort of resemblance of normalcy.
Teachers are reduced to mere caretakers in this debate, not treated as experts in our field. America has long undervalued education, but it now looks to educators out of convenience and necessity. The truth is that schools are not reopening in person because education is valued. Our leaders are turning to education to get people back to work in an economy collapsing by the minute. Our entire system is built around somebody else—teachers—raising our children. Education should not be the front line for child care.
Was I essential when education funding was cut? Was I essential when my wages stayed stagnant? Was I essential when my profession was dismissed as mere babysitting? To use my love for my profession against me by asking me to return to a potentially lethal work environment is the ultimate slap in the face.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Should I Choose My Life Over My Life’s Purpose?