I am exhausted.
I’m in my 12th year as a public school educator, and I cannot recall a time in my career when I felt this much fatigue. The compounding realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the onslaught of police brutality and anti-Blackness in the wake of the Trump presidency have made being a teacher tiring in many ways. I feel like I have been teaching like my life depends on it for the last two years.
For context, I’m a Black, Queer, male-identifying, Philly-born millennial Chicagoan and a first-generation college graduate. I teach US History and Sociology at a large, well-resourced comprehensive public high school that mirrors the racial and socioeconomic demographics of the United States.
I thought if other Black boys had teachers that cared for them and loved them the way some of my teachers did, they too would succeed. I believed in an education system that would help students embody their full human potential. I thought teaching and our school systems were sustainable.
If you were to ask me where I’d be at this point in my life as an educator, I would not have imagined it to be this way. When I graduated from high school in 2006, I decided to become a history teacher. I was part of the 46 percent of Black boys who graduated from Philadelphia Public Schools, a district that at the time was two-thirds Black. I thought if other Black boys had teachers that cared for them and loved them the way some of my teachers did, they too would succeed. I believed in an education system that would help students embody their full human potential. I thought teaching and our school systems were sustainable.
I was so naive.
A System Stretched Thin
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed tragic truths about the United States’ education system, illuminating the lived legacies of racism, capitalism, and White supremacy in our school systems. In addition, we are still dealing with the impact of gun violence, despite having more police presence to “promote safety.”
Through all of this, schools are expected to be places where students learn and thrive. Yet, we continue to focus on testing mandates as we experience a national teacher shortage, decreasing mental wellness for both educators and students, and politically motivated attacks on education vis-a-vis banning critical race theory.
This undermines the basic principles of school learning, especially when seeking new knowledge and understanding facts and truths. But even if that were all schools were tasked with, that would be enough. The reality is that it is the responsibility of our school systems, as damaging as they may be, to provide basic needs that are essential to our humanity: food, shelter, safety, and love. As we move forward in this pandemic, we need to acknowledge the current system isn’t working.
As Bettina Love offers, we’re just surviving. I am just surviving. I deserve to thrive. We all deserve to thrive.
Dreaming of Freedom
As a classroom teacher, I’ve assumed many different roles: counselor, nurse, therapist, data entry person, project manager, advocate, coach, and extended family. This pandemic has amplified the magnitude of what we do day-to-day, tending to the health and wellbeing of our students while combating a deadly disease. But, if educators and school systems are tasked with developing our next generations of human beings, when will our federal, state, and local spending match those realities? How can we do all of what society tasks us as educators?
We must take a radical approach and inspiration from educators like Bettina Love and Jeff Duncan-Andrade. What would it mean to create school systems that reflect vigor, sustainability, and humanization rather than exhaustion, dehumanization, and survival? We must dream of better realities, new possibilities, and more humanizing futures. In the essence of Robin Kelley’s work, we have to freedom dream!