by Kendra Vincent
I really do love being a teacher and being in a classroom every day. I really do love my students. But teaching is a difficult job in the best of circumstances, and we’ve been operating under circumstances that are much less than best.
Teaching is a constant balance of so many things … state and district mandates with joys of learning; implementing a rigorous learning environment with fostering a compassionate, nurturing classroom; feeling overwhelmed with what I do being only a small drop of water in a vast ocean with feeling immense pressure of the high stakes of our children; being the best teacher I can be with preventing complete burnout.
All of us are tired. All of us expected this year to be better. It’s not. It’s a balance.
This year, we have the ability to be vaccinated, we know that we do not need to be as concerned about surfaces, and we eventually received air filters in classrooms.
However, I also have more students in my classes, social distancing is impossible, and masks can’t be mandated and are not chosen by most.
Then there are the emotional, social, and academic needs of the students that have only become more acute and more difficult to meet. But at least we’re all in the same room together, and I am only creating one set of curriculum to be taught in person (instead of online and in person at the same time). Being completely back in person creates space for me to build learning foundations and relationships and to assess needs, struggles, and opportunities in a way that often felt nearly impossible last year… but the fatigue is real. It’s a precarious balance.
The pressure to prepare students for state standardized tests has never left. Even in the height of a pandemic (because let’s remember that Florida schools were open) – and while teaching HyFlex without any real extra support – teachers were expected to keep students ready for the tests.
Now, with the new mandates, the FSA and current standards will be replaced by more testing throughout the year and new standards. This means instead of preparing my students for high stakes testing that occurs in April and May, I will be preparing them in a much smaller amount of time for similar high stakes tests multiple times a year.
Even though my students have not yet had a usual or normal high school year, and none of the high school students have had more than one full year of a normal high school year, teachers are expected to balance the grace and compassion students need with the expectations and skills that students must have as they move through the school system and graduate. This balance is much more of a tightrope than I ever remember it being.
While the district is discussing the hemorrhaging of students and FTE funds, that is not my experience. I have the total number of students that I usually have in six classes in five. In my mind, smaller class sizes is one of the simplest fixes to improving the quality of education for all students, but in the last two years my class sizes have only increased. It is also an expensive solution, because it requires hiring more teachers.
Another way class sizes are decreased at the secondary level doesn’t decrease a teacher’s number of students or workload, but we are at least paid more. Many teachers at the secondary level hope for the ability to take a sixth class each year, because the extra money we are paid to give up our planning period makes our salaries almost feel like we’re paid as professionals. This means that many teachers are teaching 180 to 200 students this year. But, even if hiring more teachers was a solution that school districts were willing to invest in, it is becoming a more difficult solution as fewer people choose to teach. I certainly understand why this balancing act is not appealing.
The bills passed and expected to be signed by the governor this legislative session in Florida are not only an attack on individual rights, but a very clear attack on public education, academic freedom, and teachers’ rights.
Just like with the pandemic, I can’t think too deeply about what the laws and rules will be and still manage to do my job.
Just like with the pandemic, I can’t let myself indulge in the fear that I have, because it would paralyze me, making it impossible to do my job. I must weigh the information and strike a balance.
I believe my job involves much more than just teaching reading comprehension and writing skills. I want to help provide a broader worldview, give students diverse perspectives, help them navigate difficult questions, and help support them as they grow and figure out more of who they are in a safe, structured, classroom environment.
I want to facilitate respect for opposing viewpoints and the ability to recognize everyone’s humanity no matter how unalike they may be. I want my students to know that I care about them. The laws that are being passed make my job much more difficult. We know that students need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum—research shows that it improves educational outcomes.
As a whole, we need to grow and improve when it comes to diversity, inclusion, and representation in curriculum and the classroom; however, the laws being passed make this much more challenging and maybe even dangerous. The laws that are being passed are rolling back long, hard fought progress. Students of color and students who are LGBTQ+ are the ones who will be most directly affected, but this affects everyone.
Public education, in part, should help students understand the world in which they live—not just what is easy or convenient for the power structure. True learning and growth takes some discomfort. Our students and our communities will suffer from this new legislation, but teachers will be targeted and punished for doing our jobs and prioritizing our students’ well-being and best interests.
Kendra Vincent has taught high school in Alachua County since 2006. She is a member of the Alachua County Education Association and is the 2022 High School Teacher of the Year for Alachua County.