MICHIGAN — Remember going to your high school football game on a Friday night? Odds are, one of your teachers was coaching the team. Another might be in the stands with their family. Another would wear a plumed hat and conduct the marching band at halftime.
Now imagine a Friday night football game without your teachers. Families in the stands whisper about one another, pointing fingers at grandparents wearing masks. In the concessions booth, no one’s raising money for a school trip – it’s just a guy selling popcorn.
After two years of disinformation schemes, the once-strong bonds between families and schools are in crisis. Amanda Sterling* is living this scary reality. She’s a high school English teacher who grew up in Lansing and has spent the last two decades teaching in a mid-Michigan community — a place she has long loved.
As part of our Q&A series on Michigan’s public education system, we spoke to Sterling about her experiences. We’ll post four of her answers each morning for the next few days. This is the second in the series; for the first, click here.
*Amanda Sterling is a pseudonym. We have verified the teacher’s true identity and employment status, but are granting her request for anonymity so that she may speak freely without fear of retribution or reprisal.
1 – Teachers have come under a lot of scrutiny in the past couple of years with remote learning and pandemic-era schooling. What has that been like for you?
The choices and behaviors of some of my fellow humans during the pandemic have been one of the greatest heartbreaks of my career and my life. Prior to the pandemic, I would say that my colleagues and I felt very valued in my community by the parents, by the local townspeople, whether I taught their kids or not. As a person who’s been there a long time in a small district, I was known wherever I went and always felt regarded and I felt that the families supported me and my fellow teachers.
But in 2020 my eyes were kind of opened to how people really started feeling and about how they valued – or didn’t value – school employees. I felt like they did not care about my personal, physical safety. When I say mine, I mean mine and all my fellow staff members. At every level – national, state and local – people were so vocal in their insistence that there not be masks in school, that we reopen full-time, five days a week. And in my community, that insistence took the form of ugly board meetings and threats to the health department.
I have co-workers who are immunocompromised or have disabled children. There were several pregnant staff members. But the vocal members of the community who opposed a hybrid or virtual schedule threatened the school board with the withdrawal of multiple students (and therefore the funding) and so…no accommodations were able to be offered to those staff.
And then this year even the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services seemingly abandoned school staff. Instead of making a state-wide policy, they put the decisions of COVID mitigation measures like masking back into the counties and school districts. Although local control and all that sounds good, in areas like mine it just led to even more local fighting and threats to school staff with students experiencing the collateral damage. So many other professions were still working from home last fall, or were in situations where they didn’t need to be face to face with many co-workers. But teachers see literally hundreds of students every day and are greatly exposed.
In my district, many parents were very ugly about protesting mask-wearing and nobody was required to wear masks at all this year, even before young children were able to be vaccinated—and I have young children. The really crushing thing wasn’t so much that they wanted to wear masks or not wear masks or they wanted to be vaccinated or not vaccinated, it was the ugliness in the community, the comments made in social media that were attacking teachers who might want to wear masks or who they suspected of being pro-mask or pro-vaccine—they were just so very hurtful and dehumanizing. I don’t think I’ll ever really feel the same again about my job as I did prior to the pandemic.
2 – In a lot of states and communities, Republican lawmakers have tried to ban Critical Race Theory from curriculums – even though it’s not actually taught in K-12 schools – and have targeted discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation. In some places, books are being banned. Do you have thoughts on this? Is that happening in your community?
People will say, ‘Well I heard this is happening,’ and then a bunch of people will chime in attacking teaching staff and we see these posts. We’re on social media like everybody else. We can’t reply, so we just have to observe and we can’t defend ourselves. We have all these falsehoods spreading like wildfire.
People have said ‘Oh, there’s kitty litter in the bathroom.’ That’s come up three separate times this year – our principal has had to deal with rumors about transgender students and kitty litter, where parents or community members claim students are saying they identify as a cat and there must be kitty litter the bathroom. This has popped up all over the state and then our community as well. It’s ridiculous and wastes hours of time to set the record straight when there are so many important issues that need to be tackled.
[Editor’s Note: Rumors about kitty litter have been repeatedly debunked.]
3 – How does this scrutiny and these sorts of attacks affect communities? How does it impact the relationship between parents and teachers?
I feel like the relationship right now between parents and teachers is the worst it’s been in my 21 years teaching. Parents of a certain bent have been now conditioned through the articles they read or whatever they see on social media, their friend groups, their bubble, whatever you want to call it, into seeing teachers in public schools as the enemy and accusing us of ‘indoctrinating students.’
They don’t give us the benefit of the doubt or give us the respect to just send an email and ask what’s really the case, as opposed to jumping to conclusions or attacking first, and not just attacking in a mean email but attacking us in the greater community.
4 – What impact could this have in the long run if this tension continues and if there are more limits imposed on what sorts of things you can teach or talk about?
I think it will drive some of our best teachers out of the profession. The ones who aren’t willing to live in fear that if they say the wrong thing the boom is going to come down on them, or the superintendent’s going to call them or a parent is going to smear them in the community — I think there are many teachers who won’t stand for that.
I’ve heard teacher colleagues, teacher friends and myself, even, say, ‘If this comes to pass’ — whatever this is — ‘If they pass this law, if this rule comes in, that’s it. I’m done.’
And these are our best, most experienced teachers. New incoming staff or teachers who don’t have another choice—whether they’re stuck financially or geographically or they’re just not certain what else they could do in their career—they’ll stay and they’ll deal with it, but we’ll all be the worse for it. Teachers can’t be fearful constantly and always censoring themselves when it’s something that they know pedagogically is crucial to the instruction that they are giving. The stress level will burn teachers out even faster than we already are.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.