“Welcome Back, Teach” (Jessyca Mathews)

Mathews is an English Teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan. Her story appeared in the Washington Post’s online article, October 6, 2020. She is one of nine teachers the newspaper asked to report on their experiences in returning to remote and in-person instruction during the pandemic.

The massive rumbles of thunder surprise me from my sleep. With heart racing, I turn over to look at the time. It’s only 4:30 a.m. I could try to sleep for another hour and a half, but my mind has other plans. As I sit up and look out the window, I gaze at the dark, mysterious sky.

I am exhausted, but I must start my day because it is time for the inevitable. I must report to the Factory today.

I begin a ritual that would soon be my daily routine. I take a hot shower. Brush my teeth. Put on ChapStick. Find clothing with many pockets. Display makeup just on my eyes. The mask will cover the rest of my face.

I investigate my survival bag to make sure I have the required items: hand sanitizer, masks, face wipes and at least two bottles of water.

As I zip my bag, the memory of last year’s school bag comes to my mind, and I smile. Then it was filled with purple pens, gifts for co-workers and first-day prizes for students. I always loved playing games with them on the first day.

But that won’t happen this year. Teaching will be online for the foreseeable future.

I reach inside the medicine cabinet for the thermometer and take my temperature.

It can’t be over 100.4. Lastly, I complete the Factory’s required health assessment form online to “prove” I don’t have the Illness.

My “Good for the Soul” soundtrack plays on my car radio, but I ignore the tunes. There is too much worry about entering the Factory to enjoy the irony of Beyoncé, telling me to “Get in formation.”

After driving through rain-drenched streets, I arrive and park in the front parking lot. Before entering the Factory, I pause to watch other co-workers.

With her head hanging low, one worker walks with a slight limp as she begins her path to the front door. Another co-worker sits in her car. Her eyes are closed, and her body is still. This meditation must be her moment of peace, even if it is just this brief minute. I do not interrupt her.

Others lurch out of the dark shadows of cars and trucks, reaching for their faces to veil their noses and mouths. The coverings also suppress the lips that usually express greetings of “Welcome back” to start the previous years.

After meeting my new intern, Anna, who stands alone in a puddle-filled parking lot, we join the others. We trudge inside the Factory to start this new line of work and existence in education.

Nothing is like it was before.

The workers cannot meet as a whole group due to the Illness. Half of the staff are sent to the cafeteria and half head to the auditorium. We can’t even join as one to start the school year. There is no unity anymore.

Anna and I are sent to the auditorium to receive further instruction. Once we enter, we hear the directions:

Sit five seats apart!

Sit every other row!

Sit facing forward!

There are slight sounds of squeaking seats as each worker follows the directions. There is limited talking. There are no happy conversations about children and escapes that happened this summer. The Illness took many things. It also took away the usual noise and excitement that happens when we start another school year.

Just one year ago, teachers of all grades gathered in this space. There were laughter, hugs and well wishes to have another successful school year. But the tone has changed. Most sit and stare, their eyes filled with nervous tension, confusion and worry. We soon hear a noise from the speakers. The Leader is prepared to begin.

The Leader appears on a large screen and I fight to pay attention to my new directives as the anxiety creeps into my soul. The Leader’s message is quick and direct and we are sent to our working spaces. The Leader’s statements do not comfort me, and nothing in returning here makes me feel like I matter.

There are no lights on in my hallway. Figures of co-workers move like apparitions haunting abandoned buildings, each disappearing into their classroom. I panic at the drab ambiance of my working space. It makes me think of all the things that will not be there with me to start this school year.

No students. No conversations. No light. Will there be joy?

Today, there is only darkness and the soft click of my door closing to start this new year of dystopian teaching.

I shall teach children on screen from the Factory.

I whisper to myself, “Welcome back, teach . . . ”

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Filed under dilemmas of teaching, how teachers teach

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