The Dilemma

My test is positive. Again. Unquestionably, undeniably positive. Despite my best efforts to prevent it, I have covid. Today is day 8 since my symptoms began and, while I feel much better – only a cough and runny nose linger – my RAT test insists that I am still highly contagious.

I’ve already missed five days of work, so my self isolation period is officially over. According to both Public Health and my employer (the entity, not individual people), it’s time for me to get back to the classroom. Public Health’s official policy is that people can go back five days from the date their symptoms started if their symptoms have been improving for 24 hours and they don’t have a fever. This is me: fever is gone, symptoms are improving. My employer offers five days of “quarantine” leave, but after that I am using my sick leave. I am an employee, and I am supposed to work. Did I mention that I am still testing positive for a disease that may be more transmissible than measles and which, while it can be mild, can cause unknown amounts of long term damage to vital organs?

Nevertheless, the expectation is that I go to school – masked – even though both the tests and the science say that I am contagious and that the mask will not prevent me from infecting others. And I want to go. I’m so eager to return that this morning I even contacted a physician, just to double-check. Her response was unequivocal, “The RAT means you are still contagious. You shouldn’t go to work. Even in an N95 mask. Your students aren’t in the best masks. Just staying 2m away doesn’t prevent others from getting sick. Covid is airborne. I’m sorry.”

Each day that I stay home, the pressure to go in grows. Each day I’m out, the students lose out on effective instruction. Our school board, like so many others, is struggling to find supply teachers (substitutes). My colleagues are stretched thin, covering classes that are not their own; if we’re lucky and the school finds a supply teacher, that person is unlikely to be able to deliver a lesson; increasingly, we cannot find coverage at all and the students have (another) study hall.

But if I go in, I put real people at risk. Real people. People like you or your loved ones. Even as I type, researchers are trying to figure out the complications of covid, and we know they’re more likely if people aren’t vaccinated. Maybe you think that everyone should just get covid and get it over with. Or maybe you think that covid isn’t really that serious. Ok, sure. But what if I go in, coughing, masked and infect your child or your sibling? I don’t know if the students are vaccinated. I do know that one of my students is just out of the hospital. I do know that some of my students have younger siblings who cannot be vaccinated and others have family members who are at risk of complications if they get covid. I know that my friend’s child attends my school. I know, too, that my colleagues have people in their lives who are at risk. Who am I to decide that they should be exposed to covid?

Then, as my father (who is an infectious disease doctor) points out, I am lucky enough that I don’t *have* to go to work. Perhaps instead of being upset that I am still sick, I should be grateful that I am able to protect others. In that case, I can choose to be particularly cautious to protect others who don’t have the same luxury.

While I try to balance all of this, I must continue to plan my classes, even though I am not there to teach. Tomorrow will be day 7 of students following instruction from a screen. They are trying; they know that I, too, am trying. They really are the best. Still, some of them have thrown in the towel. Attendance is dwindling and fewer and fewer assignments come in. I don’t know what they have actually learned or what they need next to support their learning. I really want to be in the classroom.

And yet: I am so much more than simply an employee, merely human capital. I am a friend, a mother, a teacher, a colleague and so much more; much of my identity is wrapped up in caring for others. If I go to work, even though I am “only” coughing, even if I am wearing a N95 mask, even though Public Health says it’s ok and my employer (again, as an entity, not as individual people – my administration is lovely) would prefer that I return, I am denying the human-ness of all the people around me. I am deciding that my choice, my freedom is more important than they are. I can’t do that.

I love my work and my students. I miss them. I want to be there. Precisely for those reasons, I look at my RAT, look hard at those two red lines, and know that I am about to call in sick for tomorrow. After that, I’ll get to work on another lesson plan.

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Relax?

The summer I was 13, aunt Sara got married. The wedding was a big affair gathering far-flung members of two large families for a riotous celebration. My American aunt was marrying a Scottish man and they lived in the Cayman Islands, so guests hailed from around the Commonwealth and beyond. I spent the week before the wedding thrown together with the other awkward teens – Rachel, from England, and Mark, a very cute boy who I think was half American half British and who attended a boarding school… somewhere.

Rachel was a year older than me and approximately a million times cooler. She was clearly only talking to me because she had no choice. I’m pretty sure she smoked – something I would never even have considered – and she slouched around my grandmother’s backyard in an oversized t-shirt with giant letters that said “RELAX”. When my grandmother noticed the shirt, she smiled approvingly, “Why, isn’t that a nice thing for a shirt to say?” As soon as she had turned her back, Rachel rolled her eyes at me and said, “Yah – good thing she doesn’t know what it really is.”

I, of course, also did not know what it “really” was, and it took some well-placed questions and the occasional faked bits of knowledge (of course I liked “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” I nodded, though I had never heard of them) to learn that “relax” had something to do with sex and music and was most decidedly not a general, all-purpose sort of sentiment. I didn’t fully understand the reference for years.

This story pretty much sums up my relationship with “relax” – it sounds nice in theory, though it may mean something I don’t quite understand, and while I hope I can fake my way through, it often takes me a while to figure out. “Relax” is my one little word for this year, although I have to admit that I actually forgot what it was until a couple of weeks ago. Sigh.

In fact, I keep forgetting that I decided to focus on relaxing this year. Take, for example, last night, after the whole family tested positive for covid. As I fell asleep, I found myself planning everything I could get done in the five days of quarantine. In my head, the list went on and on: re-plan my classes to account for a four-day absence, finish a letter of recommendation, finish marking essays and start marking a project, complete report cards, finish my current book, read to Mr. 13, watch a movie, knit, do the laundry…

Today I mostly played word games and read a little. If I’m lucky, tomorrow I will do a little something else. We are lucky – none of us are seriously ill (keep your fingers crossed!) – and I am determined not to take that for granted. “Relax,” I tell myself, “the work can wait.”

I wonder what Rachel did with that t-shirt? Last I heard she had two children was running a pub; I’m sure the t-shirt is long gone. Still, I’m betting that right about now, both of us could use an oversize t-shirt that reminds us to relax. And we wouldn’t even roll our eyes when someone commented on what a nice idea it is.

Parting at Morning; Meeting at Night

I learned about Robert Browning’s paired poems Meeting at Night and Parting at Morning in 11th grade with Mrs Braswell. This morning, all these years later, their titles echoed in my head because – for the first time ever – both Andre and I had to leave the house before our children left for school. In fact, we would both be gone before the older child woke up. They had to get up, get ready and get to school entirely on their own.

At any rate, when the titles of these poems ran through my mind this morning, I wasn’t thinking about 11th grade or Mrs Braswell: I was thinking about my kids. Today, for the first time ever, both Andre and I had to leave for work before the children left for school – which meant we also had to leave earlier than we normally do – which meant we all had to be on our A game.

Last night, we packed lunches, checked breakfast provisions, laid out clothes. This morning, Andre was gone before I even woke up. Half an hour later, I was up, getting ready. I gathered my things, then kissed Mr. 11 awake, told him to brush his teeth & hair, remember his lunch and make sure Mr. 13 woke up in time for school. Then I left.

We’ve left them alone in the evenings plenty of times with (almost) no qualms, but somehow this was different. Would Mr. 11 actually comb his hair? Would his brother wake up? Would either of them eat breakfast? Would they remember their lunches? Leave on time? Lock the door? These questions would remain unanswered until I got back from work. Would they let themselves in after school? What if Mr. 11 lost his key? Would they feed the cats? Would they feed themselves?

I vowed to go home right after my classes ended, just in case, but a teacher in my department was having a very bad day, and I stayed to help them calm down. The kids had another 45 minutes alone.

As I finally gathered my things, I realized that I hadn’t worried about my children at all during the conversation: I’d been focused on the problem at hand. And when I walked in the door, I knew immediately that everything was fine. Mr. 11 had remembered his tutoring session; Mr. 13 was doing his homework. All the keys were where they were supposed to be. The kitchen counter provided evidence that they had eaten (if not tidied up).

And just like that, we’ve passed another milestone. Over dinner, it was clear that they were tickled at this new bit of independence – Mr. 11 says I should tell you that I was too worried and they were awesome. He’s not wrong.

To be fair to their nervous mother, they did forget to feed the cats.

Who can fail?

I am the parent of a stubborn child., so I wasn’t shocked when he decided not to do his art work for several months during elementary school. I wasn’t pleased, mind you, but I wasn’t shocked: he does not like to be directed in his artistic expression. As you can imagine, in our home we’re pretty alert to school things (I am a teacher, after all), so when I noticed a string of missing assignments, I asked what was going on. He assured me he had it under control. A few days later, the assignments were still missing, so I offered to help. He politely declined.

Since he was in elementary school, I could have insisted he do the work. He would have resisted; we would have fought; there might have been a tantrum. In the end, I suspect that I could have coerced him into doing it. If nothing else, I’m still bigger than he is. But I didn’t. I offered help occasionally but mostly left it up to the child and the teacher.

When report card time came, he reminded me that his Art mark wasn’t going to be very good because he hadn’t done his work. I assured him that I remembered. Then, as I opened his report card, he said it again. We looked. It was bad. His lip quivered, his eyes filled, and suddenly he was crying in my arms. It feels awful to get a terrible mark, even when you’re little. It hurts, even when you are expecting it – even when you deserve it.

I held onto him for a few minutes, stroking his hair and whispering, “I know, I know.” Eventually he calmed down, and the discussion that ensued was hard. I pointed out that the mark didn’t tell us who he was, but that he *chose* this: he had decided not to do the work and this was the result of that decision. We talked about how it felt worse than he expected, how it had been easy to decide not to do the work but much harder to experience the impact of that decision. We talked about how next time maybe he would remember this terrible feeling and choose to do his work.

He hasn’t missed an assignment since then.

Today, I worked with an inspiring dedicated group of educators from my school board. On paper, we’re working preparing for “destreaming” beginning next year (all grade 9 students will be in one level for all courses – no advanced or remedial or high or low or anything: just school). What we’re really doing is reimagining school. Research shows that streaming students is racist and upholds the status quo, but just throwing them all into one class and hoping things work out isn’t going to fix this. We need to undo generations of racist policy and systems. We need to rethink. We need to do better.

This work is hard, even for those of us dedicated to equity. We are trying to envision learning that is radically student centred in a system that is not designed for students. More than that, the system expects a product as the result of our precious PD days: we need to create something that will help teachers throughout our system do this work day in and day out. Hint: lessons and unit plans aren’t going to be enough.

When I’m with my colleagues, imagining school, we dream big, but this also leads to a lot of questions for everyone involved. Today, I left our meetings thinking about some of the students I’ve taught over the years, and thinking about my son. Sometimes, it feels like the only way a student would ever fail in a system like this is if we, the teachers, fail. After all, in this new vision, the teacher’s role involves really knowing their students, really finding out what drives them. But I wonder. Is there space in this reimagined school for a student to say no? I’ve taught students who didn’t yet have a “why” and who didn’t want to do the work. Students like my son sometimes need to test the boundaries to ask if we will hold firm in our belief that they can do good work. And some students have been failed by a system that places them in a situation where they simply do not yet have the skills to succeed. Can they fail?

Look, I know that failure can feel devastating, and I’m all too aware that most children won’t experience the type of support I was able to give my child. But… I have taught students who see no purpose in school, students who hand in no work at all, students who don’t attend most days. I have had students do this even when I have wanted to know them, tried to know them, reached out to them. I have had students who do not trust me because, well, I’m me and I’m not who they need. I have even had students fail and return the next year, knowing that the failure proved my belief that they were capable of more.

I guess I’m just wondering, in a radically student-centred system, how do we make space for students who want to say no? Who gets to fail? Who do we fail if the answer is “no one”?