Opinion I’m a Texas teacher. Here are all the things I’m asked to be.

(Holly Stapleton for The Washington Post)
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Madeline Vosch is a writer and teacher based in Austin.

I work at a Title I public high school in Texas that is 70 percent Hispanic, and where 60 percent of the students are categorized as economically disadvantaged. There is so little I can do for my students, but so much I’m supposed to do.

Something is wrong with the heating and cooling system. My classroom is always freezing. Some days in winter, it’s 55 degrees inside; even in late May, it’s cold. So I become an HVAC tech: I bring in a space heater. Students stand in front of it, warming their hands as if at a hearth.

Early in the school year, my students tell me they’re hungry. “I’m sorry I’m so out of it, Miss,” one says. “I haven’t eaten since yesterday morning.” I bring snacks, stock my classroom with granola bars and Goldfish. I learn which teachers bring ramen noodle cups, which offices keep oatmeal.

One day, a student misses lunch and tells me she’s going straight to work after school. She won’t eat until midnight; her bank account is empty. I walk her to the vending machines, pay for her Pringles — a small token from my small paycheck. My fellow teachers and I become a food pantry, spread out across the school.

In fall 2021, my school district defied Gov. Greg Abbott (R) by implementing a mask mandate. I’m not legally allowed to ask my students whether they’re vaccinated, though I can tell them I am. I remind them, again and again, that their masks must go over their noses. We keep the desks pushed apart except in classes where there are so many students, it’s physically impossible. If a student gets covid, I have to notify everyone they’ve been in contact with. I become a public health worker, trying to contain the virus.

Some students in my classes work full time, are their families’ primary breadwinners. One student, not yet a senior, will work 10-hour days this summer because she wants to send money to her younger sisters, who live in a different town. When she and others ask me about budgeting, I become a financial adviser.

No one in the school is allowed a locker — it could be used to store weapons. We have lockdown drills and lockout drills. I become a safety marshal, a commander of a tiny army, the last thing standing between my students and whatever is to come.

My classroom is on the second floor. My students tell me that if there’s a shooter, they’ll run, they’ll jump out the window, despite what we practice. “Miss,” they say, “it’d be so dangerous to stay. The shooter has been in the drills. They’d know where we’d be hiding.”

Opinion: At school, we prepare to be shot at. This is how it feels.

I try to explain the physics to them — that where we are is higher than they think. But I’m not a science teacher. I can’t tell them which risk is greater: jumping or standing still.

I’ve had to think about this scenario more than I care to say. How many seconds it would take to run across the room to lock the door. Where I would move the desks to best protect my students. What I could say if a student tried to run. How to keep them calm and quiet, keep them from calling their parents. What I would do if a student were locked out and I couldn’t let them in.

Once the classroom door is locked, we’re told, we can’t let a student back in — no matter what. The shooter could be standing next to the student, using them to get inside the room.

In that moment, I’d become a powerless god. The last person they might ever see, telling them no, I can’t do anything. I cannot keep you safe.

I can help my students find apartments, apply for jobs. I can walk them through college applications. I can tell my undocumented students how to get financial aid without a Social Security number. I can call a trans student by their correct name, can sit with them when they tell me the nurse dead-named them over and over, that it made them panic, that they just want to go home. I can tell them I’m sorry, it’s not okay for the nurse to do that.

But I can’t think of what to say to them about the shooting in Uvalde, Tex., because this happens again and again, and no one does anything. There is nothing I can say to a student who stops coming to school because they don’t feel safe.

One of the teachers in Uvalde, who lived through one of the worst things imaginable, told a reporter: “That’s my baby, too. They are not my students. They are my children.”

Opinion: Why nothing will change after Uvalde

These are my kids. We teachers, we staff, try to feed and care for these students because they’re ours, because they are beloved. But the roots of the problems they face grow outside the classroom walls.

We are asked to tell children who come to school hungry that if they work hard, they can have a different life. Meanwhile, the school is falling apart around us. We barely have the resources to teach and yet we are asked to take on more. In the next school year, teachers in my district will have one less planning period; they have to teach an additional class because the district can’t afford to hire enough teachers.

We’re asked to be guards, caretakers, public health officials, life coaches. It’s impossible to do everything, but we’re asked to do it all because no institution outside our schools will.

The police won’t keep my students safe. Politicians won’t regulate guns. Billionaires won’t pay their taxes, money that might go to the schools. So we teachers do more. And when we can’t, it’s the most vulnerable children who feel the effects.

The teachers in Uvalde acted as human shields, giving their lives to try to save their students. But the truth is, no matter how hard we try, we can’t keep them safe on our own.

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