This Is the Work

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I am a twenty-year veteran teacher. I’ve always taught the littlest ones – first grade, kindergarten, and preschool for four-year-olds, otherwise known as early childhood education or ECE. I teach ECE today in a predominantly black district – Denver Pubic Schools – at Hallett Academy, where 99% of the students are black.

This is my fourth year at Hallett. I’m the only white person on the ECE team. The school has been moving successfully toward an all-black faculty for years. The principal watches for paras [paraprofessionals] who show a lot of skill, who have bachelor’s degrees, whose children are just starting kindergarten, and she asks them, “Have you ever thought about becoming a teacher?” Then the school gets those paras into programs with scholarships and enough support to give them the time they need to get their schoolwork done.

I had applied for a position at Hallett because I heard about two of their ECE teachers, veteran teachers I really wanted to learn from. It turned out, that particular year, they lost a teacher right before school started, and they just needed someone. In that situation, they were open to hiring me.

Today, my teammates love me and respect me, but they were not happy at first about having a white person on their team. Not at all. Their team was the last all-black team in the school, and they were not happy to have me. They were hard on me my first year. But after I earned my chops, I could go to them and say, “I need to share this with you because I need some insight or some feedback about this.”

When the district mandated in-person classes this fall, at first, for a while, I was going to leave teaching. Then I got a message during worship that told me I couldn’t leave yet. So, I told my team that I don’t know if that was God telling me to stay or my ego. And they said “You know, we’re here to help you with that. As long as you realize the danger that the words coming out of your mouth could be coming from that whole messiah thing of yours, we can help you. We’re telling you right now, we’re going to be watching you for that.”

Last spring, all the schools in our district went to remote learning. I worked that out by holding a forty-five-minute Zoom meeting every morning with all the students and mailing packets of instructions and supplies to the families. The kids completed the work at their own pace, and when they were ready, they took photos of their work and emailed it back to me. It worked out pretty well.

That was last year. This year is a whole different ball game.

The district was planning to start all the students back with in-person teaching in the fall, but then the spike of COVID cases from the Fourth of July was so horrible that they decided at the last minute that they were not going to start in-person teaching after all – with the exception of ECE students. Three- and four-year-olds would be required to come back to school in person – in the district with the highest number of COVID cases in the state, the highest number of hospitalizations in the state, and the highest number of deaths in the state. All of them black people. For the other grades, they have a phased plan for all the students to return this semester.

Denver Public Schools have the additional problem that many of their buildings are quite old. I teach in a building that’s older than me. There’s no air conditioning, no ventilation. You can open windows in my building, but there are some buildings where they don’t even have that. My classroom yesterday was 90 degrees. Upstairs was 103. How is it that they think it’s OK to keep these kids inside together in that? Right in the middle of our Labor Day spike in COVID infections, they were planning on bringing these children back into these buildings with no ventilation, where we’re all breathing the same air.

And they’re making up standards. The state standard, as I understand it, is that kids have to stay six feet apart. But the district is saying, “We can’t fit enough kids into a classroom at six feet apart, so we’ll just say three feet.” 

And the teachers are saying “Well, how are we going to fit thirty-five kids into a classroom at three feet apart? How is the physically possible?”

And the district is saying, “We don’t know. Figure it out.” That’s literally what they said. They said the principals will help you figure it out.

Now, unlike many black families in metro Denver, white people here are mostly wealthy and privileged, and they don’t have to send their children to the public school or to any school. These families are not going to send their children to a sixty-year-old building with no air conditioning. They’re just not. What they’re doing instead is putting together “learning pods” where four or five families get together and hire their own teacher. And they are paying pretty well. So, it’s racist, it’s just racist. That’s all there is to it.

My own solution for getting through this situation is that I’m teaching some kids outside and I’m teaching some kids remotely. The students in my class who come to school in person only go inside to sleep. Most of their parents pick them up to go home before nap time. The rule is – and it’s a good rule – that kids can’t nap in their masks. This means that if I were to exactly follow the district plan, I would have sixteen kids here in my room with all the windows shut and no kind of ventilation whatsoever, all sleeping with their masks off. That’s exactly how they spread tuberculosis in the boarding schools.

But I have only three kids who stay for nap time. Six of the families are using my remote option, and all the rest of the parents were very happy to hear that I was going to have my naps at the end of the day and that they could pick up their children before nap time if they wanted to. Because that nap scenario is high risk.

My approach is not what the district has in mind, though. The district is mandating that ECE kids go to school in person. They told all the families: If you are not willing to send your child in person to their school, please call your principal, and give up your spot. When that happened, I lost my entire class in four hours, right before school started, except for three students. Pretty much everybody quit. I got a whole new set of kids three days before school started. My principal asked me, “Valerie, what do you want to do?”

I said “I want to offer families a remote option. I did it last year. I know that I can do it.”

She said, “Do it.”

And I said, “Are you kidding me? They’ve just told us we can’t do it.”

Then she said, “You know, if I’m going to lose my job for something in my lifetime, let it be this.” And she went on to make a statement that had us both crying. She talked about how the district’s decision seems very similar to giving indigenous people blankets full of smallpox. They are sending the smallest children into high-risk situations, where the likelihood is very real that they will bring disease home to their families. We don’t know how big that risk is, but it’s real.

Today, out of my sixteen families, I have six who are using my illegal remote option, which means I only have ten kids coming to school in person. That really helps with social distancing, being able to feed them safely, all of that.

Right now, I’m feeling like it’s really pretty safe. But when the rest of the school comes back, and there are three hundred kids in the building. . . It only takes one person, and we are all breathing the same air. . . We’ll see what happens then. I don’t know what I’m going to do about my safety then.

The other thing the district did that really bothers me is that they said any teacher who needs accommodations – which in this case would be authorization to teach remotely – they could get that if they came with a doctor’s note explaining the need. So, of course, a bunch of did this. My husband Dave has heart issues, and we help take care of his 92-year-old mother. So, I applied for accommodations. When they called me back, they said, “Since ECE doesn’t have remote accommodations, we can’t let you use them. But we can put you on leave. When your leave runs out, you will be unpaid. Also, we cannot guarantee your job for next year.”

And I was like “Oh, I guess I won’t be using my remote accommodations then, will I?”

So, sixteen ECE teachers and about thirty K-1 teachers were basically bullied into giving up their choice to teach remotely. That really made me mad.

But I do see one point that they are making. It’s really not appropriate for four-year-olds to be sitting in front of screens for the whole school day. But that’s not how I do it. Remote learning works by creating a lot of work for parents.

So, all the teachers who are able to quit are quitting. And probably some people who can’t really afford to quit are also quitting. For me, there’s no way I’ll be able to pay my mortgage if I quit, so I’m staying.

In a very small way, my situation gives me a feel for what it’s like to be black in America all the time. My struggles are tiny compared to those faced by black people every day, but I am in a high-risk group for COVID, and my husband is in a high-risk group, and I have to go to work in an unsafe situation because I have a mortgage to pay. I know that I’m white, middle-class, and privileged, but if I retired now, I would have to keep working part-time on the side to get through, probably always. So, if I retired now, I would actually be giving up my retirement. It’s still possible that I might end up needing to do that. I just have to see whether the kids get sick and how the district handles it.

Friends in my Quaker meeting have really been helping me through this dilemma at a spiritual level for months, praying over me and my situation. Dave and I have been hosting a six-person in-person meeting for worship in our backyard, masked and socially distant, because Zoom just wasn’t doing it for us. And I’ve gotten two very clear messages during those meetings, which I have not appreciated at all, but they’re clear.

One was: “Why do you think I have given you a life full of integrating situations with people of color? Do you think I did it because I wanted you to be a better person? No, I did it because this is your work now. This is the work I have given you. I have not released you from it, so now put your money where your mouth is, Miss Activist. You know, Miss Standing-Up-For-Racial-Justice, figure this out. And that does not mean doing whatever everybody tells you to do. It does not mean continuing what, in an extreme case, could be a genocide of little black children. Figure it out.”

The other message was something like, “Really? Really? Don’t you think that Black, Indigenous, Latino, and Asian people, all their lives, have been doing what you are doing now? Don’t you think that marginalized people in the United States have always had to go into unsafe jobs and leave their families behind and bring misery home to their children and send their kids to boarding schools to get tuberculosis? I have given you this work. Go do it.”

And I responded, “Oh, that was not the answer I was looking for, Lord. That really was not. I wanted a pep talk. Something like, ‘You’re so wonderful. Isn’t it great that you’re doing all this?’” But the messages that I have been getting are saying very clearly, “Step out of your white privilege and do this work. I’ve asked you; now do it.”

My doctor has told me she’ll let me know when it really is not safe for me to be teaching. She knows that I do not want to kill my mother-in-law or my husband, or be sick, or any of that. She’s saying now is a good time to be teaching; the description of what I’ve got going on in the building sounds safe. We’ll just keep talking, and if it gets to where it doesn’t sound safe, then we’ll talk some more. So, we’ll see.

And again, I’m very lucky to be working with the team that I work with. They told me, “We’re going to be watching you. You come in here with your messiah complex, and we will slap you down fast.”

There’s a lot of talk among Friends these days about what the Quaker response around different major issues should be. What should Friends do if things go south in the election? What should the Quaker response to the pandemic be?  Etcetera. But what I do not hear is, “Who’s going to talk to the indigenous people and find out what they think we should do? Who’s going to talk to Black Lives Matter and find out what they think we should do? Who’s going to go talk to the DACA folks and find out what they think we should do?” It’s utterly ridiculous for a bunch of privileged white people to think we can decide what we should be doing in the face of the kind of situations we are in now, when we could be turning to others for guidance – people within our communities who have been dealing with these kinds of problems for generations. Generations. 

Valerie Ireland is a Presiding Co-Clerk of Intermountain Yearly Meeting and a member of Boulder Friends Meeting in Colorado. Much of her involvement with Friends has been focused on working with youth. She spoke with Western Friend on September 16, 2020. A transcription of that conversation is available at westernfriend.org/media/conversation-valerie-ireland.

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