A word from the front lines
Every day since the “confinement” began, we, the confined, have come out in one way or another to applaud and thank those who have been out and about, facing the coronavirus mano a mano in hospitals, picking up the garbage, distributing the mail, delivering groceries, and watching over streets and borders. Mostly, these individuals are “in uniform.” That is, they have chosen to serve and protect and to set aside ego and self-preservation to help the collective.
In our cooperative, as in many other places around the world, the nightly applause became drumming, morphed into singing and then became a regular activity that still brings joy and, I would like to think, healing to our neighborhood and by extension society at large. We sing This Little Light of Mine with a line to the “nurses and doctors.”
All the while, though, one group of “uniformed workers” has been toiling, often in the shadows of an office or a rejiggered bedroom, or a kitchen. Teachers.
My brilliant other career
I’ve been a sub for the past six years. I teach German and English in the public schools here in Geneva and am familiar with being cast into the fray without much training. (Some day, I’ll write about my brilliant career). This year I have had a class of eighteen teenagers about to leave their secondary school for either further education or apprenticeships + schooling. For the past two months we’ve been teaching online and learning how to do it.
The experience of teaching during lockdown is worth a separate posting, so please be patient as I write it up. Suffice to say this: On May 11, teachers of primary schools and secondary schools in Switzerland are being sent out to start up the machine. Our classes were halved, with a Group A doing the mornings of week one except Wednesday, and Group B doing the afternoons, plus the Wednesday mornings. The week following, Group A does the afternoons, and Group B the mornings.The idea is to lessen the crowding in schools..
Our rules of engagement are strict. Foot traffic through the school has been redirected to keep people moving without crowding. Some places have been cordoned off, the photocopiers have been separated, so have the computers. Everything, from desks to IT material, has to be disinfected, though there appears to be a shortage of disinfectant. How we are to maintain discipline has been theorized, but those of us who work with teenagers daily, know how difficult it can be. We know they will want to chat with each other, share stories, be together. Emotions run high among the young. Many have built-in reactance, too, that is, they feel that authority is an infringement on their rights, while forgetting their obligations. When adults act this way, it’s mere immaturity. These teens haven’t seen each other for two months and are now supposed to sit quietly in a classroom, while teachers, mostly mask-less, have to maintain a distance of two meters. Walk any street of Geneva or supermarket aisle, and the first people to bump into you will be the young’uns. I don’t blame them, we were all like that at some time, still discovering three-dimensional space around us.
In short: We’re being asked to play piano with our hands tied behind our backs. Just pointing this out. Our goal is not to complain about a lack of haircuts or not being able to race through supermarkets buying stuff. Our goal is to find solutions.
It will definitely be a challenge.
But now the clapping has mostly died down, and The People are beginning to get bored of the lockdown, so it’s time for the reserves to go over the top. We want to ignore the virus for the moment, and hope all goes well. As if the virus cares. The economy must move again, cost what it may.
A word about teachers in the media...
There is not too much about what teachers do or did in the news media locally at least. Programs like PBS’s Newshour will give space to this vital social and economic sector, one that assures continuity and a steady supply of workers, managers, even entrepreneurs. Mostly, here in Geneva at least, the news about teachers has a negative touch.
In fact, early on in the confinement, I was sent a short sketch by two television comedians on the local Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) who run a comic show named 120 Minutes. The point of their little routine was to show teachers in lockdown as being computer-illiterate, vacation-loving, self-absorbed and somewhat stupid lazybones. It was supposed to be funny, in the hyar-hyar sense, and it might have elicited a smile from me had it not been for the jarring comments that ran a few pages below on the pair’s Facebook page and were almost entirely devoted to viciously endorsing this low-brow cliché. It reminded me of the known fact that many, in the days of All In The Family, including Nixon, thought Archie Bunker, the epitome of the bigot, was an OK guy.
I wrote to the two fellows explaining to them why I was not terribly happy. And naturally got one of those snide responses that failed completely and purposely to acknowledge my point about the comments. It confirmed my belief that television is really not a tool of enlightenment, but rather of general dumbing-down, which is why I don’t have one in my home.
I also spoke to a journalist for what I assumed was a television station. She was looking around for people who were experiencing something for the first time. On hearing that I was a teacher, I immediately heard her neurons slowing down. She couldn’t wait to get rid of me on the phone, but was too polite to just hang up. My observations on online teaching of teenagers didn’t interest her in the least. She probably needed something more visceral to sell her report. I get it. But I could feel her drumming her dendrites.
Ultimately, I wrote a letter to the Tribune de Genève, our local newspaper, which like so many in Switzerland is fairly conservative. It rarely portrays teachers as being anything other than boring, tedious bureaucrats with too much time on their hands. Already years ago, during a teachers’ strike, they never failed to publish vitriolic op-eds about teachers. At the time, I wrote to a few journos (without answers, of course) to ask if they wanted to really know what a teacher’s job was like. They wouldn’t make it for 30 minutes without blowing a gasket.
I ended the letter with a sentence that I heard echoed a few days ago by Diane Ravitch, historian, author, and founder and president of the Network for Public Education:
“One of the fundamental building blocks of democracy is having a free and universal public school system.”
We, teachers and subs, try to do that. Without masks and gloves or sufficient disinfectant. Without clapping.