I received this sensible email from Melissa McMullan, who teaches sixth grade students on Long Island in New York State.

I am a sixth grade teacher in Comsewogue School District, Port Jefferson Station, NY. I have a PhD in Literacy Studies from Hofstra University. You have previously published my writing on your blog as it pertains to 3-8 testing and APPR. This year it is imperative that the state suspend both so schools can focus on meeting the myriad of students needs in the face of this pandemic.

I want to begin by sharing what I see every day when I go to work. Having been a teacher for 20 years, I see the worst teacher I have ever seen. Every day I judge my performance based upon what I know makes a good teacher. I see little to no evidence of a strong teacher performance based upon existing metrics, and what I know are standards of good practice.

This is a heavy burden to carry. I remind myself I am teaching in the middle of a pandemic. I am working in a classroom that is not my own. All of the materials I rely upon to do my job effectively, are outside, locked up in a trailer. I can’t do the collaborative work that has always benefited students. I am teaching an additional subject, one I have never taught before. We try not to handle students’ papers. I do not have the hundreds of novels and picture books we traverse in a “normal” year. Every lesson must be constructed in a way that ensures there is no shared touching of materials.

There is a bright side. Students have yoga mats. We go outside to do work. We are experimenting with modes to collaborate, while maintaining the appropriate distance. We are developing ways to have class conversations where we can hear one another through our masks. I am working hard every day to reinvent myself as a teacher in order to teach in these times.

Little I am doing is anything I have ever done before. And I am one of the lucky ones. I only had to learn one additional subject this year. Some of my colleagues have had to learn five. I am assigned to the same grade level I’ve been with throughout my career, while many of my colleagues are not. I am in the same building, while many of my colleagues have been relocated. I teach in one room, the majority of my colleagues are travelling room to room every period, with only the most essential items from their classrooms crammed on carts that move with them.

There is an undeniable level of stress every day. We are teaching in a foreign landscape, while monitoring masks and distance and how long it’s been since our students have had a break. We watch as our custodial staff travels throughout the building with backpacks and respirators spraying disinfectant on the surfaces we touch. Every day, students exhibit COVID-type symptoms of sneezing and/or runny noses. We have to determine, while teaching, whether their symptoms require a trip to our auxiliary nurse to be triaged. There is the “Do Not Enter” list, that has to be checked every day, containing names of students we cannot permit in our classrooms until they are cleared by the nurse.

Everyone, at every level of public education, is doing everything in his or her power to continue to educate children, in the safest manner possible. I own my failure this year. I cannot measure up to pre-pandemic instructional standards. Nor can colleagues who have been shuffled around classrooms, buildings, subjects and grade levels to maintain appropriate social distancing in classrooms, amid a frightening and stressful teaching environment. Every ounce of energy we have is expended standing in front of our students every day with a smile (while wearing a mask), projecting a sense of calm, kindness and love, while simultaneously finding any way humanly possible to teach in this situation. 

New York State must suspend its three through eight high stakes testing schedule, as well as its teachers’ Annual Professional performance review (APPR). Both endeavors carry with them an inordinate level of stress, and costs in both materials and manpower, while having no ability to assess what students and teachers should be evaluated for this year. If New York State is unable to relinquish these tasks, I respectfully ask that both my students and I be registered as failures, so we can move on and use our time, energy and resources for devising ways to succeed in this environment.

I tell students we are a part of history. We are in school in the middle of a pandemic. Forever we will be judged by how well we took care of one another. Measure that.

Melissa McMullan, PhD