The First Day of School: Anxiety for Students and Teachers

You suddenly wake up, your heart is pounding, you’re drenched in perspiration, you think, “I’m going to be late,” and suddenly realize, it’s 4 am, and school doesn’t open for a week. The opening of school is anxiety producing. You’ve already texted your principal: “What day can I come in and work on preparing my room?” And, ask yourself, “Can I make my room more welcoming?  How am I going to greet the kids? How am I going to relieve our anxiety?”  It doesn’t matter, first year or tenth year; it’s the nature of the job.  For ten months you’re living with your class, you’re the surrogate parent from nine to three, five days a week. You learn more than you want to know about your student’s lives.

We’re hoping for a year without remote instruction, a year without COVID.

Some kids come in hungry, some from far away nations with limited English skills, some living with relatives, single parents; you might be the one stable adult in their lives, a staggering responsibility.

I worked in a large urban high school, over 200 teachers, a few thousand kids; traditionally we reported the Tuesday after Labor Day.

We trickled in and gathered in the high ceiled lobby, a steaming urn of coffee and a pile of bagels, “Compliments of the Parent Association,” Greeting our colleagues and exchanges, “How was your summer?”  Perhaps a squeal from a gaggle of young teachers as one displays an engagement ring; a few with backpacks, just off a plane after hiking across Europe or South America. Others still look tired, only two weeks off after teaching summer school.

The doors open and we move into the massive auditorium to listen to the words of wisdom from the principal and instructions from the assistant principals.

The supervisors/administrators leave and the school teacher union rep takes the stage, we all listen intently; words of real wisdom from the union; the latest news, and, class size grievance procedures, (just in case) deadlines for end of term grievances, the day-to-day work of the union.

My school was a strong union school, no, that doesn’t mean fighting with principals, doesn’t mean many grievances, its means working with the principal.

Sheila Cohen, the assistant principal: guidance, always had a pot of hot coffee and comestibles (usually donuts) in her office and the “core group” would gather most mornings, Sheila would ask, “The principal is thinking about ….”, we’d all express opinions and the beginning of a policy would be debated.

When I arrived the school was undergoing a staffing change “old timers” were retiring; teachers who had been in the classroom for thirty and some instances forty years. Up until the 1970’s teachers were appointed off a rank order list.  The Board of Examiners created examinations; teacher candidates took written and oral examinations, and appointed off the list. Some teachers had fought in World War 2 and attended college under the GI Bill: an impressive group.

A new teacher asked me, “Mr. Berger’s class is so orderly, every kid comes on time, I have trouble just getting them in their seats,”  I told him, ask Mr. Berger, he finally did, I asked “What did he say?

Berger: “A lot easier than fighting my was across Guadalcanal.””

My school was also divided into factions with substantial animosity among old time staff members. The Fineberg Law required all teachers in New York State to swear they were not and had never been members of the Communist Party; a few hundred teachers across the city were fired and bitterness infected the school as some applauded and other reviled the law. Teacher organizations, the Teacher Guild, Teacher Union, High School Teachers Association vied for members. See Clarence Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard recounts the political infighting among teacher activists and the politics in the creation of the UFT and gaining collective bargaining rights here.

In states across the nation today restrictions on what subjects can and cannot be addressed in the classroom are being passed by state legislatures, from Florida to Texas, the repressive strictures of the early fifties have returned. Teacher unions are fighting back, through legal and political action. The leader of the Miami-Dade Teacher Union, Karla Hernandez-Mats is running for Lt Governor in Florida on the Democratic ticket. (Read here)

I was drawn into the union, I saw union advocacy as a pathway to making our nation better and hope each generation of teachers follows the same pathway. I’m not talking about advocacy in the classroom, we teach our students to think, to differentiate between propaganda and actual news. To think for themselves and not be drawn into “cultish” babble. I’ve taught kids far to the left and conservative in thinking.  We read excerpts from Locke and Hobbes, I’d have kids write papers on Edmund Burke and Utopian Socialists, and I signed up kids to register in a political party, vote and urged them to get involved.  We invited local political leaders to come to class, my goal: to produce knowledgeable voters.

Some argue teaching is “a calling,” I was pushed off the end of a diving board, I never planned to spend my work life as a teacher, I never regret it.

I taught in a strong union school, a highly collaborative school, and represented the union; I was one of the faces of the union. I’ve probably been in a few hundred schools; the flavors of schools are endless.

In New York City we’re entering the first year of the new administration with, let’s be polite, uncertainty. The final budget, still unresolved, the new class size law, still unsigned, the state beginning an examination of graduation requirements. The one constant, on Thursday, September 8th, kids will arrive in New York City schools, kids from across the city and across the world.

My grand daughter: thinking about what she’s going to wear, she’s excited and anxious, there’s something about that first day of school.

A fitting song: Pete Seeger, What Did You Learn in School Today

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