School employees in Rittman, Ohio, play dead on the floor during an active shooter mock scenario
School employees in Rittman, Ohio, play dead on the floor during an active shooter mock scenario conducted June 20, 2014. Credit: Kate Way / Shutterstock
Barth Keck
BARTH KECK

The school year is coming to an end across Connecticut. Thank goodness. As a teacher completing his 31st year in the classroom, I’ve always looked forward to summer as a time to relax, refresh, and recharge. And by the end of each August, I’ve always been eager to get back to school and start all over again. After three decades, quite honestly, I would not still have the energy to teach effectively if I did not have an annual summer break.

So yes, I’m glad the school year is coming to end once again. But this year it’s different. I’m more than glad; I’m relieved. I haven’t needed a summer break so much since I was a newbie in the classroom.

The pandemic has played a major role, of course. The hybrid schedule was gone at the start of this year, but masks were still required for much of it, causing minor hindrances. Quarantining was still a regular occurrence, resulting in occasional interruptions for students and staff. But we had figured out how to navigate COVID’s logistical complications by September of this year. There was more at play here.

First, the kids were hurting emotionally. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, citing a 31% increase in mental health-related ER visits among children aged 12-17 from 2019 to 2020. Even before the pandemic, in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for people between 10 and 24 age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consequently, more kids than ever had a trying time both in school and out. The uncharted territory of COVID was hard enough, but the added stress of teenage life made it difficult for many of my students to maintain focus and complete their assignments in a timely fashion (if at all). As their teacher, I had to walk a delicate balance between maintaining academic rigor and providing the space many kids needed to stay healthy.

What made the task additionally problematic were the societal expectations on teachers to address the so-called “learning loss” that COVID had caused in students. Typical among the complaints were those of writer and pundit Jonathan Chait: “The damage to a generation of children’s social development and educational attainment, and particularly to the social mobility prospects of its most marginalized members, will be irrecoverable.”

But that was not the worst of the pressure teachers felt this past school year. Nationwide accusations of schools teaching “critical race theory” found their way into Connecticut despite any evidence of its existence or even any accurate explanation of what CRT really means from the critics. Guilford teachers, in particular, felt the wrath of this unsubstantiated criticism. Superintendent Paul Freeman “cited letters to the editor and social media posts regarding the school’s teaching and equity policies which imply that ‘parents shouldn’t be trusting the teachers and school administrators who are shaping the experience for their children in Guilford.’” 

Thankfully, I have not felt such pressure personally, aside from comments on social media from those calling me a “groomer” and “brainwasher” of children. Granted, I don’t know these people personally, and the only thing they know about me is that I’m a teacher. But that’s the point: Strategic political posturing has convinced scores of people that, rather than a noble and essential profession, teaching is an insidious endeavor whose primary purpose is to push a far-left agenda.

And then, of course, are the horrific school shootings – 27 so far this year, underscored by the death of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, last month. The predictable response from politicians and pundits – most of whom have spent little if any time inside a real school since they attended one themselves – is “more guns” and “locked doors.” Lather, rinse, repeat. Nothing ever changes.

A former student of mine who is now a teacher in Connecticut recently summed up the situation with a photo on Facebook of her meager classroom. The caption: “BTW, THIS is what a government funded classroom looks like. Arm our teachers with funds, not guns.”

Sadly, the photo was accompanied by this personal announcement:

“Yesterday, after ten years, I resigned from teaching. I’ve taught in four schools, across grades 4-12, general and special ed, on both coasts of the U.S. I’ve laughed and cried and yelled and everything in between. I’ve loved other people’s babies like my own. I’ve cheered for my kids’ triumphs and believed in them when they didn’t believe in themselves. I’ve felt their joy and their heartbreak.”

“But I needed a break,” she added, “to catch my breath from the indescribable task that has been the last 2.5 years. To pour energy into my own children. To not take on the worry of 40+ other kids. To not walk into a classroom and always evaluate the escape route. I’m not sure the weight of this change will hit until the fall, but I’m choosing to trust in the journey.”

I don’t blame this teacher one bit. The last two-and-a-half years have been a mighty struggle. For me, the past year alone has been exceedingly difficult. Unlike my former student – and soon-to-be former teaching colleague – I do not plan to resign after this school year. But I’m also not very far from retirement, so my way out of teaching is in sight.

How sad that now I find myself thinking ever more frequently about my “way out of” a career I have loved for three decades. Such is the state of teaching in 2022. 

Here’s hoping that the ensuing summer break will once again work its magic and provide teachers the time to relax, refresh, and recharge. They need it – and deserve it – more than ever.

Barth Keck

Barth Keck

Barth Keck is in his 31st year as an English teacher and 16th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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