Credit: George Danby | BDN

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I’m leaving teaching not with a bang, but with a whimper.

In hindsight, my first inkling was in the spring: We were driving to a plant nursery, and when I saw the number of cars in the parking lot, I ordered that we come back later. Order suggests confidence, but it was more a nervous grumble.

It’s now the end of summer. I still don’t grocery shop. I rarely go home to see my family, especially my mother, who lives in an assisted living facility for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. If I would not even enter a parking lot, how could I return to an indoor classroom?

On bad days, I call myself a coward; but on better days, I call myself cautious.

After my time as a French teacher, I’m hanging up my drapeau, storing away les crayons, and retiring the subjunctive. I had finally moved beyond my early teaching years and was looking forward to drawing on my experience to refine my craft and experiment with new techniques.

With the classroom I thought I knew eroding around me, I’m sneaking out the back door.

When Sandy Hook happened during my first year of teaching, it radically changed the classroom. Coming of age in a post-Columbine world, I had my first active shooter drill as a junior in high school. But these drills are now ingrained into school life.

After we normalized teachers taking bullets for their students, how many left? How many — like myself — embraced their inner coward and said, no more. I’m sorry I’m only catching up to them now.

We saw the ratcheting up of teacher responsibilities once again as the pandemic forced us into our virtual classrooms. We pivoted. We readjusted and recalibrated and responded. These unprecedented times called for unprecedented solutions. And we were praised, for a time.

An outpouring of memes and articles extolled what teachers have known all along: our jobs are hard and often thankless. The collective internet empathy ushered us to summer break — then the support never came back from vacation. The rapid expansion and contraction from teachers-as-heroes to teachers-as-selfish shows us many have never been on our side.

It was worrisome to me to be dubbed a hero. The noble sacrifice of teaching that I had signed up for was long hours and meaningful work. My school, like many across the country, worked endlessly to plan the impossible: a safe return to school.

Face shields were ordered, classrooms were measured, and health screening duty assigned. The plan, like so many others impacting teachers, did not actually seat teachers at the planning table. Our plan proposed a student mask removal with adult discretion clause, until teacher outcry pushed them to reverse the rule. With some teachers finally invited to the meeting, our agenda document listed temperature checks, HVAC systems, free period supervision, and, finally, education of students. The impetus to return to the classroom was just that, a desire to return to a physical space devoid of everything that makes it what it is. The buildings are opening, but they are anything but school.

I give you permission to call me a coward. I am scared to take a bullet for my students. I am scared to face down a more invisible and pervasive threat. I am scared to become embittered against a profession I once held dearly. So, I am moving on.

The classroom I’m leaving, however, hasn’t been a functioning classroom for quite some time. Even before going remote, we’ve been too busy preparing for active shooters, sifting through the latest academic technology, absorbing the latest best practices (and letting go of the old ones), adjusting to new learning goals, preparing for standardized tests and responding to parent emails to actually teach.

As the unprecedented times steadily become our new precedent, my fellow teachers, I ask, what will be your last straw?

Danny Chin of Topsham is a former classroom teacher.