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  • katherine halligan

The Mute Button

Teachers, how do we love you? Let me count the ways.

It is not simply the fact that — as I have noted before — you take our children, care for them all day, and return them to us both more enlightened and more tired, so that our afternoon work is all a much easier downhill slope towards bedtime.

It is not simply the fact the fact that through some extraordinary alchemy you manage, surprisingly often, to transmogrify dull curricular restraints into fun: the sort of skipping-home-from-school, non-stop-chattering-about-the-day fun that uplifts children and parents alike.

Nor is it simply the fact that you spend most of your day on your feet, marshalling order in circumstances that often border on pandemonium. You manage to educate the well-behaved children, while simultaneously disciplining those insanely out-of-control students with no impulse control, who variously pick their noses, stick pencils up the same orifices, attack each other with scissors (I have witnessed this myself, more than once), and otherwise violently invade the personal space of the few pupils who are actually attempting to learn something. You do all of this in a cramped, overcrowded, outdated space… and you do it all with patience, forbearance, and a remarkable lack of shouting.

It is not even the fact that you do all of these extraordinary things for extremely low pay.

It is also the fact that now you do this — and oh so much more — from a distance, transforming yourselves into IT wizards who upload daily lessons and download finished assignments behind the scenes, and then appear onscreen (smiling, no less!) to channel all of your goodness and energy into a mere two dimensions, captivating and engaging our children from afar.

It is also the fact that the time you previously spent creating interesting projects, shepherding small groups through their teamwork while learning important social lessons alongside the academic ones, and generally pouring huge amounts of creative energy into the eternal challenge that is keeping small, wiggly people holding still and actually learning, you now spend wrestling with multiple seriously awkward systems. Logins fail, links fail, uploads and downloads fail. You did not sign up for this degree of failure and frustration, and yet here you are, thrust into the roles of IT gurus with very little training.

It is also the fact that you do it with a much broader audience than usual, because of course you are also doing this with far more parental oversight than you ever bargained for, as we eavesdrop — whether we like it or not — on your morning lessons. (We did try earphones but our younger one hates them, and we all know where that ends up; all of the five pairs they previously had have somehow mysteriously stopped working). You now also have myriad visitors dipping in and out of your classrooms: loud younger siblings, dogs, cats, turtles, birds, grandmothers, and parents in conference calls with no apparent awareness that they are walking through a classroom talking at full volume (it explains so much about their children), all causing a degree of interruption that would have previously been utterly unimaginable and indeed physically impossible: can you even fathom such a parade of noisy characters coming through a normal classroom?

It is also the fact that you do all of this while somehow also teaching your own children on the side.

It must be said, though, that for all its many (many, many) frustrations, the virtual classroom has its benefits, the primary one of which is the mute button, which I am sure you wish was viable back in the real world. Below follows a montage of actual real conversations I have actually really heard, amalgamated into a single exchange with one child, whom we all know; there are always a few in every class. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (by which I mean the teachers, not the children in question).

“Dweezil,” we hear you say, “please change your onscreen name from ‘fartface’ to Dweezil. Dweezil, please stop dancing on the coffee table. Dweezil, please stop pulling your dog’s tail. Dweezil, please take the blanket off your head so I can see you. Dweezil, please stop doing ALL of these outrageous things, or I will mute you.” You mute Dweezil and then he (for, I’m sorry to say it is nearly always a he) keeps going. “Dweezil!” you say with remarkable calm and forbearance, “If you do not stop sending poo emojis to the whole class while I am talking, I am going to turn off your video and exit you from the meeting.” And then, because of course he does not stop, with an Oscar-winning straight face (for how do you not chuckle triumphantly as you do this?), you click one button and Dweezil is gone. Poof!

Don’t you wish you could do that all the time? Go on, admit it, we know you do. You are human, after all, a fact we have only recently discovered as you have honestly and generously shared your own struggles, showing us the walls of your home and the limits of your previously seemingly boundless patience. I know I would be loving the mute button if I were you, but unfortunately I cannot mute my actual three-dimensional children in our proxy classroom. I am so glad that, for this bizarre and hopefully relatively short-lived time, you can use it.

In the US, from May 4th through 8th, we celebrated teacher appreciation week, so this blogpost is many days late — and also many years late. I should have written it as a letter to my teachers a long time ago, but I don’t think I truly knew how to say all of this until I had my own children, and found myself passing my education on to them. Some of my most beloved teachers are no longer with us, sadly, but for those that still are, and for the teachers my daughters have had thus far, have now, and will have one day: thank you. We appreciate you more than you will ever know. We are humbled by all that you do, especially now that we are trying (and generally feeling like we are failing) to be your assistants in this strange new world.

If I could, I would give you a mute button to take with you back into your real classrooms, whenever we are lucky enough to enter them once more.

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