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The ‘Difficult, Beautiful’ Work of Teaching

Teachers make at least 1,500 decisions a day, big and small. Many of them are the kinds of quick instructional pivots that respond to students’ needs and misunderstandings. But teachers also are responding to other kinds of unexpected situations related to students’ health, safety, and general wellness.

An unexpected lockdown: ‘You’re responsible for everyone in your classroom’

In Arizona, Hana Boscarino is in the middle of her advisory period when a recording plays over the loudspeaker: The school is now in lockdown. Teachers and staff, lock your doors.

The lockdown wasn’t planned, unlike all other active-shooter drills. Boscarino and her students assume it’s real and spring into action.

Someone turns the lights off, a student locks the classroom door, and everybody crouches against the wall in silence. Boscarino ushers students who are outside into the classroom and urges them to move quickly to a spot along the walls, away from the windows.

Her voice is tinged with anxiety, but she remains calm and in control. The students follow her directions matter-of-factly, almost reflexively.

About a minute later, someone comes on the intercom and gives the all-clear. A false alarm: Someone had accidentally hit the button that triggered the lockdown announcement.

The experience, though short-lived, invoked anxiety in some students, Boscarino said later. It also reminded her of how high the stakes are as a teacher.

“You’re remembering so many things, and you’re responsible for everyone in your classroom,” she said. “The moment that the lockdown is announced, I’m thinking, OK, I have to lock my front door. … The window in the flex area that’s in front of my classroom is wide open, and anyone can see in. … The door is locked, but I have to open my door one last time to pull in any extra kids. I’m opening my door, and I don’t know where the threat is, but I need to get those kids into somewhere.”

The sheer number of responsibilities a teacher needs to fulfill at an instant is staggering, but Boscarino recounts them calmly, like clockwork. It’s ingrained in her mind, and in the fabric of the job.

“You’re inventorying every kid that’s in your classroom. How many kids do I have in here? Did I let anyone out to the bathroom? Did I let anyone go get papers from another teacher? If I did, did they make it back in time? Are they in another classroom?” she continued. “Our lockdown lasted for a couple minutes, if that. And those were just the things that were going through my head. I can’t even imagine if it continued, what else I would be thinking about.”

After the lockdown, Boscarino’s students quickly got back into the rhythm of class, although the experience lingered with Boscarino for the rest of the day. After all, it was a stark reminder of the reality of schools today.

Even though school shootings are statistically rare—Education Week counted 38 shootings on school grounds that resulted in injuries or deaths in 2023, and nine so far this year—they’re still an ever-present fear in the minds of students, educators, and parents. Lockdown drills are ubiquitous, with students and their teachers hunkering down in the darkness to practice for the possibility of a gunman roaming the hallways.

“The kids are so used to that feeling of a lockdown occurring, or that momentary feeling of being unsafe, or even that panic that occurs,” Boscarino said. “I just think they’re really resilient. These kids, they’re able to adapt to whatever is thrown at them—including a surprise lockdown in the middle of the day, which they think is real.”

Responding to serious situations: ‘How do I emotionally support my students?’

In Oklahoma, the start of Sofia Alvarez-Briglie’s recess duty is interrupted with a text from her brother, a first-year teacher at Alcott Middle School. His girlfriend, who lives with him, has tested positive for COVID-19, and he isn’t sure what to do. As one of the school’s new teacher liaisons, Alvarez-Briglie helps tackle these kinds of logistical questions and offers support.

She had just finished resolving that unexpected drama—running a mask and COVID-19 test over to her brother’s classroom—when she’s hit by another curveball. As soon as she gets outside for recess, a fellow teacher whispers that a student had a medical emergency in the middle of class that morning. The news is startling.

Moments later, Alvarez-Briglie notices a girl sitting by the wall, crying. Her friends are looking at a phone and telling the girl: You need to report this.

Alarm bells go off in Alvarez-Briglie’s head.

She walks over to find out what’s going on. The details are muddled, but she gathers that this might be a situation of sexual assault.

The student tries to brush it off, but Alvarez-Briglie tells her that she needs to report it—and it’s not OK. The teacher loops in the school’s counselor and student advocate, who bring the girl into the front office to talk more.

Alvarez-Briglie pulls aside the other girls and tells them that she’s proud of them for supporting their friend and encouraging her to report the incident to an adult. But now, she reminds them, the best way to continue to support their friend is to respect her privacy and not talk about what happened to others.

Later, a boy runs up next to Alvarez-Briglie and tells her about the medical emergency that took place in his classroom that morning. “I’m sorry you had to witness that,” she responds. “That must have been scary.”

In an interview afterwards, Alvarez-Briglie acknowledges that hearing about the medical emergency and a possible sexual assault in a short time period was draining. At the time, she just had to power through.

Unlike other professionals, teachers can’t take a few minutes to go for a walk or grab a cup of coffee to clear their minds in the middle of the day. Their days are scheduled down to the minute; they are forced to compartmentalize, tamping down any strong emotions until the day’s over and their students are gone.

“How do I emotionally support my students, and the teachers—my colleagues—who find themselves in that situation?” Alvarez-Briglie said, reflecting on the events of recess. “In both of those cases today, I very much just kind of felt like a listening ear and somewhat of an advocate. … And then later in the day, you start to process.”

Never a dull moment: ‘It’s not for the control freak’

Teaching, Frank Rivera said, is “not for the control freak.” There’s always a fire to put out, an opportunity for a life lesson, or an unexpected interruption.

During Griselle Rivera-Martinez’s planning period, she receives a text from 1st grader Angie Olivas’s mom. Someone had called from the front office, but the mother trusts Rivera-Martinez and feels more comfortable getting the information from her.

Rivera-Martinez calls both parties at the same time, juggling her cellphone in one hand and her office landline in the other, to translate the information back and forth between mom and the front office in real time. 

Conflict resolution is also part of the job. Two girls in Helen Chan’s 4th grade class who were working together in the hallway come into the classroom to find Chan. One girl accuses the other of taking them both off task; her partner thinks she’s being overly critical. Chan pulls them aside to adjudicate.

She suggests that they talk about how the other made them feel and try to work together again. Partner work is hard, she tells them, but you have to learn how to do it.

Teachers find opportunities throughout the day to weave in those types of character-building lessons. In Oklahoma, students are playing lacrosse in the gym period that Sofia Alvarez-Briglie teaches every day. The game is intense, and Olivia, a cheerleader, asks to quit and sit on the bleachers with her friends, who are nursing prior injuries.

“Did you try? I feel like you gave a 10 percent effort,” Alvarez-Briglie responds. She wants the girl to go all-in before she sits out the game. A compromise is reached: Olivia can stop playing after she engages with the ball at least twice.

Olivia rushes back onto the court with a renewed sense of purpose. She makes contact with the ball, and Alvarez-Briglie gives her the OK to join her friends. She tells the group: “Olivia did awesome! I’m just happy she tried. That made my day.”

And then there are the funny little interruptions, the kind that can only happen when working with kids.

A student from another class shows up in Chan’s doorway, interrupting her math lesson to ask for a Ziploc bag. The girl grins and points to the empty spot in the top line of her smile: a lost tooth.

“Ava, slay!” exclaims another girl. “Congratulations, Ava!” Chan says, handing her a container to keep the precious cargo safe.

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