Dear Future Generations of My Beloved Family,
When you read my name, or see an old-faded picture of me way after I am gone, and you discover that I was an educator during a world-wide pandemic you might ask yourself:
“What did Vernee stand for during that time? How did she show up for her community?”
I am wondering about this because I often do this myself, as I sift through pictures of our family… wondering how our family members thought about their place in history. Instead of leaving you guessing, I decided to leave you with some of my thoughts… in the hopes that you will get to know a bit about what is in your DNA, in your bones.
Let me start by saying that I am deeply committed to bringing high quality child-care into low-income communities, so our children have the same opportunities as the children in privately funded schools. This is important because our children get labeled; they get labeled A LOT. And I believe I can drastically improve the children’s outcomes.
Teachers who are knowledgeable, who understand social and emotional development and create warm, welcoming, learning spaces can show children how much they care about them, and that makes a difference. That deeply held belief guided my response to this crisis. When our school was gearing up to reopen, I was nervous, anxious and scared — but I did not hesitate. All the teachers did react by asking for time to prepare. “Hey, we need another week!” but as soon as we started, we all agreed: “We got this!”
Facing fears and making sacrifices
I am not saying it is easy. Sanitizing everything, wearing a mask, and opening our doors to the children each day is not simple. It’s scary! I often wonder: How close is the virus? Who were the children sitting next to on the bus on their way to school? Who did the children’s families run into during their trip to the grocery store? I pause and map out who I myself encountered on my way to school. I feel anxious every day.
I think all the teachers are on guard and we hold a lot of stress. Aside from the fear of infection, we are also striving to meet the growing needs of the children during this time. Understandably, some children are very emotional. They need extra time and attention. This requires additional planning: relaxing sensory activities, communication visuals, and a willingness to encourage children to express emotions in the best way they can. Some children just need a chance to cry, and be consoled and understood.
We, as educators, have to pay attention to them and pick up on their cues. More importantly, we have to mask (literally and figuratively) our own emotions. Each day I put my emotions aside. I can be bone tired, I can be hurting myself, but I make sure I am really soft, sweet, warm and welcoming. Sometimes this is all it takes to support children to feel good at school.
During this extremely challenging time, we want to avoid having subs at the center, to avoid increasing the pool of germs, and also to continue to provide consistent care for the children. I don’t miss a day of work. I come each day. I am here for the children. And I am aware that I am not the only one making sacrifices. I know my family has also sacrificed a great deal. I can never give them my full attention, even during the weekends, because I am always running around doing all the things that I can’t get done during my long work week.
What keeps me going
You may wonder why I am choosing to put my life at risk. My response is complex… because I feel that with all the difficult feelings there are many rewards too. Part of my inspiration comes from my mamma, who was also a San Francisco teacher. She used to repeat this mantra: “When you go, go all the way, don’t stop or settle ever!” I take that to heart. And every time I look at these kids and think: These are my kids! And I ask myself: If I’m not going to care for them, who will?
So, when you read this, don’t pity me because, to be honest, I’d rather be here than anywhere else. My love for what I do, my encouragement from my mamma’s mantra, and my commitment to the children are not the only things that keep me going. I also love the agency I work for: FranDelJA Enrichment Center Fairfax, in Hunters View. I hope this is the last early childhood center where I will work. This is where I will retire.
There was a shift for me two years ago, when I left my old job and I went from hating going to work to waking up each morning looking forward to coming to work. I sincerely believe in the “Founding Mothers” of the agency and I trust our current leadership. I have faith in my supervisor Cornell Cobbins, who leads by example. He is here every day, holding onto his words, actions and beliefs. He offers much reassurance to all of us, because he also believes in working towards giving our children the opportunities they need to grow and develop to their fullest potential. COVID does not change that. As a strong Early Childhood Education leader, Cornell believes in working towards a fair and just society for everyone. Like me, he believes that our Asian, African American, Caucasian, South East Asian, Hispanic children have the same wants and needs and that every child at this age should have quality education. It doesn’t matter where they live, where they come from or how people perceive them.
I know that my supervisor does his best to provide for our center. He is a leader who will not stop. In the little things and the big things. For example, he himself drives all over SF or shops online to ensure we have gloves, masks, disinfectants, smocks etc. not because we’re African American or our school is located in a low-income neighborhood, but because we should have the same provisions as everyone else. He and I agree that as long as we know the school is safe and healthy, we’ll keep it open. We also agree that if we find out that there is anything that can put people in harm’s way, we will not hesitate to lock the doors.
It is also very rewarding to be able to go above and beyond and to support the families and children in ways that other schools might not be able to. During the pandemic, families are really struggling so I found donors to give aid so the children could have warm winter coats and one present each. For Halloween, we had a sandwich making party since the usual costume parade family event was out of the question. I have one student that is allergic to gluten, so I went to Safeway at 7 am, found the one gluten free bread on the top shelf. No one was there to help me, so I managed to climb up and reach for that one loaf. Imagine me, a short woman pushing myself up so a child in my classroom could have what all the other children had. He has restrictions but I told myself: he’s going to get his bread too. And that truly is the reason why I get up every day, pandemic or not: to make a difference in the lives of children. Where society places restrictions, I see opportunity. I reach for the top shelves.
What can society do to support teachers?
I hope you can see all the rewards I get from teaching. I also hope we can highlight some of the sacrifices teachers make, as a way to attract attention to a profession that is not highly valued. As an educated woman of color, with a teaching permit and a nice resume, I could go work in a private school… but I know I am happiest here. There are, however, things I long for, things I know would make a difference.
I often long for a more natural environment for the children, a place where we could have real chandeliers and china and beautiful things that show the children how much we believe in them. I long for the day when those who are in power can take steps to make Early Childhood Education a sustainable professionby raising the salaries to a livable wage. None of us is going to get rich in this field but in order to recruit and keep good teachers agencies have to pay competitive salaries or else experienced educators will leave the field. In addition, I think that there are many things the authorities could do to support us during this pandemic.
I would love to have an essential worker pass, additional PPE and hazard pay. During this city wide shut down it would also be helpful for me and my fellow teachers to have shorter hours so I could keep up the stamina needed to do this demanding job.The authorities tell us we’re essential workers, but don’t really treat us like it.
I have no regrets, at least not yet. I tell newer teachers: “Are you doing this because you love to or because you have to?” If it’s just a job then this isn’t the field for you, but if you love it and it’s your passion, welcome aboard.
You have to want it and you have it love it. The children can read you like a book. They know your reasons for being there. They deserve the best and I am determined to show up each and every day to give them my very best. When I was a young mother, I visited 24 preschools before I found the right fit for my son, Jacob. I expect the same from our families. I expect them to choose carefully, like they choose their groceries. I am here, doing my best so a family can have the assurances that their child can feel safe and include, like my Jacob eventually did.
Teaching Behind the Mask is a series of voices from infant, toddler, and pre-school classrooms across San Francisco. It’s a collaboration between Barbra Blender, Eliana Elias, and the remarkable early-childhood education teachers who continue to serve children and families during the pandemic.