For the first time in many years, I am teaching summer school. For the last two weeks, I have been teaching three small groups of incoming ninth graders about the main elements of fiction, among them protagonist (experiences conflict) and antagonist (causes conflict). I specifically chose a story, Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” to illustrate that a protagonist’s conflict is often internal and/or complicated and that protagonist vs. antagonist often does not equate to hero vs. villain.
As literature is intended to be a way in which we understand the human condition, I think the general public might need a refresher course on the definitions of protagonist versus antagonist. I’m seeing too many people falling back into an old, familiar trope: teacher as villain rather than protagonist.
I belong to a number of teacher Facebook groups, among them an international group about virtual and hybrid teaching methods, a group about addressing racism in school settings, and a local group dedicated to lobbying for student and teacher safety as schools figure out their plans for the coming year. Both in these groups and in other social media activity, some by those directly impacted by education issues and some by others, there are two opposing but equally damaging narratives that I’m seeing reoccur recently.
The first goes something like this, “Any teacher who doesn’t advocate for a return to school buildings, or who agrees to teach a small cohort of students, is ignoring the needs of students and contributing to systemic racism.” There are so many issues with this argument, it’s hard to know where to start. First of all, almost all teachers are painfully aware of the inequalities in education, and more teachers than ever are working to directly address those inequalities. Some educators are, for the first time in their careers, embarking on real anti-racist work. But that doesn’t change the fact that there could be myriad reasons why they can’t go back into a classroom right now and aren’t advocating for schools to open. Doing so might compromise their health or the health of their family. They may have their own children at home doing virtual learning. They may recognize that the disparities faced by many students are not just educational but also health care, employment, and housing disparities, which of course means that they are living in areas with higher Covid numbers. Therefore, bringing those students back into school buildings might not be the most responsible choice.
The second narrative is along these lines, “Any teacher who doesn’t refuse to go back into the classroom this year is a traitor to the profession and doesn’t care about children.” To begin with, this shows a drastic lack of understanding of the dearth of options available to many people in the world of education: adjunct faculty in higher ed, private school teachers, and public school teachers in right to work states. Much of the job security that came with a teaching job is gone and to argue that there is strength in numbers even without formal protections in place is an argument that probably feels safe to those whose employment isn’t on the line. As for not caring about children, it almost feels so laughable as to not be worth addressing. I’m not even sure how you begin to explain to someone who believes a teacher might not care about kids what it means to care about kids as an educator.
I don’t know a single teacher who believes that any option for the coming school year is a good one. This isn’t a story in which you can cast a hero and a villain. Teachers right now are protagonists facing myriad conflicts, both internal and external. What is the right decision for their students? For their families? For their own health, both physical and mental? The last thing teachers, and the students who are impacted by those teachers’ choices, need is the antagonism of people who believe that any part of teaching in a pandemic is easy or clear cut.