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Checking in on three teachers after another school shooting

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We continue to learn more about the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where 21 people were killed - 19 of them children, along with two teachers. The teachers were Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles, who taught fourth grade. The shooting points to yet another example of increasing pressure and volatility that surrounds teachers' jobs. Gun violence, teaching during a pandemic and fielding criticism of what exactly is taught in the classroom - it has all been a lot. So we called up three teachers to check in - Ian Pearce teaches psychology at Sam Houston High School in Arlington, Texas. Hi, Ian.

IAN PEARCE: Hi.

RASCOE: Rochelle Brown is a kindergarten teacher at Poquonock School in Windsor, Conn. Welcome.

ROCHELLE BROWN: Thank you so much.

RASCOE: And Isabel Marquez is a bilingual special education teacher at an early childhood and development school in Plano, Texas. Thank you for being with us.

ISABEL MARQUEZ: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: You know, obviously, I want to start off by saying that I am sorry that we are reaching out under difficult circumstances. And so I wanted to just start off by asking you how you're feeling about the events of last week.

MARQUEZ: It's a mix of emotions. I'm angry. I'm frustrated. I'm sad. I'm disappointed. It's all the emotions all the time.

RASCOE: And, Ian, how are you feeling?

PEARCE: It definitely hits close to home as a teacher. I think we've probably all had similar situations where we've had that kind of, like, fear, like, what's going to happen? What would I do? And it just kind of brings those feelings up to the surface.

RASCOE: And, Rochelle, how are you feeling?

BROWN: I've shed many tears this week. It brought me right back to about 10 years ago with Sandy Hook, which happened in my home state of Connecticut. I've shed a lot of tears, kind of laying awake in bed at night thinking about these families and their children and their community and asking myself, how has this happened again?

PEARCE: We can all probably agree that, like, there are things that go on outside of the classroom, but when you hit that door, it's like, let's put on the face, the smiles and be there for our kids. And I see my students come in, and they have questions. They want to know why. They want to talk about it. They want to kind of sit with their feelings. And it's a hard balance to kind of juggle between, like, how do we process this together but also just not be so terribly sad?

RASCOE: Dealing with gun violence or a global pandemic - like, they were not a part of the job description when you first became educators. Are you feeling like your jobs are more dangerous now? Isabel, do you feel like your job is more dangerous?

MARQUEZ: Definitely. I feel like we have been asked to extend ourselves to the point of, like, almost losing our mental health because it was - when COVID started, it was such a rapid change of gears, right? We had to pivot immediately to start delivering online instructions when we were not trained to do that, especially preschool teachers - special ed preschool teachers. And then we came back face-to-face but with some restrictions. And then those restrictions went away, and, like, COVID is gone. But no, we're having outbreaks all the time.

And at least in my particular case, two of my own kids have kidney failure. I have one kid who's completely immunocompromised. So I have to keep precautions. I have to wear my mask. I have to make sure that I'm being pretty proactive so I won't bring any illness into my house. So I do have to teach when in the back of my mind, I'm so worried - oh, please God, don't let me have COVID this week. And so-and-so is already sick. And then I had to send two kids to the nurse. And all of those worries were not there before. So I feel like the joy of teaching has beginning to fade in me. And I need to find it. Like, I really have to take a deep breath every morning and remember, you know, why I'm doing what I'm doing.

RASCOE: I can't even imagine. Rochelle, does it feel more dangerous? And also, I mean, with what Isabel was talking about, being concerned about mental health, the health when it comes to COVID - there was a lot of anger at teachers, especially when students were out. Did you feel any of that, like, in your personal space, that anger that people felt like teachers needed to get back in the classrooms and be teaching?

BROWN: Oh, yes. In our state, there was a lot of backlash about even wearing masks and that type of thing. When I first walked into my classroom in 1999, I never would have imagined the dangers that there are now. I never thought of a school shooting. Not that they didn't exist before then, but that was the year that Columbine came. And then years down the line, here comes Sandy Hook. And I'm thinking, this is right up the highway from me, from where I live. And there was a long time where I would say to myself, oh, my God, these are - these are the kids that I teach. And for a very long time, my classroom door was locked, and I knew that my school was safe, or so I thought. But I'm sure that they thought their school was safe, as well. And that's what kept replaying in my head. And then we come to COVID, and I'm looking at the kids and, you know, teaching kindergarten and having kids wear masks. And the masks are down here.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yeah.

BROWN: And the masks are up here. And they're on their ear, and they're slingshots, and they're whatever. And every child wants a hug, and you don't want to be the person that says, I don't want to hug you because you know that that baby needs a hug. There is so much going on, and we have so many people leaving our profession because of the tremendous pressure that they feel to have to manage all of this.

PEARCE: Boy, prior to becoming a teacher, I worked in a corporate office job, and I survived a workplace shooting just one floor beneath me. I walked out into the stairwell one day and looked down and saw the evidence of a shooting and then heard people screaming and yelling just on the other side of the fire door. It's one of the most terrifying things I've ever experienced in my entire life. And so every time there is one of these shootings, I am brought back to that place and how I felt. And all I can think of is, how can I prevent my kids, my students and my colleagues from experiencing that same thing? Because it never leaves you.

We have had - at my campus, there have been three student-involved shootings during school. I've had lots of lockdowns for guns on my campus, loaded weapons, you know, on campus. I feel like at times, I just don't know what to do. And in fact, you know, as far as things go, this is actually my last year teaching. I made the decision to take a step back because, you know, as much as I love teaching and I love the community that I serve, if I can't be there and be fully present for my students, I am not going to be the most effective educator - the educator that they need.

MARQUEZ: I think what - I'm just, like, relating 100% to what Ian is saying - and I think the saddest part is we are working 40-plus hours a week at least and not be done. What I keep telling my husband, who is also a teacher, is like, why do I work so hard and make so little? That's my main concern with my profession. And I came into teaching thinking that I was going to make a difference. And I have. I have made a difference. However, what comes into my paycheck doesn't make a difference for my family. And we're both educators. And there's months that we just - like, we can't afford food - food. And we have four kids.

BROWN: My goodness.

MARQUEZ: We have four kids - two special needs. So we're working a lot. We're sacrificing our mental health, our family time, and we are getting very little in return.

RASCOE: And it's work that is essential to society. Rochelle, you've been teaching, I think you said, since 1999.

BROWN: Yes.

RASCOE: What keeps you in the classroom?

BROWN: It is the kids that keep me going. It's the families that keep me going. It's year after year when I see a child that I had way back in 1999 that now tells me, I'm getting my master's in nursing, and I wanted to let you know, Ms. Brown. Children that I had that are now, you know, in their late '20s that still keep in touch with me to this day and tell me, you were the first teacher to teach me about Black history, or you were the first teacher to tell me that I could be something because I would hear at home that I was going to be nothing.

RASCOE: Ian, what does teaching mean to you?

PEARCE: You know, I don't know that I ever thought I would be a teacher. I was very difficult when I was in elementary school. I actually went and found my former elementary grade school teachers a few years ago, and I apologized because I was the worst. But I also thanked them because I had a few select teachers that I feel like would actually listen to me. And that made all the difference in the world. And so I thought to myself, gosh, that would be great if I could offer that to somebody else.

RASCOE: And, Isabel, what does teaching mean to you?

MARQUEZ: I feel like I'm meant to be there, and many times I wonder if, you know, I think I can make more money somewhere else. However, when I see around and I see all these children - and my school now serves mostly Venezuelan refugees, and their parents come not speaking a word of English. And when they come and I start speaking Spanish to them, you have to see their facial expression. They are - they feel relaxed, and they just keep, you know, sharing their stories, and they're so grateful that we have a safe environment for their kids. And I would love for people, especially for our elected officials, to realize the importance that we play in the society because they take our work for granted. And it shouldn't be this way.

RASCOE: That was Isabel Marquez in Plano, Texas, Ian Pearce from Arlington, Texas, Rochelle Brown from Windsor, Conn. Thank you all for speaking with us. And thank you so much for the work that you do.

PEARCE: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you for having us.

MARQUEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.