Stories of Our Neighbors: The Teacher Is In
Stephanie Jankowski schools readers on why educators matter so much.
When Stephanie Jankowski began teaching at age 22, she kept getting strong-armed in the halls by a school nurse who thought she was a student skipping class.
Now, nearly two decades later, Jankowski has seen it all: furloughs, school-board bullies, angry parents and a pandemic that upended everything.
“It’s incredibly hard to be an educator right now,” says Jankowski, now 41 and the author of “Schooled: A Love Letter to the Exhausting, Infuriating, Occasionally Excruciating Yet Somehow Completely Wonderful Profession of Teaching” and founder of the teacher/parenting blog, “When Crazy Meets Exhaustion.”
“What we need most is solidarity. And kindness. Always that.”
These days, Jankowski has transitioned from teaching English to academic advising for eighth- to 12th-grade rural Louisiana students enrolled in Stride-K12, an online learning platform providing individualized public and private education. Her husband, Zachary, teaches AP Statistics at a public school in the Pittsburgh region. They reside in Allegheny Township, where they are raising their three children: Brady, 12, Ella, 11, and Lyla, 8.
“We know what it’s like to be both parents and educators. I can empathize on all sides,” Jankowski says. “People want someone to blame for the state of things, and sometimes they lash out at teachers.”
Yet when she talks about these strange times, Jankowski — petite, perky, with long ash-blonde hair that can rock a ponytail that would still make that school nurse suspicious — shines.
“I get it when people say they’re thinking of dropping out of education. But if you’re born to teach, you’re born with hope. So I tell people, please don’t quit. We need you. For all the negative parts, there’s so much good. Seeing a student succeed — that good outweighs anything else.”
I love and believe in the idea of community. I feel like none of us should ever feel alone.
The pandemic was hard because it was so isolating. My husband and I were home with three young children. We stayed healthy, and it was kind of sweet because we got to reconnect. “Hi, remember me? Your mom? Nice to see you.” For once we weren’t rushing. I relished Friday Night Bingo. I adored Game Night. But a lot of our friends and family were not as fortunate. We lost people.
I’m Type A, so at first I liked having all of us home. I knew where my people were, and I knew they were safe. But as time went on, I felt the world slipping away. I felt I needed to fix it, whatever it was. Somehow fixing it meant dressing up as my kids’ new art teacher.
I don’t know what happened to me, but I came downstairs one day with this giant bow on my head. I started talking in a “Mrs. Doubtfire” voice. My kids weren’t allowed to call me mom. They had to call me Mrs. Bowman. Because of the giant bow. I may have needed an intervention, but it turned out fine. My kids still keep asking when Mrs. Bowman will be back. Like they didn’t know that was mommy’s uh-oh moment.
Even though my husband and I are educators, the pandemic taught us a lot about meeting our kids where they were. I have a better sense now of what they need in terms of learning anything. They were and are still so young. I also needed them to have some joy because it felt like joy didn’t exist in the world for a minute there.
I feel for our teachers and our students because I don’t think the expectations placed on any of us right now are realistic or sustainable. People are struggling, and the world is terrifyingly hard. That’s not something you can remedy in the classroom or by banning books. Some days I feel like we’re putting Band-Aids over bullet wounds.
Angry parents are protesting everything. I know we are all scared and confused. It’s frustrating when you can’t control certain things. But some of us blame the closest targets — teachers or books or masks — instead of finding a rational outlet for our feelings.
A lot of the problems are trickle-down parenting. There are just so many conspiracy theories taking root. It’s strange how grown adults can be misled by things they see on TikTok. I don’t know that independent thought exists right now. That scares me even more.
Most days I’m stuck between wanting all the information about everything and wanting to move into a cave so I can know nothing. I’m torn about how much my kids need to know, too. I try to think about what affects their daily lives. What are they going to run into at school? And how can I help translate and explain it to them?
My middle daughter has so many words. And she uses them all the time. She never stops asking questions, which is fantastic. At school one day, some kids told her she would die if she didn’t vote a certain way or if she wore a mask. That was something we had to address.
I remember when 9/11 happened. I was at college, and I called my dad, sobbing. I didn’t understand any of it. So I know how my kids and our students are feeling. Everything is above their heads right now. It’s above my head right now. But I can’t let my kids see my fear because it’s my job to make them feel as safe as possible.
I think you get to a point in parenting where you think, “OK, kid, you will not fall down the stairs. You are not going to choke on that grape.” But you’re never done worrying. There is so much worry as a teacher, too. School violence for one — I don’t even like to talk about it. I can’t.
What people should know: good teachers love our students. We form deep relationships. Maybe that’s what scares some people. Teachers can be such a positive force in students’ lives. And I think the people who are afraid of that don’t understand what we do.
Lori Jakiela has a new poetry collection, “How Do You Like it Now, Gentlemen?” and has written several other books. She lives in Trafford and directs the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Pitt-Greensburg. For more, visit: lorijakiela.net
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