After Uvalde, teachers ask themselves “What More?”

On the day a gunman walked into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and carried out the deadliest shooting this country has seen in a decade, an English teacher from St. Augustine, Florida was in lunch break and watched online as his local school board meeting erupted into a heated battle over library books.

In suburban Dallas, a teacher was at her wit’s end after what she said was her toughest year in nearly two decades in the classroom. Even as the second semester drew to a close, many of his students, aged 10 and 11, still needed instruction in basic tasks, and some were regularly absent.

And in the Atlanta area, a 31-year-old teacher went to bed worried. Would his primary school be next? Just before falling asleep, her husband promised that if the worst happened he would take care of their 2-year-old son.

Teachers across the country limped through the end of this school year, weighed down by pressures that were building even before the Uvalde shooting last month.

Schools had gotten off to a promising start — classrooms open, vaccines more widely available, learning underway. And while some teachers enjoyed relative normalcy for the first time since the pandemic began, others found that this year ended up being among the toughest.

Students across the country were falling behind in basic subjects like reading and math, while many showed signs of anxiety and depression. At the same time, teachers in some school districts have been caught up in political battles, as efforts to ban the books grow and lawmakers in many states seek to limit teaching about sexuality and racism. In several cities, teachers went on strike over salaries and Covid-19 protocols.

For some teachers, the news that 19 children and two teachers were shot at a Texas elementary school was a final blow.

“I’m just angry,” said Octavio Hernandez, a college math professor in Davenport, Fla., who said he knows of at least 20 students hospitalized with mental health emergencies over the past two years.

“They want us to be a police officer, an adviser,” said Mr. Hernandez, 42. “Oh, and don’t forget to teach. And when you teach, teach that way – and don’t mention anything that’s going on in the world.

In the days following the Uvalde shooting, many teachers did what they always do. They showed up at school, cheered on students at graduation, and brought home-baked cupcakes to celebrate the year. But some described doing everything with one eye glued to the classroom door.

“It’s been emotionally and mentally draining,” said Lateefah Mosley, 47, a teacher in Decatur, Georgia, who was grappling with a mass shooting that targeted black shoppers at a Buffalo supermarket last month when the shooting in Uvalde took place. 10 days later.

Ms. Mosley teaches fourth graders, the same age as those attacked in Texas. In the faces of the 19 children killed, she saw the faces of her students. In the teachers, she saw herself.

“You think, by the grace of God, it wasn’t me,” she said. “But what makes me better than them?”

Overall, schools are relatively safe for the country’s 54 million students and nearly four million teachers. But school shootings are becoming more common, and the Uvalde tragedy represented many people’s worst fears.

The shooting has resurfaced debates over gunning teachers, and in Ohio, the governor has indicated he will sign legislation to make it easier for teachers to carry guns. A Gallup poll conducted after one of the nation’s deadliest shootings – when 17 people were killed in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 – found that 73% of teachers opposed teachers and staff wearing protective clothing. weapons in schools, with 20% in favour. More than half of teachers said it would make schools less safe.

“We don’t even have enough funds to buy paper and pencils for the children, and you want us to have weapons to protect ourselves?” Ms Mosley said, echoing a sentiment shared by other teachers who said that whatever their opinion on guns, they just didn’t have the bandwidth.

Guns are just the latest means by which the country’s political wars are increasingly encroaching on classrooms.

On the day of the Texas shooting, the St. Johns County School Board in Florida was considering a proposal to ban books from school libraries, including those that include transgender and non-binary characters and deal with white supremacy . Megan Young, an English teacher at a district high school, reheated leftover rice and meatballs, closed the door to her classroom and spent her lunch break in line, watching the meeting turn into shouting and name-calling.

Although the effort failed by a 3-2 vote, the rancor has bothered Ms Young, who sees the books as a way to foster a love of reading in her students.

Nationally, efforts to ban the books are growing alongside a wave of new laws aimed at limiting how teachers can speak about issues considered politically sensitive. When the “Parental Rights in Education” bill, which critics call the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, takes effect in Florida this summer, it will limit how teachers can talk about sexual orientation and of gender identity.

In her class, Ms Young said, a parent objected to a lesson asking students to analyze the persuasiveness of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” versus a letter correspondent of eight white clerics.

The scrutiny is baffling for Ms Young, 33, who recalled how after the Parkland shooting she brought a leather belt to put in her classroom first aid kit in case she needed tourniquet for a student.

“It’s literally entrusted to their life,” she said, “but not entrusted with choosing the program.”

Public school teachers earn an average of about $65,000 a year and are among the most trusted professionals, alongside nurses, doctors, the military, and scientists. But as schools closed and the social fabric frayed during the pandemic, trust in teachers declined.

For some, the competing pressures were enough to drive them away.

“I needed a change,” said Kathy Macken, 62, a math and science teacher in Richardson, Texas, near Dallas, who quit the classroom after 19 to do intensive tutoring with smaller groups of students.

After being out of school earlier in the pandemic, her fifth graders returned this year in dire need. Even when she tried to help them academically, Ms. Macken said, she spent much of her time trying to keep them calm and focused: Take out a pencil. Write your homework in your diary. Please no iPads during story time.

She had to cut back on a favorite science project — where students build terrariums to take home — because she didn’t have time.

And in the last week of school, a lockdown interrupted an outdoor field day. Amid the fierce struggle and bouncy house fun, the students were pushed inside. Ms Macken huddled with her students on the floor of her darkened classroom while police investigated a report of a teenager walking down the street with a gun.

It was one of many scares across the country in the days after Uvalde’s shooting.

Dan Plonsey, a high school math teacher in Berkeley, California, canceled final exams and called in sick last week after a student was arrested in what authorities described as a plot to attack high school. The announcement came after a year of Covid absences and a student suicide, and days after the Uvalde shooting.

Mr Plonsey, 63, saw his illness as a small act of defiance against what he described as an American society numbed by grief.

“What’s wrong with us?” asked Mr Plonsey, as he tidied up his classroom last week. “Why do we act like nothing happened day after day? »

“Let’s bring some humanity,” he said. “Let’s be sad for a few hours.

Other teachers did their best to maintain normalcy.

Kathleen Ingraham, a music teacher in Alpharetta, Georgia, asked her husband who would look after their son if she was killed in a school shooting, then got up and went to work the next morning. She was to lead the kindergarten children in the song for their graduation.

Standing on a stage in the school cafeteria, under a colorful banner that read “kinder-grads!” the children sang:

I grow – very, very high.

I grow up with hopes and dreams, making my way in the world.

We grow – way up, way up.

We grow up with hopes and dreams, making our way in the world.

Mrs. Ingraham smiled for her pupils, who were too young to know Uvalde. But when the music stopped and her job was done, she slipped behind the stage curtains. Out of sight, and as quietly as possible, she cried.