“Can They See Me Right Now?” by Melanie Chambers

The first time I acted without permission at work was in the second year of my high school music teaching job. My classroom was dull and windowless. Fluorescent lights beat down on a dreary mauve carpet that matched the dreary mauve acoustic panels, stapled hastily to the walls. The space, converted from a basketball gym, was awkwardly misshapen. One wall didn’t match the rest. The huge cabinets that lined the back weren’t even real wood: they were metal, with a wood-printed laminate sticker stuck on top.

The room made me and my students depressed. We needed color and light! I begged my administration for permission to paint the room. I was offered the Bureaucrat’s Rejection: red tape. “Put in for a maintenance request. Write a purchase order for supplies. Obtain Board of Ed permission to modify district property.”

These steps would take months! So we just did it anyway. We snuck paint supplies from the drama department and over the course of a week my students designed a mural and popped in during their free periods to get to work. I blasted music, we danced, we made art, and we basked in beauty. Within days that fake wood laminate had been replaced with a simple but bright and cheerful blue sky. It was like we had windows for the first time.

One day my boss walked in and noticed the painting. I braced myself for disciplinary action, but all I got was a raised eyebrow and a vague comment of approval before he told me whatever he had come in to tell me. That was it. There were no consequences for our insubordination, because the results were plainly innocent and beneficial for everyone. We have since added more murals and my boss now stops by to show them off to guests touring the school. Before it happened, he’d had every reason in the world to say “no.” Now I wonder if he even remembers shutting down the idea in the first place.

Beauty blooms when it’s not being watched. Every week, my colleagues and I hand in lesson plans, but every morning we greet our students, close the door behind us, and get to work in privacy. That intimacy is important for us teachers and for students. Having a “rough draft” space to fail, to make imaginative decisions, and to take risks is critical for our emotional and creative development. We learn to trust each other when we collaborate, fail, and succeed within a shared space. When we are watched too closely, bold spontaneity is sacrificed for a fear-based approach that is safe and regressive.

Now that I am teaching remotely, I have no classroom door to close. My digital teaching space is a room that is always open, where quick exchanges that would have quickly dissipated are now etched permanently into inboxes and comment sections. The lesson plan—once a helpful template from which we improvised, deviated, and responded according to the real-time needs of the room—has now become the lesson itself. Everything is archived, every move is monitored, and every relationship is carefully regulated. There is only immediate, perfect presentation. Actual learning processes are dismissed and shamed into secrecy.

The nascent dynamics of the remote classroom may provide a helpful (if slightly terrifying) model for understanding the cultural implications of a newly emboldened surveillance state. I used to teach fearlessly, knowing that if we carried on in unconventional ways behind closed doors we would have something meaningful to show for it when we opened back up to the outside world. This is how we bring big ideas to small spaces, how we bring belief to the nonbelievers. Now, in the realm of digital learning, means are more important than ends. Creative upheaval hides behind a door marked “Preservation.” Teachers are asking themselves questions about how much real education we can sacrifice for job security. Would I speak differently if I always had an audience? Would I be brave enough to scheme in a public square? When I make a mess, how long will I have to clean it up? Can they see me right now?

Melanie Chambers

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