What Teacher Friends Talk About When Students Aren’t Listening

“I don’t know how I’m going to get through the day. I’m not in the place that I need to be, to be positive for the kids. Give me a boost; I need a laugh.”

An illustration of two teachers greeting each other in front of a giant computer displaying a Zoom meeting; in the background students sit at desks
Wenjia Tang

Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with two elementary-school teachers, both in their 16th year of teaching. They have been friends since the beginning of their careers, but they’ve never faced a school year like this one. They discuss how their relationship built their confidence as educators, the toll that pandemic schooling is taking on students, and how they’re supporting each other, so they can in turn support the kids.

The Friends:

Trevor Ferguson, 38, a fourth-grade math and science teacher who lives in Tampa, Florida.
Amy Gabriel, 39, a fifth-grade math and science teacher who lives in Tampa.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julie Beck: You’ve been friends for most of your teaching careers at this point, right?

Trevor Ferguson: We’ve been close ever since we met, during our first year of teaching.

Amy Gabriel: That winter we were attending a conference in Jacksonville [for the Florida state teachers’ union], and we gravitated toward each other because we were pretty much the youngest people around. Everybody else was old and boring.

Trevor: The majority of people who were attending these events were 20-plus years in. There weren’t a lot of young people to hang out with. We both have very silly personalities, and both of us also had the commonality of working in low-income schools, so we were able to share stories and connect.

Amy Gabriel and Trevor Ferguson (Courtesy of Trevor Ferguson)

Amy: After that, we saw each other once a month at our union meetings. Sometimes we would grab a drink before.

Beck: How important was it to find other young teachers to connect with? Did those friendships play a role in how you evolved as teachers?

Amy: I definitely think so. We started a young educators’ group within our union, because we did feel like it was dominated by veteran teachers who wanted to give us advice and tell us to mind our place. But we knew that we had a lot to offer. Finding others to bond with was really important in those beginning years.

Trevor: We’d have so many conversations about things older teachers were telling us. One teacher at the beginning of my career told me, “When my kids are bad, I make them go write their name in a book”—basically embarrassing them in front of the class as a way of disciplining. There was this old-school, throw-down-the-ruler kind of mentality. I was like, “Maybe we need to work on building relationships and making sure students understand what the expectations are.”

Amy: Finding those like-minded people makes it easier to validate what you’re thinking.

Trevor: Because we were, in some instances, going against the current. A lot of teachers who had more experience were pushing back [on our ideas]. Had we not had each other, I don’t think we would have been as outspoken as we were about the need to include younger educators. And now our union really does focus on the recruitment of young educators. But we’re too old to be part of this caucus now.

Beck: How did you grow your friendship to be about more than just work?

Trevor: We go to a lot of conferences for the union.

Amy: At first, we both ended up sharing rooms with significantly older people.

Trevor: So we just said, “Hey, do you want to room together?” At the time, she wasn’t married and I wasn’t married, and I’m gay and she’s straight. So, it wasn’t a big deal. For our yearly National Education Association conference, we’re gone for seven days. That was kind of the glue that kept tightening and tightening [our bond].

Amy: I told him if he ever was anyone else’s roommate, I’d kill him. And when we came back [from the conferences], obviously we’re still friends, and we talk about anything.

Trevor and Amy at Amy’s wedding (Courtesy of Trevor Ferguson)

Trevor: We’ve gone through all of the major events. We’ve both been to each other’s weddings. My husband and I are trying to go through the adoption process right now, and Amy has been a big part of that. She wrote a very kind letter of reference for me for my home study. And we’ve gone through a lot of boyfriends together.

Amy: Not ever the same one, though.

Trevor: We don’t share.

Beck: Being close friends who are both teachers, but not actually working at the same school, did you ever brainstorm together or come to each other for advice?

Amy: Trevor created a group a couple of years ago for us to share curriculum with each other.

Trevor: There were people from different schools throughout the district. Obviously we don’t know each other’s students personally, but we’d talk about things that go on during our day, like “Johnny just threw a chair across the room.” Or, “Lisa’s mom just called me with this ridiculous thing, and I just wanted to just pull my hair out.” Sometimes it’s about the principal or assistant principal being a pain in the rear end. A lot of times we talk about crazy stuff that the district is doing.

Then sometimes it’s just, “I don’t know how I’m going to get through the day. I’m not in the place that I need to be to be positive for the kids. Give me a boost; I need a laugh.”

Amy: During COVID-19, when we went from teaching completely in person to online, it was nice to have somebody that I could reach out to and say, “I don’t know how to turn on Zoom; what do I do?” Before the pandemic, we focused on the academic side of things. It very quickly turned into IT.

Trevor: Now, even though we’re not seeing each other on a daily basis, we have a Snapchat group. When we’re frustrated or just want to say something that we don’t want to be on a text message for the rest of time, we will throw it up on Snapchat. That group is just for the circle of trust—there’s four or five of us.

Beck: Have your schools gone totally virtual, or are you doing any in-person teaching this year?

Amy: Our district let the parents choose if they wanted to be online or in person. I am teaching 100 percent online at this time.

Trevor: And I’m teaching 100 percent in person. They call it brick-and-mortar here. Whether you chose e-learning or brick-and-mortar, everyone was online the first week of school. Everyone had to understand the new e-learning platform. I’m tech savvy, and Amy is too, and we were beyond stressed.

Beck: How has your friendship, and relationships with other teachers, helped you to cope with this very unusual school year?

Trevor: COVID has brought the faculty closer together. You see people supporting each other whom you wouldn’t normally see having conversations.

Amy: I know that at any point, I can call Trevor and just talk. He will send me messages just to say good morning. Also, Trevor currently works at the same school as my husband, and I work at the school where he used to work.

Trevor: She knows the dynamic of my school, not only through me but through her husband, and I know the dynamic of her school because I’ve been there. So we have an understanding of what’s going on with each other.

Beck: The pandemic has changed the shape of all of our relationships, and teaching has a lot to do with relationships—the relationships with your students, with their parents, and with other teachers. I’m curious if you feel like the pandemic has changed the relationship component of your job significantly?

Amy and Trevor at a union event (Courtesy of Trevor Ferguson)

Amy: I find myself needing more human interaction than I ever did before. Generally, I don’t like people. I don’t want to be around people. Now when I get home, I have to explain to my husband why I need attention. I stare at a computer screen all day, full of little children who are mostly muted. It’s very systematic interaction; there’s not that organic conversation and relationship building. I am immunocompromised, and I’m at high risk for COVID. It makes me more afraid to be around people. I probably will seek out more relationship building with my colleagues—in the future. I’m busy now.

Trevor: Even though I’m brick-and-mortar, I feel very similar to Amy, because there's such a conscious effort to keep kids away from each other at all times. So, I don’t see classes passing by in the hallways anymore, because the schedule has made it so that you’re not really having those interactions. I’m not seeing other faculty members very often. Our meetings are via Zoom. There’s not the fun silly side of the career that you’re so used to.

Amy: No sidebar whispers during a faculty meeting.

Trevor: Not to mention, I miss hugging the kids and giving them high-fives. The elbow thing is just not as cool.

Beck: What support would you say teachers need right now? What do you feel like you need?

Amy: We spent the first three weeks of school testing these kids to death. They had just come from being isolated in their homes. [Academic] testing was the most important thing when we got back, instead of their mental well-being. People talk about how they’re going to fall behind, but they’re going to fall behind the standards that we constructed. They aren’t going to fall behind anything if we adjust.

I have three of my own children, two of whom are at home, online, by themselves all day, and I know it’s getting to them. Their teachers are focused on their grades, but I’m concerned about how they’re feeling. Why are we not taking care of the whole child instead of just a test score?

Trevor: I think it’s meant to support us, but I’m feeling a lot of micromanagement—being told what to teach and when to teach it. Every class is different. Every situation is different. Like Amy said, we’re dealing with a lot of different dynamics. Social, emotional... We’re trying to get these kids back into a normalized setting. So [district officials] might not see what they want to see on the day they walk in at the time they walk in, because as teachers we’ve made the judgment call that this is what the kids need.

Beck: I think it’s very telling that I asked you guys what support teachers need, and you spent most of the time talking about the support the kids need. I think that says a lot.

Amy: Well, when they have what they need, we’ll get what we need.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.