I’ve been involved in a lively Linked In dialogue about the problems children have and the issues they bring to school. One person wrote:
“I recall sitting there somewhat paying attention and being so quiet; yet my focus was on the inner me and all that was going on inside of me. What mattered to me more than anything else was that someone could hear and listen to the inner me and all that I was dealing with; however there was no one.”
I know that feeling so well…
Sometimes it was a personal or family problem that emotionally distracted me from the classroom activities and sometimes it was a bigger more global one—like the Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember having to practice air raids and line up to evacuate. Students have Code Red drills nowadays. What effect does that possibility have on children? Believe me, they hear about the school shootings in the news. Or natural disasters, like the tornadoes? The occurrence of primary-age stuttering went up 50% after Joplin, Missouri’s tornadoes. How long do the effects last?
Online, a contributor to the Linked In conversation said, “I was once that student, and to this day I am still working through things. I have to say, if it wasn't for my teachers I wouldn't be the person I am today.”
That is always encouraging to hear, but I know that teachers can’t do it alone.
Is it really a big surprise that there’s a widening achievement gap between rich and poor students? It has existed for years and as the income disparity increases so does academic achievement. Thousands of dollars have gone into studies of the phenomenon. But isn’t it simple logic to expect that students deprived of the enrichment their wealthier counterparts receive are going to have less-enriched outcomes. Classrooms lacking the resources of those across town are going to produce a different product. Teachers who work in tension-filled environments will be less dynamic. And children who live with greater daily stress will have more difficulty learning.
Does it take more than commonsense to realize the policies and practices we adopt need to take into consideration the effects of a child’s individual life experience? I don’t think so.
Teachers in every school—who make far less than researchers conducting studies—can attest to the need for services that bridge the gaps that exist between income groups. Ask teachers and I bet their lists would include: early childhood and pre-school education; music and fine arts instruction; psycho-emotional services; smaller classes and longer school days; extra-curricular sports supervision; mentoring options; support for classroom innovation; and most important, the entire country’s recognition of the value of education for all children.
The political mantra these days is that the best thing for a child is to have two parents—a mother and a father. But commonsense, or thirty years of work in the public school system, would tell that having two parents—a mother and a father—is not a guarantee of anything. One of the most stable homes, and therefore stable student, was a twenty-something aunt with a physical disability who took into her home a bi-racial niece she’d never met. The little girl became a star student, caring, funny, and talented. I can’t count the number of grandparents, uncles, aunts, family friends, foster parents, two moms, two dads, step-moms, step-dads, step-grandparents, or older siblings who have been the “parents” of students in my schools. There is no normal.
As for the ideal situation of a mother and a father, those include some of the horror stories. Children neglected, mal-nourished, or abused in their “ideal” homes with two parents—a mother and a father.
It takes a lot to rear a child. It takes love, patience, caring, humor, organization, integrity, and some imagination, just for starters. I have witnessed those attributes present in the lives of many students…and I have seen them absent in as many. Each, the good and the bad, had its unique family situation. Childrearing, like education, needs to be supported not politicized.
My daughter once dressed as a teacher for a school Halloween carnival. She wore a pair of my old wire-rimmed glasses without lenses, a collared-blouse buttoned up to her neck, a skirt, black tights, and she carried a tote full of papers. Oh my, I hope I never looked like that, I laughed. She said that she wanted to be like me, not look like me.
But we are very different. We grew up in two different worlds. I made certain of that.
Contrary to philosophers, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau or John Locke, children are not blank slates upon which educators inscribe valuable knowledge. Every child comes to school with a personal story, an imprinted script, a long list of hard lessons already learned. Even at the age of five. Each story has its individual elements of drama, tragedy and mystery, and not necessarily tabloid fodder of abuse, neglect, or deprivation, sometimes simply a plot-full of garden-variety issues.
We may never know the beginning of a student’s story. Like walking into a darkened theater in the middle of the film, scenes flash across faces but we can’t always make sense of the action. One thing is certain however, before our students walk through the classroom doors, defining moments have already taken place in their lives. Life outside of school leaves an impression on their hearts that can make it difficult, perhaps nearly impossible, to reach their minds.
I was once a child like that. And I know many others.
We all know them. We are those children.
My friend, a teacher, is cooking for Thanksgiving and working on lesson plans this week, but still it’s a respite from the 29 children her all-day kindergarten class. She says she adores her students, but it has been a frustrating hill to climb since they walked through the doorway in August. These are some of the statistics her students carry in their backpacks:
8 – have mothers who were 16 years old or younger when they gave birth to their first child
2 – entered school at 4 years-old (their birthdays were in November) because AFDC rules did not allow them to be held out until next year
7 –receive school Speech and Language Services
2 – did not speak until they were 4 years old
3 – have Spanish as their first language
2 – have Vietnamese as their first language
1 - is cognitively disabled
1 – lives at a shelter for families of domestic abuse
1 – was born a drug-exposed infant, but adopted by a wonderful family
1 – was detained at school last week because his mother was too inebriated to drive him home
1 – is the center of a bitter custody battle
And these are only the stories she knows about. It makes you wonder how kids make it at all…
If I had a nickel for every time a student told me he was tired in class because he’d stayed up late watching TV…well, I’d have a whole lot of nickels. A new study by Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, reports that kids under the age of 8 are spending more time than ever in front of screens—be it TVs, computers, iPads, or smart phones. The American Academy of Pediatricians has long issued recommendations for parents to limit their children’s television and computer time, but now with numerous available applications geared toward children a new issue, the “app gap,” has emerged. According to the data, more affluent children spend time using mobile educational games, whereas lower income children are more likely to have a TV in their bedrooms and watch more hours of television programming. Despite the studies indicating that so-called educational television and computer programs are not a positive substitutes for hands-on activities and reading real books, the lure of keeping a child electronically occupied seems hard for parents to resist. And if the parents have a hard time resisting electronic toys, how can we expect anything different from children? Learning plotlines of late night television shows or how to smash ants on a computer app, do not scaffold background knowledge or build cognitive skills.
She marks 5th grade as the end of her formal education. She taught herself from then on; she made it through. We’re drinking coffee, a regular date, but this time we talk about the past and not the present. 5th grade was the year her mom had a nervous breakdown. They lost everything—the car, the house, her private school enrollment. They moved into an apartment across town.
It was an era of busing in Southern California; now she had an hour bus ride to a school where everything and everyone was different. She showed up the first day wearing a dress, knee socks and oxfords. The other kids wore jeans. It took two weeks of torment before she could convince her parents to allow her to wear play clothes to school. She stares into her coffee cup for a moment, “I didn’t want to get my ass kicked any more.”
Her teachers had their hands full—bussing issues, combination grades, bi-lingual classes—it was best to stay under the radar, not stand out, just skate by. She kept everything inside: poverty and chaos at school; fear and anger when she came home. And no one to talk to in either place. Therapy helped and now she counsels other people. The stories she hears sound familiar and different at the same time. But these are the lucky children—they have Kris to talk to. Who did you talk to as a child?
A middle-school teacher in my hometown was found not guilty of one misdemeanor count of annoying or molesting a child. The charge includes conduct that disturbs, irritates, offends or injures another. It does not require a lewd act, but the prosecution needs to prove a defendant was motivated by an unnatural or abnormal sexual interest in the child. One student made the complaint; although other students also said he was a “creep.”
I do not know what this one teacher did or didn’t do, but I do know that all teachers are in vulnerable positions whenever they are in their classrooms. We do not know the life experiences or the psychological mindset of every one of our students. I know that even teachers who carefully monitor what they say or do, cannot determine how an individual student will react. Or if the students will even be truthful about what occurs in a classroom.
It brings to mind the play The Children’s Hour by Lillian Hellman, in which an angry student accuses the two headmistresses of an all-girls boarding school of having a lesbian affair. I saw the film with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. The accusation and the malicious gossip destroys the women's careers, relationships and lives.
I also am reminded of Joe, a student in the school where I was the principal. Joe slugged a school psychologist intern. His teacher was understandably upset, but during our conference the intern displayed a deeper understanding. She’d walked up behind Joe and touched his shoulder. He had whipped around with his fist up. She knew she shouldn’t have surprised him and she shouldn’t have touched him. She was right. I knew Joe, too. He was Jack’s brother.
Jack was a sixth grade student in my own classroom three years earlier. One Friday afternoon after the room cleared out, Jack shuffled to my desk with his heavy, deliberate steps. He stood there with his eyes fastened on the desktop jumble of books, worksheets, pens, and pencils. He played with the paperclips in a small hand-formed ceramic bowl, his fingernails ragged and black at the edges. I said, “Yes, Jack. What do you need? I don’t want you to miss the bus.”
His eyes stayed focused on the top of my desk. He spoke in a whisper, “My uncle is doing things to me.”
I’d been teaching only three years when I had Reb in my sixth grade class. Her name was “Rebecca,” but she asked to be called “Reb.” Not Becky, please, she said. Reb wore t-shirts and baggy pants, and a long brown braid fell to the middle of her back. On top of her head sat a baseball cap—every day—which she reluctantly removed inside the classroom. At lunchtime, the first day of the school year, I instructed the boys to line up. Reb stood up with the boys rushing to the door. Some students giggled and Reb took her seat, gripping her baseball cap, her head bowed to the floor. It didn’t take long for me to grasp Reb’s conflict, her reflexive nature to stand up with the boys. I began forming lines of students by the color of their shoes on any given day, or those wearing green first, blue next, and brown after that. It was a small gesture on my part. It was the first time I took note of students’ gender or sexual orientation issues, but many other times followed in the next twenty-seven years of work in the public schools.
This morning in a Letter to the Editor published in our local newspaper a writer decried California's Senate Bill 48. The bill revises previous mandates prohibiting school sponsored activities and instructional materials that reflect adversely on specific groups of people. The list of characteristics has been expanded to include race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, and sexual orientation. The letter writer calls it “oppressing, brainwashing children.” I don’t think all the “Rebs” in our classrooms would agree.
My birthday often falls over the Labor Day weekend. The years when school traditionally began the day after Labor Day, my birthday landed more than once on the first day of school. I would not have dreaded my upcoming birthday nearly as much nowadays, with the school year beginning anywhere from the middle of August to the second week of September. But no matter when it begins the story seems to be the same across the country: there are students who show up ready and eager to learn—others, not so much. Some wear new shoes and sport new backpacks ready to tote homework and books. Other students wear shoes with holes in the toes because their feet grew over the summer, or rubber flip-flops that are inappropriate for climbing and running. These children often carry the same old backpacks with them—if not literally the exact same backpack, then a figurative representation of it. Their problems have not gone away during the summer; for some they have mushroomed or been transferred to a new school where their issues go undetected on the first day, or for the first month. How can we expect these children to compete with those sitting in desks across town or even across the aisle?