Living a Silent War. . .

Think that life in high needs schools isn’t challenging? Then read this email from a first year teacher working in a school of poverty outside of Atlanta that was forwarded to me by a friend last week:

Amber and I volunteered to ride a bus today so that we could tell the parents they had to be at the stop or the children would be taken back to school and charged for after-school care. It was very mind opening to see the neighborhoods these children live in. There were several stops that we decided to get off the bus together because it was so scary.

Unfortunately five kids from my bus  had to be taken back to school because no one was there to pick them up—one who was a student in my class. After arriving back at school we had to wait for the parents to pick up their children and a little tiff broke out with the parent of my child. The parent said their neighbor was at the stop,  but they weren’t—in fact, Ashley and I got off the bus, walked in the neighborhood, knocked on their door, and even called the emergency numbers with no answer. This is the same parent who got in a verbal argument on the first day and said it wasn’t her responsibility to be at the bus stop….

Three of my students really stand out:

Child one: I found out that the same children (one of which is in my classroom) have been abused in the past and investigations are continuing, so I need to look out for abuse. On top of that, they have no lunch money and because my county is so big, the free and reduced lunch forms cannot be approved fast enough, so children bring lunch from home (which consists of practically nothing—cheese and bread—which the students do not eat).

Child Two: I stayed after and waited with a child until her grandmother came to pick her up from after school (which ended up being 6 pm). The child lives with grandma now because mom is in jail and we have no idea about the father. I have tried to call the grandmother everyday, and have even sent home notes on a daily basis. This girl has already been to the school counselor because she sporadically cries and becomes non-responsive.

After speaking with her kindergarten teacher, I realized that this is completely opposite behavior from last year so I decided to talk with grandma… since I consistently got no response on the phone, I waited… only to find out that grandma lost her job, and the phone, gas, and electric has been cut off. This child also struggles with being fed because grandma is not the legal guardian and thus cannot fill out the paperwork for free/reduced lunch—or so I have been told.

Child Three: This girl lives with dad and step-mom. They are trying to make ends meet, however mom is going to school and dad works full time (late hours, never home). They have three children, one a new-born and again no money. She is very needy and never has papers returned, behavior log signed—I call, and get no answer.

This is just three of my 15 children… all but two live in good home situations. I have children with severe behavior problems (due to the lack of structure at home, and one mother even tells him that when he acts inappropriately, "the devil is in his head"–obviously something you DO NOT tell a first grader!!!)

As I learn more about my students, I become more appreciative of my life, yet more discouraged with the world. This is exactly the type of students I want to work with… they need us more than ever. I am becoming more patient as I learn these shocking truths of my students. I have learned that not everyone has the tooth fairy visit them… so I don’t ask when students lose teeth, "How much money did the tooth fairly leave you?" 

The answer is always none…

I have learned that most kids do not go home to mom or dad and get help with homework–they go home to an empty house. It’s hard to understand how some of these students survive in the living conditions they were born into. Not that I didn’t know it already… but I see how lucky I am to have had the "tooth fairy," "Santa Claus," stuffed animals, clean clothes, food, candy, tv, air conditioning, a clean bed, and parents always around. Sometimes I get home and it’s hard for me to get my mind off of my children and whether or not they are safe, being fed, etc.

While there is so much sadness in these children’s lives, they are, for the most part, incredibly happy children (at school). We have our times where discipline must be enforced, but these children are so good at keeping their lives a secret… no one would ever guess that these children are living a silent war that begins at 2:15 everyday.

The first two weeks are almost over and I have already learned so much. Each day is a new adventure… We’ve had bathroom accidents, several teeth have fallen out, crying fits that last for what seems hours… I collapse into bed each and every night. I hope you are having a good week… and even if you are having a bad day… just remember my kids…and how our lives could be worse… it’s been a huge reality check for me… but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Love,
Maggie

Maggie’s words left me speechless—and wondering how long she’ll remain in the classroom. Her spirit is positive and she approaches her work with a zeal that defines many of those who work with students of poverty, but will zeal be enough to keep her going day after day in the face of almost insurmountable challenges?

Her words also paint a clear picture of why schools serving high needs communities are often staffed by under-prepared educators. Long hours, constant criticism and heart-wrenching circumstances drive all but the most self-sacrificing educators to schools serving less demanding populations. 

When will we realize that equal funding, staffing and compensation for teachers in high needs schools is insufficient to ensure success for every child?  When will we begin to advocate instead for equitable funding, extra positions and additional salary supplements for those willing to work in difficult circumstances

5 thoughts on “Living a Silent War. . .

  1. Marget Stokes

    A little more teacher investment of time in the life of a student can make the difference between success and failure. When a child knows a teacher really cares about him or her as an individual, not just as part of a group or class, it empowers the student to be successful or at least to try harder. They have to know that someone truly believes in them and what they can accomplish.
    New teachers should be able to learn from more experienced teachers, not burdened by a lot of meetings and paperwork. At the same time, the experienced teachers learn from the new teachers. Mentoring can become a two-way learning, enriching process for both.

  2. Jane

    I too work in a similar situation. Fortunately, in LA if a school is 100% title one as ours is, kids do not need the paper work to get breakfast, snack and lunch. At least I know they will have 21/2 meals if they choose to eat. The hungry ones do. We also have free after school program until 5:30. It’s far from a perfect situation but it’s better than being home alone. As for extra money for poor schools, put the money into the classrooms and schools in the form of smaller class sizes (my poorest most needy class had 34 students) and teachers assistants. I would so much rather have adequate counselors and a school nurse 5 days a week than any kind of bonus for teachers. And to truly help new teachers, leave them alone! Just let them teach! Our new teachers have to attend a 3 year process of mentor meetings which started to truly help new teachers but developed into a grad school like load of papers, projects and meetings designed to “better prepare” them. New teachers are tired. Extra meetings are an extra burden.

  3. Jane

    I too work in a similar situation. Fortunately, in LA if a school is 100% title one as ours is, kids do not need the paper work to get breakfast, snack and lunch. At least I know they will have 21/2 meals if they choose to eat. The hungry ones do. We also have free after school program until 5:30. It’s far from a perfect situation but it’s better than being home alone. As for extra money for poor schools, put the money into the classrooms and schools in the form of smaller class sizes (my poorest most needy class had 34 students) and teachers assistants. I would so much rather have adequate counselors and a school nurse 5 days a week than any kind of bonus for teachers. And to truly help new teachers, leave them alone! Just let them teach! Our new teachers have to attend a 3 year process of mentor meetings which started to truly help new teachers but developed into a grad school like load of papers, projects and meetings designed to “better prepare” them. New teachers are tired. Extra meetings are an extra burden.

  4. Michael Martin

    The kid doesn’t have the devil in his head, he most likely is lead poisoned. Most low-income inner-city kids are lead poisoned and the known symptoms are irritability, impulsivity, aggression, and an inability to concentrate or learn. These usually show up as “misbehavior” because of the aggression and impulsivity. See my article at the above url.

  5. loonyhiker

    I think it is very important for teachers to see the actual living conditions that our students live in. It explains so much about their behaviors in class and helps us teach them with more compassion. Too many times I have seen teachers not connect with the kids and write them off as bad kids because of their bad behavior and not try to meet their needs. Sometimes giving them lunch and security is more important than academics at that time.

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