In the early 1990′s, I was a 5th grade teacher in a public school, just starting my second year of teaching. A majority of my students and their families lived far below the poverty line and far too many of my students came to school unfed, with little evidence of more than the most cursory parental care.
I worked hard to develop a sense of wonder in my students. We explored electricity using aluminum foil strips as wire to figure out how to light a bulb with a battery. We cared for a menagerie of snakes, lizards, fish and mice. We learned fractions and decimals and how they helped to answer questions to problems we invented from the world around us. I cared deeply for my students as I fought to help them see themselves as learners. That sometimes meant we dealt with issues far outside the daily curriculum. Gang problems in their neighborhood. Guns accidentally left in a jacket pocket by an older sibling. Hunger. Illness. Fear. They had more than enough reasons to give up on learning. But they chose to learn anyway
And then there was T… who spent two periods a day in my class for Math and Science. While I had come to expect that most of my students would need a little extra TLC to be able to function as learners in my classroom, T.. was the student I couldn’t reach. He came to class disheveled and distracted. He rarely spoke. Often times he would spend more of his time under his desk or wandering the back of the room than engaged in activities with the rest of the class. I worked with T.. as best I could and asked our school guidance counselor to help me figure out how we could get help for T… These were the days before cell phones and since many of my families didn’t even have a land line phone, I’d send home notes hoping to get in contact with T..’s mother. I’d send home quarters (something I did for many of my students) hoping that perhaps T…’s mom would take the city bus to visit us at school. Mostly, I just tried to let T.. know he was accepted as part of our class whenever he was ready to join in.
Then came the week that T.. didn’t show up for school at all. The week that the article showed up in the newspaper about T..’s youngest sister.
I can’t imagine the horror T… lived every day. None of us can. For T…, school was simply a refuge. Learning wasn’t his goal. Survival was.
After the incident, T… was taken in by a relative. I still think of him often and wonder how life has treated him since. I wonder what else I should have done. I wonder how the expectations for learning even fit into his 11 year old world. I wonder how a standardized test would have assessed the needs of such a child.
And so I ask, to those who plan to “fix” the education system by developing more accountability measures and more ways to quantify what’s wrong with education….how will any of these things make sure that the kids like T.. are cared for? How will you account for the insurmountable obstacles teachers face every day that aren’t measured in percentiles or minutes on task?
To those of you who sit outside the system, yet feel an obligation to tell teachers how to fix education…
Could you take a few minutes to fix this too?