For the most part I feel like I have had a really strong year teaching. My students have been great and very excited about learning this year, I’ve found some new engaging lessons to further strengthen what I already had in place and my teammates were willing as ever to go along with another year of my grand plans for team building and working to develop a community culture for our students. Yet even with all of that I still have a looming sense of failure hanging over me. I see, believe in, and acknowledge all the good things that happen in my classroom daily. I also openly admit all my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher (frequently on this blog) but what is weighing on my mind heavily are more than just personal and professional weaknesses. I know there are things I can do better; I could do a better job connecting with all students, I know I can continue to plan stronger more engaging lessons, I know I can always do a better job communicating with families, and I know there will always be room for improvement in using data to drive instruction more than I do. Like all good professionals I will spend my time off this summer, my next school year, and for that matter the rest of my career working on all those things and more trying to continually be a better teachers for all students. Those are things I can fix, improve, and adjust. What I am most concerned about are the things I am honestly just not sure I will ever be fully equipped to do.
I am not equipped to provide all the support needed to help my refugee students heal from their past and reach their full potential here. These students, some of whom were being recruited to be child soldiers just mere months ago, are now expected to simply adjust to a new life in a different world. Beyond needing intensive language support they have mental health needs due to their prior experiences that are far beyond what I can help with between the 4 walls of my classroom.
I am not equipped to deal with the number of homeless students who come in and out of my classroom as rent is due, family situations change, and their welcome at friends homes is worn out. It is an insurmountable task to ask kids to learn math when they aren’t sure where they will sleep that night or what school they will be attending next week.
I am not equipped to deal with the number of students who come to school hungry each day. I am not sure the average person knows how many teachers have desk drawers filled with peanut butter crackers, apples, fruit snacks, and anything else they can find on sale at the grocery store to give to students that show up at school too hungry to learn. Don’t get me wrong I am happy to pick up extra snacks weekly for anyone who needs them but that doesn’t help the nagging feeling I get knowing there is no drawer full of food when they go home for weekends, Holidays, or summer vacation. Every teacher in America knows what it is like to wake up and wonder which of your students is waking up hungry that morning.
I am not equipped to deal with the heartbreak that comes from being a teacher. Over Spring Break one of my students was missing and I am not sure my mind ever stopped racing or my eyes closed until I heard he was found and home safe. I turn on the news more times than I can count to see a glimpse of a sweet face I once taught hardened by life, who has been arrested and facing serious charges. My heart aches each time I think of their 7th grade smile knowing what awaits them in the journey now in front of them. No teacher is ever really prepared to comfort a child who has lost a parent or even worse a parent who has lost a child that you had the honor to call a student.
I will never be equipped to deal with the amount of hate my students live with on a daily basis. Someone brought to my attention recently that the students I teach today grew up in a post 9/11 world. September 11th ushered in a new level of hate and mistrust for everyone and these kids simply do not know a world without that. The kids I teach today know a world of profiling based on religion, race, nationality and appearance. They know a world where nations are pitted against each other. They turn on the TV to see politicians, celebrities, and average citizens in a war of words twisting the truth and manipulating others for personal gain. In short, the students I teach have learned to trust no one and I can assure you that is awfully hard to get a kid to buy into learning if they don’t trust you first.
Everyone seems to know how to “fix” public education these days. In my own state, they believe the solution to be charter schools and education vouchers. I don’t know how to fix the issues but I also can’t believe that charters and vouchers are the answers either. Sending kids to a school with a different address doesn’t fix their home life, hunger, or emotional issues. The problem is deeper than a change in school, teacher, curriculum or standards can provide. In my opinion we should be pouring our time, energy, and resources in helping kids where they are. We could be providing home support, mental health support, and resources to help meet these kids basic needs so that instead of worrying about where they were going to sleep that night they could focus on being a kid and learning. We could be equipping teachers better on how to help the neediest students in our classroom. We could be equipping schools and districts with resources that help students and teachers rather than threatening to cut funding and support when our kids, teachers, and schools need support the most. We can do better; that I am sure of. I know I get up every day resolved to do better and be better than I was yesterday, unfortunately I am just not always equipped.