It's the first week of school and I'm thinking about my students. I teach Grade 7 and this year I'm going to better prepare them for high school with essay-writing skills, and critical thinking skills, and getting through the math curriculum. Oh, and also, I need to make time for more discussions about social issues, the kinds of debates and dialogues that will fuel their curiosity about the world and give them opportunity to express their brilliance through the written word. This year I'm going to prepare more, do more reading on pedagogical techniques and theories, gather more educational resources, read the newspaper more. I want to be a masterful teacher and have my students produce work that is stunning to look at and to read. I want to read an essay written by my student and wonder to myself on the drive home whether that child might someday be a lawyer or a social worker or a community activist.
But I'm already so busy. And my students have too much on their plates.
I teach in the inner city at a school similar to the one Carrie Gelson wrote about in her poignant letter published in the Vancouver Sun last year. My students too, have any number of challenges that follow them into school every morning. After Carrie's letter it seemed like people in our city heard our calls. They too were outraged at the inequality and hardship faced by our students and they wanted to help. So, they did what they could. They sent money into the Sun’s children's fund, they organized their PACs to donate money to needy schools, they made generous donations in many different ways.
We have received this charity graciously. We have put it all to good use, I assure you. But the charitable donations from people around this province won't fix what is wrong in my classroom.
Tired and hungry students
I wish I was perfecting my lesson on plate tectonics right now, or maybe putting together a multi-media assignment for my students to work on to fulfill the Social Studies curriculum on Ancient Civilizations, but I'm not. I'm thinking about my students and all that they bring to my classroom every day. And I'm reminded, as this school year ramps up again, that school isn't as simple as we'd like it to be.
For our field trip to the local high school last June my students got a packed lunch from our school. A defrosted half piece of pizza pretzel, a juice box and an apple. It wasn't enough and they were hungry and lethargic all day. The students from other schools brought packed lunches from home -- sandwiches, bags of chips, veggies, cookies, fruit, pasta. Almost all of my students take part in the hot lunch program. Though the woman who makes the lunches does her very best, the lunches are neither particularly nutritious or yummy. But if it wasn't for the lunches made by the lunch lady, my kids would likely go lunch-less.
So today I'm thinking about the psychological effects of being in a group of students from other schools and seeing the care that's gone into the lunches of the other students, the love that a kid feels when their mum or dad has cut the crusts off their sandwich, or included a favourite cookie in the mix. My students don't get that. Please don't mistake this for a lack of love and tenderness on the part of the mostly single mothers raising my students. No, it is only a result of the bad luck of living a life in poverty that these kids won't know the feeling of opening their lunch to find a PB and J sandwich made to order. Not the kids' fault of course, but it's the kids who bear the weight of it.
I'm thinking also today about Rosa, the eldest of five kids from the housing project across the street. Their mum is a drug dealer and is rarely around. Rosa is the caretaker for her family and knows it. At the end of the year last June we took some food by her house at the end of the day -- donations that had been left over at school. We decided Rosa's family was in the most need. She opened the door and had to receive our charity -- how desperately awkward, to take food from your teacher, no matter how much you need it.
We asked if we could help her carry it up the stairs but she politely declined. She knows perfectly well that if we see the state of her life, inside that old, wreck of a building, that something bad could happen. We could take her away, or god forbid, one of her sisters or brother. As if that would be a solution to her family's problems. She's smart enough not to let us in. So I am thinking about Rosa today, and what she carries with her to school every day. One day she told me, after a string of absences, that her body hurt because she was so tired. I asked if it was because she was having trouble sleeping and she said no, she was just tired from taking care of everyone.
I'm thinking about Jonah. He didn't submit a piece of work all spring last year. Not one. He said it was because he didn't like school. He's an awesome kid -- a refugee from Sudan. He escaped hunger and violence to come here. Now he lives in an apartment I wouldn't wish on anyone. He's got two brothers and a sister and a mum who's trying her best. He's tired because he feeds his baby brother during the night and there's usually fighting coming from the apartment next door at night time, so he's not getting a lot of sleep. He's never been very good at school, his grades are the pits, and he's being recruited by the neighbourhood gang for drug dealing. He's got a plate so full how could he possibly prioritize school. But don't get me wrong, he's brilliant. One time the kids had to define justice. Jonah said, "Justice is when we all help each other to feel safe and proud." Jonah hasn't done his homework or passed a test in who knows how long, but what better definition of justice could anyone come up with?
I could tell you about one of my girls who's one of 12 kids living in a three-bedroom social housing unit. I could tell you about another one who doodles drawings of graves with his name on them during class. I could go on and on and on. And so could so many teachers around the province. But it's not because we want your pity. My kids don't need anyone's pity. They're smart, beautiful, thoughtful, kind people. They are strong, resilient, and funny. They love sports and boys and books and shoes, all the stuff the students you know love.
What price a future?
I'm not asking for your pity. Truthfully, I don't want your charity either, though sometimes it seems some days that those are the only things we're being offered. But none of that fixes what is wrong with this story.
So what does? How can we create a fair, or fairer, or even just less difficult experience for my kids?
Here's what I think.
We need to acknowledge that the purpose of the public education system is to provide the guidance, support, and the opportunity for student success no matter what the cost, and that the costs will differ depending on the existing social circumstance of the kid. We need to understand that educating my students will cost more money than educating other kids but we have to believe that that cost is worth it -- that the contribution my students can and will make to society if given the tools is as important as every other kid in the province and that we will provide them what they need to make that contribution.
The cost of this endeavour cannot be covered by the one-time or even sustained charity of a few generous people.
My work is to support my students -- to teach them skills to help them achieve their goals, but also to teach and reinforce the social skills that will allow them to move forward through school and life. I am also responsible for telling them how brilliant they are, for counselling them, for listening to their hopes and dreams and fears.
My work is not to fundraise or to collect money for school supplies from kids who barely have enough to get by in the first place. The public education system is not a registered charity and we shouldn't be treating it like one. Education, the kind that makes a difference to children, costs money. Let's not have bake sales to fund it, let's fund it properly, fully and completely through our taxes. It's cheaper that way. And that way we don't punish the families like those at my school for whom fundraising is virtually impossible.
Let's build a system that is equitable, truly equitable, one where needing more time, more attention, more money, isn't a handicap but an opportunity. Let's together offer an education that meets the social, emotional and academic needs of all kinds of kids, no matter the cost, not only because we're benevolent, but because it is a collective investment that will pay dividends in the years to come.
I'll finish by quoting a brilliant young man: "Justice is when we help each other to feel safe and proud."
Let's work for justice together.
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