‘Let’s have a conversation.”
It’s something I often say to my students when I’m trying to help them get started writing.
On this day, there was no conversation. This girl just couldn’t write. She couldn’t focus. She had tears in her eyes. She wasn’t her usual self.
Normally a bubbly debater who seems very self-assured, she kept putting her head down on her desk. She had tears in her eyes when she walked into my class and said, “I want to cry.” I wasn’t sure if she was just having an emotional day, or if something more serious was happening. For an eighth-grader, emotions change with each minute and can run from one extreme to the next within a single class period.
As the bell was drawing near, I saw her fiddling with the pass I had given her for lunch detention. She wasn’t turning in work in my class. I knelt by her desk. “Why aren’t you turning in work for me?” I asked. “Is something going on at school?” She shook her head. “Home?” She nodded. “Do you want to talk about it?” She nodded. “Step outside with me.”
This bright 14-year-old girl then told me, tears streaming down her face, that her dad left her and her family a month ago. He wouldn’t have any contact with her, and she clearly didn’t understand why. She kept thinking about him and was having trouble focusing on schoolwork.
Trauma can do that.
It’s moments like that, more than the students who don’t turn in work, that make teaching hard, that cannot be fixed by the #RedforEd movement.
Please, don’t misunderstand me. Pouring more money into education is necessary. There are a lot of good things that money can do. But budget increases don’t change culture. And our culture needs to change if we want to improve education. I cannot tell you how many students I have who are being raised by an older sibling because their parents were deported. I cannot tell you how many students I have who are foster kids, or being raised by an aunt or uncle, or a grandparent, because their biological parents are too selfish to care about the life they created.
You want to change education? Great! Let’s start by changing our culture. Let’s educate kids — whether in English or Spanish — so they learn, instead of forcing them to take tests in English long before they’ve gained academic proficiency in it. Let’s stop educating our children as if they’re widgets on an assembly line, where one size fits all. And let’s take a good long look at how we’re living in front of our children.
It’s difficult to hold a child accountable for bringing marijuana to school when his parents are stoned all the time. It’s difficult to ask a child to put her cellphone away in class when her parents ignore her because they’re caught up in their own cellphones. It’s nearly impossible to try to create a culture of caring in the one hour I have with a kid when her dad shows her how much he doesn’t care by abandoning her.
These aren’t isolated incidents. I see it with student, after student, after student. And I’m just now entering my third year of teaching.
#RedforEd’s focus on budgets has taken our attention away from problems in education that cannot be fixed by money. We’re not talking about what’s really important — fostering a generation of good human beings.
So, turn off the phone, ignore the media hype, and let’s have a conversation.