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Hard Times: Coping with Financial Stress

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How should schools and teachers respond to the student and family crises brought on by hard economic times? This question was recently raised in our TLN daily discussion group when Rachel, a teacher leader with a staff development role in two Maryland schools, wrote:

I am starting to put together a professional development experience that fosters a discussion among our teachers about the impacts of the current economic crisis on our families, students, and schools. I’d really like your input—any resources or insights on the topic; and any first-hand stories of ways schools are helping deal with the heightened stress our families, students, and teachers are experiencing.

At each of the two schools where I work, we’re noticing that teachers are under a lot of stress—and so are parents. This is evidenced by increased tension, sharp tones in emails, low patience levels, blaming, etc. We feel our kids are noticing the stress and are acting out as a result. So we’re planning to devote time to professional development around the signs to look for in kids, how our schools can help families, and how to keep ourselves positive during this stressful time.

Thanks for any ideas or thoughts you have to share.

Nancy replied:

First of all, Rachel, can I offer my thanks to you as a teacher leader, for seeing the big picture of what kids, their families, and your teachers may be experiencing? You rock!

With every crisis comes an opportunity, of course. Finding out that national banking institutions were shams supported by toxic assets, and that our economy was based on speculation was going to happen sooner or later. The good news for our students is that those get-rich-quick schemes —which are never a good idea—have been exposed.

Who will survive in a terrible economy? People who have lived modestly and are adaptable. People with innovative ideas, who are willing to hustle. People who are willing to take small, calculated risks. People who discover that the greatest joy comes from service to others.

All of these are great lessons to be sharing with our students. I think Sir Ken Robinson's TED video is a good tool to share with teachers who are re-thinking along these lines.

Job #1 may be helping kids frame the situation in terms of not losing hope, and seeing opportunity.

Rachel replied:

Nancy, you are exactly right—we need to find and instill hope in our students, our staff, and our families. You've given me even more to think about—I love the positive spin! It also makes me wonder if we shouldn't encourage our students to help in the community even more during the rough economic times.

Thanks for the fresh ideas! This will fit perfectly into how we address this situation. Maintaining a positive attitude—full of hope—is SO important!

In a comment titled "We are they," Renee responded:

Rachel, I applaud your idea for this professional development. First, I encourage any attempt to connect professional development to reality. Second, I appreciate your trying to build connections between the school and the community.

Might it help in planning this to remember that many teachers are parents? We have children and extended families and we are also affected by the financial climate.

Do your teachers live in the community they serve or are the majority coming in from a more affluent area? To me, as schools engage with students and families around these sensitive issues, it would be important to avoid any tendencies towards paternalism, or feeding into any negative stereotypes about poverty. Most American families are exactly one paycheck away from being insolvent, including many teachers. So rather than a "what can we do for you" approach, it might be more realistic to talk in terms of how can we help each other and all our children.

I live in a community where the economic situation has always been bleak. The one ray of hope even in the worst of times has been education—the conviction that if our students are well-educated they will be able to escape the chronic poverty of the rural south and return to uplift their communities.

The histories and stories of schools, teachers, and communities who have faced such challenges may be useful to your current effort. If your school community has been relatively well-off up to this point and is now suffering from the downturn, perhaps exploring how those who are less fortunate still manage to have successful schools would be instructive and inspirational.

Rachel replied:

Renee, your perspective is valuable. My community has done very well for a very long time, and it’s still fairly insulated. We are surrounded by a lot of government jobs, and my county specifically has good job security and is actually growing in many areas. So you are right, we really haven't had a taste of challenging times at all, until now, and comparatively speaking, it’s probably a small taste. It would be interesting for our staff and students to look at data from other areas of the country.

Also, your point about the impact on our teachers is important to note. I know of isolated difficulties, but I would predict that there are many more out there that go unnoticed. I will make sure that our presentation doesn't speak down to anyone experiencing difficulties.

How is the economic recession affecting your students, teachers and families? How is your school responding? What ideas and resources can you share that might help school communities in these unstable times?

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