I have a pretty unique job. I work as a teacher on a child/adolescent inpatient unit at a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. My students come from all over Chicagoland and attend all types of schools: neighborhood, charter, turnaround, private, suburban, alternative, and sometimes no school at all. The vast majority of my students, however, come from low-income minority neighborhoods. My job allows me a rare birds-eye view of the educational landscape here in Chicago.
And I do not like what I see.
My students are often very sick. The reasons they find themselves hospitalized vary, but usually it involves some type of crisis, either a threat of harm to themselves or others. They are in my classroom, on average, for only about a week or two. Some kids are filled with anger about being bounced around to yet another foster placement. Some are depressed because they don’t feel wanted or cared for at home. Some are sad because their lives are a series of upheavals including bouts of homelessness, nights without food, and a new school every year or two. Some kids are involved with gangs, and although they may not want to admit it, they are terrified of the violence. Many have drug and alcohol problems already at their young age. My kids are the kids who tried to take their own lives after being bullied and tormented because of their sexual identity. My kids are the ones who have run away after being abused by a relative. My kids get into fight after fight in school because they feel they have nothing left to lose. All in all, my students tend to be those disruptive, difficult-to-educate kids with behavioral or emotional disorders who frankly no one really knows what to do with. So they end up in a hospital like mine.
As I listen to my students’ stories about their experiences in school and then look at the current education reforms sweeping our nation, I am increasingly alarmed at what I see. Every change pushed by the corporate reform movement seems to do a greater disservice to my students than the last.
Charter schools are being hailed as ‘the answer’ and then they unapologetically push my students out. I have worked with kids who were counseled out of all of the major charter school providers in Chicago, even the highly publicized ones lauded by Arne Duncan, Mayor Emanuel, and President Obama. The charters are not serving my kids. My students are also getting more and more untrained novice teachers, like the corporate reform favorite Teach for America provides, and fewer experienced educators. Many of these young college grads know nothing about these students’ cultural backgrounds or extensive social-emotional needs. To add to all of that, my students are being labeled as “failures” by the standardized tests mandated by corporate reform’s signature piece of legislation, No Child Left Behind.
All I hear coming from the powers that be is to “fire more teachers,” “create more charters schools,” or “give more tests.” None of the remedies being peddled by the elites help my students AT ALL. They are the kids being left behind.
So what DO my students need?
They need caring, committed, EXPERIENCED teachers. They need people with extensive training and practice teaching students who have intense needs. They need as many seasoned professional teachers as possible who already know techniques and strategies that will help them from day one.
They need stability. Every time some politico decrees from on high that a school is failing and proceeds to fire the staff or close the school, they are disrupting children’s lives. They are violently, often without a word of explanation to the child, ripping a trusted adult or mentor away from these kids. My students’ lives are already chaotic enough, why add to that?
They need “a village”. One of my favorite parts of my job is working with a dedicated TEAM of professionals. I am never alone with the kids. There is always at least one and usually more staff around to help coach kids through conflict or frustration. While I teach, the social workers are working with the patients’ families and with the child individually to address those important social-emotional needs and family dynamics. Nurses are soothing their physical ailments. Doctors are helping imbalances in the brain. The activity therapist guides kids through therapeutic play, music, and art. It is a collaborative, holistic, team approach to learning. And the kids respond to it.
They need extra resources. My kids have more needs than students from affluent areas. Their schools need to be flooded with social workers, mental health workers, nurses, teacher aides, special education experts as well as with material items like books, science labs, technology, and art and music classes. Flooded.
They need to have their basic needs met. Another perk of my job is that I know that every child in my class had a good night’s sleep in a safe environment, every child has a full belly and knows their belly will be full again soon, and that there will be no violence or trauma inflicted on my kids after they leave my sight today. It is a luxury many inner-city teachers do not get. We need to get serious about combating the realities of poverty.
They need creativity and flexibility. How I would love to see schools which were using the most progressive, exciting, inventive teaching techniques possible--The kind of teaching and learning which seems to only happen in private, elite schools. Instead, teachers’ hands are tied to scripted curriculum and standardized outcomes. Charters are no better. In fact, some schools, like the highly-praised KIPP franchise, preach “zero tolerance” and “no excuses” with rigid expectations that are so high, my students have little chance to ever reach them. In this manner, the charters conveniently push low-performing students out. Schools need to bend to meet the needs of students, not expect the kids to know how to change themselves. That’s the beauty of public education. All are supposed to be welcomed.
They need strong peer groups. Most schools and teachers can figure out creative ways to work with just a small handful of children with truly significant behavioral and emotional needs. Unfortunately, there is a critical mass that is reached when schools become overwhelmed with difficult-to-teach children. As charter schools and turnaround schools skim off the students who are strongest academically and behaviorally, the peer group in the neighborhood schools suffers. And of course, the great paradox in American education is that the schools with the greatest numbers of these challenging students are given the fewest resources to help them.
They need personal attention. Class size matters. When I ask my students what they need from the adults in their lives, the answer is almost always, “someone to listen to us.” My students require positive adult attention as often as possible. And so, teachers need small enough classes to reach every child.
They need high-interest curricula developed specifically for them. Thanks to the enormous autonomy my job affords, I get to tailor my lessons to the specific kids in my classroom. This past week, for example, the kids in my elementary class got extra excited about the children’s book, The Teacher From the Black Lagoon by Mike Thaler. This pure, accidental interest in the book sparked a whole week’s worth of literature lessons where we read all the series, acted it out, and wrote stories of our own. This independence is an extravagance many public school teachers today can only dream about. Instead, they are forced to teach boring, skill-acquisition, test-prep curricula--the kind of terrible lessons which often create more negative behaviors. The only real exciting learning occurs “between the cracks” in those spaces just after the testing week or at the very end of the year after the last grade has been turned in. Those are some of the few moments when students’ faces really light up in the process of learning and teachers are reminded why they chose this noble profession.
They need their mental health issues addressed and not punished. These children are sick. We let kids grow up in environments where they are exposed daily to violence, trauma, racism, substance abuse, and neglect. And then we blame them for acting out in rage. They are subsequently funneled into a for-profit prison system instead of supported in their grossly underfunded and overwhelmed schools. It’s sick and wrong. These kids can still be helped.
I am tired of hearing that poverty doesn’t matter. While mental illness can strike anyone regardless of socio-economic status, living in poverty exacerbates and sometimes creates many of the illnesses that bring my students to the hospital. Teachers are some of the few people out there who work directly with these kids. And as wonderful as they are, teachers alone are not enough. Society at large needs to step up, stop blaming the teachers, and start focusing on the real barriers to achievement.
I am in awe of my kids every day. They are such dynamic, vivacious, intelligent, curious, sweet, funny, young people. I love talking to them, hearing their stories. They have so much to say. But I feel like society has written them off, thrown them away, resigned itself that some people are just not worth saving. A two-tiered education system in being created where the kids who can meet expectations behaviorally get one type of school and everyone else is forgotten in the purposefully starved neighborhood school.
And it makes me so very sad.
When will the conversation shift away from non-issues like choice, competition, bad teachers, and test scores, to finally focus on the kinds of reform that would actually make a difference in these kids’ lives?
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.