If you want to really understand what it’s like to be a teacher in American schools today, spend part of today in a public school with high concentrations of students living in poverty.
As any teacher will tell you in one of these schools - a growing number, thanks to the steady rise of the percentage of children living in dire conditions—the Monday after Thanksgiving is a particularly challenging (and important) day to be an educator. Whereas many of the children will be ready and eager to resume their school lives, some will return to classes having eaten little over the four-day break. And others will be numb from their extended stay in a world of chaos and dysfunction.
In these classrooms, teachers will spend the bulk of their day trying to meet these children’s myriad needs, none of which will have anything to do with reading and math. That doesn’t mean reading and math aren’t important, just as it doesn’t mean that a child’s social conditions should excuse schools from trying to develop their academic minds. It merely means that schools are living, breathing communities and if we want policies that improve them, we need to understand how they feel and how they work.
Poverty matters, in other words, and poverty is not an excuse.
What strikes me on this Monday after Thanksgiving is how much the essence of our current debates over American education have become intellectual abstractions. Education is always and inevitably a personal and social process. For communities and their children, going to school isn’t about raising national test scores or the merits of core standards. It’s about social aspirations and personal opportunity, public hopes and private fears. And as any teacher will tell you, it’s as much about ensuring that a hungry child is fed as it is about making them college- and career-ready.
Education is the land of the both/and, not the either/or.
Great schools give their students lots of different ways to celebrate their presence and engagement, and great policies don’t force schools to choose between their students’ social/emotional development and their overall effectiveness rating.
It’s simple, really—education is about real people leading real lives in real places. And if school doesn’t engage them, it doesn’t work, no matter what the accountants and policy makers may say.
The opinions expressed in Of, By, For: In Search of the Civic Mission of K-12 Schools 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.