Before I had my son I was a different kind of mother; I was a high school teacher! I had a cozy little classroom with a sofa in the middle and a crazy bunch of kids who called me “mama”. It was a difficult but wonderful job that I now miss dearly.
As the start of the new school year looms closely without an end to the pandemic in sight, everyone is trying to answer one question:
Should the kids go back to school?
Every superintendent, podcast personality, and mom on Facebook seems to have a different take on the risks versus rewards of in-person instruction. Governor Reynolds’ July proclamation was met with a mixture of support and skepticism. And while, without a school-age child or a teaching job, I do not currently have a dog in the fight, part of her statement took me back to those difficult but wonderful days:
“We also can’t forget the critical role that our schools play in addressing inequities for our most vulnerable student populations.”
You see, the school where I taught had around 1,500 students, many of whom lived below the poverty line. Over half of the students were economically disadvantaged and at risk of dropping out; less than half had proficient scores in literacy. When I say the job was difficult, I mean that it was hard on my heart. As I got to know my students better, my priorities shifted. I realized that my classroom, and the many other classrooms at the school, provided more than just academic instruction.
It provides access to food
Some students came to school just because they were hungry. Go to school = get two meals. Simple math. Beyond the cafeteria, most teachers kept a stash of snacks in their desk drawer. How is a teenager supposed to listen to Shakespeare if all they can hear is their stomach? One teacher even set up a mini food bank in his supply closet so students could pick up food staples on Fridays to get them through the weekend.
There is an adult to hold them accountable
As much as every teenager pictures themselves a rebel, it turns out they like having someone who cares if they get out of bed in the morning. Someone to remind them to watch their language, take out their earbuds, and shower every once in a while, please. Someone to notice and teach them how to ask for help when their math grades are slipping.
There is an adult to be held accountable
Teaching is like parenting in that you can’t just put your work on hold when you’re sick. My students expected me to be there and gave me the third degree when I was gone; they needed stability and reliability. They loved correcting me when I made mistakes and laughing when I didn’t understand Snapchat. I loved being able to show them the possibility of a happy life free from drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and credit card debt.
It provides a safe space
School meant that for eight hours our students were in a safe environment with safe adults. The single worst day of my teaching career was the day I had to learn how to fill out a Child Protective Services report. Of the 4.3 million CPS referrals made in 2018, educators filed 21%, more than any other group. Spring school closures due to coronavirus saw a sharp decrease in CPS reports, but many are worried about the abuse not being noticed once children stopped going to school.
It offers a place to just be a kid
Pep rallies, prom, and ping pong club may seem trivial, but for some students, school was the one time they actually got to be a kid. Many already shouldered adult responsibilities at home, such as taking care of siblings or bringing in income. One of my students told her drill coach she was quitting the team because she didn’t like it anymore, but the truth was she no longer had the time. She had to balance holding down a job with watching her younger siblings and keeping up with homework.
From a place of privilege, it is easy to generalize that all kids are better off staying home. For many students though, this is not the case. A sack lunch and a laptop cannot replace everything that a classroom has to offer.
My goal in sharing my view of a classroom is not to tell you what to do with your own children. If you have both the desire and the ability to choose homeschool this year, great! But if you or someone you know needs to send their child to school, that can be great too. I hope this helps you understand that maybe, you don’t know the whole story.
Maybe instead, it’s an opportunity to say in the words of Amy Poehler, “Good for her! Not for me.”
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