“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
I grew-up while teaching at a low-income urban school. At the time, I dreamed to make a difference in the lives of my students while making school time fun and developing lifelong learners. I had already received a degree and lived on my own, but I was still young and green behind the ears, full of ideals and opinions. Every day, I spent hours preparing for the lessons and anticipating the outcomes of activities. With the effort I put in, I had high expectations of my students and their families. This was a team effort, after all, and I knew that if I utilized every resource available, including my education and time, and the students and families did all they could, success would be imminent.
Before my first year teaching finished, I began to provide snacks to my students, student referrals to counseling, and parent referrals to meet basic needs. Summer break provided me with ample time to reflect on my first year teaching and determine what else I needed to do to ensure success in the classroom. While there had been many successes among every student, all of the students didn’t perform at grade level in every subject and I blamed myself. Maybe if I had put in more than the 60 hours a week I gave, or if my education and experience had been more extensive, maybe then my students would have fared better. Maybe it was the parent’s fault that the kids didn’t meet the standard. Maybe the school and school district should have provided my students and me with more support, training and supplies. All of these “maybe’s” ran through my mind over and over.
I began my second, then third, fourth, and subsequent years of teaching with more experience, knowledge, teaching tools and determination than the previous years. Each start of a school year brought excitement and anticipation of the growth my students would make. Even the students felt excited each new year. Parents, students and I felt that those who struggled in previous years would blossom and grow under our joint expectations and efforts. Sadly, this hope didn’t always last.
I learned alongside my students. I learned that their families struggled to keep food on their tables and that school meals were not optional, but necessary. Some of my students slept on the floor or on a couch because they didn’t have bedrooms. Others weren’t allowed to play outside when they went home because their apartment complexes were crawling with drugs and violence. Sometimes they stayed home from school because they didn’t have a way to clean their clothes and they were embarrassed to come to school dirty. At parent teacher conferences, I learned more when I watched stressed-out parents break-down because they had so much on their minds that they couldn’t spend half an hour doing homework with their children. We all felt more needed to be done, and that it had less to do with books and math pages and more to do with basic needs and the structures that enabled this loss of hope.
These parents worked and still struggled to provide for their children. They dreamed of white picket fences, trips to the beach and sending their children to college, but had no hope that those dreams would ever be fulfilled. In this world, effort doesn’t mean success. That was the last lesson I learned before I started thinking about supporting my students in a different way. I could be the best teacher in the world and provide everything my students and their families needed to be successful in second grade, but that would change one year of school, not the debilitating system.
I am not a “burned-out” teacher, but for now I spend my effort ensuring children have access to healthy food so that families have one less need to cause strain. My work is not about my dream to influence lives, but about changing a system that is leaving hard-working families stressed, limited and hopeless. There are programs in place to meet the needs of children who don’t have enough nutritious food to live healthy and productive lives. Our collaborative efforts can change not only one classroom of children, but an entire system in Colorado.
“Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious licence and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”
-Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities