By Alicia Salazar
When I became a teacher, much was made of my credentials. Did I have a degree? What was it in? Had I mastered child development and learning theory? Did I pass a battery of standardized tests? My education and my passing scores earned me the label “highly qualified” teacher. Up until the first day of school, I thought about being a teacher solely in terms of teaching academic subjects like Math, Science, Reading and Language Arts. What I experienced when I began to practice the profession was something completely different.
The truth that confronted me on the first day of school was that I might sometimes be a child’s only chance at a meal, a friend, structure, character, self-confidence, and future success. Over time, 10 years, this realization turned into an overwhelming feeling that it was my responsibility to “be everything” or fail.
Most people have heard about the challenges teachers face—lack of supplies, lack of student motivation, drugs, violence, to name just a few. But those are blurbs in the news. The students I have encountered are more than a passing news item in my life. Marisol has a dramatic stress response whenever she is confronted with something challenging or unfamiliar. She shuts down completely and will not look me in the eye or speak or work or respond to offers of assistance in any way. Evan throws himself on the floor and has fits of rage if he doesn’t get what he wants. John threatened to scratch my eyes out, drew pictures of the kids who picked on him, crossed them out, and wrote “Dead” underneath their picture. He, it turned out, was being abused at home. I had two sisters, one of whom came to school with shoes that were about an inch too small. I got her new shoes, but the next day she returned to school in the same ill-fitting shoes.
I have had students who only see their parents on the weekend because the parents work several jobs and are only home when their kids were at school. I had a student who lost his mother and sister in a tragic accident and was being raised by an overwhelmed father. One of my students had to be monitored closely because he ate paper and anything else he could get his hands on. As teachers, we encounter students who face so many struggles at home that school is not very high on their list of priorities. All of these personalities and issues come together in one class.
TEACHING WHILE MONITORING
Teaching math and reading becomes a challenge for reasons unrelated to my level of education or my scores on the pedagogy exam. Getting through a day means constantly multi-tasking. It means teaching about the water cycle while monitoring Marisol for stress and keeping paper away from Samuel and making sure David got breakfast and Michael got enough sleep and Ivan, who has limited English skills, has enough visuals to understand the content. And they all have to pass or at least show progress on standardized tests.
No matter how good their parents are, most of the students I have taught are disadvantaged. They might lack care, or support, or literacy, or language fluency, or simply a broad range of experiences. Right or not, the school system has become the entity charged with making up for these deficits. Our students are provided with a free breakfast every weekday morning, without which some of them might go hungry until lunchtime. We sacrifice valuable instructional time to provide lessons on nutrition, fire safety, stranger danger, kindness, self-respect, respect for others, honesty, self-control, fairness, and having a growth mindset.
TEACHING: THE SECONDARY PRIORITY
Public schools provide mentors; after-school tutoring, which many teachers do for free; health, vision, and dental screenings; glasses; school supplies; winter coats; and sometimes shoes and clothes. It is difficult to look into the eyes of a child and say that we should not do these things. In most cases, these kids won’t get these services anywhere else, but we must realize they come at a cost.
Every new duty added to a school’s or a teacher’s plate is traded for instructional time. At a staff meeting at the beginning of the year, a school counselor recounted a conversation with a student in which she told the student that “our main job is to keep kids safe, our secondary job is to teach them”. This is the new normal. The school system’s primary objective has become not reading, writing, and arithmetic, but the social, emotional, and physical well-being of its students. As a teacher, I sometimes feel like the Little Dutch Boy, except there are about a thousand holes in the dam and I am desperately trying to plug all of them. It is my responsibility to eek academic success out of the five instructional hours we have in a day, while searching for time to fill all of the non-academic gaps experienced by my students.
AN INCREASE IN FUNCTIONS; A DECREASE IN QUALITY
How much more can we, teachers and schools, take on? I often hear the refrain “they should be teaching that in the schools”. It seems easy and logical. If children are lacking something then, of course, they should be teaching it in the school. If children need to learn about nutrition, teach it in the schools. If they need to learn character, teach it in the schools. Fire safety. Schools. Drug Awareness. Schools. Citizenship. Schools. Nutrition. Schools. Prayer and spirituality. Schools. It feels like schools are a catchall for society’s ills. Schools and teachers are increasingly asked to be everything.
Every morning that my students walk in, hug me, and show off their new light up shoes or tell me about their fight with their mom, or about their fears and their dreams, I am reminded how high the stakes that I face truly are. My students have a personal future and a collective future that I influence through the hundreds of snap decisions that I make in a day about how much time to spend on something and what to spend that time on. My fear is that as my functions multiply, the quality of my individual functions will suffer. I find that my daily routine is mainly a series of decisions about what is essential and what I can leave out due to lack of time and a multitude of interruptions.
The most important questions, to my mind are these: 1) Can we provide a good education in an era when education is no longer the primary focus of the school system? And 2) How many functions can we take on before the effectiveness of our individual functions diminishes?
EDITOR'S NOTE: All names have been changed and personal details removed to protect the privacy of the students mentioned in this essay.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Alicia Salazar has been a teacher in Houston's public school system for more than a decade. She has a Master's degree in Marine Biology from Texas A&M University and guest writes for science publications.