By Sujata Bhatt, a teacher at Grand View Elementary
All names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.
The first month of school has ended, and many teachers working in urban districts have already gone through the seven stages of grief. Shock and denial over the skills of incoming students. Pain at the thought of how much work it will take to get them up to speed. Anger at the many factors that have brought these students to the classroom in this state of unpreparedness. Depression in the face of the magnitude of the task ahead. Reflection on what it will take to get the students going. The upward turn as students begin to cohere as a class. Reconstruction as the teacher finds methods and strategies to teach this group of students. And, finally, a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, the job will get done.
In short, as the barbs and battle cries in the Great Education Debate fly all around us, we teachers have gotten down to work. We have assessed our students to see where they are in reading and math skills, in writing and comprehension. We have pored through databases to analyze test scores and fill out numerous worksheets to satisfy the experts and district number crunchers. But equally importantly, we have gotten to know our students as human beings.
I know that four out of my 24 fourth-graders read at grade level. One knows her times tables. Almost no one knows his or her phone numbers. Most don’t know their addresses. Many don’t know that they live in the city of Los Angeles, which is in the state of California in the nation of the United States on the continent of North America. Four did not read a single book over the summer. One has missed a week of school already. The other students say she has gone to Mexico, but we don’t know for sure, and we don’t know when she’ll be back. One has already moved to Bakersfield.
I know that fifteen out of twenty four parents showed up at an evening class meeting I held. Two sent notes that they couldn’t make it because they were working; I don’t know about the remaining seven.
I know that Osvaldo’s mom will meet me at the gate once a week to check on how he’s doing.
I know that Avery’s mom wants me to let her know about his behavior every single day, but she won’t come to class meetings or Back to School Night.
I know that David has a handicapped sister at home which makes it hard for his single mom to give him attention, but if I call her and let her know how he’s doing, she’ll make the time for him.
I know that Timothy’s mom will verbally support everything I do but has no time or energy to follow up on it.
I know that Harry has five siblings from five different dads and his mom has “f*** you” tattooed on her eyebrow.
I know that Nicandro’s dad drinks, curses, and (according to him) beats him, and his older brother is in and out of juvie.
I know that Monica’s mother has promised to take her to the California locales we’re exploring in Social Studies if she works hard and does well.
I know that Emilio’s family is taking him to Yosemite because we’re studying it in science. I know that Rigo’s mom is saving to buy him a laptop after I showed her how much extracurricular support the kids can find on the web.
I know that Liam will do anything in order to get computer time.
I know Aline has an enormous talent in motivating her classmates, but that she can only keep focused for 20-minute stretches.
I know that Isabel needs to speak up more, and Reginald needs to learn to listen to others more.
I know that Steven wants to be President of the United States so he can help poor people and those without documents. To motivate him, I just need to ask him if he thinks what he’s doing is presidential enough.
I could go on and on about their lives, their dreams, their weaknesses, their stories, and the year is just beginning.
Does any of this information matter in the Great Education Debate? No, say the experts, because it is not data. It is not quantifiable. It is not part of standardized testing. It can’t be used in Value-Added Measurements. It is merely anecdotal.
But is it valuable? It’s what teachers learn in order to help each individual student move forward. It’s what we have to work both with and against — even as all those so-called experts are telling us how and how not to do our jobs. I wish just for a month they’d walk in our shoes.