Every child in our schools deserves joy

I eat, sleep and breathe public education.

After 30 years, I still love the work that I do. I have become an educator who carries around a fair amount of wisdom and experience in my head and heart that can be shared to help younger teachers grow into stronger teachers. I watch curriculums, superintendents, teachers, and students come and go. I want those of you who do not spend your days, nights and weekends in the world of public education to get a sense of what is happening in some of our schools. Depending on which bubble you live in within Durham, you may or may not be aware of what is happening. You should be, at the very least, aware.

I once read, “If you neglect a child (or school) long enough, they will live up to those expectations.” There are children, teachers and schools in Durham being neglected. Before you blame parents or teachers, take a closer look at our federal and state policies, our community, and all of the systems that continue to set children and their teachers up for failure. There are strong messages telling our children and their teachers that they’re not worth what their peers in other schools are worth. These messages are clear in many forms. One example is unappealing federally funded food served in our schools, including a pinch of red cabbage provided as a snack one day. I doubt that any students were feeling the love on that day, or went home feeling nourished. It’s hard to concentrate and learn when you are hungry.

We have a number of children and families in our schools who are mentally unwell, due to many factors beyond physical nourishment. The systems continue to neglect them and ignore these critical factors. This leaves a heavy burden on our teachers and school administrators. I see teachers in our schools come and go, because it is draining to be with children who are frustrated, angry, hungry or tired. This instability makes learning and teaching overwhelming and exhausting. There are, by the way, children who are mentally unwell in private schools too, but their families have resources to pay for them to get support. Charter schools send them back to Durham Public Schools.

I fully believe that the children I interact with and teach on a daily basis could beat all the odds if we had supports in place to meet their basic needs. I am grateful to be in a DPS school with incredible administrators and faculty; however, it often feels like nobody outside of our school building cares. Time spent fighting the system and jumping hurdles constantly put before us is time wasted. Students, teachers and administrators need consistent support and the chance to do what they were hired to do.

I see many students who move from school to school, and home to home, because their families don’t have secure jobs or housing. Teachers know that their emotional and social needs must be met before they can grow academically. This is not new information, yet we continue to have to explain it to those who are not in our schools with children on a daily basis.

I know what students need to succeed. Just ask me. I see it in the eyes of children every day. I know what teachers need to succeed. I watch and listen to dedicated teachers every day.

The lack of human resource supports put in place in order for students and teachers to thrive is criminal. We need more capable adults in the schools to respond to emotional needs of students. We need more adults to read to children, listen to them read, and most importantly to believe in them.

When I moved to Durham 25 years ago, pregnant with my first child, I watched and read carefully as the then two Durham school systems merged. I was optimistic that Durham was working toward equity in schools. It is 2017, and we are still not even close. Most of the same schools are struggling and continue to have a higher ratio of underachieving children of color and/or children who receive free/reduced price lunches. This was unacceptable to me in 1992, and it should unacceptable to anyone reading this in 2017.

As author, Jonathan Kozol, stated in a recent lecture I attended, “Every child deserves joy.” In addition, I also believe that every teacher deserves joy.

What are you willing to do to bring joy back to children and teachers? Every minute that we wait for someone else to fix the problem, precious time and young lives are being wasted. Teachers are leaving. Students are giving up. I will not give up on public education. I will not give up on the children who have already been written off by others. My hope is that more people will be concerned enough to do something about it. The needs are many, and each and every person reading this could contribute in some way.

Children are not born feeling worthless. They are born ready to welcome joy. Contact me if you want to be a part of bringing joy back into public education.

This post originally appeared in The Herald Sun in December 2017.

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