I began my teaching career at an inner-city school in downtown Phoenix. For a young man who was from a very small town, in central Kansas, the diversity of the school was staggering — ethnically, economically, and academically. While I was aware of families in need in our community, I had never been exposed to the level of poverty, and violence, that my downtown Phoenix students faced on a daily basis. At the time, I remember being shocked when I walked into my classroom to find two of my students comparing bullet wounds, or when, on a home visit with the school counselor, we discovered a student who was staying home in order to protect his mother from an abusive boyfriend. The realities of life had forced these students to grow up way too fast.
Even years later, at a different school, I sometimes worry that I have become immune to the harsh realities of students who live in poverty. I no longer bat an eye when students tell me a parent is in jail, or they are homeless, or that they weren’t able to be in school because they were babysitting an ill sibling. It’s not that I don’t care, but these events that I should find appalling, no longer have the shock value. Been there, seen that.
This morning, the first day of our third week of school, a teacher asked me what was going on with one of our students who some would find rough around the edges. I wasn’t sure what the teacher was talking about. A few minutes later, as students were walking into one of our buildings, I noticed the boy. He had tears in his eyes, and seemed antsy. I asked if he was alright. He shook his head — “no.” I asked if he wanted to hang out in my office for awhile. He shook his head — “yes.” He came into my office with me and sat in one of my chairs, head down, tears flowing. “Do you need a Kleenex?” A nod of the head…yes. “Are you having problems at home?” Another nod…yes. “Are you safe?” Another nod, quickly followed by “I don’t want to talk about it.” I let it go, and allowed him to sit quietly. But, as I worked at my desk, thoughts and questions bounced around in my head. I know your name, but:
- Who do you live with?
- Do you have brothers and sisters?
- Is there someone at home you can talk to?
- Do you have someone to go to when you need help?
- Is there any chance you will be able to focus on school?
- Have you eaten anything today?
- Where do you live?
- Who are your friends?
- What do you like to do when your not in school?
- Do you have any dreams/aspirations?
It was painfully obvious that I didn’t know enough about this youngster to have even a decent understanding of the challenges he might be facing, and how these challenges might impact his performance in school. It reminded me of a post I wrote, about a year ago, entitled Do You Know Me? As a principal, I should do better. I should know. So tomorrow, I will check in on this student, and I will begin to ask questions — not overbearing, but caring.
Problems and issues are certainly not exclusive to students from poverty. That is why it is imperative that educators take the time, and invest the energy necessary to really know their students.
How do you learn about your kids and develop connections?