A third grade teacher in Denver by the name of Kyle Schwartz conducted an experiment a couple of years ago. Her students, like many, live in poverty. As she was trying to reach them, she felt something was missing. There just must be something she didn’t know about her students.
She asked her students to each write her an anonymous note. The topic, what I wish my teacher knew.
Some of the results were surprising, some heartbreaking. Here’s one: “I wish my teacher knew I want to go to college.”
One of the things that teachers often fail to understand is the challenges many of their students have at home. This is especially true if the teacher comes from a privileged background or even from a stable middle class home. Some of the notes Schwartz received drove that home. I wish my teacher knew…
“…sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom is not around a lot.”
I wish my teacher knew…
“…I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.”
Many teachers cannot fathom the difficulties their students must deal with. They have no frame of reference. Life events that adults find difficult to manage can wreak absolute havoc on the lives of children. Parents may lose jobs, switch jobs, get divorced, remarried, abuse their children or date someone abusive. Family members may have illnesses and other problems that make home study nearly impossible.
Recognizing this, some schools have gone so far as to ban homework, at least at certain levels. This isn’t a dumbing down of the curriculum; it is a recognition that some students are at a serious disadvantage when it comes to home distractions. Schools are finding other ways to get the work in.
Distractions are a major challenge for students, both at home and at school. Family difficulties can often add to these and some of these are difficult to share with teachers. I wish my teacher knew…
“…how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 years old and I haven’t seen him in 6 years…”
Social challenges, both at school and at home can also detract from schoolwork. Teachers sometimes notice these, but they cannot be everywhere on campus, so at times they just don’t know. I wish my teacher knew…
“i don’t have friend to paly with me” (misspellings in the original).
The disconnect extends all the way to the university level. Stanford, my graduate alma mater, now has a student club called the First-Generation Low Income Partnership (FLIP). I wish it had been there when I was a student.
The club initiated a discussion a couple of years ago in which students create memes showing what they wish their professors knew. I wish my professor knew…
“when you said ‘you have to imagine what it’s like to be low income, I know that’s hard here.’ I didn’t need to imagine.”
And another. I wish my professor had known…
“that not all Stanford students come from affluent backgrounds.”
At elite universities like Stanford, the class privilege is often quite overt. I remember silencing a room once while there simply by mentioning the term “working class”.
Some professors simply have no frame of reference when it comes to the costs of college and how their students struggle. I wish my professor…
“took me seriously when I said his class was unaffordable.”
And just like K-12 kids, some university students deal with difficulties in their families and communities. I wish my professor knew…
“when you said ‘the programming language ‘C’ is like a crack mom’, I wondered if you ever imagined having a student that was dealing with drug and substance abuse in their family and them hearing your comment.”
Luckily now programs like FLIP are spreading and are, at the least, creating awareness of the disconnect. Some explanations you would think wouldn’t be necessary, but are. Such as reminding universities like Stanford that many parents simply cannot afford to come to parents’ weekend. The time off from work and the travel cost make it impossible.
Awareness of course, is just the first step. The next must be to provide those students the resources needed to give them a chance–an equal chance–to succeed.
—A version of this piece appeared in the Porterville Recorder on April 29th, 2015.
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