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New Teachers Beware: You Will Face Impossible Expectations

Conventional views of public education as "failing" are wrong, says this author. It's time for teachers to start challenging that narrative.

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As you are aware, our national unemployment rate remains over 8 percent. In Illinois, it is higher, about 10 percent.

For blacks, about 19 percent.

For Hispanics, about 13 percent.

If we include those unemployed so long that they’ve given up looking for work, and those part-timers who are still looking for full-time work, the unemployment rate for each of these groups is half again higher.

These are the parents of children you’re expected to teach.

Policymakers, pundits, and politicians say this shouldn’t matter. Don’t concern yourself with such problems. Stick to your knitting: If you have high expectations, your students can succeed regardless of parents’ economic circumstances.

That is nonsense.

You know better than anyone how our economic crisis affects children.

Families suffering unemployment experience great stress. Parents tend to be less patient with children; discipline becomes more arbitrary. Children come to school reflecting stress from home, pay less attention, act out more.

Families suffering unemployment may lose health insurance; children are less likely to get routine and preventive care that middle class children take for granted. Even in good times, low-income children have 30% more school absence from untreated asthma, toothaches, earaches, and other minor illness, than middle class children.

No matter how high your expectations, how accountable you are for results, if children are absent from your classrooms because of illness, they can’t benefit from whatever schools have to offer. If they can’t see because they don’t get glasses to correct vision difficulties, high expectations can’t teach them to read.

When parents suffer from underemployment or wage stagnation, families may fall behind in rent, have homes foreclosed; they may have to move frequently, doubling-up with relatives. Mobile children will pass through your classrooms, their individual strengths and weaknesses obscure to you because you haven’t had the chance to know them and to apply the sophisticated pedagogies you learned here. Even stable students will suffer, because you must repeat lessons for newcomers. Your classrooms will have to be reconstituted, as the mobility of homeless or transient students makes your student load too big or too small.

Again, no matter how high your expectations, how accountable you are for results, if children are moving in and out of your classrooms, they cannot benefit from what schools have to offer.

In short, underemployment of parents is not only an economic crisis – it is an educational crisis. You cannot ignore it and be good educators.

To be good educators, you must step up your activity not only in the classroom, but as citizens. You must speak up in the public arena, challenging those policymakers who will accuse you only of making excuses when you speak the truth that children who are hungry, mobile, and stressed, cannot learn as easily as those who are comfortable.

As educators, you must insist that children need good health care, high quality early childhood preparation, and high quality after school and summer programs if they are to come to you ready to learn.

As educators, you simply cannot remain uninformed and silent about the social and economic context of your work.

Nobody knows better than you what the consequences of economic hardship are for children’s ability and opportunity to learn.

Parents will count on you to do everything in your power to increase their children’s chances of success, not only by better classroom practice but by insisting, as citizens, on the broader attacks on inequality that are necessary to make classroom success possible.

We, too, are counting on you to fulfill these parents’ expectations.