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Must Teachers Shut Down Our Compassion to Survive Education Reform?

Yesterday I received a message from a reader. She wrote:


I am convinced that educators in this country have lost their senses. At least, they seem to have lost their consciences.

I sent your blog - What Hurricane Sandy is Teaching Us About Students Under Stress - to my fellow teachers this week. No one responded to the post via e-mail. I can understand that, since our school e-mails are monitored. But no one would talk to me about the "storms" our kids are living through when I mentioned your article at school.

Now, you may think, this is not unusual and that educators, in general, are not conscious of dealing with kids living in poverty, neglect, and abuse. But, Anthony, I teach at a small public alternative high school for at-risk kids in a Northeastern city!!! My town's poverty rate is 56%. My school's free and reduced lunch percentage is 86%!!! We teach where we teach because we chose (most have us have been teaching at my school at least 10 years) to help those kids who were labeled hopeless and unteachable.

Race to the Top, the Common Core standards, and now the dreaded Connecticut Alliance Grant have taken the human out of the profession! We, the teachers, can't be compassionate without being politically incorrect these days. God help us! What has happened to our profession in just a few years?

So I have been thinking about this phenomenon, because it resonates very much with my experiences in Oakland, where I worked for 24 years. The students who experience homelessness, hunger, neglect or worse are mostly invisible to us. As teachers, we are supposed to focus on academics first, last and always. This responsibility is ever more weighty and oppressive, as test scores have become even more consequential for us as individual teachers.

As I wrote last week, Hurricane Sandy is a regional catastrophe. In the neighborhoods hardest hit, almost everyone is directly affected. Teachers cannot help but respond, and modify their instruction. This normalizes the trauma for these students, and allows them to see that their feelings of helplessness and frustration, even depression, are normal and can be shared. However, in the case of the storms of poverty, the evictions, the foreclosures, the divorces, the days when there is no dinner to eat, the night their father is arrested and sent away for years - these insults to their being are individual and almost always hidden.

They are hidden because the students are ashamed of being poor. Our entire culture projects huge shame onto people without money, and scornfully laughs at the consequences. Teachers are more compassionate, but truth be told, we do not really want to know about these things, because we feel powerless. Our schools do not have the resources to respond. In California, most schools have cut counseling staff back to a bare minimum and school nurses are a quaint memory.

And most cruel of all, as my Connecticut friend points out, it has become politically incorrect to call attention to poverty and the harm it is inflicting. In schools there is the echo of the accusation central to No Child Left Behind, and reiterated by representatives from the Gates Foundation in our dialogue. It is said that those who call attention to the ravages of poverty believe "that children living in poverty cannot learn and that until the status quo changes we should lower our expectations for poor children."

If you look at the numbers I shared last week, they add up very quickly. In a school like the one this teacher who wrote me works in, with 86% of the children on subsidized lunches, many of these students are living in poverty, and a substantial number have at least one parent incarcerated. In Oakland, some schools have a large number of students living in group homes or foster care, without much parental support at all. What does it do to us as human beings to have to turn a blind eye to the pain that is unfolding in the lives of our students?

And even when schools do their best to keep the focus on academics, the violence intervenes. Drive-by shootings in the neighborhood means that at some schools they must practice duck and cover not because of a threat from the Russians, but from stray bullets. Students die from violence, or take their own lives because they become hopeless. This trauma invades the school, and teachers begin to suffer the effects of PTSD as well. I think this is a major factor driving teacher turnover in these schools.

There are two major aspects to being an effective teacher. To begin with, you must care, as a compassionate human being, about that child that is your responsibility. Then you must help that child achieve goals that will enable them to succeed in the world. He or she needs to learn academic skills, and how to communicate and get along with others. But when the level of poverty rises, our capacity to be compassionate may paradoxically go the opposite direction. If we are too softhearted, we will never get any schoolwork done, because every day we will be responding to a fresh crisis in someone's life. If you look at the discipline regimes in schools like the KIPP charter system, you see what this looks like. There is very little tolerance for disruption of the academic schedule. And attrition tends to be high - perhaps because students who are not able to stoically soldier through their challenges go elsewhere. These students are often pushed into the pipeline to prison.

Most of those pushing relentlessly for higher academic standards are trying to improve the life outcomes for students. However, when this pressure makes it impossible for teachers to respond to or even acknowledge the sometimes overwhelming challenges their students are living through, this can be counterproductive.

Strangely, those of us who suggest we have a moral imperative to address these circumstances are accused of delaying. We must not feel the URGENCY that people like Michelle Rhee feel, because we are insisting poverty must be FIXED before poor children can learn. Not true. Some poor children WILL learn, regardless. Some, through luck, grit, that one caring intervention at the right moment, or whatever miracle of fate, will find their way through the obstacle course society has laid out for them. But many will not, and we want our schools and society to be far better equipped to respond. We do not require that poverty be fixed before we can teach, but we insist that it be responded to, as it often interferes with the healthy growth of the children we care about.

Turning a blind eye to pain is the first step towards spiritual death. Most teachers came to the profession because of the chance it gives us to act on our compassion, the chance to see our work transform the lives of children. When we must shut that compassion down in order to function in a school, a part of us has died. The best part.

What do you think? Are teachers becoming numb to the pain in the lives of our students? How can we regain our senses?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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