‘Schools are no longer just institutions of learning—we are the primary hub of care outside the family’

My colleague Elaine Weiss launched her new book Broader, Bolder, Better on the challenges facing teachers around the country at an EPI event this week by emphasizing the need for policymakers and researchers to listen to educators themselves rather than imposing their biases on the pros.

Truly moving remarks from guest of honor Joy Kirk, a middle-school teacher from Fredrick County, Va., made quite clear why that’s a sound strategy.

Kirk described the transition she has witnessed in the role of teachers and schools as anchors in the community over her 24 years of teaching, which began in urban Philadelphia before she moved to a more rural setting.

“Schools are no longer just institutions of learning. We are the primary hub of care outside the family,” she said, a stark reality considering the deeply under-resourced state of so many of the country’s schools.

“And for some of our students, we are their only safe place, because if you’re suffering violence at home, if you’re suffering upheaval, if your parents are constantly moving because they can’t hold a steady job—for whatever that reason is—your one safe place is your teacher’s classroom,” she said.

Weiss’s book is the culmination of years of research into how schools can proactively help to counter some of the social strains in various communities, by promoting innovative and targeted approaches to solve every day problems.

“Our book is grounded in community voice and celebrates teacher activism,” Weiss explains in a blog post. “It calls out the consequences of structural racism and urges community leaders to translate their daily witnessing of the impacts of poverty into partnerships with the schools that are on the front lines of combating it. It thanks the local and community leaders who are already walking this walk and asks all of us to find ways to further support them.”

Kirk’s description of her work and situations she and other teachers encounter reinforce other research from EPI showing a growing shortage of teachers created in part by declining interest in the profession among young graduates—in part because of a massive pay gap compared to other professions requiring similar levels of education.

“There are stories we hear from them that make us know that, you know what, that state test that I have to give—I don’t care, I just don’t care,” she said.

“I care more about who you are going to be when you grow up from the other lessons you learn from me as a teacher than how you do on a state test. I care about the content of your character than a single test score. Because there’s no place for me to say, as a teacher, Donnie didn’t get an hour of sleep last night, Suzy didn’t have a hot meal for the past three days, Donnie’s grandma just passed away from cancer—those are the struggles they deal with every day.”

Kirk continued, speaking to a gripped audience:

“And so the shift has become recognizing more of those needs. At first it was the teachers alone, as individuals we’re scrambling—okay, we know so and so doesn’t have water, how can we get them into school early and maybe get them down to the gym? As teachers, you’re making these little baskets and you’re letting this kid come to class 20 minutes late and the other kids are wondering but it’s because as teachers you know they don’t have water right now and you’ve got to do something—but you don’t want them to stand out.

“But as the problem began to grow, especially through the recession, we began to recognize this was more than just a few teachers on a team, or a few teachers in a school. It’s a community issue and we need to step up.

“We need the mental health workers, we need the school psychologists. We have some of our schools now that now offer laundry service and the kids can bring in clothes to do their laundry, so they’re not ‘that’ kid.”

The whole event is worth watching if you couldn’t attend, and it’s available here on EPI’s YouTube page. And of course, buy the book!