A Tale of Two Back to School Nights
|Photo credit: Richland County ES|
Excitement and enthusiasm were in the air as teachers in my new high school in a middle class neighborhood prepared their classrooms by decorating their bulletin boards, displaying student work, and straightening desks. Welcome messages abounded, Remind.com messages were sent, and we opened our doors to meet the parents.
I have done these events for 24 years, four times a year at my former school in South Central L.A. But this year’s Back to School Night left me reflecting, and perhaps shedding a tear.
First, my new parents were fantastic. They were friendly, enthusiastic, and supportive of the new ideas I bring to the school. I knew in them I would have allies to incorporate my findings from my Fulbright exchange in Finland earlier this year. Parent after parent nodded their heads and strongly affirmed that break time was important to students, teachers, and workers in general. They were excited to hear about the summer travel programs I had prepared.
As I looked at their warm and smiling faces, I knew I had found a welcoming new home. “Don’t go anywhere, I have one more coming after this one!” said a parent after my session, who waited in line to shake my hand.
As I drove home, I thought about the 23 other Back to School nights I did in the other part of town.
There is no denying the common element of the deep concern parents have about the education of their children. And of course there are always exceptions to any rule. South Central L.A. has middle class parents who are business owners and college graduates. It has working class families with decent jobs who aren't rich, but have what they need. But I remember a good number of parents who had a very heavy burden to carry: poverty. It weighed on their shoulders like a 10 ton boulder. Their bodies were tired. Their expressions serious. There was no time for courtesies or greetings. Questions were direct and matter of fact. Often there were no farewells or thank you’s. But I never once doubted how much they appreciated their children’s teachers and the school. Sometimes they remembered later, and sent a message. Mostly, they did not.
I knew then, as I know even more now, that poverty has a massively negative effect on the social, mental, and physical well being of those who live in it. One of the most insidious arguments of those who purport to improve education through reform has been the mantra “poverty is not destiny,” often uttered by those who had not once ever experienced it. Yet aside from the mantras, the only solutions they offered were those aligned with hedge-fund managers to address the effects of poverty on students in schools: fire “bad teachers”, implement a no excuses program, praise grit, and drill the kids until they comprehend. All wrong, wrong, wrong.
It is no coincidence that this approach has not improved schools or solved poverty.
Year 24 for me means getting to know fiery group of new parents who chose their local public school as the place to educate their children, in spite of the ritzy, manicured private schools nearby. Something tells me we were meant to connect.
Back to School Night 2018 is in the books, and I for one am just getting started in this West Valley neighborhood.