By Corinne Lyons
As an educator, not only do I teach my students how to read — and how to “read to learn” — I am a counselor, judge, defense counsel, nurse, resource coordinator, trusted adult in a safe space, cheerleader, cook/chef, financial supporter, custodian, babysitter and so much more. But my focus should be on teaching my kids how to read to learn.
Teachers are simply overworked because there is so much on our plates that should not be there at all.
And yet, the reality is that the schools where we work are much more than learning centers. They are the centers of our communities. Students are compelled by law to attend, but it’s much more than that. It’s the social services and resources that make schools so essential to our communities — and make teachers so essential, too. We need to be better prepared for this role.
"It’s the social services and resources that make schools so essential to our communities — and make teachers so essential, too."
I remember the first time I had to call Child Protective Services. Prior to making the call, I had to get directions from two different people — the school counselor and a sorority sister who is a social worker. Additionally, no one prepared me for the emotional work associated with making such a call.
I knew coming into this profession that my students would learn reading and writing from me, their English teacher. I even knew I would be a mandatory reporter, like every other teacher — required to report suspected abuse. However, I was completely unprepared for the reality.
Now I know first-hand the truth of what I learned from books and professors before entering the classroom: As a teacher I am confronted with needs far from academic concerns. And the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — necessities such as food, shelter and safety — must be met before we can hope to teach our students.
"As a teacher I am confronted with needs far from academic concerns."
If students are cold, hungry, dirty, emotionally hurt, abused or without shelter, it is much more difficult to motivate them to learn. While there is some debate about whether Maslow’s hierarchy accurately describes how humans operate, based on my experiences, it’s safe to say if a child is well-cared for, they “do” better.
So … what is the solution?
Teachers need more professional development and educational opportunities. We need to learn about our students’ needs outside of academics. And these opportunities — to build our knowledge so we can help our students — should be free, so no teacher is locked out due to costs.
"If students are cold, hungry, dirty, emotionally hurt, abused, or without shelter it is much more difficult to motivate them to learn."
Social Emotional Resources
There should also be more resources in our schools to help us address children’s social and emotional needs, especially during this time of COVID-19 and racial reckoning. At my school, I was thankful my school counselor could walk me through that first Child Protective Services report. He also has facilitated many conversations in our school about topics such as sex trafficking and grief. But unfortunately, not every school has sufficient counselors. Not every school has a nurse or a social worker. And when they do, they’re frequently spread across multiple buildings.
We need more counselors, social workers and psychologists. We need more nurses. Ensuring each school has adequate wraparound services would be huge. Making sure those resources are available to the community outside the school would be even better.
Much of the debate regarding face-to-face instruction versus remote instruction hinges on the fact that teachers do such important work. While we wrangle with COVID-19 safety precautions and limitations, we are already finding ways to offer some of that work outside the school walls. But we could do more.
- What if there was a way to provide child care for essential workers?
- What if there was a way to provide meals for those who are food insecure?
- What if there was a way to ensure every family had utilities, including internet in those areas where it is accessible?
- What if there were more mental health specialists offering free or reduced tele-services?
- What if there was another way to catch child abuse and neglect?
For these services and so much more, we need funding like what is provided in the HEROES Act. We also need to take advantage of this opportunity to reimagine and redesign education into something that will increase student achievement beyond the current COVID-19 situation. If we all put our minds together, we could reimagine and redesign education far better than if we try to tackle this separately.
Just as we are stronger together in a union, we are stronger together working as a collective, reimagining our schools and communities to make them stronger and better. And reimagining them so that teachers can focus more on academics — and teach.
Corinne Lyons is a member of the Detroit Federation of Teachers and an
English language arts teacher at the Sampson Webber Leadership Academy.