My heart is breaking over comments made by well-intended folks that if teachers just believed in their students, they can bring them out of poverty and into the arms of an ivy-league school. If I could, I would save every kindergartner that walks through my door of every injustice and societal failures they have and will continue to experience. In a recent article written in The Atlantic, “What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland's School Success” Anu Partanen points out the success in Finland’s school comes down to equity, “'There are no private schools in Finland.’ This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it's true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.” Everyone is provided an education that all in the community has a stake in, and in turn all want to see succeed. “Finland's experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity. The problem facing education in America isn't the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.”
Let me come back to this idea that if a teacher just believes that his or her students can learn that will make all the difference. I grew up in North Portland. I attended public schools that were rich in diversity: language diversity; ethnic diversity; income level diversity; and diverse life experiences. I had the same teachers, as others in my neighborhood, with passion and rigor in their teaching. I went on to graduate from college (double majoring in English Literature and Spanish with a minor in Latin American Studies) and onto graduate school in Early Childhood Education with a focus on Bilingual Education and English Language Learners. Some of those I went to middle school with went onto college, some did not, some ended up in jail, some filling the statistics of teenage pregnancy, or others wandering the neighborhood to this day (15-20 years later) dealing and/or doing drugs. I know that our teachers cared. I know that our teachers believed in every student that walked through the door. I know this because I was in those classrooms. Why did my life take a different path than some of my classmates? Yes, my being a white middle class girl had something to do with my privilege in life. But so did the excess of books that filled my home, the dance, music, and theatre lessons I did after school many days a week. I had the opportunity to swim on a swim team for many years. My parents graduated from college. I had the stability of living in the same house throughout my whole childhood, I still show up today and know there is food in the fridge I can eat. My parents supported my decision to study abroad when I was 16 years old and I flew to Argentina for a year on their dime. My father had a living wage job as a union carpenter to help pay for that year abroad. All of those factors helped support me to become the well-rounded individual I am today.
Now I am that teacher, like teachers I had before me. I can believe all I want that all my students can learn, which I do. I can believe that they all can achieve greatness in life, which I do. I can believe that global warming isn’t happening, yet that doesn’t mean it will stop the glaciers from melting at a more rapid rate. I can believe that my friend will overcome cancer, yet see her die. I can believe that the earth is flat, yet have it proved a sphere.
Belief only carries us so far. I can tell you what I know from teaching in a high poverty school. I know that I can be the best teacher I humanly can be when students fill my classroom. I know I cannot control my students moving away because mom moves in with a boyfriend, dad goes to jail, homelessness, mom’s sick in another state, eviction, and many other causes of mobility that many of my students face. I know the importance of a relationship that allows me to connect and encourage my students and their families. I know that some parents will walk in the rain to make a parent meeting, while others will never show up at all. I know that I may or may not be able to get a hold of a parent by phone because so often phone numbers are either disconnected or wrong. I know that I will get new students throughout the year who may or may not come with any school ready skills. I know that books are probably not as cherished in my students’ households as cable television and video games. I know I can make an impact in my students’ education and life, but I also know I only get that student in my classroom for 7 hours a day for less than a year. I cannot control or save them from their everyday lives.
I can and I have helped by translating for a family moving into new apartment. I have driven Thanksgiving baskets to students’ homes and presents for Christmas. I have bought and given many books to my students. I have taken students on special outings to the Nutcracker and the zoo. I have driven families to the vaccination clinic so that their child would not be excluded from school. I have bought clothes, soap, backpacks, and much more for students. I have laughed and cried with my students. I have 29 students this year, the most I have had in my 5 years of teaching kindergarten. I teach in two languages Spanish and English. I want each one of my students to leave kindergarten loving learning, school, and leaving with rich classroom experiences. I dream big dreams for each one of my students. I watch them make huge growth socially and academically throughout the year. I wonder what happens to my students who leave the school after that year or the next few years. Or the ones who make it through and than go on to the awkward and challenging years of middle and high school. I may never know, but I try my best to positively influence their lives and their education. Life doesn’t always give us an answer. Life is not a standardized test, my choices are not always A, B, C, or D. There is a whole alphabet, many outcomes. I can believe all I want, but I don’t get to choose the outcomes for my students. I may cultivate their hunger for learning and pray that hunger never dies.