Scratching at the surface

rest in St Louis, MO 0.0 miles

When it comes to breaking out of the cycle of poverty, so many times it is suggested that education is the key. But teachers can only do so much. As one middle school teacher I had the privilege to meet today described it, they are just scratching at the surface.

A sixth-grade math teacher at one of the city’s struggling public schools, Steve talked about the challenges, and the rewards, of the two years he’s taught in St Louis. So many of his students are grade levels behind, are clueless when it comes to basic life skills, have behavioral problems or live in unstable homes.

That is not to say students aren’t learning. He told me that during the course of the year many students make great strides. Unfortunately, going from a third-grade to a fifth-grade math level still leaves them unprepared for entering the seventh grade. Teaching is a constant uphill battle.

“I never thought I’d have to physically restrain a student,” he said. Frequently he had to handcuff one student with behavioral problems until the student was able to calm down. On one occasion the student slammed a door, breaking the glass and accidentally cutting Steve’s arm–a scar from the incident is clearly visible on his forearm.

And it was heartbreaking to hear how unprepared many of his students are, not just in their formal education, but in regards to the basic knowledge children must learn as they grow into adults. Though his students are street smart, he’s had to sit down with more than a few students and explain the basics of hygiene; that they need to shower or wear deodorant; that other students are avoiding them because their body odor is offensive. Most are equally in the dark when it comes to their bodies and sex.

Teachers in Missouri are not allowed to discuss anything but abstinence with students when it comes to the topic of sex. But, when you know your students are sexually active, and that their older siblings are having babies, what is a teacher to do? In an ideal world, children would not be having sex or becoming parents. He and another teacher at the school have found creative ways to get their students the information they need about sex, STDs, and birth control.

Meeting Steve was both inspiring and depressing. I was impressed by his dedication, his compassion, and his strength in teaching students whose needs are so great. Beyond just being a teacher, he is a role model, a parent figure, a friend. But, if teachers as dedicated as Steve are merely scratching at the surface, surely we need a better way. Students, teachers and schools are not failing. Instead, we are failing as a society, as a community, to provide our children with the tools they need to become independent adults.

–by Jennifer E. Cooper