It’s the Systemic Issues, Stupid

When I talk about my teaching career I often mention that I have always taught at Title I schools. I’ve considered it important because I’ve always seen teaching at such schools as being more difficult than teaching elsewhere. But I haven’t really stopped to think about why I believe this.

The assumption, I think, is often that it is more challenging because the students are more challenging. I’m certain I thought that earlier in my career. Now, I don’t buy it. That is not my belief. The students I have had the opportunity to teach for the past twenty-one years have been all kinds of kiddos. There have been challenging students, yes. (Although, I often think that is more about me than it is about them.) There have also been brilliant kiddos. There have been creative kids and thoughtful kids and mischievous kids and introverted and extroverted kids and dramatic kids and generous kids and all kinds of kids. Like there would be at any school.

The thing about teaching in Title I schools that I think is important isn’t really about the kids. It’s about systemic issues. Schools become Title I because of the percentage of students who are receiving free or reduced price meals at school. It is a measure of children living in difficult financial situations. Having money troubles doesn’t make a kid challenging to teach. Any more than not having money troubles makes a kid easy to teach.

Teaching in Title I schools is difficult because the students and their families are facing so many systemic challenges in their lives. For the students I have taught, the great majority of whom were English Language Learners and recent immigrants to this country, racism and nativism impact their lives on a daily basis. Even if those impacts aren’t as glaringly obvious as a racist tweet or yelled slur. Those impacts are insidious.

Not having enough money makes everything harder as well. If you can’t afford a car you rely on public transportation, something that is a serious challenge in the suburbs where I teach. If you are not making enough money at your job you may have multiple jobs, especially if the jobs are part-time ones. If you don’t have health insurance (because employers are only offering part-time jobs to avoid providing it) you end up sick with no options or at an emergency room. Even the societal structures we put in place to help people are difficult and time consuming to navigate. Have you ever seen the paperwork to apply for free or reduced price meals for children? Pages and pages.

It’s not the kids that make the job a challenge. It’s all that those kids and their families are facing that does. It’s systemic. Helping the children is important and makes a difference. But changing the systemic problems is critical. It feels a bit like the boy with his fingers in the dike. We’re holding back the water for our students, but at some point we need to fix the dike in a way that holds back the water permanently.

from Wikipedia

(Next month I’ll begin teaching at a new school. It is not a Title I school.)


4 replies on “It’s the Systemic Issues, Stupid”

  1. Recently, my husband and I have been working with a family in crisis. They are poor with little or no income. I believe that transportation is one of the biggest issues for families, especially in more suburban and rural areas where, as you point out, public transportation is sometimes not an option or very difficult. My little town has none and many people ride bikes or walk to get around. They would be challenged to get anywhere much farther for a job. And, we don’t have a real grocery store so they are relying on Dollar General and McDonald’s for food but that’s another story.

    Cars cost money to keep up and require gasoline to get anywhere. Legal issues and fines can stand in the way as well by denying a driver’s license. Northam’s forgiveness program went into effect on July 1 and will at least help with the license. But then go find insurance: the cost is ridiculous, and there doesn’t seem to be a public option. The system is rigged in so many ways that you just don’t see until you connect closely with it as you do with your students’ and their families.

    Teachers like you are often on the front lines in all of this as you connect through your mutual love and concern for those kiddos. Parents want the best for the kids despite their circumstances and a caring school culture can at least help ease one area of worry. It won’t dismantle the system but it might make it a little easier to navigate.

    • jenorr says:

      Karen, thank you for sharing this. Being in the suburbs things are easier and there are options likely lacking in your area. At a minimum, we’ve got grocery stores and more in many, many places which helps a lot. But there are so many things that complicate lives of those struggling financially. I appreciate all you are doing to help this family and to help us understand the reality.

  2. Thank you for illustrating the connections so clearly and also sharing your own growth. “I used to think… and now I think…” is one of the most powerful ways of recognizing how our perspectives can change over time and how we also adapt our practices to reflect those shifts in thinking. I really want lots of people to read it because it goes beyond using the right terminology. Your post is rich in concrete examples which plenty of folks are missing if their not directly confronted with those circumstances. All systems do not work the same for all people. Your post makes that unmistakably clear.

    • jenorr says:

      Sherri, thank you. That’s is a great point about the “I used to think…and now I think…” Twenty-one years in elementary school classrooms has opened my eyes to so many things. Sometimes it is painful to think through what I used to think. I fear that in another decade I’ll look back on this time with the same reaction.

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