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