As part of 50 States of Art, Creators is inviting artists to contribute first-person accounts of what it is like to live and create in their communities. Ms. P is a 3rd grade teacher at a Title I school in Indianapolis, Indiana. Creators became aware of her work through Shining Rainbows Supplies, an independent crowdfunding effort to purchase basic school supplies for her students.
I am regretting having no make-up on, as I park and use the rearview mirror once more before seeing 13 year-old Sal and his momma who is named Sal, too. I hope she likes me. How will it go? After all, I am the teacher who put my hand on her son, pushing him back in his seat measuredly so he would lift his head and look at me. "You bitch," he declared loudly after that, in front of all my third graders. "My momma gonna take you down." He pulled his cell phone out of a frayed nylon bag serving as his backpack and called her.
It went all white-washed inside of me as I shakily walked to the room phone and requested immediate assistance. After a while, a Behavior Coach showed up to escort Sal out of my room. This burly sixth grader and two more like him were in my classroom—a room full of eight year olds—because once again, no substitute would stay in theirs to cover their teacher's sick leave.
I am an elementary school teacher in Mike Pence's state in an inner-city school that shall go nameless to protect the innocent. I teach all subjects, except art, music, and P.E. Something like this happens daily in my school.
The problem with big kids like Sal being herded into younger children's rooms, especially in Title I schools like mine, is that learning virtually comes to a halt, and teachers and children are still pressured to perform highly on standardized tests. Because we can't make the scores that the test-producing companies, and their high-paying client, our State, say we should, penalties are slapped on our schools that keep us overwhelmed and add to our chaos. There are three things America needs in order to return to the forefront of education. We need to accept. We need to love. We need to forgive ourselves.
Let me share a bit more, then I will finish Sal's story.
My friend, RM, is the extraordinary art teacher at our school. Going to art class at our school is a necessity; it helps our wounded elementary school population process the tumult in which they live so they can integrate within. In the words of my A+ student we'll call Jill, "working with the clay helps me get all my anger out." When I asked her what she wants to be when she grows up, she said, "a clay sculptor." Her mom is an ex-con, her Dad is a lifer. Jill is one of my best and brightest, scoring A's in every subject, as well as self-starting in our Gifted and Talented learning project about life on Mars. The United States needs more kids like her. She is an artist, but also a mathematician and scientist. In third grade we've still got a chance to help her create a positive future. Yet, my colleague, and thousands like him, receive no supplies from the school or the school district. He pays for everything himself or posts requests to websites such as DonorsChoose.org where generous people give, so students can have meaningful learning experiences. How long should an angelic teacher like this be forced to provide his own supplies for 300 students?
On-site Subs Make It Easier for Traumatized Kids
Change is rough on children who have seen an overdose or spent a year in foster care. Studies have shown that the on-site substitute model is a good way to go because students know and trust that person already. At schools characterized by a traumatized student population, this should be status quo. Because they come to us already hurt and angry, our young ones are quick to escalate every challenging situation into violence. From a paragraph that is difficult to read, to a stranger declaring they are their teacher for that day, our students lack coping skills and have no patience. As a result of continually attending to this reality of good-hearted children who have been dealt a tough hand, much of the school staff suffers from a clinical condition known as Secondary Traumatic Stress Syndrome. For example, as I write this, I am still dealing with lovely phlegm, coughing, and laryngitis that started three weeks ago. I hesitate to take a day off because of the havoc the change will cause. Having an on-site substitute would allow me to take better care of my health.
Learning How to Fish
From being able to manage money to managing themselves better, students need life skills classes a minimum of twice a week. This needs to be an important part of the curriculum. One of my mantras is 'the buck stops here.' Towards that end, my students earn blue dollars. For acts of kindness, for completing homework, for answering questions correctly, and for simply participating respectfully in class discussions they get paid. On Fridays they use their earned income to purchase school supplies such as scissors, glue, pencils, erasers, and crayons, which most of their parents don't give them, which, by the way, have been donated or purchased by me. Once they have bought these, they get to purchase other things like an art project to do, or time sitting in the Throne Chair. Students internalize a reality that with determination, they can provide for themselves. It does no good to blame their parents. I need to teach my children self-respect and self-responsibility. They see that they can succeed.
Health and Wellbeing at School
Teachers suffering from STSS (secondary traumatic stress syndrome) or just plain burnt-out, and students, especially those who have to overcome unimaginable odds just to get to school each day, need a chance to see that life is beautiful. Schools need funds to be able to hire an on-site, credentialed wellness instructor as well as maintain an on-site wellness room for yoga and meditation. Skills for self-mastery must be an integral part of the state-mandated curriculum. From learning how to deescalate violence to learning that they can make and spend earned income successfully, students need to learn how to take care of themselves. That is the foundation upon which the cycle of poverty to prison will be broken. The teachers and staff who are serving these students need access not only to health care that provides medicine, but to deep wellness practices that they can integrate into their daily lifestyles. Joining a yoga studio is expensive and most of us simply don't have the extra cash.
How to Spend Money That Used to Be Spent on Testing
Being held accountable to achieve certain benchmarks is healthy and motivational. However, we must accept that just like the death penalty has not reduced the rate of homicide in this country, so too rampant standardized testing has not increased long term student success. In the past two weeks, I was required to give six standardized tests to my students. Why so many? Our district sent us two sets of tests to give without even knowing where third grade was in the curriculum. The curriculum is the homogenous guide that teachers have to follow. Teach metaphors this week, hyperbole next week, et cetera. When the district folks realized their mistakes, they sent us even more tests to administer, wasting what could have been valuable experiential learning time. I told my students to simply write on theirs "we haven't been taught this yet," and we handed them in just like that.
The motherlode of money being spent to keep this wildfire of institutionalized tests burning needs to be repurposed beginning in 2017-2018 school year. We need to redirect a large chunk of that money to give teachers the access to plenty of basic teaching supplies, schools need on-site substitute teachers that students know and trust, and everyone young and old gets all-school access to self-supportive wellness practices on site.
I smooth on a little rose-tinted lip-gloss, for make-up that will have to do, and text "here" to my friend GH. In a minute he pulls up behind me and parks. Besides being a Super Bowl winning running-back coach, he reads to my students, and today he is awarding Sal and his mother a pair of tickets to the end of the season Colts game. When he returned to school after his suspension, Sal apologized to me during a Restorative Conversation. He began stopping by my classroom to help out and to do yoga with us. When GH came to read for my class, he met Sal and told him that if he stayed out of trouble and brought his grades up, he would give him two tickets to the final game. Today is the last Saturday of winter break, and Sal kept up his end of his bargain with GH and me.
That is why we are pulling up to where they live, which is a little unorthodox. They come out of a side door of a run-down house that has "no trespassing" stapled by the front door. She is so young, she could be his sister, I think to myself. We take turns shaking hands and hugging. It's a beautiful, wonderful morning for all of us. GH hands Sal an envelope with the tickets and reminds him of the value of hard work. "Yes, sir," the boy nods. We are smiling and happy as I snap a bunch of photos, sensing that this is a special moment in a time.
Turns out, Momma Sal is a cleaner in the stadium; that is the first time that she, together with her award-winning son, will participate in an event as a fan. He tells me later that he got new clothes and his cool, new haircut for the event.
The Three Things
In conclusion, there are three things we need to do. 1.) Accept the reality that we need to heal a broken school system that places test scores before fundamental social wellness; 2.) activate higher-purpose values like love to truly render support for traumatized students and devoted teachers; and 3.) forgive ourselves for not knowing better than to over-emphasize quantitative results (standardized testing) over mastery of basic life skills. This is the way to move American education forward because now we do know better.
You can donate to Ms. P's Shining Rainbows Supplies fund here.