05 April 2009

A Toxic Mix and Children at Risk

Childhood - at least in 'western' nations - is really not usually the ultra-high-risk place that one would imagine after watching television news or reading alarmist web sites. This, in fact, is - in many ways - the safest of times to be a child. Subtract idiot parents who oppose vaccinations and the threats from disease are way down (I have siblings who grew up when polio was a major risk). Vehicles are much, much safer (even if back seat rules create new dangers by forcing parents to look backwards continuously). Homes and product packaging are safer. Policing is typically better. No one sells actual lawn darts anymore.

And yet...

We know the risks are real. We have so many terrible schools where students' spirits and potential are crushed. We have so much poverty. We have so many parents with poor access to health care and mental health care. We abuse children with everything from physical and sexual violence to completely inappropriate high-pressure testing.

And now we have a dramatically increased risk in America. We have a toxic mix - economic disaster combined with a lack of a responsible socialist safety net and a national tolerance of privately owned assault weapons - that threatens all of our children.

In the past three days: A shooting rampage in Binghamton, New York at a citizenship training center. A shooting rampage in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania that left five children of police officers without fathers. And a father murdering his five children near Seattle, Washington. Coast-to-Coast. Desperate (and desperately weak) people offered no help by America's society except the right to own weapons inappropriate in the hands of most soldiers, snap under relentless pressure, and destroy lives en masse.

I can not imagine America embracing the right to health care anytime soon. Nor can I imagine America becoming realistic about guns. Nor would I suppose that Americans - as a society - will stop viewing poverty as a personal moral failure in the near future. And I can't see a time when Americans - again, as a society, I'm not discussing individuals - will give the same inherent value to life, children, or families that European societies do. So, the toxic mix which has generated this weekend's nightmares will remain.

And that puts far more pressure on our schools and our educators to do whatever 'we' can to help.

Walking the corridors of every school in America are the children of families under enormous stresses. Parents are unemployed. Bills are unpaid. Health is uninsured. Homes are in foreclosure. And far more American families are likely to own high-powered weapons than are likely to have good mental health services available to them.

Sitting in chairs in every classroom in America are children who will go home to newly unstable families. Who face desperately confusing immediate futures. Who might lack the food they need. Who are now crowded into shared living situations. Who may have frustrated parents who are now drinking too much, or are struggling with now financially unsolvable health issues, or are now working too many jobs for too little pay.

And everything a school does - from expectations regarding homework or materials to be purchased, from science fair projects to parent-teacher conferences, from sports to dress codes, from beginning reading to college applications, impacts all of that and is impacted by all of that.

Pressures applied at the wrong moment can have catastrophic consequences, and unless we are paying very close attention, we will have no idea of what are the wrong moments or the wrong pressure points.

Last week in a presentation on Online Accessibility I briefly diverted the conversation to a face-to-face classroom issue, something I called "humiliation from the start." I described how very often - college professors/instructors/lecturers and secondary school teachers especially - we humiliate students with disabilities or force unplanned and unwanted disclosure on the first day. How everything from "ice breaking activities" (popular among more progressive educators), to "fill out this form - or card" activities, to "read this" declarations, can be so horribly destructive when you are not yet sure who can walk well, speak well, hear well, read ink-on-paper well, or write well with a pen. I know, in my academic career, how often I have abandoned courses after one session because of these humiliating teaching strategies (I am actually dealing, right now, with the ongoing fall out of one such situation). Afterwards, as I was getting on the elevator, a faculty member thanked me for that segment. "I never thought of that, or imagined it as a problem," he said, "and I should have." He explained that he teaches our 'Diversity in Education' course.

Looking out across our classrooms, our schoolyards, our corridors - we must work doubly hard right now to see our students as individuals, with individual needs, with individual problems, with individual skills and talents, and individual struggles. And we must look out and see children (or adults) who go home to environments which are not of their own making. And we must be flexible in everything we do, so that we are helping, not applying pressure where we need not do so.

This extends to everything from behavioral tolerance to assignment due dates. To rescheduling when needed. To accepting alternative solutions. To going out of our way to provide multiple possibilities for communication.

And it means listening to your students in new ways. And to reaching out to them. Assuring them that school is not just a "safe place" - but a place to build the resources which support personal safety. A place where adults are 'here to help' (or to help find help) - no matter the problem.

I hate to put any more pressure on teachers. But I've watched the news in the US this weekend, and I do not think we have any choice.

- Ira Socol


tweisz said...

Ira -
I like the way you frame this line of thinking- it makes sense. I think what you are saying is that it's time for teachers to turn our sensitivity gauges on high. Ideally that's where they should always be, but in the type of environment you describe, the pressure is on for everyone, including teachers - unfortunately when that happens it seems sensitivity toward the many young individuals we encounter each day is the first thing to go. Instead of a room full of individuals, it begins to look like a sea of "they", and it's not. Thanks for the timely and heartfelt reminder.

Chris said...

Yes, and not just teachers. Administrators must also turn up their senstivity gauges and adjust their expectations for what teachers must do in classrooms and when considering such things as scheduling conferences and other parent involvement events. Students will have a much more successful school experience if the people in charge can listen and respond with flexibility to individual learning needs.

irasocol said...

tweisz and Chris - this is exactly the situation. In times of high stress for children (which are, unfortunately, also always times of high stress for educators) those sensitivity gauges must be turned way up throughout the educational system. In some ways this becomes "easier to sustain" in places where the threat is constantly obvious -I think of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, 1980s - but I hope we can leap to this heightened sensitivity before grim reality forces us there.


- Ira Socol