Sometimes It’s What We Don’t Know That Can Hurt Our Students

May 18, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Last year, one of my student's fathers was in the hospital, dying. He was her primary caretaker, but he had been in the hospital since Thanksgiving. Not one teacher at our school had any idea this was happening—including me. Sometime in early December, I sat down during our guidance period to review progress with each student. I noticed that her grades had taken quite a dive. She'd been absent a few times, like many other high school seniors in winter. I asked her, point blank, what was up, and if she had a plan to get her grades up. She gave me a friendly, "I want to avoid this conversation" answer. This was a girl who always smiled, always had perfect liquid eyeliner, who never failed to ask me how I was doing. Something was off. My next step was to go speak to the theatre and dance teachers who were in charge of our winter production—one in which this student was playing the lead. Together we figured something out: She was missing school, but attending rehearsal. Whatever she was doing during the day, she was still making it to rehearsal so she wouldn't let down the cast—opening night was so close. That led to some hard conversations with her, and eventually the revelation that her father was sick—really sick. He had leukemia and had been in the hospital at the same time the previous year. Now, he needed more than what doctors here in Vegas could do for him, and was waiting to be airlifted to a specialist in California. She was trying to handle it “like an adult” and do everything herself, without a support system or provider. She wasn't eating, she needed a refill on her asthma inhaler, her grades were tanking. She needed support. It’s shocking to think that [pullquote]we let her slip through the cracks for so long.[/pullquote] But with class loads of up to 200 students, it isn't always easy to get time to talk to kids individually. I only noticed because of that guidance period we have at our school. Every teacher on my campus has one-on-one meetings with 20-25 kids twice each quarter. It makes a difference. It’s only because I was able to sit down with her, alone and without 30-35 other students around, that I was able to really talk to her about her situation. We had a couple of weeks until winter break, with two more weeks after that to give kids a window to catch up before they took finals and received end of semester grades. So, I took the lead, with her permission, to share her situation with my colleagues. Responses were mixed. Some never replied to my email. Some were shocked, and eager to help out. Some were just glad to be in the loop. I had to take it a step further, and walk to each teacher’s classroom so we could talk face-to-face about her situation and how, as educators, we could rally together to get her through this difficult time. I had her in my English class, so my decision was to excuse her missing work and let her start with a clean slate. She was a strong student with a great track record. She had shown mastery of content, and could afford to let a few assignments go. I also knew she was waiting for college admissions letters and hoping to qualify for a hefty amount of scholarships and financial aid. She needed some leniency right now in order to keep on track. I began thinking about this girl's "after." What would she do after high school? What would she do after her father passed away? What would she do after the scholarship money ran out? I stood by my decision. My colleagues were all over the map. Many made concessions, offered one-on-one remediation and time to make up work. Some did business as usual, despite her circumstances. When I checked in with her after the break, she had made up some work, and felt somewhat prepared for finals. She attempted to complete the packets she was given by some of her teachers. Her dad was still sick; she was still alone. Her dance teacher made sure she was with friends on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day—the entire cast of the winter production left her a gift under the tree at her friend's house. My English department and I pooled money and got her some small gifts and gift cards. She made it through the semester. She made it through the year and onto graduation. [pullquote position="left"]She's still going strong, making it through all that life dishes out.[/pullquote] Her dad is still fighting. She made me think about the "afters" of all of my students. As educators, there's so much we don't know about our student's lives—past, present, future. We will never know everything, but we need to remember that what we don't know can hurt them, even if we don't mean it to. It's a delicate balance of juggling the buzzwords: rigor, proficiency, achievement, while standing on one leg, blindfolded by the unfair world that some of our students come from. All we can do is try our best. The teacher I am today sees the world differently than I used to. Maybe it's the trauma I've seen my students endure, or my own life experience. Of course I still believe that education is powerful, but I understand that sometimes, especially in the life of a child, it has to take a back seat when life is chucking lemons at you like a pitching machine. Lemonade isn't as easy to make as we all think.

Stacey Dallas Johnston

Stacey Dallas Johnston is a veteran educator from Nevada. Proudly in her 18th year with the Clark County School District, Johnston has taught AP Literature and Creative Writing for most her career. Currently in a hybrid role, Johnston teaches and works as an Arts Integration Coordinator at the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts. In addition to teaching, Johnston is a fellow of the Southern Nevada Writing Project, a 2016 U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow, and a recognized teacher leader in her state.

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