Graphing Inequalities

What the Children in my Classroom Need More Than Math

February 29, 2020 by

Teaching is hard. And I don’t mean the lesson planning and grading.

Every day this week I have heard another heartbreaking story about one of my students. I’ve heard about addictions, manipulative relationships, abuse, neglect, prostitution, family fights, teen pregnancies, confrontations with school administration, illegal activities, and more pain than I can even begin to imagine. Often, the stories come from the students themselves, in the minutes before the bell or in individual conversations during class. Sometimes they want to share them – need to share them – and I wonder whether our classroom is the one place that they feel safe. Other times the stories are responses to my questions about how the weekend went, what is bothering them today, or why they missed three days of school.

Boy in classroom

Photo: Santi Vedri

I’m here at a semi-urban secondary school in West Virginia to teach four special education math classes. My lesson plans are ready; after five years of pedagogy and content classes, I feel confident that I have the strategies to break down slope-intercept forms of linear equations into pieces that are manageable for my students.

But do courses and lesson plans matter when Jared is asleep? (Not his real name; I’ve used pseudonyms throughout this post.) Do they matter when Lakesha won’t even pick up a pencil? Do they matter when Callie’s thoughts are consumed by anger toward the people who are supposed to be closest to her? Do they matter when Eric is only here one out of five days?

Jared struggles with math and often needs individual help, but it’s hard to breathe near his desk. I think he’s worn the same clothes for two weeks now: frayed jeans, battered Under Armour sneakers, and a greasy hooded sweatshirt coated in dog hair. The odor is nauseating and is the reason that the other students in the class quietly choose not to sit near him. As I repeatedly wake him and urge him to finish just one more problem, I can’t help thinking that what he really needs is a shower and a change of clothes, not a lesson on how to graph inequalities.

Lakesha should be doing fine in this class academically, but when I look at her paper, it is blank. “You have 10 more minutes, Lakesha. Get two of them done please.” No response. “This is going to be a zero in the grade book … you can’t just do nothing for a whole class!” She rolls her eyes and her entire body language says, “I don’t care” (probably with the ever-present f-word inserted). Now what?

For a week I made a point of having positive interactions with Lakesha and avoided setting up potential confrontations. Slowly, she started to respond, telling me that her “fake mom” is “okay” and that she helps look after her younger siblings after school. I remembered these details when I read in the local paper that a family of five children with her last name was removed from their home last year because of physical abuse by their parents. If this was her experience, confrontation with adults may have been developed as a survival strategy – and readjusting to a world where adults can be trusted will take time.

Callie came in during our planning period, needing somewhere to vent her anger before it took control of her. Her mom is ignoring her again but spoiling her older sister, a high-school drop-out with a child on the way. When Callie protests, her sister threatens to call the cops and tell them that Callie attacked her. “And I would have too!” Callie says, “She deserves it.” Now her sister is sending antagonizing messages to Callie, who is stuck in class, fighting anger that she is not equipped to manage on her own.

I saw Eric only once during my first two weeks at the school, and on his second day back he left at noon. When I next saw him, I asked why he kept skipping and whether there was any way we could help. He was on the defensive immediately, “My little brother was getting sick all over his school, so I had to go pick him up and take him home. I couldn’t just leave him there, right?”

These are the challenges that my students face daily, and they are much harder for me to address than those presented by my students’ diagnosed disabilities. I expected that some of my kids would come from rough homes – that’s life in the world today – but something in me recoils from having idealistic expectations of full class participation at 7:20 a.m., phone-free classes, whole-group activities, and lively discussions when my students are just trying to survive.

In my world, it is not okay to ignore a teacher. It is not okay to sit through a 50-minute class period without doing anything. It is not okay to have zero motivation. But as one student brashly pointed out, I can’t “make” them.

I can’t make them want to learn and I certainly can’t fix their lives, but how am I supposed to make learning happen when the barriers to their learning extend far beyond the walls of our classroom?

Children in hallway

Photo: Abigail Grull

In my classes, we have talked about how to teach to the diversity of students in our classrooms. We have read books like Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Gorski, 2013) and had discussions about the necessity of creating classroom environments that are safe and welcoming to students who may live in situations that are neither. As future teachers, we focused on what we could do in the classroom, but my current challenges are not ones that I can remedy while teaching algebra.

I could be Paul Gorski himself, and Jared would still be asleep at his desk. I could have a PhD in education, and Eric would still miss class for days at a time. I could be following a lesson plan that exactly meets my students’ individual needs, but Callie would get nothing out of it because she’s trying to keep herself from punching the wall.

My students don’t need fancy curricula or better technology or more qualified teachers. They just need safe homes and someone who cares about them.

That doesn’t mean I won’t try. Last week my efforts opened up a connection with Lakesha that is benefiting both of us. This week Jared has been trying much harder after I asked him about his family and told him that I also find it hard to stay awake in some of my classes. I keep including Eric in my class count in the belief that he will start attending consistently again at some point. I have to show them that I believe they can succeed because if I don’t, I don’t know who will.

My students don’t need fancy curricula or better technology or more qualified teachers. They just need safe homes and someone who cares about them. Schools already provide breakfast, snacks, lunch, weekend food bags, winter coats, and much more that has nothing to do with academics. But when do our student’s challenges stop being the school’s responsibility and start being a national crisis?


Anetta Shirky lives in Morgantown and attends West Virginia University, where she is studying elementary education.



About the author

Anetta Shirky

Anetta Shirky

Anetta Shirky lives at the Mount Community, where she teaches the fifth and sixth grades.

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