Last night I sat in the stands at a baseball game. The air smelled of cut grass, dirt, and french fries. The air rang with the tinny tings of baseballs meeting bats, parents cheering for their kids, and children laughing. A chilly breeze blew around us as the sun set and lights buzzed overhead as they turned on over the fields. I chatted excitedly with my friends who were at the field and watched the game in front of me.
It was like being in middle school all over again, except this time I wasn’t being publicly embarrassed by my lack of athletic ability.
I don’t have a child who plays little league; I don’t even have a current student who plays little league, but I was at the ball field cheering loudly anyway for a kid who needed his own cheering section. You see, last night I had to be a baseball parent for a student I taught last year. This particular student mentioned to a colleague of mine that his parents never get to come to his baseball games and he was so excited to have seen her at his first game of the season. Since then, we’ve made it our mission to make sure he has somebody there specifically to support him.
When you’re a teacher, you’re a teacher for life. Your obligations and duties to your students don’t stop after they’ve moved to the next grade level. At least for me, they don’t. Part of my goal as a teacher is to make sure my students know they can call on me for anything, for any reason, for as long as they need to.
And for the most part, they do. From writing letters for law school recommendations to helping students find new doctors for themselves or their kids, I span the gamut of caring for students; I do what I can to help them.
When I was in school, I had teachers who could not have cared less about me after I left, and I’m aware of that. The unfortunate truth is it’s likely we’ve all had a teacher like that. But I also had teachers who went out of their way to take care of me, and who I could call on to this day and they’d find a way to help me. I have, in fact, called on former teachers of mine to help me in the past few years, and I’m 31 years old.
Recently, educational news has been aflutter with a comment made by the United States Secretary of Education. The comment that everybody has had something to say about pertains to class sizes and Secretary Devos’ call for larger class sizes and fewer teachers. Her rationale it appears is schools would be able to better pay only the best educators who yield the best results and offer the students the best educational opportunities. And if you’re looking at education from a businessperson’s standpoint, I can kind of see that train of thought. You put the most efficient cashiers on the busiest lanes so they can get more people through in a shorter amount of time. You get rid of redundancies in corporations and trim the fat.
The problem with this line of thought is a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of teachers in a school, and more importantly, of teaching as a job. In the business world, the goal is the spend the smallest amount of money possible to yield the highest profit possible. In the world of business, the end result, ultimately, is the payment at the end.
But teaching isn’t like that. Educators don’t have a consumer-driven economy, because knowledge is not a consumable. Knowledge is a perpetuity. Knowledge has no maturity date and has no exchange rate. And while the delivery of knowledge seems measurable from the outside–what with high-stakes testing and formal observations and state boards of education–it’s so much more complicated than that. There are many factors a teacher must consider before understanding how to deliver information to his or her students. There are many things working at once to impact and influence our students.
Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who is best known for his development of his Hierarchy of Needs, first introduced in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” in 1943. In the most basic of explanations, this hierarchy hypothesized that no person is able to achieve self-actualization (and later he added transcendence above that) without having a series of needs met.
The first needs anybody must have met before they are able to self-actualize are physiological needs. These are the basic needs required for human survival. Simply put: a student must have food, water, and sleep before they will be able to learn. Think about any time you have ever been truly hungry. Think about trying to be productive when the only thing you can focus on is how hungry you are. That scenario is difficult enough for fully-grown adults. Imagine how much harder it is for children and adolescents.
The next level that can only be achieved once the physiological needs are met, are safety needs. These needs extend past being in a safe environment. These needs include financial security, stability, health, and a space in which to exist. For a student to learn, they must know they are safe and protected and that they are in a space that is theirs. Your classroom must become a space of safety and stability.
Once this need is met, a person’s need for love and belonging must be fulfilled. They must feel accepted, loved, cared for, and valued. In your own life, think about your productivity levels at a job you dread. Think about how willing you are to work for people who do not value you. It becomes difficult. For a child in school, these issues are amplified. Not only do students require the love and acceptance of their teachers, but they are battling the constantly-changing social atmosphere, trying to find their places in the Instagram generation. Times are hard for students who are not receiving love and belonging at home. Teachers must meet these needs before any amount of learning can possibly take place.
The final need before students reach self-actualization is esteem. Once students know they are loved and they belong, they may then begin evaluating their own worth and identifying the things that make them unique and amazing individuals. Every student has something that makes them the most incredible human being I’ve ever met, but it takes time, patience, and work for them to discover what that thing is.
The thing about larger class sizes and fewer teachers, Mrs. Devos–and anybody else who may be under the impression that industrialized education will work–is when you add more numbers to my classroom, the amount of time I have available to learn about my students is diminished. Increasing the population in my classroom takes away my ability to care for my students in the individual ways they need it. Giving me more students takes away my opportunity to be the “baseball dad” for everybody who needs a cheering section. It means taking away my ability to see every kid play soccer, dance in their recital, or receive an award. I’ve been invited to baptisms, birthday parties, quinceañeras, and so many more important events because I have had the opportunity to show my students exactly how special they are.
Yes, sometimes that means that I have to feed my students; that’s not a surprise to me. Yes, sometimes that means I have to buy clothing, deodorant, and toothpaste for my students; that doesn’t bother me. Yes, that means that sometimes I have to be a shoulder on which students may cry, and sometimes I have to be a hug and a word of encouragement, and sometimes I have to be the person who holds them accountable. Sometimes, I am the only person asking a kid how they’re doing. And many times, I am the only person they see all week who tells them “I love you.” This is the reality of the world in which we live. These are my responsibilities as an educator.
Saying that the best thing for kids is to cram them in rooms full of the “best teachers” (read: overextended, exhausted teachers) is taking away our abilities to do the things teachers do best: teach students. Test scores are no measure of my worth as a teacher and they’re sure as hell not a measure of my students’ worth as human beings. That line of thinking is truly a foul ball.