Monday, February 26, 2018

Needs Vs. Wants

Most people have an idea of what they consider to be basic human needs. In an excerpt from my book, Literally Unbelievable: Stories of an East Oakland Classroom, a classroom of first graders had a surprising take on "needs versus wants."

Like many people, I sometimes overuse the word "need." I have a tendency to say that I need the new iPhone or I need a pedicure, even though those are clearly just things that I want.

My greatest lesson on distinguishing between wants and needs came with my first grade class during my first year of teaching. Volunteers from the business world came to our school through the Junior Achievement program to teach for a day. As a new teacher, I was overwhelmed and relieved to not be responsible for lesson plans for one day. However, I was nervous about how an idealistic businessperson would deal with twenty extremely needy first graders living in one of the most violent parts of Oakland.

The woman who showed up at my class was clearly unnerved to be in this particular neighborhood. When she walked in, she was shaking slightly and she stammered the first few times the kids asked her a question, But she collected herself quickly enough, and taught in an enthusiastic and respectful manner after that. She went over the official Junior Achievement curriculum, which included basic map skills and identifying the different essential parts of a city.

Then she got to "needs versus wants."

I don't remember exactly how it fit into the lesson as a whole, but I can picture the images she used: cut-outs of an ice cream cone, roller skates, a house, a plate of food, a t-shirt, etc. The class was supposed to vote on whether each item was a "need" or a "want" and the picture was then taped to that side of the board. For some of the items, there was clear consensus. Everyone agreed that while roller skates and bicycles were nice to have, they were definitely not necessities, so those items went on the "wants" side of the board. Others required some explanation. Ice cream was supposed to be a "want," as it's a treat, but the plate of food represented food as a whole, which went under "needs."

The businesswoman seemed happy with the class discussion and the decisions the kids were making as a group, right up until she got to the picture of the house. The class collectively decided it belonged on the "wants" side. The guest teacher looked confused and then clarified that this image included apartments also, which was quick thinking on her part. But the kids were still not sold. "That's a want," many insisted. The woman looked at her notes and clarified that it was supposed to be a need. "People need homes."

One six-year-old saw her confusion and helpfully jumped in with an explanation. "My uncle don't have a home," she said. "And he still alive." Other kids started jumping in:

    "My friend live in a shelter' she don't have a home."
    "Some of my family members homeless."
    "My mama used to live on the street, but when she had kids she moved to my auntie's house."

One after another, at least half the class shared their anecdotes about homelessness and they all agreed: homes are a "want."

My guest was taken aback -- this had not fit into the cookie-cutter script she'd been given. These kids were young enough that most of them were not fully aware how shameful mainstream society considers homelessness to be. They definitely didn't like it, but for them it was a normal part of life.

After school that day, the guest teacher stayed to talk to me and began to cry. She said she had never thought about this kind of poverty existing in the Bay Area. She pointed out that none of the students "looked homeless," as they were all clean and wearing nice clothes. She was also confused why I hadn't corrected them; she thought they should know that homes were a need.

I didn't agree though. I thought the kids had a good point.

Monday, February 12, 2018

“If Their Parents Really Cared...”

This is a sentence I have heard from many, many people with regards to my students.

“If their parents really cared, they’d come to parent-teacher conferences.”

“If their parents really cared, they wouldn’t let their kids join gangs.”

“If their parents really cared, they’d feed them better.”

I’ve heard this from very well-meaning people, including co-workers. We all want our students to have what they need, and to have the best chance possible in life. But this particular phrase makes me angry, and it has since the first time I heard it.

When I was a new teacher, I was in a collaboration meeting with the other third-grade teachers and one of my colleagues was talking. I had some excellent colleagues but this guy was not one of them. Actually, he was an excellent teacher to a certain group of students, but only those he chose to teach. He frequently tried to trade his Black students for my Asian students because he was “supposed to” be the teacher for the immigrant kids. I often let him because if he was that opposed to having Black kids in his class, I didn’t really want them to suffer.

This particular teacher was talking about parent-teacher conferences. He said, “If their parents really cared, they’d come to parent-teacher conferences, but they don’t.”  I’d come to find out that he frequently started sentences in this way.

I said, “Of course they care about their kids.” He just kept talking over me, ranting about how frustrated he was. I understood his frustration. We’d all have an easier time of it if the parents came to conferences. But there were many, many reasons for parents missing them, and none of them were because they didn’t care about their children.

Yesterday, I faced this comment again, and this time, I was ready for it. I was speaking at a church, and got many very thoughtful questions and comments. People were really ready to partner with public schools, which was very exciting.

One man, however, had this question, which was more of a statement or condemnation. He said that he knows it’s hard when parents are working multiple jobs like I had mentioned but that parents who care will always make time for their kids. So why hadn’t my school had a PTA? If the parents really cared, they’d find time to be a part of this.

I was so glad this question came up, since I know how many people think it.

“I will politely and strongly disagree with you,” I said.

I went on to explain: I had kids with parents who worked two — or even three —  full-time jobs. How many hours a week does three full-time jobs add up to? ONE HUNDRED TWENTY. You can’t do anything else. You don’t even get to sleep. You’re a zombie.

Even in a less dire case, if a parent is working two full-time jobs, they could be going to work from 6 am until midnight. Where can they fit a PTA meeting in? And would we do it? I wouldn’t, no matter how much I cared about my child. The human body can only do so much.

In addition, there are many other reasons a parent or guardian might not be able to participate in these events and activities.

Many of our parents didn’t speak English. If there wasn’t a translator (a luxury), they can’t understand what’ going on, and it would feel pointless to be there. Some undocumented parents were afraid to go to any activities, trying to keep a low profile.

Many of our parents were young parents and their school days were not far behind them. If they had had bad experiences in education — and many of them had — they may actually feel traumatized and not feel welcome at the school.

Some parents had drug and alcohol problems. This is true for any population but is often harder to hide when you have the added stress of poverty and violence nearby. If meetings were held at night, it might not feel safe to go out of their houses, and if they weren’t held at night, parents would likely be working.

In some cultures, volunteerism is just not as common as it is here. Many parents were from cultures where the family was one context, and then the parents handed the kids to the teacher (who was often highly respected and much better paid than in the United States) and the teacher and school would do their own thing. In many parts of the world, it is unheard of for parents to tell the teacher what to do, and that’s what a PTA would feel like. The school has to be very intentional and inviting, and cultural understanding is a slow process.

In addition, many of my students’ guardians were older: grandparents, great-aunts, or even great-grandparents. These guardians had already raised their own kids but for various reasons, were now raising younger kids in their family. They would tell me, "I'm tired. I thought I was done raising kids and I'm just so tired."

The man who asked the question was very quiet after that. I hope I had given him a lot to think about.

Addendum:  A friend pointed out something I am missing. It is incredibly dehumanizing to even consider the possibility that such a huge portion of the human race doesn't care about their children. OF COURSE THEY DO. It just might look different than we expect.