It was the beginning of my third year of teaching, and I received a call from a former student. It was late, and I was already overwhelmed with the piles of work I’d somehow thought would be more manageable in my new teaching position at IDEA South Flores. But I had a feeling this was important.
I picked up the phone. Adriana, a 17-year-old senior at San Antonio Can High School, where I’d taught for the past two years, told me she was in the hospital. Things were worse than usual.
She was tangled again with the ex-boyfriend who’d recently shot up her house, she was having flashbacks to her miscarriage the year before, her blunders in drug dealing were catching up to her. But the worst of it was a judge’s threat to deport her to Mexico, a country she hadn’t been to since she was 1-month-old and where her relatives were being murdered by members of a drug cartel.
She knew so many of her problems were her own doing, and her destructive lifestyle could no longer block out a keen self-hatred rising to the surface. It was too much to bear. That night, she’d attempted to end her life.
After two years as a Teach For America corps member at San Antonio Can High School, an alternative charter school on the Southside that provides a second chance for students seeking a high school diploma, this felt pretty normal. Poverty, drug charges, abuse, teen pregnancy, gang violence, suicide attempts, fear of deportation – no longer were these the shocking afflictions packaged under the obscure category “underprivileged” in sociology textbooks.
These words described the real lives of hundreds of students whose struggles kept me up at night. Yet, like most words, they could say very little. They were more like translucent little windows for me to point through when explaining my new job to friends and family from the comfortable distance of the suburbs.
I’d become pretty involved in my students’ lives, but after two years I still felt like an outsider looking in. The transformative teachers in movies like Freedom Writers and speeches at Teach For America training sessions, the themes of transcendence through struggle, and the cross-cultural solidarity I’d made the cornerstone of all my curricula – how could any of this hold up in the storms of young, marginalized lives full of trauma, insecurity, and anger?
Only, it seemed, if we poured more of ourselves into our work, cracked through the clichés to reach a place of real personal and cultural connection, could anything lasting be forged.
So that night, I went to the hospital. I found Adriana’s mother alone outside the door of her daughter’s room, quiet with worry. Neither her daughter nor the hospital staff paid much attention to her.
I offered her whatever comfort I could. Then I went in to see Adriana. The long, dark hair she took so much pride in was disheveled. Her eyes were wide and desperate. She promised me she would take her life as soon as they let her out.
When I got a hold of a nurse, I shared this information. He told me they were struggling to find a psychiatric facility to commit her to, but reassured me they would take care of her. The night grew long, and eventually I had to go home and take a quick nap before another day of teaching. Shortly after I left, they released her.
Over the next few weeks, as my girlfriend and I worked with Adriana and her mother to find help, this institutional indifference sank in as another new normal. We passed from inexperienced counselors to unaffordable immigration lawyers, from inaccessible defense attorneys to bureaucratic knots no one knew how to untie. As this Kafkaesque search for support deepened, my girlfriend and I began to taste a message that was new to us, but that so many of my students had internalized over the years: You just don’t matter.
The message wasn’t totally new, though. I’d experienced something similar at Can. No doubt, many teachers and advisors there demonstrated an unquestionable idealism. We were working some of the longest teacher’s hours for some of the lowest salaries, and our students were especially challenging. So no matter how much we took the “no excuses” reform rhetoric to heart, we were always overextended.
With no contract and a pervasive threat of lay-offs, our funding and accountability targets – enrollment, attendance, and STAAR scores – became our overwhelming priority. We began to wonder if these targets had been made to serve the students or if the students were there to keep the school alive.
If such a question could arise in the institution most closely tied to student well-being, how much more could I expect from mental health clinics, lawyers, and social services? After months of consistent effort, my girlfriend and I were beginning to accept that this was just the way systems worked for people born in underprivileged communities.
We noticed something else, though: Adriana was not nearly as dejected as we were. In fact, everything I’d been working with her on for two years was beginning to crystalize.
With practically no psychiatric assistance available, her depression and suicidal ideation had nonetheless slowly abated. For the first time since age twelve, she was barely touching any drugs. Within a few months, Adriana cut herself off from drug dealing all together, even though this meant a perpetual search for stable work without a social security card – and long bouts of homelessness.
Adriana was determined to be the first in her entire family to graduate high school. Later that winter, she graduated with one of the highest GPAs in the school.
Adriana helped us – the two adults struggling beside her – understand that she had realized she mattered to someone. She wasn’t just a number or a dollar sign. She didn’t need to go along with her brothers’ and friends’ dead-end lifestyles in order to prove her worth. We saw clearly what was worth fighting for in her, and so she was willing to fight for it as well.
Adriana didn’t suddenly become a model citizen, and a mountain of challenges still lies ahead of her. But something transformational had occurred, and it was a strong starting point.
It was just a starting point, however. For Adriana to achieve her dream of being a productive member of society, she needs more than a couple passionate idealists by her side.
This mindset was already percolating in my mind when I left San Antonio Can High School to work in a high-performing charter, IDEA South Flores. There, I hoped the expert systems and culture of achievement would support me in delivering the impact students like Adriana had missed out on.
Without a doubt, at IDEA I witnessed remarkable passion and talent. No one can question that in our primary, daily ambition to produce strong test results, we performed exceptionally well.
But as my third teaching year progressed, it became increasingly difficult to imagine my school, and charter schools in general, living up to their vision of creating a large-scale movement toward educational equity.
The tragic flaw was simple: The burden of this vast social reform was being placed almost entirely on the shoulders of teachers and administrators. Our classrooms were supposedly completely in our control. Regardless of what issues our students brought in from outside, it was our responsibility to make them conform to our high expectations. Aside from the assistance of administrators stretched even thinner than we were, there were no other resources available.
As is common in charter schools nationwide, this ever-onerous demand kept teacher morale bleak and retention very low. Of the six founding eighth grade teachers I worked with, only half stayed for a second year.
When I made my decision to leave another group of students to pursue writing, I did it with this in mind: Such a school could never be a scalable model for education reform so long as it treated its primary asset – skilled and passionate teachers – like an expendable resource.
There are hundreds of theories on how to cure our nation’s staggering inequality, and improving teacher practices rightfully plays a central role. There is no substitute for skilled and passionate pedagogy. Moreover, more than any other role in our society, teachers have a critical capacity to leverage human connection and validation to heal wounds and bridge jarring cultural and socioeconomic gaps.
But after following the trajectory from die-hard idealist to burnout, a path that’s become a stereotype in the teaching world, this much is also clear to me:
Teachers will never transform decades of widening inequality, social alienation, and dysfunction if they are stretched to complete the task alone. Only once our broader social institutions learn to support and embody educators’ deep connection to students’ lives will we be able to emulate this impact on a large scale.
This means institutions need to stop passing children around through bureaucratic mazes so elaborate and disconnected that even committed, college-educated professionals can’t find the light. Schools and other institutions must be held accountable to treating children as children, not instruments to a financial or numerical end. And this accountability can’t mean threatening hardworking teachers’ jobs or making these jobs so demanding that the best teachers leave the profession.
If we want to treat our underprivileged children like they matter, we have to treat the professionals working with them on the front lines like they matter as well.
To do this, we all need to take seriously the work of getting close up and learning what our underprivileged children are really going through. This can’t just be a task for the teachers, counselors, and others working on the ground. The decision-makers, too – not to mention the voters who put them in charge – need to be far more in tune with the realities their choices affect.
Once you get up close, the solutions to these children’s problems aren’t usually as complicated as they seem. Like all children, they need skilled adults who have the time, resources, and compassion to help them grapple with the emotional and practical challenges of their lives. They need these people in all aspects of their lives – not just in schools. Their problems are raw and human, and wherever they turn, they need humans guiding them toward human solutions.
But above all else, they need to be treated like their lives, their pain, and their futures really do matter.
Top image: Daniel Kleifgen (right) reads over his student’s homework at San Antonio Can High School. Photo courtesy of Daniel Kleifgen.