David looks around with his big, brown eyes. He didn’t have anything but a slice of bread with a little jelly on it for dinner last night. His mom had to use the last of their money to pay the rent. But on Friday, the Bobcat Backpack Program will fill his pack with food so he, like about half his class, will have something to eat over the weekend.
Michelle is wearing a long sleeve shirt today to hide bruises. Her father is often angry and takes it out on Michelle and her little brother. A nice lady from social services will meet with her later to find out what happened.
These are just two of the children in Mary Smith’s third-grade class, a composite illustration of many classes in the NRV. Smith knows the hunger in David’s brown eyes well, and she was the one who called social services to report Michelle’s abuse.
Then there is Josh. He is identified in special education terms as “emotionally disabled.” He is depressed and seldom smiles. It is very difficult to get him to complete his work, and if he gets upset, Smith knows he will quietly cry and withdraw more.
Smith is working hard to develop a trusting relationship with Josh, but hasn’t broken through yet. A special education teacher spends a few hours a day in Smith’s inclusion class, and a teacher assistant comes in for a little more time, but there are several stretches during the day when Smith is on her own without support. A lack of funding spreads special education assistance very thin.
Matt has a deadly peanut allergy, so all of the snacks and parties have to be monitored closely for peanut products. Shondra has asthma and an inhaler.
Maddy is advanced in math, and Smith works hard to differentiate instruction to keep her challenged. Abby has problems with fine motor skills making it difficult for her to write letters, so Smith creates modifications to make it easier for her to respond.
Smith gets about 40 minutes each day to plan while her children are at art, music, library or P.E., but she often spends that time responding to Mrs. Davis’ daily email concerns about Sophie’s reading progress; in meetings with Donna’s mom about her low grades (mom says Donna is gifted, so it must be Smith’s fault for the grades); or in calls to Jack’s dad about bullying. She never has enough time to plan lessons for morning meetings, her four reading groups and all of the other subjects.
Besides Josh, there are five other special-needs students in her class. Some have emotional issues, some have learning disabilities, and some have both.
Smith has 25 children in her class, and she loves them. She does everything she can to meet every one of their needs. Some are shy, some are brilliant, some need help in various subjects, a few have an attention deficit disorder and some see her as a second mom.
In the back of her mind, the S.O.L. tests are always lurking. Her principal is terrific and supports the teachers in every way possible. Smith puts pressure on herself, however, because she knows she will be judged by the test results, and so will the children. Yes, the assessments are always there.
This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and yesterday was National Teacher Day. There will be special snacks and notes in the mailbox, but like every other day, Mrs. Smith will pick up her own kids from daycare, throw together dinner, and, after stories and the kids are in bed, she’ll plan, correct papers and problem-solve until midnight. She can’t afford to buy a house, she still has many thousands in college debt, her car is held together by duct tape, and her school health insurance premiums and deductibles keep going up.
She read that someone on the board of supervisors explained how much he supported teachers, but then voted to cut the division’s budget request and renovation needs. Mrs. Smith wasn’t fooled.
But at the end of this day, exhausted and heavy with responsibility, she found a note on her desk from Josh. It said, “Thank yu Ms. Smith Yur the best teacher in the wirld.” There was a picture of Smith and Josh together, smiling and holding hands.
Mary Smith walked out of the building to the empty parking lot with tears in her eyes and her heart full. That note was the appreciation that meant the most to her.
As the faces of her 25 children passed in front of her closed eyes one-by-one later that evening, she thought about how far they had grown together—and how far she still wanted to take them.
Yes, it is all worth it—because of them.
Steve Frey is a writer and CEO of Ascendant Educational Services based in Radford.