“Well, honey, do you think this work is making a difference?” I ask my daughter, Lucy. As a college student in New York, her part-time job is to be a Democracy Coach for high school students. Twice a week, she travels to Harlem on the bus to meet with the students, under the wise eye of the classroom teacher, and work on the skills we all need to live in a democracy.
Each week, she calls me after her class and tells me how much she loves the students, and how terrible class was. The things she knows how to do aren’t working. The skills she thinks the students will have aren’t there. She has assumed that these students will know the same things she and her classmates knew in high school.
She recalls, “The first day I meet my students they were working on a literary analysis essay analyzing “The Alchemist” by Paul Coelho, but they were having trouble with their analysis. And it wasn’t that their analysis was bad, but that they didn’t know how to do it at all. But beyond that, what stood out to me was their classroom environment. The students were loud, on their phones and most shockingly of all was that they were ok with doing nothing. In fact, they chose to do nothing or goof off instead of doing their essay. And while it wasn’t the whole class it was the majority. And their willingness to do nothing has continued. It wasn’t only a one-day occurrence, but something I see every time I teach.”
These students are just as smart, and the difference between their education in New York and Lucy’s education in our leafy Michigan suburb is depressingly apparent. Lucy’s high school education was clouded by her battle with depression, and still she had a tribe of teachers and counselors who worked hard to give her options. I wonder if that happens for these students. Do they have a hidden village of people working for their good?
As Lucy says, “Nobody goes to school knowing how to be a good student. Everybody gets taught certain soft skills that make them successful in school. But my students never learned those soft skills, and I think that continually harms them to this day.” Even seemingly simple lessons require going back a few steps. One day the class is supposed to make phone calls, but no one knows how. The students have to learn how to request a person by name, write down the name in case they have to call again and then ask for the information they need. All of it is new. It takes a frustratingly long time.
I can tell that Lucy learning a lot from her students. I don’t know what the students are learning from her, if anything. It reminds me – again – how political our education system is. It’s so deeply shaped by money. Parents who have the time and skills to be involved demand quality. I used to feel a little sorry for the teachers in our school system, surrounded by all of us parents who were socialized to be pushy for the benefit of our kids. Parents who are poor, overwhelmed and overworked get so much less.
I once asked a friend who teaches high school students in a Detroit school what would make a difference. I thought she would say more money, or smaller classes, or more social workers to help with the stresses the kids bring to class. “I need to get the kids in elementary school,” she said. “I would open a boarding school, where I could make sure they get enough sleep, don’t have too much screen time, eat healthy food and have to study.” With a sigh, she tells me about one of her students who has a baby now. She’s feeding the baby Cheetos, because, she says, “the baby doesn’t like vegetables.”
It’s not news that our education “system” is a patchwork of money, motivation, discrimination and both heroic and indifferent teachers. As I think about the students around me, and about Lucy’s students, I wonder what I should be doing to be part of the tribe that helps them succeed.
Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit and the author of Meeting God at the Mall. Lucy Smith is a student at Baruch College in New York, specializing in public policy.
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