I’m here to tell you how your school or district should budget its money. That kind of advice is always welcome from teachers, right? Well, if you have plenty of free-flowing cash, hire all the experts you want. Get a reading specialist. Get a graduation coach starting in preK. Get assistant principals of instruction and discipline and, while you’re at it, don’t you need an assistant principal of recess supervision? I mean, maybe! It might help!
But if your school is occasionally (gasp!) underfunded, maybe a little strapped for cash, then you should probably hesitate before you hire another administrator or specialist. Because in my experience, all the reading specialists in the world won’t be able to do much for the kid who lives in a parking lot. See, that kid’s problem isn’t a lack of literacy. It’s a lack of light and a lack of safety and a lack of healthy food or a clean place to take a shower. That kid doesn’t need tutoring; he needs a place to live. Your school doesn’t need a specialist for that kid; it needs a social worker.
I teach at a school for poor kids. Their communities are often a breeding ground for trauma. Many of my kids emigrated here with their parents, taking incredibly perilous journeys to escape violence or oppression; some have lived in refugee camps for a substantial portion of their lives. In other words, they’re a pretty screwed up—though delightful—bunch of people. To meet the needs of my 371 students, we have one counselor. And that’s more than most schools in the district!
I think counselors and social workers are an expense school districts are hesitant to take on because it’s hard to justify in terms of numbers. When everything comes back to the holy grail of statistics and data, I don’t see many people looking at how test scores correlate to the number of psychologists available to students. It’s easier to buy an expensive computerized benchmark and track their scores that way, rather than look at the root cause of the problems.
I think for those of us who work in the classroom, though, the value of psychologists and counselors and social workers is pretty clear. I’m sure my class is learning plenty when I’m crouched over a semi-conscious student begging, “Honey, the EMTs will be here any minute. You’ve got to tell them what you took so they can help you. Please, tell them what you took.” I’m not sure the skills they pick up will translate real well to a standardized test, though. And I could have the most brilliantly designed lesson in the world, but it’s not going to help the kid who isn’t getting enough to eat. That kid doesn’t need a graduation coach; he needs a damn granola bar.
I remember learning about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in college; the idea that kids’ basic needs for food, shelter, and safety have to be met before they can learn and build toward a positive future. The thing is, they don’t exactly teach you how to meet those needs. That lesson was something like, “So, uh, make sure the kids have all the stuff they need so they can be successful in your class!” Oh. Um, okay?
I can keep protein bars in my file cabinet for the hungry kids. (But not for long, because I generally end up eating them myself. Sorry, kids.) If a kid’s parent loses a job, I can ask around and try to help them find a new one. I’ve got no problem calling the nurse line at my kid’s pediatrician to ask about your kid’s chronic nosebleeds. But at some point, it moves beyond my skills and resources. You need a few bars of soap and some extra deodorant? No problem! Your dad is abusive and your mom is afraid to call the police because she’s undocumented? Well, uh, I’m really sorry about that. Good luck.
Maybe, just maybe, we should try spending our few spare dollars on some preventative measures for our kids. I guarantee you that if all your kids are fed and taken care of and have someone supportive to talk to, you’ll have fewer discipline problems. I promise that if you make sure all your kids have a quiet and safe place to do their homework, grades at your school will improve. And I know for a fact that if parents see your school as a resource for their family’s needs, they’ll be a whole lot more supportive and involved.
Every dollar that comes into a public school budget is spoken for by six different people before it ever hits the bank; I know that. After all, I teach in a classroom with several more students than chairs. But that’s all the more reason we need to find the absolute most bang for our educational buck, the way to spend money that will benefit the maximum number of students to the greatest possible extent. I’ve never found a better use for that money than a school social worker. Empty the front office; fill the counseling office.