It's not very often that I get to say that about my state. I could say it last year because we were the top state in the nation for corruption. That title will likely be taken from us this year. The people of Tennessee would like to congratulate New York, a strong contender and likely to win the crown this year. In earlier years we were close to spending the least on our students but Mississippi drew the spotlight on that one. That being said there is one area in which Tennessee out does all of her sister states.
Tennessee has the highest percentage of people earning minimum wage in the United states. In our state that's $7.25 per hour which makes for an annual salary of $15,080. So if you are a single parent with two kids that breaks down to around $5000 per person, per year. You can qualify for food stamps but there are many things food stamps do not cover. Food stamps only provide for the cost of food. This program does not cover soap, toilet paper, paper towels, cleaning supplies or so many other things. The extreme lack of resources leads to stress for everyone in the family.
The students do not leave the stress at home. They carry it to school with them. They also may bring other issues such as effects from poor nutrition and insomnia. Even though the families are provided with food stamps, urban areas often have food deserts. In these areas it's difficult to find fresh food and eat a nutritionally sound diet. Families trying to survive on minimum wage cannot afford heaters or air conditioning. Sometimes they live in sections of town where it is not safe to sleep outside or open a window during the summer. During August the temperature in the homes can reach up into the 90s. High temperatures outside or cold can make it challenging to get solid sleep. These stressed out, sleep deprived, under nourished students attend our public schools.
In an ideal world struggling students would come into a classroom environment which is low key, peaceful and can help buffer some of the extreme want. Before the "reform" movement schools attended to the whole child. In today's school climate, test scores are stressed and so is every human in poverty schools. Schools which were once a vital underpinning of the community are threatened based on test scores. Career oriented teachers have been forced to flee poverty schools or have been fired. The new teachers, who are filling these slots, are dealing with stresses of their own. The average student loan payment for a student graduating and entering the teaching force is $420 per month.
Some of our starting teachers are also in poverty. The people who have enough compassion to enter this profession and want to help students do not have the resources due to low salary and crippling student loan debt. The teachers who would have the financial strength to help have been forced to flee these environments.
For the students in these schools this translates into:
- no winter coats
- no snacks if you are hungry
- weaker ties to community dentists to help you if you have a cavity
- weaker ties to health workers if you were bit by a rat last night
- no baby wipes or deodorant to clean up with
- and added pressure to perform well on tests
These students notice the change and still desperately need the help that was there.
Public schools were available in the past to buffer against the effects of extreme poverty. It was a manageable system because our country and state were not grappling with epidemic levels poverty and a minimum wage which bought so little. There are many more students in poverty and/or homeless than there were 15 years ago. The wage has not kept up with the economy or inflation.
If we want to improve our public schools, we will first improve outcome for our families by raising the wage. Secondly, we will forgive the student loans for anyone willing to teach/administer in poverty environments for any 10 year span. Yes, it should be retroactive.
We should honor the teachers who have served our communities in these unique capacities. We should pay teachers like professionals and believe them. Instead the current philosophy blames the teachers for the affects of poor nutrition, poor sleep, and extreme stress with which the students are grappling. This way of thinking is only benefiting the people profiting by destroying public education. As reformers weaken and kill schools they are robbing these children of a life line they need. We must change our approach!