This commentary is the third in a series produced for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education by educators that illustrates the many real-world intersections of poverty and education and their policy implications. In this post, Philadelphia public schools teacher Kathleen Melville describes how widespread a problem hunger likely is among her students and why poverty is so much more than an “excuse.”
It’s easy for me to forget the hardships my students face every day. I maintain an almost fanatically upbeat presence in the classroom and most of my ninth graders oblige me by joining in. We sing, dance, tell stories, make jokes. It’s my way of avoiding the tedium that can so easily overtake a school day. But every once in a while, a crack opens and I get a glimpse into my students’ realities.
Recently, students were dismissed early so faculty could meet for professional development. One of my students, Carina, went to the cafeteria for lunch and found that it was not being served. She went home hungry — and angry. Later, she did something rare and brave. She proclaimed her hunger by venting on social media. She railed against the cafeteria staff for not serving lunch (which they are indeed supposed to do on half days) and against our school and district in general. Another student, Chris, responded with a comment: “What do you expect? They all make 50K and go home to a fridge full of food.”
My initial defensiveness (“It’s not my fault they didn’t serve lunch!”) gave way to recognition of the truth in Chris’s perspective. I do make a good salary and I do have a fridge full of food. Every morning, I pack a tidy, nutritious lunch from that fridge and every day at 11:09, I rush to the faculty lounge to eat it, grateful for some time with adults. The facts of my life insulate me from the realities of my students’ lives. I almost never go down to the cafeteria and I’ve never even considered eating one of the lunches served there. In fact, I’ve never been hungry the way Carina was and it’s hard for me to imagine.
The separation between the mostly middle-class adults in my school and the mostly low-income students contributes to making the problem of hunger invisible. Hunger is not a conspicuous condition. It’s not like the sprained ankle that prevents a child from participating in gym class or the broken wrist that exempts a student from writing assignments. But it is just as pernicious. Children who are hungry are more likely to be exhausted, aggressive, hyperactive and anxious. But to an adult unfamiliar with hunger’s effects, these signs may just seem like bad behavior. A head down during class signals laziness and aggressive behavior deserves punishment. Instead of being identified as hungry, many food-insecure students are labeled as “undisciplined” or “unmotivated.”
This makes my job even more complex. I want to maintain high standards for my classroom (no sleeping in class, treat each other with respect), but I also need to account for my students’ very real obstacles to learning. A student who has not eaten all weekend is not ready to learn on Monday morning. But how do I identify him or her? And what should I do?
Students very rarely volunteer hunger as the cause of their problems. In fact, many of my students go to great lengths to avoid being identified as hungry or poor. No one complains about the poor quality of the school lunches because no one wants to admit to needing them. No one talks openly about a shortage of food at home. The stigma surrounding poverty is a powerful force in the life of a 14-year-old and it adds to the invisibility of hunger at school. That’s why I consider Carina’s “outing” herself as poor and hungry an act of bravery. Her words — and Chris’s response — helped show how conditions at school often mask tough realities at home.
This is why “no excuses” policies and demands that students be tougher or grittier ring false to me. My students are already tremendously tough, unbelievably gritty. The problem is not that they need to be tougher or that I need to make fewer excuses. The problem is that they already have too many reasons to be tough — lack of food, relatives in prison, threats of eviction or deportation, parents sick or addicted, caring for younger siblings — and that adults at school rarely see the full picture. I spend fifty hours a week at school and I still don’t always see the full picture. It’s hard to imagine how policymakers, who are so distant from my students’ day-to-day realities, can claim to see them better than I can.
Hunger is not just a problem for urban students like mine. Even in the suburbs, a staggering 40 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Nationally, 48 percent of public school students are low-income, up sharply in the past decade. Meanwhile, the food stamp program is under attack; earlier this year, Congress passed a farm bill that cuts it by nearly $1 billion annually and in my state of Pennsylvania, harsh new asset tests make it difficult for families to access the program’s benefits. Although our nation’s hungry children are growing in number, they cannot speak out for themselves. If we hope to improve educational outcomes, we need to speak out for them by demanding policies that ensure they can come to class well-fed and ready to learn. Anything less is inexcusable.
This commentary is part of a series produced for the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education by educators across the country who want to illustrate the impact of poverty on their classrooms, schools and communities and propose education policies with real promise to weaken the poverty-education link.