A Teacher’s Plea

This just arrived in my Inbox from an elementary teacher in Vancouver.  Someone I respect for her love of children and her passion for teaching.  She is a master teacher and makes magic happen on a daily basis.  This is her teacher blog and below is her letter to the people of Vancouver.  After I read it I had to stop what I was doing share it.  (Note:  Carrie has posted more about her school on her classroom blog).

It will be Thanksgiving in a few weeks.  Time to reflect on what we are thankful for: our families, our health, our people, and our experiences.

In my classroom each week we pass a gratitude stone and students share what they are grateful for.  Sometimes answers are unexpected but certain things come up again and again.  “I am grateful for my teacher.” “I am grateful I go to school.” “I am grateful for my friends.” “ . . for my family” “. . . that I have a house.” etc. Nothing unusual it seems.  Personally, I find myself grateful each time for a group of children that emphasize these important things they value and never mention material items.  It says something.  Definitely it speaks to our discussions and studies at school.  It speaks to their families and experiences.  It also reflects their place in the world.  My students live in the inner city.  They don’t have a lot.  Some are grateful for a house because last year they were homeless. Some value school because it is the place of comfort – of daily breakfast, of hot lunch, of abundant books, adults who care and if they are lucky, clothes and toys passed on when they need them.

We are an amazing community at my school.  We try to meet every need we can.  We have some incredible partners in the community that contribute in countless ways to enrich the lives of our students.  I would hate to start a list for fear of leaving someone off it, so I will show my appreciation in this way.  Through time, through music, through holiday hampers, through books, through performances, through mentorship, through tutoring, through food, through so much more, many individuals, organizations, and businesses contribute.  I am endlessly in awe of the generosity and in no way want to take away from it, but I have to say it is not enough.  I have worked in this community for 16 years. It is not enough.

I am a teacher and I am passionate about learning. In my classroom learning happens.  It is celebrated.  It is valued.  But needing happens too.  Often when a child is upset I ask this question:  “What do you need?”  When I assume, I can be wrong.  When I ask, I am often surprised at the answers I get.  Asking and listening allows me to know where to start.

Nobody ever asks me what I need.  But here is my answer.  In these first few weeks of school this year, this is what I have needed:

  • Snacks. Recess snacks. Snacks for children who arrived late and missed breakfast. We have had donations and thank goodness. But I have many hungry kids and the stash in my file cabinet won’t last.
  • Socks. Warm, dry and the proper size. I have many sockless kids. The rains are coming. This just isn’t okay.
  • Boy’s shoes size 3 or 4 because a pair that come to my class every day have holes. Girls size 13 – 2 because more than a few of us need them.
  • A counselor for my cloakroom. Because we have had tears in there and we are working through stuff but in the middle of math it is hard to address sadness that just overwhelms you suddenly. Overwhelms you at age seven or eight. Our school has one counselor that comes for part of one day each week. She is there less than 4 days a month. She serves a school that is situated in the downtown eastside. We are not about a student number = counselor time ratio. We have bigger needs. Plain and simple.
  • Advocates. Lots of them. Because some of us have ministry designations that are supposed to bring “in class” support and this support has been cut. Again.
  • Affordable, safe housing. Some of us don’t go home to a home but to a shelter or a relative’s couch.

My list isn’t finished, but I’ll end it here. I think you get the idea.

True, not all of us have these needs.  But some of us do and that’s the problem.

What do I think?  I think we have to all think seriously about how we feel about the fact that our child may go to school everyday with a packed lunch, a warm jacket and few worries and other children in this city do not. They come to my school and other schools across the city hungry, stressed and cold.  In Vancouver.  Where you live.

Think about what you vote for, speak for, and speak up against. Are you willing to put your time and/or your money towards affecting change? Will you advocate for a child that is not your own?

What are your ideas?  What can you do?  When?

We will not say no to another box of clothes or toys or granola bars because yes, we can use them.  But understand we have a very important job – teaching these children in front of us each day.  Personally, I am exhausted by the other things I do – coordinating, organizing, distributing to try and stay just 3 steps behind the need (I am never ahead) and not let it run away from me completely.  If you can help, also give some thought to how that helping will look.  Play it out to the end.  Own it.  Take it on.  It is so important.

Because from where I sit everyday, things are not okay.  I can teach these children.  Love them.  Advocate for them.  Find them clothes.  Stock my room with great books.  Give away parts of my lunch.  Find donations.  Find volunteers.  I can be there everyday.  Be reliable.  I can connect.  I can build community partnerships.  I can build relationships with families.  I can watch others around me doing the same.  But until I know you are helping too – it will remain not good enough.

When you think about all those things you are grateful for, please get inspired.  To be caring.  To be generous.  To make change.  Because every child in Vancouver matters.

Carrie Gelson Grade 2/3 Teacher

Note: the focus of this blog is the support of teachers in their practice.  My intent in posting Carrie’s letter was to give teachers (particularly newer teachers) some perspective on the challenges that we collectively face in the classroom.

If you wish to make a comment on this letter you can go here.

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About J Martens

Educator living and working in Vancouver BC Learning how formative assessment, literacy, inquiry, and technology serve to improve learning and increase engagement (for teachers & students).
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15 Responses to A Teacher’s Plea

  1. Cathy Lambright says:

    Eloquent. True for so many children I’m this province. Some of them attend my school. I want much more for my students.
    My fondest wish would be for everyone to be involved.

  2. Sally McLean says:

    We don’t have an elementary school counselor anymore. We send our kids to community services, where the child and youth mental health worker has just had her hours cut. MCFD tries to avoid apprehending kids by accessing community resources, which places even more burden on our mental health worker. We know what these kids need. They are our most vulnerable, and what we do now will help determine their future and our own. This is a valuable investment and we are not making it. We can’t keep doing more with less.

  3. Sherry-Lynn K. says:

    SO very true…I work in a school in a smaller BC community and we have the same struggles- children, little ones, who need so much. Some of their needs are tangible…food, clothing… some aren’t. We have kids who are dealing with more than any child should ever have to…with drug or alcohol addicted parents, with homelessness, with abuse, with seeing a parent commit suicide because they just couldn’t cope anymore and thought their child would be better off without them (they were so very wrong)…
    The children are hurting and we, as a society, are failing them miserably. 😦

  4. Pingback: Our school community | Seymour Division 5

  5. eric roberts says:

    Our current Premier was once Minister of Education, and her father was a teacher. Her mother was a family councellor. I would be curious to hear how she would respond to a letter like this. Especially in the middle of a very lengthy and entrenched labour dispute with teachers in this province, who are purportedly the lowest paid and least-funded per-capita in Canada.

    Teachers are there for our children, to ensure that they have a grounded, thorough education based in thoughtful caring and love.

    Do teachers need anything to do their jobs? Is it an easy job, being a teacher in BC? Is it a necessary job? Are the teachers human beings? Do they have needs? Do we care enough about our children and their future, to place investment in our teachers to ensure that the next generation of British Columbians will be as well-served by our schools, as we were?

    I would like to hear the Premier’s comments on this letter.

  6. Rhea Tregebov says:

    Is there a way I can contact Ms Gelson? Thanks so much for spreading the word. Rhea Tregebov

  7. J Martens says:

    Thank you for your comments. I don’t think Ms Gelson’s experience is unique which why I published her letter (note: she has since published on her blog http://jo-online.vsb.bc.ca/div5/?p=1869). My motivation was to have a reference for newer teachers as they negotiate their early years in a very challenging career. Teachers often feel inadequate to the “task” and need to recognize the scale of what it is we are trying to do for our students.

    Last week a colleague used the expression “do right by my students” to articulate the questions he was asking himself as part of his ongoing reflection on his teaching practice. What does it mean to “do right by your students”? How is that done individually, at the school level, at the community level, at the provincial level?

    My focus is supporting teachers at the classroom level. Others are working at other levels to both support teachers and students, and to bring about changes that are needed. Changes that would have every student leaving school with “purpose, dignity, and options” (Halbert & Kaser).

  8. Dianne Rice says:

    Thank you Carrie. You are right. When the Vancouver School Board had money I was hired at Seymour 4 out of 5 days a week as their School Counsellor. I also worked as a school counsellor in the attached Community Centre/Housing Project and it allowed me to have an opportunity most people do not get. I was invited into the homes of these struggling families….struggling with issues of financial insecurity, drug addiction, immigration and refugee issues, health issues etc.
    Each year, after 2000, more cuts affected the level of services to support children in the inner city.
    I retired in 2007 and at that time I was allocated one day a week at Seymour. So many of the children’s needs were not serviced. In 2000 I began a homework club at the Community Centre and provided snacks and UBC Volunteer Tutors. The club got too big so I moved it to Britannia Secondary. On the radio this morning Carrie Gelson was asked “What happens to these kids?”
    When they get to high school the services decrease further and many students wander halls, drop out or hang around Commercial Drive with friends but have little confidence to attend classes. The homework club provided some service and opportunities for both high school and elementary students. When I retired, the after school homework club Vancouver School Board sponsorship ended. It had been part of my job. We scrambled to keep it open with donations but it was a full time job and the teacher who volunteered to run the program found she couldn’t teach all day and run the homework club until 7pm and continue in the evening editing essays online with students. She burned out and got sick herself. A non-profit foundation (The Vancouver Homework Club Society) was launched. Last year half the student body at Britannia Secondary came to “Homework Club”. Many were regulars! Many of the students who pass through Carrie Gelson’s classroom end up at Homework Club. It provides a huge service, not just with academic assistance, but we serve fruit and one night a week bread and nutella. After collecting statistics over the last decade, on the Thursday night ‘bread night’ the attendance spikes. These kids are hungry.
    There are many successes and I can tell you that many of the students are the first generation to graduate, many go on to post secondary education of some kind (we have some scholarships) and many get out into the work force. Many do not. We want to target these students who do not. This program is struggling too. This year we have not been able to raise enough funds. We go month to month because we have hired the teacher .4 of her full time job. She works for us part time. She, like Carrie and many others who work in the neighbourhood schools, care deeply and work long hours supporting these children as best they can. It isn’t enough! We need services and resources! Our foundation is looking to hire a youth worker so we can target some of the most at-risk kids, the students who will drop out, end up dealing drugs or live on the streets. I know some of these young people. At heart they are great kids but misguided and struggling with many issues. They need help. They are the next generation to have children and continue the cycle of poverty in the inner city. I reiterate what Carrie is saying….”We, who live in the richest and most beautiful city in Canada, need to step up and help these children!”
    For more information about the Vancouver Homework Club Society see our website at
    http://www.wix.com/ksleary/homework-club

  9. Carol says:

    I read the article regarding the problems at the Inner City school written by Arrie Gelson, I would like to help – where would we send donations?

    Thank you – cjukes@telus.net

  10. Judy Halbert says:

    Hi Jacob
    The article in The Sun this morning will spark a lot of action – including some from Linda and me. No telling where this might lead. Good for Carrie – and for every teacher who cares deeply about social justice and equity.
    Judy

  11. Joan Aiello says:

    I read your article in the Vancouver Sun this morning. It moved me very much. I have been aware of the conditions of the children at Admiral Seymour, I am an attendant on the special needs buses for the past 12 years bringing children to your school. I would like to help the children of Admiral Seymour. I also work as a Supervision Aide at Chief Maquinna. After reading this story, I approached my principal, to ask if I could help by posting a poster with your article and a donation box in our front hallway. She agreed that I could. So starting today I am hoping that the children and staff at my school will be able to help with some donations.
    Every little bit helps!!!
    Joan

  12. Pingback: Admiral Seymour Elementary School » Blog Archive » Inner City Needs – A response

  13. Thank you for your inspiration. I now know what I can do to help in my community.

  14. Pingback: Admiral Seymour Elementary School » Blog Archive » People are talking! And blogging!

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