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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

The Toughest Problems Are Outside School

By Susan E. Ellett

This is my eighth year as a volunteer in a Richmond public elementary school, and believe me, I’ve received quite an education! I’ve worked with three principals and most of the staff, helped in the classroom, mentored students of at least 25 teachers, and served on the PTA. As a participant and an observer, I have seen firsthand the good, the bad and the ugly. While many focus on the SOLs as the problem in the schools, in my humble opinion, the SOLs are neither the problem nor the answer. Until we work to solve the problems children and their families face outside school, we’ll never be able to provide the quality of education all children deserve.

Every day teachers face children who are struggling academically because they are hungry, tired, stressed, afraid or angry at their life situation. As psychologist Abraham Maslow theorized, until individuals get their basic physiological, safety and social needs met, it is very difficult for them to move to the next level, which encompasses such things as achievement, mastery, self-esteem and independence. 

The bad, and sad, situations I’ve encountered are children that come to school hungry and who may not have food when they go home. Recently a little boy told me that he took food from his free breakfast at school “to save.” Other children need clothing and medications or medical attention their parents cannot afford. Over and over teachers have alerted me to a family’s need for food, clothing or other assistance. Once a teacher told me about a child with kidney problems who needed Pediasure for his nutritional needs. He brought cans in daily and the teacher made sure he drank them throughout the day. One week he didn’t bring cans and was upset because his father told him they would have to wait until the next month to get more. 

I’ve worked with children who are so tired they can’t hold their heads up because they didn’t sleep the night before due to whatever chaos was going on in their home. Children have told me about seeing guns or people being shot in their neighborhoods. They have told me about drugs or loved ones in jail or being abandoned by parents. Another volunteer began working with a student and on her second encounter with the child learned that the father had been murdered the weekend before. Children at our school have been recruited by gang members, or have been emotionally, physically and sexually abused or traumatized by other experiences.
Then there is the issue of children coming from other countries who speak little or no English, yet are expected to jump right into class and keep step. I will never forget seeing a tiny little boy, a refugee from Africa, following the assistant principal around the halls, holding her hand, crying profusely and scared to death, forced into a totally new environment without even words to express his pain.

How can we expect children to learn under these circumstances? How can we possibly blame teachers if a student cannot learn because of these conditions?

The good is the teachers I know who keep teaching in spite of the many difficulties they face, and who go beyond their teaching responsibilities to intervene and advocate for their students and their families. They go out of their way to identify needs and to help meet these needs with outside resources. Yet resources are limited and the focus from outside always seems to be on test scores, not the human being and his or her needs. 

The good also includes the parents who love their kids and do everything they can to help them succeed. I am in awe of parents who stay involved in spite of the odds against them, and those who come to PTA meetings and parent workshops when they barely speak a word of English. Most parents do what they can, but for many, it’s hard just to keep their heads above water. The good is all the precious kids who just want to be loved, cared for and valued for who they are and what they can become.

The ugly, and the elephants in the room, are poverty and politics. Instead of blaming and bickering, we need to find solutions to the problem of poverty, which is at the core of the predicament. Children are our hope for the future, and they all deserve a chance to succeed and reach for their dreams. Unless we are able to break the cycle of poverty, today’s children will be the next generation of poor, uneducated and disenfranchised. Spend some time in an urban public school if you truly want to understand the predicament and the barriers, then help to find solutions so that all children can get the quality of education they so deserve.

Ellett (, a retired psychologist, lives and volunteers in Richmond.


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