Educators Handed The Role Of Parent And Instructor

Principals Say for Some, Educators May Be the Only Stable Person in Student’s Life

Originally posted in the fall 2011 edition of The Leader

School has always been a place of learning. It is where educators take young minds and mold them, preparing them for future careers and success. But for some students, school is more than just a place to learn. It is a place of refuge and comfort—a home away from home.

Life outside of school influences students greatly. The Michigan Department of Education conducted a study in 2001 that showed the more a student’s parents are involved, the better the motivation and self-esteem the student has. The home life acts as an anchor, somewhere they can call their own. It stabilizes the student if things are rough at school, socially or academically. It gives them a feeling of safety and confidence, but what happens when that safety net ceases to exist?

Too many students leave school to go home to less than optimal family lives. Some have parents going through a divorce. Others only see their parents once a week during prison visits. Some students just have a single parent who may not have time to invest in their child’s life. Then there are those students who don’t have parents at all. These kids may live in foster care with their grandparents, alone with their siblings or wander the streets at night homeless.

“They’re walking around in pain and they are traumatized,” said Richard Curci, the principal at Everett Middle School in San Francisco and member of the United Administrators of San Francisco, AFSA Local 3. “The child becomes a foster child if the parent is incarcerated and their surroundings are not their own.”

Without proper guidance and love at home, students can suffer socially and academically. The effect that home life has on a student’s education has been well documented, and studies suggest that teachers and principals only account for 25 percent to 35 percent of a student’s educational experience.

“If the student is missing a lot of school, they can be detached from their friends and classmates,” said Philip Piazza, principal of North Haven Middle School in North Haven, Conn., and member of North Haven Administrators Association, AFSA Local 122. “The stress level of some of these kids just blows me away.”

With so many students dealing with high stress levels and difficult home lives, how can the nation’s education system invest so much into standardized tests knowing the tests merely scrape the surface of everything that plays into a child’s education? Unlike the businessmodel reformers, school administrators and educators realize a child’s level of achievement is not always the product of the student’s level of knowledge, the educator’s teaching ability or the school’s amount of resources.

Piazza and Curci agree the best way to handle a student’s home life issues is to create a place of safety and stability for these students. At Everett Middle School, this includes a fully staffed Wellness Center, which monitors the students’ progress and everyday activities.

“The staff asks questions like, ‘Have you eaten today?’ or, ‘Did you do your homework last night?’ ” Curci said. “This gives them a little more sense of security.”

Piazza explained this task falls on the shoulders of the entire staff at North Haven Middle School, from himself to the teachers to the school psychologist and counselors.

“We create a good environment here, but it is also on us to reach out to the parents and stress the importance of their role in their children’s lives,” he said.

Extracurricular activities like academic clubs and sports teams also serve as an opportunity for students to feel united with a group and make friends. It allows them to burn some energy and to interact with instructors and tutors.

“To have success in sports or even an academic club is somewhere they can feel like they belong,” Piazza said.

“They look forward to it,” Curci said. “It is like a pseudo-family for them.”

Without good role models at home, school employees are quickly taking on these responsibilities. Curci and Piazza explained they see this very often, especially with those students in the most difficult circumstances.

“From the custodian to the cafeteria workers to the teachers, you don’t know where that connection may be,” Curci said.

Piazza went on to explain that he stresses the act of school role models with his staff everyday. He makes sure they know how influential they are to the students and how important it is for the students to build good relationships at school.

“Educators may be the only stable people in their lives,” he said. “We may be the only positive role models they have.”

Children experiencing these situations can be found in every corner of our nation. Spreading awareness and emphasizing the need for parental involvement can help these children, but much more needs to be done. While it is hard to change the students’ current situations, schools can take this challenge head on, much like Principal Piazza and Principal Curci. Each step adds stability to our nation and its future.

While these two principals and many others across the nation were never asked to create a home away from home for students, it is something that educators and administrators work to create because they know education is more than just classes, homework assignments and tests. The leaders who serve our schools are the unsung heroes of our nation’s future and understand the impact they have in shaping the lives of the children who are trusted under their care everyday. It would serve our education system well for our nation’s policy makers and reformers to follow in the example of those who work in our schools, for they intimately understand that education is more than just a learning experience; it is a life experience.