There is an overwhelming amount of information about the state of today’s students. Are they over-achieving or under-achieving? Can they pay attention in class for more than three minutes in a text-by-text society? Does anyone care about literature? Francesca Lee Winch, who has taught English at Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia for 32 years, discusses the ways students (and parents) in this slice of the U.S., have shifted their priorities over the years and how much of teaching is counseling.
You hear a lot about how students don't have the attention spans they used to with texting and tweeting being main forms of communication. As a teacher are you seeing this in the classroom? And, if so, have you had to change your teaching methods/style?
I do see a difference in students’ attention spans and focus, but the bigger difference I see is in expectations of students' attention spans and focus. The educational system has, rightfully, made more accommodations for students with learning disabilities and differences. This has ballooned into a general assumption by students, parents and teachers themselves that all students need and deserve individualized instruction as the norm and manifests itself in teachers being actively discouraged from lecturing and assigning the classics and encouraged to assign group projects and student selected readings.
While I embrace empowering students and recognizing their differences, I do think we need balance in the classroom. I am “old school” and take away cell phones when students are repeat offenders, texting and checking their messages during class time. I try to balance individualized assignments with some lectures as I do think they need to learn to listen and take notes. Not only will they need that in college, but may in the workplace, as well. I also think they need to read books they wouldn’t select themselves and might not want to read, in order to leave their comfort zone and expand their understanding of and sensitivity to the world around them. There is no better way to walk in another’s shoes than by reading a well-crafted piece of fiction that speaks to the human condition.
I see a general trend to try to attract students’ attention by giving them what they want. You choose the book; you choose the assignment; you choose the due date. But I think that being a good teacher is a bit like being a good salesperson. My job is to expose them to what they need to grow as students and as individuals, and to convince them to want it.
How much of being a teacher has also been being a counselor and a substitute parent over the years?
I think that to be a good teacher, you have to like people even more than you like your discipline. I think and worry about my students every night before I turn off the light and throughout the weekends and summers. My one regret as a teacher is that I haven’t the hours in the day to give to each student who deserves more time, energy and attention. The heartbreaking trend I’ve seen over the past years is the increasing number of students being treated for anxiety and depression. We’ve convinced these kids that they are their GPAs, the number of AP classes they take, their SAT scores. We’ve given them the impression that if they don’t have a stellar GPA, or take a mind boggling number of AP classes, or get into UVA,[the University of Virginia] that they’ve somehow failed us and themselves. I find this appalling.
It totally marginalizes the students who struggle to get C’s and makes them feel inferior. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s when we were told that our job was to make the world a better place, however we could do it, that we all had different and unique talents, and that our job was to discover and foster those talents and then use them for good. This empowered us and gave dignity to our choices and life paths. When and why did that message change?
Did having kids change your approach to teaching at all?
Having my own kids just made me realize, as they stressed out over the same numeric morass as my students do, just how pervasive this message is to this generation of children. Even kids whose parents don’t buy in are sucked into the vortex of testing, testing, testing, and feel defined and smothered by numbers.
Has the average student profile changed over the year or are you seeing the same general set of students? And what about the average parent profile?
I don’t think they’ve changed; I do that their anxiety level has increased and that their pure enjoyment of their teen years has diminished. Parents, I think, are scared and the kids sense this. We all read about how much harder it is to get into college than it was decades ago. We all want our kids to be successful, happy and financially independent as adults. As a result of this fear, parents tend to hover more than they did years ago. Grades are online and updated every day. Many parents check on a regular basis and contact teachers as soon as they see a dip in grades. While I totally understand this concern and even enjoy getting to know parents and find that learning more about a student’s personal life to be incredibly helpful, my concern is that some parents shift the responsibility from the child to the school.
We tell the students the homework, we write it on the board, we update our web pages daily so it’s online, but some parents still find fault with the teachers when their children don’t do the homework or study for tests and their grades suffer. Some even demand that grades be changed. (And then there are the parents who fill in the college applications and write the essays.) As a parent, I know that it’s a tough balance to stay involved and aware and not to take over for them. We all love our kids and we all worry.
Most of the teachers I have met have had that moment when they think, "I am outta here," and on the flip side, moments when they think, "This is the reason I am a teacher." Are there highs and lows that have really stuck with you?
Yes! I don’t think I’ve ever thought “I’m outta here” but I have looked forward to every summer, as that’s when I paint the bedrooms and clean out the garage, catch up on the reading that I want to do, and reintroduce myself to my husband and children. Grading as a high school English teacher is so incredibly all-consuming that we work seven days a week during the school year.
Here’s a bit of math for you. Say I have one set of essays to grade. Say I have 135 students. If I read each essay twice and write comments on it, that might take 10 minutes per essay. That’s 1350 minutes or 22.5 hours. And that’s just one set of essays. I also have quizzes and tests and lesson plans to prepare and the books that I’m teaching to reread. Don’t even get me started on research papers; they take a lot longer. So, the lows aren’t the kids. The lows are the piles of papers!
But the highs are when students write me lovely notes or emails from college thanking me. I had a note this year from a senior specifically thanking me for telling the class that they are more than their GPAs and, that while they should do their best, they should not define themselves by their grades. She said that it changed her sense of herself. I also love when they Facebook friend me after graduation and stay in touch. I was at a baby shower a few months ago for a student I taught 20 years ago! Yes, I love my job.
What is missing, if anything, from what standardized tests are asking students to know when it comes to reading, writing and literature?
Love. Love of literature. Love of humanity. Empathy regarding the human condition. Centuries ago, Aristotle wrote about the connection between tragedy and a catharsis of emotion. That catharsis of emotion connects us to the universal – the human condition – and makes us better neighbors, friends, lovers, citizens. You can’t touch any of that in a standardized test.
What would you tell your own kids if they came to you and said they wanted to teach high school English as a career? Think that will happen?
Hmmmm. I do not think that will happen as they see the piles of papers I’m grading on weekends and holidays. Their dad comes home from work, and he’s done. He can be fully present. I come home and set up a work station on the dining room table and start grading.
My daughter started crying once when she was around six, “Mommy, all you ever do is grade papers.” That was a wake-up call for me. I tried to be more subtle after that, talk about it less and grade more after they went to bed. Of course, by the time they became teenagers that became impossible as they are up later than I am. However, if that did happen, I’d recommend that they be very mindful about where they teach as the working conditions for teachers vary widely throughout the country. I have been blessed to have spent my career in Arlington County.
Tell a little bit about your teaching career, including at what point you knew you wanted to be a teacher.
I came by teaching in a rather circuitous way. I always loved to read and creative writing was my emotional outlet throughout childhood. I majored in English in college on the advice of a beloved uncle who was a lawyer and considered it the best preparation for law school and the bar exam. Being a lawyer was the most common career path in my mother’s family, and so I considered that my fait accompli. Simultaneously, I was volunteering for a week each summer at Camp Fatima, an all volunteer one-to-one camp for severely handicapped kids, in my home state of New Jersey. I learned a bit of sign language to communicate with nonverbal campers, and then enrolled in some classes at Gallaudet, the college for the deaf and hearing impaired here in DC.
Ultimately, I wound up with an undergraduate degree in English from Trinity College, and 24 credits in sign language from Gallaudet. But it was 1981, and about half of my graduating class was heading off to law school, and I’d long before realized that I preferred working with kids. For the next three years, I worked for Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington Cemetery, giving tours in Civil War era costumes and periodically using sign, while I pondered my options.
The career office at Gallaudet recommended that I get certified to teach and then specialize in the hearing impaired. I was accepted to both UVA and William & Mary, but the latter gave me money and recommended that I get a Masters degree. As I was finishing up my coursework, Arlington County sent a rep to William and Mary to recruit; I went on an interview and was hired. Voila! High school English teacher at Yorktown High School. I finished my Master’s thesis while starting my teaching career, still thinking that this was a temporary career shift. But then I discovered that I really loved it. This will be my 32nd year in the classroom. I tell my students this story to illustrate the fact that they don’t have to be able to predict what they’ll be doing at 25 when they’re only 15, or 16, or 17, and that a series of small, thoughtful decisions can lead to a fulfilling life’s path.
Interview by Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer
Family homeless shelters go way beyond just providing a bed, explains Laura Martin, Director, and Victor Dooley, Community Coordinator, of Shelter House, a large family shelter in Arlington, Virginia. They provide a look at the services, everything from parenting to employment classes, a homeless shelter provides, as well as how the children in these families are affected by their situation.
What is the definition of a homeless family and does that definition change by state or is it fairly standard?
Laura: We only serve families who are category one/literally homeless in shelter [according to the definitions of homelessness provided by HUD]. That means that families who are couch-surfing or staying several places or are in overcrowded places won't qualify for shelter, but they can still receive other services from a community case manager to try and improve their housing situation without coming into shelter. These are federal guidelines by HUD (Housing and Urban Development) that apply nationally.
For specific definitions of what qualifies a family as homeless, you can find it on HUD’s website.
How does a homeless family get a place in a shelter and what processes do they go through once they are there in terms of getting them back on their feet?
Laura: CSP is Coordinated Services Planning. There is a centralized intake phone number that anyone who is in need in Fairfax County for food, housing, clothing, or medical assistance can call and speak with a social worker. If the family is found to be literally homeless or at risk, then a referral is sent to the intake coordinator.
Once a family comes into shelter, they are given a range of resources and support to help get them back on their feet. We are asked to support families in moving into permanent housing within 30-45 days. These services include:
1) A case manager who meets with them regularly--sometimes nearly every day, regarding referrals and resources and their individual plan for housing and connected services.
2) A housing locator who helps identify potential housing leads, coach families in calling landlords, and discusses more affordable areas where they can live.
3) An employment specialist who helps with resumes, cover letters and interview prep.
4) An intake coordinator who orients families to shelter.
5) An on-site nurse who comes weekly.
6) An on-site counselor who comes weekly.
7) Support with various programs at the shelter and in the community, for example; tutoring program for kids, referrals for money and management classes.
8) Grants for security deposit and rental assistance. We can usually pay for a double security deposit for a family and anywhere from one to six months of rent depending on where they are living and how much rent costs. We have a range of grants that make these funds available. Since many of our families have poor credit or previous evictions, it's important that we can offer a robust deposit.
Can you talk a little bit about the kids that are part of homeless families? Do you see patterns in how they react to their situation?
Victor: We definitely see some patterns in children's behavior, especially those in the larger families we serve. Many of our parents lack parenting skills because they do not have proper parenting skills to model. This is especially true of families here who are the product of generations of poverty.
Additionally, there are some who are unprepared when they become parents themselves. Combining this lack of fundamentals with their current situation of homelessness, trying to provide for their large families, trying to find substantial employment, and trying to find appropriate healthcare options, many parents do not have the capacity to provide the attention needed to break the cycle.
All that said, when we are able to provide access to services for parents, like connecting them to healthcare providers, housing locators, school social workers, we can help restore the relationships they want with their children. We can also connect them to professionals who help with parenting skills, if they wish to reinforce positive relationships. This is how we break the cycle.
How does homelessness affect a child's education? Are there stats out there you know of in terms of how they do compared to kids in stable home environments?
Victor: We obviously see effects on children's education. First of all, children coming into homelessness facing some of the issues above may not have the reinforcements at home. If education hasn't been paramount to a parent, how can it be so to a child. Moreover, many parents in poverty are unable to assist their children due to their own illiteracy, a result of having to put education on the back-burner or of being a new citizen of the country.
However, there is a lot of concern from our school system and legislators that help to support these children and try to keep them from falling through the cracks. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1987 is a federal law that provides a lot of support to the children we serve. The main benefits we see are:
- Social workers in the schools to help support homeless children.
- A Homeless Liaison's Office that provides support in the form of school supplies, advocacy and an on-site tutoring program at the shelter.
- Transportation funding that keeps children who are in shelters from having to change schools, thus disrupting their school year.
- Free and reduced lunches.
We are most concerned with the children we serve, as they provide hope that their families can escape the cycle.
Laura: Many of our families are working, often full-time, low wage jobs. There are many studies on the impact of poverty on the brain's development and functioning because of the constant stress. Where will the next meal come from? How will rent be paid?
In addition, many of the children we serve have experienced trauma -- from domestic violence, from war in another country, or something else.
Are there particular cases both successes and failures that will always be in your heart? Can you share a story or two?
Story 1: Mr. N was originally referred to me when I was covering intake at Shelter House. All of what I'm going to tell you is verified in documents he provided. He is from Afghanistan and came to the U.S. on a special immigrant visa this summer after the Taliban put a $300,000 hit on his life. He had worked for the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan as a cultural adviser for 8 years. He lost fingers on both hands in IED attacks and Taliban attacks, and spent a year recovering in a hospital in Afghanistan. He has 55 pieces of shrapnel in his body and cannot continue to stand for long periods of time, so his doctor ordered him to quit the security guard job he'd had since coming to the U.S.
He has received medals of valor for saving Marines' lives, and award from various countries, including the U.S. He said that General John Allen (who he's photographed with) has agreed to co-sign for an apartment with him, and General John Allen's wife has visited him in the basement where his family currently lives. He is currently living in a basement that is full of cockroaches and his daughter is getting lead poisoning there.
I assisted in referring him to another homeless services organization to work with his family, as we were full at the time. I also set up a meeting with a congressman's office to ask them to assist with connecting him with proper supports in light of all of his service. Congressman Connolly's office was able to connect him with other members of the Afghani community in the area.
Story 2: “Edward” and “Gina” became homeless with their three children after Gina contracted a serious and difficult-to-diagnose medical condition. Gina received thorough treatment for her illness, including her having surgery while she was at the shelter. The family had acquired significant debt prior to becoming homeless, as they struggled to treat her condition and meet their basic needs. Because of this, the family’s credit was a barrier to housing. PHFS’s housing locator worked with the family to identify a landlord who would accept the family despite their credit score. Both the housing locator and the family’s case manager had significant contact with the apartment complex and advocated for the family. Gina was able to return to working at a foundation for youth where she earns $58,000 per year! Edward, a U.S. military veteran, was also connected with supports from the Veterans’ Administration as well as Shelter House’s employment specialist. The family moved into permanent housing in Fairfax, and they are attending budgeting classes to ensure that they maximize the money they earn and build up a safety net for the future!
Story 3: "Dave,” a father of three, came to PHFS’s emergency unit with his three daughters. He became homeless as a result of losing his job. During his time in shelter, he worked with PHFS’s Employment Specialist and obtained full-time employment at a pest control company. His daughters benefited from after-school tutoring. Dave then added a part-time job to his full-time one in order to further increase his family’s income. He is now also working as an administrative assistant to a real estate agent, while also studying to become a licensed real estate agent himself. Dave worked with PHFS’s Housing Locator and his Case Manager and located permanent housing in western Fairfax. Since moving to housing, he has benefited from the continued support of Community Case Management with Shelter House. He also had his truck repaired gratis by the Wheels to Work program with Virginia Tire and Auto. These free repairs allowed him to continue to work without interruption.
Story 4: A family of five had been living in two different households because of their family size and some unaddressed mental health concerns. The mother, “Lauren,” and her 3 children had been through homeless services between shelter and transitional housing programs for almost three years. The father, “Jake,” remained between room rentals as it was much easier for him to find a landlord that would rent to a single individual versus a large family of five. The father joined the family in shelter at PHFS for a few months and then was referred to the Bridging Affordability (BA) program. BA provides permanent housing. Because of the housing stability the BA program has offered in permanent housing the family has remained intact. The father is enjoying every part of his children's developing lives. He now has the opportunity to share more time with them. He is there to watch them wake in the morning, play with them during the day when he is off from work and at night he tucks them into bed. The mother is making a true effort to address and follow up with mental health services. For the first time ever, she is seeing a therapist and psychiatrist regularly. She has completed several job readiness trainings and is closer to obtaining employment, and is working with the Department of Rehabilitative Services for increased employment support. The father is working and is actively paying all utilities and rent on time. The family is thankful for the opportunity to live together, and they are making all efforts to become even more successful!
Story 5: We recently served a family of eight (mom and seven kids) from Sudan who came to the U.S. The family is applying for asylum and they do not have the opportunity to work legally right now. This application is not a short process. Mom has skills in sewing and is able to do some side sewing jobs for income. She has the opportunity to enroll in Dar Al-Hijrah's "Sew to Know" program. The family is also receiving DFS services.
Together, the family reached out to a range of partners, FAITH, Dar Al-Hirjah, and others, and raised over $20,000 in rental assistance. These funds are going to pay for the family's rent for an entire year. In addition, the family will continue to receive services from FAITH. This will give the family time for their asylum application to be processed and for them to develop other ways of increasing their income and self-sufficiency. Not only is this exceptional, but they did all of this and moved the family from shelter to permanent housing in only 41 days!
By Suzette McLoone Lohmeyer