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When Your Students Are Also Essential Workers

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    Sara Boeck Batista, Leaders High School and Leah Plath, Four Rivers Charter School

Entering into this new world of distance learning has shone a light on how much the lives of students differ from one another. Some of our students are enjoying distance learning from their own bedroom with a desk, have lots of entertainment, and access to technology and food resources. Other students are living in small spaces, and are trying to balance learning, thinking, AND are worrying about where their food and rent will come from. It’s important to remember that students working a job are not always working in order to pay for frivolous things, but sometimes to support their family or themselves.

Many students in our community are working jobs like childcare, housekeeping, food service positions, and at grocery stores—income that is essential for their families. Many are holding the burden of earning an income when others in their family can’t. They’re doing jobs that the community needs, often low-paying and under-appreciated jobs, jobs that are accessible to young people without advanced education. Many of them don’t have “pull” in their organizations to advocate for safer work conditions or time off. No matter if work takes place inside the classroom or in our communities, the work students do matters, and that’s becoming more obvious in times like these.

Student Snapshot

Brianna’s* father is a police officer and her step-mother is a funeral director. With both parents serving as essential workers, Brianna has now become responsible for taking care of the home and her two younger siblings—including homeschooling them. She’s a great student, but the circumstances of taking on this role in her family have completely interfered with her ability to take care of her own schooling. She’s still learning every day: how to be a teacher, how to deal with isolation, how to remain patient with young people, how to put her own educational needs on the back-burner so that her family is stable. But she is way behind on her school work. 

Jonathan* hasn’t been showing up for virtual meetups or completing his schoolwork, but he has been in touch sporadically with his advisor. We learned that he’s working nearly every day and all hours. When his job needs to fill a shift, he’s the one they call.

Facing the Inequities

Our students are human beings with very complex lives outside of the glimpse we get access to during the school day. This is clear to all of us right now as we are literally entering (virtually) the homes of students with vastly different life experiences. But this has always been true.

"The inequity has always been there and it will be there when things return to a semblance of normal. The difference now is that we’re all forced to look right at it." Sara Boeck Batista, Leaders High School and Leah Plath, Four Rivers Charter School

As educators, people living in the U.S., family, and neighbors it is essential that we find a way to “see” this inequity when we return to the classroom. Technology has put us in the position of having to learn new ways of doing things and this crisis has made us consider the role of basic needs and trauma in our instructional design. We need to do the internal and organizational work in our schools to hold up those realities beyond this health crisis.

During this crisis, it’s been a huge challenge to understand what role education is supposed to be playing in our students’ lives, especially given the vast difference in basic needs being met. Maybe the way we are teaching and thinking about teaching right now is the way we should always be thinking about it. What do we need in the world right now? What is the best way to meet my students where they’re at to pull them into classes?

*Names have been changed.

Sara Boeck Batista teaches 10th grade English at Leaders High School in Brooklyn, NY. She has been a New York City public school teacher for the past 11 years and an EL Education teacher for 9 of those years. She was awarded the Klingenstein Teacher Award in 2019.

Leah Plath teaches 11th and 12th grade English at Four Rivers Charter Public School in Greenfield, MA, where she also runs the drama club. She has 17 years of experience in education and holds a Master’s degree in English literature. In addition to teaching, Leah is a pseudonymously published author.