'Secular missionaries' need help teaching children in crisis

It's 12:45 p.m. A mother stops in the school office to pick up her young son. Accompanied by a police officer, she's on her way to the hospital and wants to make sure her husband doesn't take the boy in a vengeful rage while she seeks medical attention for the wounds he has just inflicted on her. The boy will join one of our "Changing Families" groups the following week. He's in second grade. About 45 percent of his classmates are coping with divorce, which has often been accompanied by family violence and lingering tensions. In small groups, we talk about feelings and ways to handle them without hurting oneself, others, or property. Those who say we are facing a crisis in our education system are right. Educators feed, provide health and extended day care, screen for disabilities, counsel, mediate, and implement crisis-management plans. We must address survival needs of children while we are held accountable for their education. We develop innovative curricula and reach new testing standards, yet continue to ignore problems that persist in children's readiness to learn. The result: Good educators are burning out in droves. Some leave. Others stay and add their frustrations to children's other burdens. For the past nine years, I have served as a counselor in an elementary school in the North Carolina mountains. The socioeconomic data show a profile one might expect of Appalachia: low levels of adult education with high incidences of substance abuse, poverty, and child abuse. But protective factors, like low population density and extended family networks, offer a cushion of resiliency. In one year I work with about 100 students, almost one-third of the K-4 population at the school. By the time a group moves to fifth grade, I have had contact with about 70 percent of them. My fingers rest on the pulse of society. While single parents work overtime to support their families on $6.50-an-hour jobs, children are raising themselves in front of video games and television. There they are overstimulated by sex and desensitized to violence. In the K-4 years, these children are cute and lovable. It's possible for me, who sees them individually, to maintain compassion. It's tougher for teachers who have 24 to 30 needy children clamoring for attention. It's especially difficult when the cute little ones turn into angry adolescents. So, what do we do? I suggest teams of educators, media, social-service providers, interfaith councils, recreation specialists, and business leaders reallocate the responsibilities of "it takes a community to raise a child." Let's challenge the continued focus on uniform academics for students of widely divergent aptitudes and give kids a chance through the trades and arts to contribute to the world. We need to consider class size, taking into account the emotional needs of students not ready to learn. If the schools are to continue being primary providers of character education and emotional guidance, we need adequate staff to do it. And we must address teacher burnout through job sharing, flexible scheduling, and sabbaticals. Solutions must be based in breaking the cycles of poverty. As forums elicit debates on the ills of public education, I hope educators are not blamed. Many of us are secular missionaries, and without us, society would be facing far greater problems than we must now address. Helen White is a guidance counselor in Alleghany County, N.C.

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