In an effort to better understand the complicated home lives of her third graders, one Colorado teacher challenged her students to share one thing that they wished their teacher knew about them.
After sharing the sometimes heartbreaking responses on social media with the hashtag #IWishMyTeacherKnew, Kyle Schwartz of Denver started a movement among teachers globally highlighting the importance of connectivity in the classroom, especially with students who may have difficulties at home.
Ms. Schwartz, a three-year educator at Doull Elementary in Denver, said the majority of her students come from poverty and rely on the National School Lunch Program for sustenance.
“Ninety-two percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch,” Schwartz told ABC News. “As a new teacher, I struggled to understand the reality of my students' lives and how to best support them. I just felt like there was something I didn't know about my students.”
After brainstorming how she could better understand their lives and gain their trust in the classroom, Schwartz assigned her students a writing task. The lesson plan, “I Wish My Teacher Knew,” asked children to share something about themselves. They could sign their names or write anonymously, and Schwartz said most willingly shared their names. She said the honesty exhibited by her students was both heartbreaking and astonishing.
“I care deeply about each and every one of my students and I don’t want any of them to have to suffer the consequences of living in poverty, which is my main motivation for teaching,” Schwartz said to ABC News.
Schwartz shared some of the notes on Twitter, which inspired other educators to try the assignment in their own classrooms.
“I think it caught on so fast because teachers are highly collaborative and freely share and explore resources,” Schwartz said to ABC News. “In the end, all teachers want to support their students, and #IWishMyTeacherKnew is a simple and powerful way to do that.”
Other teachers shared their experiences with the lesson on Twitter.
According to a report released by the Southern Education Foundation, 51 percent of students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches in the 2012-2013 school year. Since the modern program began in 1946, at least 224 billion lunches have been served to underprivileged students.
The data shows a majority of US public school students come from low-income families for the first time in 50 years, prompting concerns about students’ ability to learn if their basic needs are not met at home.
Sonya Romero-Smith, a veteran kindergarten teacher in Albuquerque, said 14 of her 18 students qualify for free lunch. Her first priority is not teaching, but making sure her students have everything they need: she stocks clean underwear, toothbrushes, socks, pants, shoes, and bathroom wipes in the classroom.
“When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean? A big part of my job is making them feel safe,” Ms. Romero-Smith told the Washington Post.
She continued to say the role of teacher has expanded to expanded to “counselor, therapist, doctor, parent, [and] attorney.”
A report published by the Center for the Collaborative Classroom argues that increased engagement and academic achievement in the classroom cannot be met without teachers connecting to their students, especially when those students lack connection at home. Effective educators argue that “students will care about schools that care about them.” The report reads:
“Improving the social and emotional climate of schools, and the social and emotional soundness of students, advances the academic mission of the schools in important ways ... Satisfying the social and emotional needs of students does more than prepare them to learn. It actually increases their capacity to learn.”