When Thanksgiving break rolled around last month, teachers all over the country breathed a collective sigh of relief. This school year hasn’t exactly been a cakewalk, and, like most teachers, I was delighted to finally be getting a few days off and some quality time with my children. I was looking forward to big meals, cozy nights at home with my family, and lots of love, laughter, and relaxation.
Unfortunately, I know that this kind of fun and fulfilling break is not a reality for many of my students. And a couple of days into the break I couldn’t resist texting my co-teacher to chat about the same worries that plague us day in and day out.
“Do you think Jake’s parents are leaving him at home alone all day?”
“Mia complained of an earache Friday. I hope her grandmother will take her to the doctor if it gets worse.”
“Did Kira say she was going to her dad’s over Thanksgiving? She’s always so emotional after she visits him, and she’s allergic to his dog.”
“How many of the kids do you think are actually getting a good meal this week?”
“Do you think Alejandro will be okay? He has been so sad lately. And I know he doesn’t like his mom’s boyfriend.”
“Is it supposed to get colder? I don’t think Maddie has a coat.”
Like many teachers, particularly those who teach in poor, rural or inner-city schools, these kinds of questions are continually on my mind, and I worry about my kids when we are apart for several days.
For a lot of my students, I know that the best part of their morning is when I greet them with a warm smile and call them by name. For some, it might be the first time they’ve seen or spoken to an adult that day because their caregiver was still in bed when they left or not yet home from working a night shift. Some of these kids wake up on their own, fix their own breakfast, and make sure they and their younger siblings are fed, dressed, and ready for the bus. Some don’t eat until they get to school because there’s no food in the house.
Schools do so much more than simply educate children. For many kids, school is the place they feel most safe and loved. Caring teachers give their students a sense of belonging, warmth, and stability that some of them don’t get at home. School is the primary place where they are talked to, smiled at, and encouraged.
Schools also provide meals, mental health services, adequate clothing, and sanitary needs for a lot of kids. At my school, the vast majority of students receive free or reduced lunch, and some children go home on the weekend with a backpack of snacks and convenience foods to tide them over until Monday.
Of course, it isn’t only the teachers of poor children who lose sleep over their students. I’ve worked in affluent districts too, and children of means aren’t immune to problems. The poverty of loneliness and neglect knows no socioeconomic bounds.
But as teachers, we have to set some emotional boundaries. Teaching is such a taxing profession, periodic breaks are necessary for our mental health. Time off gives educators a chance to recharge so that we can be our best for our students and our own families. Dwelling on our students’ problems when we are at home, only further drains us and solves nothing. So, for my own sake and that of my family, I just have to do the best I can within my sphere of influence and let the rest go.
Like all teachers, I love having time off. I enjoy my summers and my holidays, and I get giddy at the thought of a snow day. I don’t feel guilty about wanting and needing breaks.
Still, as much as I love my time away from school, my joy at being at home is sometimes tinged with the knowledge that for some of my students, time at home is anything but joyful.