School Officials Talk Teacher Roles Beyond Instruction For Students in Need

Poster of Educational Framework in VCU's School of Education. Photo Courtesy of Ashley Jones

Poster of Educational Framework in VCU’s School of Education. Photo Courtesy of Ashley Jones

RICHMOND, Va. – Local administrators and instructors are putting into perspective the greater impact their role has on students’ lives overall, in addition to what they provide in the school environment.

After a Colorado teacher’s project “I Wish My Teacher Knew” went nationally viral, it has sparked conversation about what really is the role of an educator in schools here in Virginia, and how they serve more than a purpose of merely teaching a subject.

Sonia Lacewell, a first grade teacher at Woodstock Elementary in Virginia Beach, Va., said it’s more than just teaching a lesson, but also showing students how to contribute to good citizenship.

“As a first grade teacher we do more than reading and writing,” Lacewell said. “Saying please and thank you and being respectful; focusing on those types of things will carry them for a lifetime.”

In response to the “I Wish My Teacher Knew” initiative, these school officials said there are things they do know. But the question is what is there to know?

“We have concerns that reflect the communities students are in,” said Donna Dockery, assistant professor of counseling education at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We have students who have concerns about safety. We have students living in poverty and impoverished communities. We have students who aren’t food secure. They don’t get lunch for school or a backpack.”

Dockery acknowledged that while plenty students may have support in the community and outside of school, not all students have that, so they have to be mindful of it.

Amanda Redd, who is a child and youth program assistant in Norfolk, Va., teaches toddlers of military children. She said her students have a unique experience just as children of parents who are deployed.

“They go through a lot,” she said. “It’s really hard for them when their parents are deployed. It affects them and I definitely notice a difference in behavior when one parent is gone.”

Redd added that it is surprising what a two year old is capable of telling you and that some of her students are verbal. Sometimes they will ask for their mommy. If they are not verbal, then they usually act out and can be hardheaded or defiant.

“You have to be observant and listen to them,” Lacewell said. “That’s the first thing I try to do. I try to listen when they say something or write something in their writing journal and I conference with them and try to just acknowledge their feelings and acknowledge their thoughts and then try to meet their needs here.”

Lacewell believes their jobs as teachers are to meet the students where they are, but also take into account the limitations of control because they are not able to control their home life. They have to focus on making the biggest impact they can in the school, so it can carry over into their lives at home.

Sharon Phillips, principal of Tidewater Park Elementary in Norfolk, Va., said the employees at her school are prepared and trained in how they interact and treat students.

“I’m very fortunate to have a staff or a faculty of teachers who are very well aware of their children’s needs or their behaviors,” she said. “If a child seems to be behaving a way in which they don’t usually behave, then that student is pulled to the side, the teacher conferences with them to find out what’s going on. Did you not get enough sleep? Are you hungry? Were you out late, or did something happen in the neighborhood?”

Phillips noted that her students come from two low-income housing neighborhoods in the city. One includes Young Terrace, which she believes is the biggest project in the state of Virginia, and the other is Tidewater Gardens. She says these neighborhoods are infamous on the internet, and her students witness it daily in real life.

Despite the circumstances, Phillips said the children are performing at a very high rate compared to where they started as a school under priority status, and have now received conditional accreditation.

“We’re moving forward here despite the things that they go through in their everyday life,” Phillips said. “When they are still able to come to school and perform while still dealing with those inequalities, as I like to call them, it says something about the resiliency of the children.”

Lacewell said she deals with some students who are homeless, and others who are in need or try to stash away food because they are sometimes in survival mode.

“I try to make them feel and do things that are age appropriate and take away the pressure of grown up things,” she said. “I always tell them your job right now is to come to school and be the best first grade student you can be. It’s not your job to worry about mortgages and rent or where [you’re] going to sleep tonight, but for some of them that’s their reality and that’s what they worry about.”

Redd said as a teacher it is really sad to see the things they see sometimes, and that may be anywhere you go. She recalled when the school had to buy a student some new shoes because her current pair had holes in it, and her family was not bringing in a new pair.

“A lot of times you have to look past the parent and the situation and kind of just look at what’s the best for the child,” she said. “And it’s like you’re being the parent almost.”

Dockery said it helps when teachers are trained as mentors and can do the emotional and social support in combination with teaching because they are there with the student all the time.

“We know a lot about them because we push ourselves to know a lot about them,” Phillips said. “We get to know them on a personal level because teachers who teach this type of child understand that in order for a child to move and really learn something, there must be a good relationship. That child must be viewed as significant by someone who cares.”

Redd said some of her students become attached to her because she is the only source of familiarity, and they know she will be a constant in their daily lives. She added that it makes her feel good, but she tries not to cross the line as caregiver.

“Students will tell you that you saved their life, and sometimes they’re being dramatic,” Dockery said. “But they’re not always for somebody who’s suicidal, or depressed, or have eating disorders or doesn’t know where to go and you’re willing to ask them how their day is going and find out.”

“These teachers are very well aware of their role,” Phillips said. “They are not just classroom teachers, because they can’t be. You’re a mother, a nurse, a psychiatrist, your teacher, your friend, your doctor. You wear many hats as an effective teacher, and you wear them well.”