by Jonna Kuskey
The pandemic laid bare what has for years been very apparent to those of us in the education system: society is reliant upon schools to take care of more than children’s educational needs. School is a lifeline, a stabilizing force that provides boundaries, routine, sustenance, safety, security, love.
As such, school is one major provider in children’s lives of their basic physical and psychological needs—food, safety, a sense of belonging. According to American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), these fundamental physical and psychological needs must be met before the ones that as educators we aim to nurture—a sense of self-esteem, accomplishment, and fulfillment of personal potential—can be addressed.
As teachers, we see Maslow’s hierarchy made manifest every day. When children’s basic needs are not met—when they are hungry, sleep-deprived, traumatized, grieving—the last thing they are thinking about is writing that essay or taking that math test. While schools try their best to help, our efforts are often not enough to overcome the hardships that plague children through no fault of their own.
The pandemic made a tough situation even worse. When school buildings were barren, and students quarantined in their homes, schools needed to quickly figure out how to extend the safety net.
It came as no surprise that students had great difficulty learning during this time. Their minds had little room for reading historical documents, writing arguments, solving math equations, memorizing biology terms, practicing their saxophone. (Hello, Maslow.)
My juniors and seniors rarely met with me during our virtual online classes. Why? Some were working long hours to help their family pay rent and utilities. Many were busy helping brothers and sisters complete their schoolwork rather than completing their own. Some were babysitters to their own caregivers.
Those who were able to attend virtual class meetings often did so with the camera and microphone off. Why? Some were embarrassed to have their peers and teachers see their living conditions. Some didn’t want to expose their classmates to the noise and chaos surrounding them as they were trying to focus.
The glimpse I had into the lives of my students was a punch in the gut. I really thought I knew them, but remote learning during the pandemic showed me a much more realistic picture of what my teenage students face on a regular basis. Teenagers are good at creating a façade—posting filtered selfies on their social media, snapchatting stories they create for themselves. They are masters of disguise, putting on a good face and putting up a good front, even in the classroom. I was fooled by many.
The pandemic showed us what our teenagers were hiding. What I found were teens forced into adult roles, playing parent to younger siblings, caregiver to parents and grandparents. Teens who had to work, who had to get their younger siblings up to go to school, who had to deal with an addicted or incarcerated parent, who had to rely on friends for a place to sleep at night, who had to feed their siblings and help them with homework. I would like to report that these less-than-ideal circumstances were a result of the pandemic. But I cannot. Rather, the pandemic laid bare the inequities among the students we teach that are rarely so starkly evident.
The unfortunate truth is that many teenagers were struggling prior to quarantining and remote learning. The pandemic only worsened and exposed their struggles.
But I hoped the pandemic might be the turning point. We began seeing studies and statistics about the number of teens in crisis—the soaring rates of depression, anxiety, suicide. For months, news outlets reported the difficulties plaguing this population. Teens across the nation bravely talked about their struggles and asked for help. Experts offered ideas and suggestions to solve these monstrous, pervasive problems. The resulting widespread media coverage forced society to see the depth and breadth of the teen mental health crisis. Maybe, I thought, some positive change would come from this tragedy.
I was hopeful, but my optimism is waning. The news cycle has shifted to other matters. Society’s collective memory is short. I fear it has forgotten our teens, who, though they may have returned to our physical classrooms, are still struggling with these issues. What can we teachers do to make sure these struggling teenagers are not forgotten?
More of what we have always done since the first day we walked into the classroom: listen, advocate, repeat.
Listen to our students. Work to establish strong, positive relationships with them, greet them at the door, ask them how they are doing. When they appear sleepy or angry or anxious, when they are missing class or not turning in assignments, ask them what’s happening in their lives. Then, listen, really listen—without judgement. Ask what we can do as their teacher to help them.
Advocate on behalf of our students. Solicit the help of counselors, principals, and parents to help students find the outside help they may need. Others in the community can arrange for the mental health assessments, counseling, and interventions that we cannot provide.
Repeat the process. Follow up to ensure progress is being made, that students are getting the help they need to move up Maslow’s hierarchy. Until students’ physiological and safety needs are met, until they have a secure sense of love, belonging, and self-esteem, they are not going to be able to effectively focus on the cognitive skills we are asking of them.
Jonna Kuskey is a National Board Certified Teacher and English Department Chair at John Marshall High School in West Virginia, where she has taught English for 17 years. She is a 2018 winner of the Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award and the 2017 recipient of the CEE James Moffett Memorial Award for Teacher Research.