This week I was talking with a former public high school teacher about enforcing dress codes. “Kids can’t come naked, and they can’t wear burkas,” he commented, “So, all schools end up discussing dress code.” But what caught my attention the most was his comparison of enforcing the dress code in a large, public class vs. a small class at a private school.
“When you walk into a large class and ¾ of them are out of dress code, you sort of just shake your head and start teaching. If I addressed all the dress code issues, I would never teach a lesson. But now, the private school where I teach has smaller classes and a clearer dress code. At the new school, fewer students are out of dress code, and it is easier to stop a kid in the hallway after class and address the problem.”
Dress code violations come in all shapes and sizes. Some have to do with who can afford what, while other dress code violations are classroom distractions or cause bullying in some cases. But overall, dress code violations are some of the less severe issues teachers are required to deal with.
In fact, there is a common debate about how much of a teacher’s job is dealing with all the baggage that enters the classroom with each student. Recently, Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter, Maureen Downey posed the question, “Are schools set up to help kids develop stronger social and emotional skills?”
She asserts (and we agree) that “families need interventions well beyond what a school with a part-time nurse and an overburdened counselor can provide. It’s not fair to ask schools to compensate for depleted community mental health programs.” But she also quoted a national teacher survey of public schools where 78% of teachers said that helping students develop these skills was part of their job, but few of them felt they had the time or the training to teach these skills.
How much social and emotional development is the teacher’s responsibility? I really don’t know, but when I hear a highly-lauded and loved teacher sifting through the things he does and doesn’t have time for in a public classroom, compared to a private class, I’m frustrated for him. I’m left wondering what other loose ends he felt like he had to leave untouched. How would a teacher have time for social and emotional issues in this setting? And if they did make time, most likely extra time off the clock, are they more likely to experience their own stress, anxiety, and burn out?
Teachers can’t do everything, but they can do more when they are set up for success. Of course, if the working conditions at a public school are not good enough, teachers have the choice to leave, like this teacher did. But students who want to leave, often can’t. Due to their school assignment, they are stuck in over-crowded classrooms, potentially never addressing social issues, emotional issues, or dress code violations because their families don’t have the financial means to “pay for” school by buying or renting a house in a different neighborhood.
But what if instead of trying to solve these issues inside the classroom walls, communities considered the way healthy neighborhoods change opportunities for students in general, and how these changes improve students’ mental health as well. Maybe more support for social and emotional issues starts by letting students choose schools that are well suited to support their academic and emotional success. More effective education through more opportunities - check it out.