Our Floundering Public School System Is Failing Teachers

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A kid spit on my husband Patrick yesterday. That sentence just keeps running through my head. The student was up on a windowsill at school and, when instructed to come down, he spit.

It’s part of Patrick’s job not to take that—the most personal of insults and an almost universal expression of disrespect—personally. He knew enough about that boy and his sad story to see the truth of the maxim “hurt people hurt.” In this case, it was also a matter of “disrespected kids disrespect.” So he handled it, and his emotional response to the grossness of being spit on, too. He got that kid down and back into class. Then he cleaned himself up and went on with his day.

This is not the first time he’s been spit on this year and it probably won’t be the last. It isn’t even the worst. Once, he was so covered in spittle he had to go home in the middle of the day to shower and change clothes. And mind you, this is all happening during the coronavirus pandemic and the mandatory mask wearing that is supposed to keep his school safe (at least from the virus).

Taking the Time

My husband’s official job title—and I’ll bet you didn’t even know such a job existed—is Wellness Interventionist. (Another school calls his position the Feelings Teacher.) He works at one of our Connecticut town’s four public elementary schools, trying to keep things from getting overheated. He attempts to intervene in conflicts between kids before they come to a head. He leads class-circle discussions about emotional health, and helps students find more complex and nuanced ways than just anger or derision to express their feelings. They are supposed to seek him out for help navigating conflicts and repairing relationships.

There’s a jargonistic term for what he does: “restorative practices and social-emotional learning.” Because he works in a bureaucracy, you won’t be surprised to know that these terms have been reduced to the acronyms RP and SEL. However fast those may be to say, though, the work itself takes time, lots and lots of time, and time is the one thing my husband seldom has in his fast-moving school days with almost 500 kids needing attention.

He’ll sit down with two kids at odds with each another and just as they get to the crux of the matter, a call comes in over his walkie talkie that a student has “eloped” (the term of art for escaping the building) and is running towards the road. He’ll be about to connect with a youngster struggling with too many grown-up-sized problems at home, when a teacher urgently calls him to a classroom to help manage a fourth grader’s water-bottle-throwing tantrum.

What choice does he have? In that case, he promised the student with the home problems that he’d continue their conversation at lunch and sprinted for the classroom. Patrick entered the room with a smile on his face. In a calm voice he said, “Okay, friends, we are going to give X some space now, so please go with your teacher to the library.” He helped her usher the boy’s fearful, dumbstruck classmates out of the room. “See you in a little bit,” he said in his most reassuring voice, before turning to that flailing, furious youngster.