This time of year is always such fun. Timelines across my social media service slowly begin to fill up with photos and video clips of my friends' kids' first days of school, children excitedly boarding that big yellow bus for the first time or waving goodbye as they scurry away to hug friends they haven’t seen for months, soundtracked by the squeals and sniffles of proud family members.
One of the greatest rites of passage we can ever usher our children through is the day that we put our little ones in the care of the trusted teachers in their schools. Those teachers laugh with them, sing with them and help them understand a world that can feel both confusing and overwhelming. Those teachers also allow us, as parents, a breath of fresh air — it’s one less child to which we devote our energies all day. I have no idea how they do it.
Actually, I do.
With almost a decade of parent leadership in my community, first as a mom and then as a PTA president and now at my current role as an education policy advisor, I am keenly aware of the efforts our teachers make to prepare to educate not just my two children, but the children of our neighbors, our community members and beyond.
I know that our teachers — who love our children nearly as much as we do — spend countless amounts of their own salaries to stock and supply their classrooms with the tools necessary to teach our children. I know that some send home exhaustive school supply lists, trying to soften the blow to their own wallets (while perhaps blowing a hole through the wallet of more than a few parents.) I also know that some PTAs work hard to orchestrate a system of buying bulk supplies at a rate cheaper than what parents could receive from buying smaller amounts. And some teachers have gone to extraordinary lengths to fill in the gaps that parents and PTAs otherwise could not.
If it’s cheaper per-item to buy in bulk, then you would expect that keeping classrooms stocked would be a task that entire school systems would undertake themselves. But they rarely do.
How many school systems across America have their annual budgets chipped away every year, leaving less and less to actually stock classrooms? How many schools are using outdated books or have old, decrepit, and run down facilities in dire need of renovation? How many schools still lack a computer lab, or have ones in which the technology is so obsolete that they couldn’t possibly prepare children for what most workplaces use today? How many schools have reduced the number of days children are in school from five to four, because the budget was so tight? In an era where school security is of utmost importance, how shocking was it to hear the swiftness with which governments were willing to potentially plunk down billions to arm teachers with weapons, but not for updated textbooks for every child?
And, before you imply that the problem is somehow unions and teacher pay, just don’t. If parents find themselves struggling to tend to their own children all day, imagine how difficult it is to manage a classroom of 30 kids, just as rambunctious and energetic and curious as your own. Imagine not being able to invest in developing your skill set as a professional educator, in a time during which the needs of children are growing more complex. Imagine someone expecting you to manage that classroom of thirty carbon copies of your child, and not even being left with a minimum wage after picking up the government's slack.
Not that you really have to imagine: All across the country, these kinds of problems are plaguing school districts. That’s why teachers across the country are protesting, striking and voting. If we don’t support the institutions and people who help us nurture our children into productive and essential members of society, we have to ask what will become of those children.
It’s also worth noting that, because of how school districts are funded — based largely on property values — the poorest communities across America are left hamstrung in a cycle that perpetuates the very kinds of poverty that education is meant to overcome. Their teachers are paid less, those parents are less able to afford supporting the classrooms themselves, and their children ultimately receive far less than their counterparts in wealthier areas. Parent leaders can do a lot, but a community in which two-thirds of its residents qualify as low-income cannot fill a shortfall of thousands of dollars per student.
If we understand the value of education for every child and for America as a whole, then inequities in how children are supported are unacceptable. It shortchanges both rural and urban environments in favor of the suburbs, prizes wealthier coastal states over their midwestern counterparts, and flies in the face of everything we claim to desire as a nation.
We all love our children, and want the best for them, regardless of where we live and what we earn. Whether or not our children receive an education that prepares them for the future shouldn’t be determined by income, and whether or not their schools are sufficiently supported shouldn’t be determined by something as tenuous as property values.
The changes necessitated by this truth are not easy to make (or even just agree upon), but they are absolutely worth the fight. When we choose the role of parent, we become our children’s first and strongest advocates from they day they’re born, from the kisses of goodbye on each first day of school until they are fully functioning adults. It’s time to include supporting their teachers in that advocacy, too.
Erika Nicole Kendall is the writer, certified personal trainer and certified nutritionist behind the popular weight loss blog A Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss.