A Lack of Understanding

Dear families,

Six and six thousand are two numbers in the news that relate to education. Six is the age of a first grader who was arrested in her classroom. Six thousand is approximately the number of unstaffed teaching positions in our state. I feel that there is a connection between these two recent news items.

How can a six year old be arrested? What could happen that a school would have a child  handcuffed and book her in at a police station? The answer, the child had a tantrum. Yes, the first grader had a tantrum and was handcuffed, placed in the back of a police cruiser, and taken to a detention center, where she was fingerprinted and had her mugshot taken. I find this to be beyond horrible but not surprising. This is an example of the pre-school-to-prison pipeline, nationwide trend, where zero-tolerance disciplinary procedures are quick to mislabel and treat children as criminals. Shamefully, black preschoolers, like this six-year-old, are suspended and expelled at a rate three times higher than their white peers often for infractions that should be handled by classroom teachers.

At a back to school night in one of the most elite public schools in our state, the head of the school began his open house remarks with the proud news that the school had filled almost all teaching positions. This was quite surprising, as this school should have the pick of all teachers in the state. Yet, with our state facing a 6,000 person teaching shortage, many schools have started the year without teachers in classrooms.

I see a connection between these stories. The latest data shows that 40 to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years on the job. Nearly 20 percent of teachers at schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods leave every year. Part of this exodus from schools is that teachers, who are predominantly white (over 80%), are often not educated on how to teach children of other races, nationalities, or ethnicities. This lack of understanding can lead to teaching methods which are not aligned with children’s cultural upbringing causing the child to act in ways that a teacher feels is inappropriate which leads to a teacher summoning a resource officer.

As the holy days of Rosh Hashana have just passed and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is next week, it is an opportune time to reflect on our individual and community actions. We are all in the wonderful position to either be caring and educating children or raising children (or both). Let us focus on the fact that the children of today will be the decision makers of tomorrow. It is important to ask ourselves what are we doing to make sure that the children value other people’s ways of being, respect all groups, and if they are blessed to one day be a school teacher, realize that a six-year-old needs hugs not handcuffs.

Wishing all a wonderful start to this New Year!

Best,
Rabbi Meir

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