The Social Determinants of Education: Reflections of a Fourth-Year Teacher

The Social Determinants of Education: Reflections of a Fourth-Year Teacher

Editor’s note: With school going back in session, this is the first in a three-part series about challenges in low-income schools by Renée Swick-Ziller, a Denver English teacher. Swick-Ziller is a native of Pueblo and a proud alumna of the University of Northern Colorado.

My first year of teaching was 7th grade writing in Denver’s Montbello neighborhood. I didn’t think I had what it took to teach in a low-income, urban neighborhood, but as a first-year-teacher desperate for experience, I dove-in. I had memorized textbook techniques for increasing student engagement in tired classrooms and ideological philosophies about student learning. I was excited to finally be a teacher.

Upon entering the field, the all-important, high-stakes PARCC test, which is being phased out of the state in favor of an abbreviated, updated exam, was my chance to “quantify” how I was doing as a teacher. This standardized test, used to measure student achievement and growth, contributes to the school’s overall rating that many parents consider when choosing a school for their child. These scores were also a serious factor in whether or not a school would face possible closure or remain open. Needless to say, the test results are a big deal and extremely public — and factor into half of my pay raise every year. This test is “personal” to my students, my school, my pride and my income.

That spring, after hours of training, a school year of preparation, and some fever dreams the night before, the first session of PARCC testing began. I scanned the room assessing the students’ focus. What I saw had little to do with the test and more to do with what I had learned about them throughout the year.

Rather than hearing the scribbles of pencils, I saw heads laying on desks deep in sleep. Other students fiddled with scrap pieces of paper and some were staring at blank walls. While most would say these behaviors are not evidence of academically engaged students, I knew that the kids who were sleeping did so because they had slept on a friend or an aunt’s couch the night before. One student, who fiddled with her scrap piece of paper, was struggling to focus because she was hungry and came in late missing breakfast in the classroom. She would need to wait for lunch in order to receive her first meal that day. One student gazing at a blank wall was consumed with fear because her mom and dad were recently deported to El Salvador. She knew the dangers to which they were returning, and didn’t know what was next for herself. When the test results of students were published, their performance and growth was disappointing. Because of the school’s low performance, I earned the minimum pay raise, saw more administrators and teachers leave the school, and was not assured whether or not the school would even exist the following year. The struggles I saw in the classroom that day were so much bigger than a test result, and frankly, so much bigger than my toolbox of teaching tricks.

I am now entering my fourth year of teaching, and the stories of students continue to weigh heavy on my heart. I find myself coming home every night not thinking about how I can improve my lesson plans, but thinking about how I can connect families with affordable immigration lawyers or Google organizations that can help direct families to meals during summers when food at school is no longer an option.

I became a teacher because I felt that education was the solution to so many problems, but I’ve continued to teach under the realization that what students need is not always found in a school. The pressures of this reality have dominated conversations at my job. Our building provides multiple meals a day, counseling for mental health, social workers advocating and working with families, and registered nurses for physical health concerns. That doesn’t even cover the traditional academic and social offerings provided by any school. Despite all of these supports, our communities still struggle.

This summer, I started knocking on the doors of policy groups in Denver. I know that there is work being done to address poverty in our state, but to be honest I didn’t know exactly what they were doing. All I knew is that while education is a key factor in transforming neighborhoods, it is not capable of being the only antidote. There needs to be a holistic approach to the issues at hand. When the school day is done and summer break kicks off the lives of our most vulnerable do not pause, and when the morning bell rings and class begins, the concerns of our communities are not set aside in the closed lockers of students. They are everywhere I look when I stand in front of the chalkboard.

I reached out to the Colorado Center on Law and Policy because I know that change will not come to our communities if we only focus on a single issue. We have to problem-solve a multitude of struggles that our neighborhoods face and acknowledge that no solution is more important than the next. Rather, it is the collection of efforts and their effects on each other.

As this next school year approaches, I am filled with excitement to meet the students that will walk through my door. What makes them laugh? What makes them angry? What makes them kids? What makes them struggle will inevitably be revealed, but it’s the perseverance they show that motivates me to wake up on weekday mornings and unlock our classroom door.

— By Renée Swick-Ziller