Slaying Dragons and Wearing Armor

l81604-1By Peggy Wuenstel — One of the best things about this new job as a reading interventionist is that my unabashed love of children’s literature can come to the forefront.

It seems that some part of our “little girl princess love” never permanently disappears. Perhaps that also explains the recent glut of superhero and fantasy entertainment that fills both large and small screens. We still want to believe in the magical, the prince charming, the beautiful heroine, and the happily ever after. The genre has never disappeared, but it has changed, witnessed by the trend to Disney lead characters as plucky, if slightly prickly young women. It seems there is a bit of a parallel to the classroom of our times. It may also reflect the times that many people are living in today. We want, we need, good to triumph over evil, but we still long for the hero to ride in to rescue us, to make sure the villain is punished, that our hopes are restored.

Classrooms, particularly at the elementary level, are headed predominantly by women. Our gender alters the way we see the world, and by extension, the way that our students come to understand it as well. Hopefully what they take away is a view of women who a capable but caring, learned, but willing to listen, strong and sensible, emotional and effective. But it seems we also need to take on the warrior role as well, to stand in defense of our students and our schools. There has been a lot of talk about the “War on Women” in the media. But it seems to me that what we really have is a war on children. Women’s and children’s issues are intertwined, often inextricable. In this predominantly female profession, there may never have been a more important time for teachers to be willing to do battle for their students.

When unborn children do not have access to appropriate pre-natal care, they enter the world, smaller, less healthy, less likely to achieve developmental milestones. The large body of evidence that exists to demonstrate the power and importance of early nutrition, development, health care and support for the development of children in prenatal and early childhood periods seems to go largely unheeded by policy makers and those who make funding decisions about government programs. When we make it more difficult to access services with self-esteem and hope for the future intact, we drastically alter the families that children are born into, and by extension the futures we can envision for them. This is not only an altruistic impulse, to care for the children in our midst. This is survival. We cannot afford to discount the contributions of any member of society, to limit the human capital available to build our world, provide the good and services we will all need in the future. We need them all. Perhaps this is a call to arms to protect our future as well as theirs.

Poverty also disproportionately impacts the children in our midst. Those who rely on food aid and public assistance are often the youngest and most vulnerable in our society. They haven’t made poor decisions. They can’t increase their efforts to add to family income or reduce the outflow of resources. They go to bed hungry and it impacts their ability to learn. They worry about secure housing, warm clothing, and personal hygiene. And that makes it hard to connect with peers and adults. It is hard to build a firm foundation for learning when you can’t be sure where you are going to sleep at night. The link between family income and student performance is direct and challenging. It is one of the factors that teachers feel most powerless to overcome. On goes the armor.

All kinds of institutions that provide services to the young people of our country have endured cutbacks, elimination, restructuring and the need to fight for their very existence. Kids can’t vote, don’t have lobbyists, and aren’t at the table when the politicians listen to big donors and those with power and influence. They are becoming more and more invisible in our society, and it is another one of our jobs as educators to make them visible again. Their parents are often in survival mode and don’t make it to the polls or the halls of power. They write grocery lists, not letters to the editor. They care deeply, but often lack the skills to express those feeling and the needs of their children. We can help be that voice.

As these students move into higher education, life is becoming more and more challenging for the student preparing for a future. Crippling college debt, limited job opportunities for new graduates, and economic uncertainties make beginning a career incredibly complicated for many young adults. Some of the traditional supports that teachers have relied on, educational associations, labor unions, and communities with resources to assist those who need a start, are less prevalent and less powerful than in the recent past. Complicated immigration policy puts the children of undocumented workers in the position of needing to pay non-resident  tuition while being ineligible for many forms of financial aid due to decisions that they  never made. We need to carry the standard that values and supports college and technical education opportunities for all.

This may not be the way teachers envision our superhero role, but it may just be the one we are called to fulfill. In this season of thanks, when our plates are full, our homes are snug and our college diplomas have opened doors, we can find ways to share those blessings with others. In so doing we might create a more promising view of a distant Camelot, where the armor we wear protects children from want, the lances we carry open doors and minds, and the wars we fight are won by everyone in the struggle for a bright future.

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