Finding Out About the Back Story

homeworkBy Peggy Wuenstel — When I sat to begin this post, I had just finished the last of over twelve hours of scheduled parent teacher conferences.

As a resource teacher, I am not the director of these dramas, just a supporting cast member. I bring information, test results, descriptions of reading interventions underway, and analysis of the progress, or lack thereof that we have seen to this point. I come to show work samples, to share the humorous anecdote and to answer questions. All of these are important functions and mandates by my contract and my conscience. But by far, the most important things that I do in these exchanges is listen, get the back stories, take the temperature of the alliances between home, school and the children at the center of these conversations.

There are those chats where the information shared is largely about parent needs, reasons why homework is not reliably completed, reading minutes are not logged, and math facts are not practiced. There are excuses and legitimate reasons on all sides, parent, child, and school. But explanations, reasons, and excuses do not eliminate the needs, requirements, or lack of participation that puts student achievement at risk. What these conversations do provide is a blueprint for the design needed to assure kids get the support required to meet the increasingly complicated demands of today’s classrooms.

There are those students whose support must be provided largely at school. Knowing the back story of an abusive or chaotic home, substance abuse, health challenges, lack of literacy or language skills, or family upheaval can shine a light on the reasons why students struggle. Recent reports of how poorly children of color fare compared to their white peers in Wisconsin tell a sad story of what happens when schools, communities, and support systems are disconnected from portions of the population. We share the same state but not the same way of life, and this gap results in a far more treacherous divide than merely educational performance. When we don’t know enough about another culture, class, neighborhood or social strata we can’t build bridges that span the spaces between us and provide a path to future success.

I had the privilege of attending two staff development trainings by noted educator Ruby Payne who raises our awareness about the differences between America’s teachers and their students who live in poverty. She tells a story about a family who lived without a refrigerator, a situation unimaginable for many modern households. When teachers in the school where the children attended became aware of this situation, they did what teachers do. They held a fundraiser to remedy the situation and the refrigerator was delivered to the family home.

Several weeks later, one of the children reported the joy he found in a family camping trip in their new tent and lying infantsleeping bags. When the staff pursued the matter they found out that the family had sold the refrigerator and bought the camping gear with the proceeds. As Ruby told the story, you could hear the audible gasps in the audience. She cautioned us to wait for the back story. This family marketed every day, buying the fresh goods they needed for the days’ meals and used a cooler to keep milk and fruit fresh for a healthy breakfast.

Ruby asked the assembled teachers what they would do if they unexpectedly inherited a valuable piece of art, jewelry, or crystal that was not compatible with their personal sense of style.  She cautioned us not to overlay our middleclass values on families who live in poverty and to remember how we would not wish to be judged for selling the Picasso. When we give a gift, of our time or our treasure, it is the recipients’ to do with as they choose. If there are strings attached, if there is a back story, we need to make that clear from the very beginning. I remember a line from a Faulkner story that defined being rich as having enough food to eat that one needed to buy a cabinet to hold it. This is something that most teachers, but unfortunately not enough students, do not have to navigate.

Most of us had the experience of being delayed in line at the grocery store by a chatty checker who wants to know every detail of the life of the young mother who precedes you in line.  What we may not know is the back story. Is the young father deployed in military service overseas? Is there serious illness or financial hardship preying on this family? Does the kind word from a compassionate service worker soften the blow? In the school setting we often know about these trials, and usually have tools to aid in minimizing the impacts. The valuable work of school counselors, social workers, volunteer coordinators and mentors has grown over the years and contributes mightily to school and student success and happiness.

Some of our students are copious reporters, sharing lots about their home lives, family interactions, and personal choices. I often joke with the parents of these students that “I will believe half of what they say happens at home if parents are similarly skeptical about what their children report about school events”. But when the sadness, anxiety, or uncertainty is pervasive, it is our cue to check for the back story. Where is this talk about moving coming from? Have there been significant changes at home in health, finances, or routine? It is sometimes difficult to ask these questions, and at least once in a teaching career you are likely to be rebuffed for asking. This distress will be nothing compared to the regret of failing to ask the question that would lead us to have to say, “If I had only known the whole story”.

1 Response to “Finding Out About the Back Story”

  1. 1 Carol Nievinski May 20, 2014 at 9:54 am

    My daughter … pride and joy! Gifted and always wiling to share!!


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