In his remarks at the Newtown interfaith vigil on December 16, President Obama reminded grieving families and the nation that "This is our task -- caring for our children. It's our first job. If we don't get that right, we don't get anything right." If anything is clear from the loss of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it is that we are not getting it right.
We are not getting it right in our country when a child was permitted to grow into a young man capable of such indescribable violence. We are not getting it right in our country when we ignore the pleas of help from teachers, parents, and even children themselves to help our youth grow into productive citizens.
For the past nine years, I have been teaching in a public school in one of Philadelphia's most impoverished neighborhoods. The students I teach have seen and experienced things that no child -- no person -- should ever have to. Their plight ranges from seeing syringes on the way to school, to not having winter coats, to having parents who work overnight and must leave them to care for younger siblings. Don't get me wrong: the vast majority of our families do all they can to provide for and raise their children. I recently sat in a conference with a very loving single dad, and I listened as he told me that he wants his son to get out of the neighborhood. The violence is too much, he said, and "I just want better for him than I had."
As I think about the tragedy in Newtown, and the complex stumbling blocks many of my students face, President Obama's words keep repeating in my head. "Can we honestly say that we're doing enough to keep our children -- all of them -- safe from harm? Can we claim, as a nation, that we're all together there, letting them know that they are loved, and teaching them to love in return?" No. We simply cannot.
Each day, I come to my school ready to work in partnership with my students, my colleagues, and their parents to foster a love of learning and a sense of joy in our school community. But we cannot do it alone. We cannot raise our children in isolation. Until policymakers see the effects of poverty, mental health issues, and access to quality behavioral health services, we will remain stagnant. Until we facilitate real, meaningful dialogue between the stakeholders in our schools and our policy-makers, our commitment to our children will simply not be enough.
So how do we become a society that takes care of its children? How do we move beyond rhetoric and into action? With honest commitment to the following, I think our government has the potential to implement real change in society:
*Listen to our teachers. We have been left out of the discussion surrounding mental health and children's learning needs for too long. There should be a protocol to follow when a child exhibits certain behaviors, and teachers and psychologists should be instrumental in developing such protocol and determining how to best monitor its implementation.
*Make government agencies and health care providers accountable for working in conjunction with schools to help students who are exhibiting special needs. Calls to human services and referrals to mental health agencies should not be taken lightly. Those agencies must work with teachers and parents to ensure the safety and health of our children.
*Encourage schools and teachers to foster creativity and growth in all domains. Allow time for character development in curriculum. Move away from the identification of students by their test scores. End the unrelenting blame of our students, teachers, and parents for the flaws of the system.
*Listen to the ways in which poverty affects our children. Let our communities tell you about what we need to counteract our uneven playing field. Do not take our asking for help as a sign of weakness or as an excuse.
"We know we're always doing right when we're taking care of them, when we're teaching them well, when we're showing acts of kindness," Obama reminded us. Let us be advocates for our children. Let us be their voices when they cannot. Let us prepare them for success. Let the loving care that parents and teachers demonstrate extend all the way up to the policies enacted by our federal government. Let us do right by our children.