My heart loses a beat or two every time I see certain students arrive. I see them walk down the hallway, generally with a smile pasted on, usually wearing clothes that may have been worn a time or two or three and are in-between washings. Why does my heart lose a beat or two? Because of the pain I feel for these teens whom I know are struggling to survive and find a place to sleep at night. This is a growing problem in some areas today, growing, at least, in my school. What is it? Teenage homelessness.
In talking with my principal recently about this, we both noted a movement toward higher instances of this happening. How does a teen become homeless? In most instances it's a break with the nuclear family, either the young person getting kicked out of the house or the parent going to jail or choosing to move with a significant other leaving the teen behind to finish school AND figure out where he/she is going to live. My principal and I lamented the increases we were seeing, wondering what more we could do to help stem the swelling tide.
These are kids who are miracles. It's a miracle they come to school at all when the weight of where they'll be sleeping that night or where they'll go when school lets out hovers over them. This would stress out the normal adult. How much more so does it add to the angst of adolescence?
Homelessness is the hidden horror in our schools. Students may still live with families and the whole family may be homeless. I once had a student with ten siblings. The parents rented one hotel room for them all to live in. Twelve people in a small room. No privacy, no meal prep facilities. No where to turn without stepping on someone's clothes or the person himself. Paying for that ramshackle room was cheaper than paying rent. This family lived like that the entire school year.
I'd like to say I encounter fewer kids dealing with this issue. But I'd be lying. Since school began in August, I've seen three to four students referred to special services, people in our district who work with kids who are homeless to try to find them a place to live.
So if my high schoolers who are homeless score a few points lower on their mandated testing, so be it. If it reflects poorly on me as a teacher, too bad. Kids are dealing with so much more today than most of us did 10-20 years back.
What can we as educators do to help these kids? Be supportive of the student, letting them know quietly you're aware of their situation and will help them however you're able. Be flexible with them, knowing life isn't coasting down the "normal" highway. Let them know you'll work with them on assignments and new concepts they may be having a tough time mastering due to the stress in their lives. Be available to help or just offer a listening ear. Oftentimes kids aren't looking for answers, their looking for comfort and reassurance that everything will work out okay. Remember, they are just kids. They may act like they know everything or have their act together, but the truth is they are scared and insecure and stressed. Help be part of their solution, not their problem.
Homelessness is not going away. The question we as educators need to ask ourselves is this: If I were in this situation, how would I want to be treated? If you'd want respect shown you, then show the teens respect. If you'd want reassurance, give your students reassurance. Is reading The Scarlet Letter imperative to this student's success in school? Or is it okay to give an easier work to relieve some of the stress from school to perform?
My heart truly does ache when I hear my students' stories and see how they are just trying to survive. Vow, as a teacher, to be part of those homeless teens' solutions rather than part of their problem. Be their light at the end of the tunnel and let them know things will get better if they can just weather this storm. Remember, you can make a difference. One teen at a time.