Watershed moments usually make me feel proud, but this one was horrible.
One morning last October one of my students was having a bad day. We were in the computer lab, and he wouldn’t stop talking. Even my most disruptive students will pause for at least a few seconds when I ask them to refocus, but he ignored me completely. When his own friends asked him to be quiet, I told him to talk to me outside the classroom.
“You’re not acting like yourself today,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Trouble at home,’ he replied. “I’m having trouble at home.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me more?”
“I’m having trouble at home. My mom said I’m not doing my work, but I am. I did my work last week, and I’m doing my work now. The other kids won’t stop talking to me. She called my daddy and told him I can’t…”
“Are you hungry?” I asked, cutting him off. He paused.
“Did you eat breakfast today?” I asked. Another pause, then he shook his head.
“Do you want a snack?” I asked.
He nodded, so we went downstairs to my classroom. He ate a snack, returned to the lab and settled down.
I couldn’t always spot a hungry student so quickly. For years I needed to know he or she was homeless, arriving late and missing breakfast or struggling to make ends meet. Early in my career I never spotted it at all. But experience has been a humbling teacher, and I’ve learned several tips from my kids.
Know your students.
Hungry children have many faces. Some are energetic and always asking for a snack, others are tired and withdrawn or even sunken and angry. Students can be both obese and starving, too. A student of mine once lived in his mother’s car. They bought all their food from a gas station, so he consumed excessive yet nutritionally empty calories. He joined a foster family later that year, started eating three decent meals a day and lost a lot of weight.
Cliche as it may be, getting to know your students is still crucial. What does a good day look like compared to a bad day? Are their heads down because they’re sleepy, or is it something more? The more you learn about who they are, the more you can help them learn the material you teach.
Feed them now.
Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry. Students must feel physically well before they can even consider classwork. Psychologist Eugene Maslow created a five-tier hierarchy of needs more than 60 years ago, and it’s still required reading in education and psychology programs today. Maslow grouped hunger with other basic physiological needs like air, water and shelter, well ahead of any form of learning.
To win the day, have a snack nearby. Offer food discretely to avoid embarrassing a student. The snacks will buy you some instructional time in the short-term. It will also show the child that you care about more than just your class or assignment.
Yes, you’ll have to buy the food yourself. Do it anyway. Granola bars and trail mix keep forever and work well as classroom snacks.
Feed them later.
I’m fortunate to work in a district that provides free breakfast to any child that wants it. But even if kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, they can go hungry at night, over the weekend and during long breaks from school.
Talk to your principal about creating a pantry for food-insecure students at your school. Reach out to local churches or community organizations — they are often willing to donate supplies. Chances are your community has the resources, but they may not know that your students need them.
Don’t go it alone.
A food insecure student will need a support team that’s bigger than one person. Share what you know with guidance counselors, social workers, administrators and medical staff. It will help other adults in the building understand students’ behaviors; and, if you find a way to support one, they can help scale the model to help others, too.
Supporting students’ basic needs is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, but a snack or meal can do more for a child in need than any pep talk or lesson plan. Know the signs of hunger, have a quick fix ready and work with colleagues in your building to create long-term solutions.
It saddens me to know kids still don’t have access to the food they need. I wish I didn’t have to spot hungry children in my classrooms, but there are ways to provide the meals they need to keep learning. Helping food-insecure students involves more than free lunch, but doing the extra work gives at-risk kids a chance to excel and create a more stable future of their own.
Bryan Christopher teaches English and journalism at Riverside High School in Durham, N.C. He is also a policy analyst with the National Council of Teachers of English and Hope Street Teacher Voice Fellow. He writes about teaching, learning and education policy at bryan-christopher.com.
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