5 Reasons We Shouldn’t Be So Surprised by What Kids Wish Teachers Knew

The stories being shared with #IWishMyTeacherKnew, the viral hashtag started by teacher Kyle Schwartz, are turning the spotlight on the harsh reality of many American kids.

(Photo: Fred Dufour/Getty Images)

Apr 17, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Their thoughts are handwritten on sticky notes, index cards, and plain old pieces of notebook paper—and they’re providing a window into the lives of America’s children. On Friday, the story of #IWishMyTeacherKnew, the effort by Denver elementary school teacher Kyle Schwartz to get students in her classroom to share something about themselves, went viral across the Web.

Schwartz has been posting poignant photos of her students’ reflections on Twitter since March and encouraging other teachers to do the same. But an article by ABC News turned the spotlight on her efforts to get to know her students better. Some Americans have been feeling a bit shocked by the kids’ brief messages, which detail bullying, poverty, and the detrimental impact of incarceration and immigration on the lives of students. But as tear-jerking as the kids’ thoughts are, here are five reasons why we probably shouldn’t be so surprised by what they wrote.

1. Child poverty is on the rise.

Schwartz told ABC News that at the school where she teaches, “92 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch.” As a result, one child wanted the teacher to know that there are no pencils at home. That’s pretty heartbreaking, but that kind of poverty isn’t just an issue in Denver. Last fall a UNICEF report detailed how in 2012, a full 32.2 percent of children in America lived in a household with an income below $31,000. And according to that report, the percent of children living in poverty is on the upswing. It jumped 2 percent between 2008 and 2012—an increase of 1.7 million kids. It’s not surprising, then, that the number of homeless children is at an all-time high.

(Photo: Kyle M. Schwartz/Twitter)

2. Child hunger is widespread.

This week, Gwyneth Paltrow had to come clean and admit that she couldn’t hang with the SNAP Challenge—she found it difficult to survive on the $29 weekly allotment for a person receiving food stamps. Perhaps Paltrow now knows how it feels to be one of the 20 percent of kids in America who go to bed hungry at night. In our cities, children are even worse off. According to No Kid Hungry, 25 percent of households with children in large cities don’t know where their next meal is coming from. No wonder kids are sharing that they want their teachers to know they’re hungry.

3. Bullying is normal in most schools.

Some of the students wanted their teachers to know they’re being bullied. Sadly, the behavior is all too common in America’s schools. Kids get verbally harassed and beat up for everything from being overweight to donating their hair to a cancer charity. As a result, nearly 160,000 students don’t show up at school every day in the hope that they can avoid the physical or verbal abuse.

(Photo: Kyle M. Schwartz/Twitter)

4. The number of kids with an incarcerated parent is growing.

Back in 2013, some folks gave Sesame Street a side-eye when the program added a character whose dad was locked up. Given that 2.7 million children have a parent who is incarcerated, the educational program was merely attempting to be empathetic and relatable to its target audience. Indeed, a 2010 report from The Pew Charitable Trusts found that one in 28 children has a parent in jail or prison, up from one in 125 a generation ago. As I discovered when I was a classroom teacher, sometimes when kids say their dad works nights or is away on a trip, what they really mean is that their father is behind bars.

5. Deportation is separating thousands of kids from their parents.

President Obama’s immigration reforms are stuck in congressional limbo, which has a dire effect on thousands of children who were born in the U.S. but have parents who are undocumented. In 2013, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported more than 72,000 parents who had kids born in America. Some of those kids end up sleeping on the sofas of relatives, while others land in the foster care system.

Of course, these sobering stats don’t negate the effort Schwartz is making to get to know her students so that she can be a better advocate for them both in and out of the classroom. Her efforts to make a difference in the lives of those kids are worthy of our admiration. But it sure seems like those kids need the rest of us to do more than cry.