I once had a little girl in my class who was not allowed to check out a single book from the library during her entire third-grade year. Why? Because she had a $15 library fine left over from second grade.
In spite of letters sent home from the school, her parents never paid this amount. The question is… who paid the price for this library fine? Was it the librarian, was it the school, was it her parents?
Or was it Shawna?
The child pays in the end
Of course, we know the answer: the child paid the price, regardless of what the adults in her life were doing. Is it fair to a girl like Shawna to be refused a library book for more than a year because of an action or inaction taken by her parents?
I certainly understand the finances of the situation. A lost library book is lost to all future students and if somebody is not held accountable, eventually all of our books may walk away. They are purchased by the taxpayers after all and we must be wise stewards of the public's money.
On the other hand, we are certainly not doing our students any favors if we deny them the opportunity to read. In second grade Shawna was still a very little girl and absolutely not as responsible as (hopefully) an adult would be with a checked-out book. I think a one-plus year punishment is quite excessive for a common oversight from a small child.
Alternatives do exist
At one of my schools (a Title 1 school), unpaid library fines were pretty much the standard. In order to avoid having all children banned from checking out books they set up a system whereby a student could work off their fine by helping in the library or with other tasks around the school.
Admittedly, this did not generate any extra money to replace the books, and being a Title School there were more funds available for that sort of thing than there may be in other schools.
But still, the loss of books in elementary school is sort of equivalent to shoplifting in a retail store: it's the cost of doing business. If you are going to open your doors, you know a certain amount of merchandise (books) is simply going to walk away and never come back.
You do what you can to limit that, but in the end, you have to understand that the children come first and replacement of books must be budgeted so that our kids don't fall behind in their reading instruction.
Now let's go a little further into the reasons so many teachers find for stepping into roles that should be filled by parents.
Opening up your wallet
An unpaid library fine is one thing, but the situations I am going to talk about are clearly the obligations of parents. But if they are not fulfilled by the public school system or its teachers, then children simply will not learn.
How much money have you, as an individual teacher, spent out of your own pocket to take care of basic necessities for your students? For me, after over ten years of teaching, it runs into hundreds or thousands of dollars.
A list of items that I have purchased for my kids include:
- school supplies
And last but certainly not least:
Keeping hunger at bay
About that last item, food. That is one of the most fundamental things that parents must provide to their children, coming only after shelter. And yet I know there have been students in my classes almost every year who do not get enough to eat at home.
If it were not for free breakfast and free lunch at school they might get nothing at all.
So when I see a student exhibiting food-hoarding behaviors at school parties I always take it into account, ensuring there is extra food so certain students can bag it up and take it home. It's just a small way to keep them from facing extreme hunger over the weekend.
Obviously, I cannot send food home with them all the time and it would not be appropriate to do so, but in a situation when food is showing up in the classroom anyway, I do take it into consideration.
This is where things can get even more depressing when it comes to parental care of some of our students. I had a student in my class one year who was living with his single father (recently released from prison). He absolutely qualified for both free lunch and free breakfast, and all it required for him to access both of those meals was a single signature on a piece of paper.
How was it possible for his father to see this piece of paper come home in Brian's backpack day after day and not sign it… then send Brian to school with absolutely nothing to eat?
Meanwhile, the school was calling dad repeatedly and Brian was surviving on little packets of cheese and crackers which was all that was available for students who had no lunch money.
Ultimately the counselor and two teachers had to go to Brian's house after school in order to get that five-second signature that would allow Brian to consume enough calories so that he could actually focus on his school work rather than his growling stomach.
But I was almost at the point of packing him a lunch every day!
Is anybody listening?
Teachers by their nature are very caring individuals and the best ones are absolutely in it for their students. None of us can watch a child suffering like this and not be moved to some kind of action even if it means pulling out our own wallets to fix it.
I suspect that millions of personal teacher dollars are spent in America every year.
Sometimes I wonder how much this is considered when the public and politicians are debating our salaries and working conditions?