I come here and see the top-rated diary by bkamr about the impact of the economy upon her middle schoolers. I teach high school. And because I teach government, we are discussing aspects of the government in which the condition of the economy is an important part.
And there is absolutely no doubt - many of my kids are scared, too.
And I found it out by accident.
Officially our school is 22% free and reduced lunch (FRL), although we know that understates the actually rate of students who should be eligible. Until they are seniors and realize that being classifed for FRL is of benefit in applying for college and some financial aid, some of our students don't bother, because either they are not interested in the food we serve or they or their families do not want to admit they are suffering financially. As individual teachers we do not necessarily know the status of the students in our class, and one cannot even tell when students are buying their lunch because their accounts might have money because parents sent in a check, not because the accounts are being funded by FRL. We have some students who come for the subsizided breakfast, and that does make them somewhat visible. Nor are we as teachers told which of our students are homeless, although I sometimes find out when I call all my parents at the start of the year.
So what was the accident? It was a non-AP class, full of ordinarily performing high school students. I happened to mention that more than 10% of the households in the US were now on food stamps, because we were talking about programs in the Department of Agriculture (like school lunch and food stamps) that are important even in a county with almost no farms. And I saw almost half of the students in the class nod their heads when I mentioned that fact.
Since I do not want to put any student on the spot, I did not ask about individual circumstances. But when I considered some of the recent changes of behavior, such as the percentage of students arriving to school later even though they may be within walking distance, and those seemingly without energy, perhaps because they are not eating sufficiently, a broader picture begins to become apparent.
We discuss the economy in more detail in my Advanced Placement (college level) classes. Remember, these are mainly 10th graders, which makes them very bright and perceptive. We have talked in detail about the aspcts of the economic meltdown because it is relevant to the study of government. We have had some intense discussions about the merits of various programs of government assistance. When the banks and AIG were being aided, some students wanted to know why individual mortgagees were not receiving assistance. We have explored in the impact of foreclosure upon land values, which has the impact of lowering the money available to local government - with a looming possible impact of teacher layoffs and increased class sizes. These students are astute enough to realize that if people are not shopping, governments don't get sales taxes, other people lose their jobs. And all of my students understand the multiplier effect - that if one additional dollar is injected into the economy by spending it is the equivalent of around 3 dollars of additional spending; thus if one dollar is removed, it is similarly like removing three. We have done small-scale scenarios in class to help them understand this basic principle.
So why are my kids scared? For some, they wonder if their parents or other family members will keep jobs? I have already had a couple where the family received a foreclosure notice, and word about things like that can spread fairly quickly among peers. When the market began its melt-down, some talked about parents and other adults discussing loss of retirement savings. While that was interesting, they also heard about the decrease in funds available for their education, and that concerned them as well.
At the end of the past two weeks we have encountered massive numbers of first time unemployment claims. We have explored the idea of unemployment benefits, intended to provide a bridge until one can find another job. But what if one can't, because others are also losing their jobs, and no one is hiring? What happens when the period of those benefits runs out, and one still does not have a job?
And as one student asked yesterday, if 10% of households are on foodstamps now, is there enough money for another 5% or more, as increasing numbers of people see their incomes disappear?
One student has a dad who is a stockbroker. In his case it is not so much the current value of the market, although that remains an issue. It is the decreasing number of individuals buying and selling stock, meaning fewer - and nowadays smaller - commissions.
There are students whose parents are realtors, with house prices dropping (lowers commissions) and far fewer houses changing hands (meaning fewer commissions) - together that can represent a catastrophic drop in income.
Or the parents in auto dealerships, now beginning to see lay offs in our area.
Or they hear that a large banking company which received massive assistance from our taxes, Bank of America, has announced that it is laying off more than 30,000 over the next couple of years, and they wonder when the layoffs will stop.
The questions are sometimes only alluded to. Occasionally they are stated. Often one can read it in the tone of voice, or the facial expressions, or the slumping shoulders.
Here are some of the questions scaring my students:
Will my parents lose their jobs?
Will we have to move?
Will my grandparents be able to retire?
Will we be able to have a Christmas celebration?
Will I be able to go to camp this summer?
Will we be able to go on vacation?
What if dad loses his job, which provides our medical insurance, and one of us gets sick?
Will I have to get a job during school to be able to help out?
Will we able to afford college, for me and my siblings?
When will this turn around?
And on that last question, I can only offer what I am hearing from people who are wrestling with the problem, that if we are lucky, we might come out of recession in about 15-18 months, but that some wonder if, even without failure of one of the big three auto manufacturers, if our economy will recover in less than 5-7 years.
I am 62. I have a secure job, as long as i want to stay in my current schools, since I have some seniority within my department. My wife is a federal employee. We may feel pinched, because we may have to help out family members who are not so secure, and we do not have much margin. But we are both healthy, so far. And not having children of our own we do not face the burden of college expenses.
But I am scared, too - for my country to be sure, but also for the economic future of the students I teach. I cannot assure them that all will be well, because I don't know that it will be. Perhaps my job should be to assure them, but I cannot. Not when I see posturing for political and philosophical reasons, such as the desire of some Republicans to break the UAW and intimidate the entire organized labor movement. Not when I see the total disconnect between the real needs of ordinary people and the misapplication of taxpayer funds by some recipients in the form of bonuses to employees who helped create the mess and dividends to stockholders who should be bearing a larger proportion of the financial impact. Yes, I know some of those stockholders are ordinary people whose savings are being diminished, that the stock is held by mutual funds and pension funds, including that for my own pension and 403B plan and my wife's Federal Thrift plan. But as one who as a teacher is incessantly pounded with demands for accountability, I have to wonder where the accountability is for those corporate types who helped create this mess, and for those in government who enabled that behavior by refusing appropriate oversight.
And my students make this connection as well. On more than one occasion there hve been comments about how they get graded on their work, and some teachers - me in particular - are quite insistent on holding them to fairly rigorous standards, when those in business and government seem to get no consequences for their failure to perform their responsibilities.
All of that is, however, subtext. And perhaps all of the questions can be condensed into something basic, even visceral. For many of my students it can be reduced to something like this: "what kind of future is there going to be for me and those about whom I care?" Whether they address that question directly or not, it has a deep impact upon them. For some they are beginning to question whether they will be able to afford college, and if not, why bother struggling with the hard classes in school? Others wonder if they are going to have to move, in which case what difference will it matter how they do in this school (and if you try to point out that grades and credits transfer, some rightly point out that each school is different: some have been through the moving process and found it did not really matter to the new school/teacher what they had done in the school from which they came).
Will I have a future? Everyone has a future. But will it have real possibilities, or will I struggle to find a job? I can't answer that.
I CAN"T ANSWER THAT! So maybe I am in part to blame, because I cannot be dishonest and promise them that all will be well. And because I am 62, because I know a lot about government and about history and maybe even a little about economics, they take some cues from me.
If they are scared, and I cannot help them with their fears, because of what I fear may happen, because I know how serious the crisis is in which we now find ourselves, because I know we have not yet hit the bottom, because I know that between now and January 20th a lot more damage may occur . . .
... because of all that, I wonder if I should stop teaching, so that I do not exacerbate their fears?
I wonder, but then I decide to remain. Because were I to leave, most of my students would perceive it as my giving up hope, that I no longer believed that my teaching could make a difference. And if I have no hope, then how much greater might their fears become??
I don't have answers. This is just me sitting down on a Saturday morning and unloading. Perhaps it is pointless. Perhaps it is having a conversation with myself, and no one will read this. I don't know.
I do know my own frustration - Many of my kids are scared, too. And I do not know how to help them with their fears.
Thanks for reading.