“In loco parentis” does not suggest—and educational law won’t allow—for a minute that teachers should replace true parents or guardians in students’ lives, but that educators should remain open to those moments of human connection that offer opportunities for shepherding, nurturing, and directing, moments where, for whatever reason, students come into classrooms under-parented or under-nourished.
I remember the time a student broke down during a college discussion about King Lear testing his three daughters. I called on the student when she raised her hand and she immediately started sobbing, crying out that she knew King Lear. King Lear, she said, was her dad. Class was almost over, so I dismissed the rest of the students and sat with this girl. She wore a strapless sundress and cowboy boots, her back to a whiteboard covered in notes about Lear’s motivations and Shakespeare’s pacing. In my empty classroom the girl’s make-up streaked as she explained the war within her family and between herself and her two sisters. Then, together, we walked to the student health office’s counseling center where trained professionals met with her.
Over years of teaching, I’ve taken many such hikes to the counseling center.
Teachers everywhere encounter such extremes every day. Of course, not all forms of support make for such clean, single-paragraph anecdotes.
My husband Jim teaches art in a “moderate poverty” urban high school with a sixty-two percent minority student body. I often send stashes of granola bars and juice boxes with him to keep in his classroom. He tells me students come for help on assignments and can’t think straight because they haven’t eaten. Since six to eight percent of students at Jim’s school are known to be homeless, he knows some kids arrive for the day hungry and sleep-deprived. The young person isn’t dieting—pilfering Adderall to curb appetite, or some other weight-loss technique—but wanting to eat. I guess the granola bars work because on a recent Christmas morning when Jim and I were having coffee before the family joined us to open stockings, he got a phone call from a former student, a granola bar recipient, who wanted to wish happy holidays to someone who is “like a real dad.”
I know, I know: I hear the voices of opposition: do we really need to be this available? We’re not paid to accept phone calls on holidays. Isn’t this rather idealistic? Reminiscent of magical teachers in movies like Freedom Writers?
Sure. I’m not advocating all teachers can or should give of themselves in this way, but maybe some—maybe those who care enough to read this blog—will. Because in a society where parents waver between abusive “helicoptering” and neglectful abandonment, we teachers—regardless of subject matter—may find ourselves standing in the gap left by absent parents. It’s a gap we need to give ourselves permission to stand in with care, in loco parentis by way of compassion.
Sheryl Cornett currently teaches English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She has also taught high school French in Kenya, East Africa, homeschooled her own kids, and conducted creative writing workshops in the public schools. Her recent poems, stories, and essays appear in the North Carolina Literary Review, Image, Pembroke Magazine, Mars Hill Review, and The Independent Weekly among other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University.