Archived Opinion

Legislators pass judgement on the poorest among us

op frI am writing this in my classroom on a Friday evening in the hours of quiet before the kickoff for our homecoming ball game. My students are all gone for the weekend, but it is still early enough that my classroom remains lit by the clear autumn sunshine. I look out at 28 desks that hold the adult sized bodies of the 63 students I teach in senior English: 24 in first period, 25 in fourth period, and 14 in AP English Literature. In my first- and fourth-period classes, the place is pretty packed when everyone is present, so I am grateful I do not as of yet have the full allotment of 29 students that N.C. law allows. My county is fighting hard to keep class size within reason and to maintain teaching staff, although current legislation is telling us that staff reduction is only a matter of time.


Since my largest classes are already 24 and 25 students, four or five more might not seem like a big deal. However, in actuality it is. The difference is 3.75 minutes of my time for each of my 24 students, if I could divide those minutes equally, as opposed to 3.10 minutes of my time if divided among 29 students. It is the difference between allowing the time to explain to a questioning student why commas bracket nonessential information, as opposed to offering only a cursory answer so as not to neglect the questions of the other hands that may be in the air. It is the difference between focusing on those who volunteer answers regarding Macbeth’s conscience, as opposed to taking the extra seconds to engage the tired student who is slumped in her desk after getting home at midnight from her Bojangles’ job. 

I understand time on task. I understand its direct correlation to student achievement, but it isn’t time on task that matters to me when I consider the number of students I teach. What matters to me regarding class size is what half a minute can offer in terms of humanity. In half a minute, I can actually listen to the girl who is in tears because she just learned that her family has one more week to come up with the rent before they are evicted. I can write a note to the school counselor for the boy who cannot focus because he has not eaten in two days. I can congratulate the formerly homeless boy who is doing yard work for an elderly woman in exchange for room and board. I can hear from the girl who is too upset to present her carefully prepared project because her mother and younger sister are about to again enter a safe house. 

If given that half minute, I can attempt to explain why the content I teach should matter to the angry boy whose mother is facing a prison sentence, meaning that he is facing the loss of everything he knows. If given that half minute, I can do all of this, and maybe still impart enough information to the majority of my students that they can pass the required N.C. English IV exam that rightly tests their ability to read closely and edit intelligently. If given that half minute, I can graciously allow for the dignity of my students as people whose concerns are far more immediate than anything the state expects me to teach. If given that half minute per student, I may even be able to teach them the reason our proverbial founding fathers proposed compulsory education: to produce a literate and informed citizenry who could vote against those, like our current legislators, whose biased laws would do harm to those, like my students, who are largely powerless. 

As I finish this, I rely only on the light from my laptop to keep writing. My classroom is growing dark, and I hurry to finish because I can already hear the announcer calling out the team roster in the field above my school. And because I know that each football player wants to be acknowledged as having some importance, I enjoy hearing the names. 

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The lineup comes to a close, and the last light through my window allows me to see my bulletin board, partially covered with bits of student essays, above which are posted the words, “The Writing on the Wall.” The title is meant to be a double entendre, intended to play with words and honor the best words that my students write. I doubt if many of them know the story of King Belshazzar, who desecrated what should have been sacred, and how the hand writing on the wall announced his demise. And the words that were written, “mina, mina, shekel, half mina,” which translated, “numbered, weighed, and divided,” referred to him whose rule was corrupt and whose worth was compromised. 

However, in North Carolina’s halls of power, it is the children in our public schools whose worth is called into question as the budget dictates fewer teachers and larger class sizes. In 2013, the most vulnerable among us, the children of the poor, are the lowest priority of our lawmakers. Those children, with no voice except what we give them in a half minute’s space of time, are the ones our elected representatives in Raleigh have numbered, weighed, divided, and, deliberately, cast aside. 

With total funding] reduced by $286.4 million, local school districts will have to cut teacher positions or find other funding sources. The Department of Public Instruction estimates that this could result in 5,200 fewer teachers.

— Volume 19, No. 5, August 2013 Analysis from the Budget and Tax Center

(Dawn Gilchrist-Young is a teacher and writer. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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