The Uphill Battle for Many of America’s Teachers

19 Apr

You cannot educate a child who is not healthy and you cannot keep a child healthy who is not educated,” says Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the former U.S. Surgeon General. Source:

To have a better understanding of what Dr. Elders is talking about and what this means for America’s teachers, keep reading.

Nearly 16 million children in the United States—22% of all children—live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level ($23,021 a year for a family of four). Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families. … And poverty can impede children’s ability to learn and contribute to social, emotional, and behavioral problems. Source: The National Center for Children in Poverty

Poverty isn’t the only challenge many of America’s teachers face daily—lifestyle choices, poor parenting and even paint fumes get in the way of education.

Yes, you heard right—paint fumes!

The March 21, 2013, issue of The New York Review of Books says lead house paint is “still on the walls of some 30 million American homes today,” and “studies have found that even infinitesimally low levels—down to one or two micrograms per deciliter—can reduce a child’s IQ and impair her self-control and ability to organize thoughts.”

“Black children, the survey found, were six times more likely to have elevated lead than white.” Source: Lead Poisoning: The Ignored Scandal by Helen Epstein

If paint fumes weren’t enough of a challenge, Live says, “It is almost certain that if you eat a diet comprised of primarily fast food, you won’t be functioning at your optimum capacity—physically or mentally. Fast food consumption can cause an array of mental effects, ranging from depression to hyperactivity. It’s not just one ingredient at fault, either. Fast food meals contain a toxic mixture of unhealthy fats, preservatives, coloring and refined carbohydrates that can create imbalances in your brain.”

In addition, soda consumption (liquid sugar) is linked to violence in teens. Wellness reported, “These chemicals also cause brain inflammation. High levels of sweeteners cause fluctuating blood sugar levels and that will disrupt brain function as well. Thus, there are several clear mechanisms by which soda drinks can cause irritated and impaired brain function, leading to increased risk for the use of violence as a problem solving strategy.”

In fact, says, “Overeating, poor memory formation, learning disorders, depression—all have been linked in recent research to the over-consumption of sugar.” … “Research indicates that a diet high in added sugar reduces the production of a brain chemical known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Without BDNF, our brains can’t form new memories and we can’t learn (or remember) much of anything.”

For a better understanding of the challenge America’s teachers face, I recommend watching Winter’s Bone and/or reading J. K Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. This film and novel offer snapshots into the world of poverty for those who have never been there.

In the film Winter’s Bone (2010), Jennifer Lawrence plays 17 year-old Ree Dolly who keeps her family together in a dirt-poor rural area of the Ozark Mountains. And in J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (2012), we meet Krystal Weedon who was raised in poverty by a heroin-addicted mother and often acts as sole caregiver to younger brother Robbie.

For thirty years I had an up-close and personal open-door to this world, because I taught students that were often like Ree Dolly or Krystal Weedon in schools surrounded by graffiti scarred barrios, street gangs and drive by shootings.

Even lack of adequate sleep causes learning problems. Children need about 10-12 hours a sleep while teens need at least nine hours per night. But many American children and teens only sleep five-six hours a night.

A recent study reveals that inadequate sleep can result in lower math and literacy scores. Research also shows that getting a good night’s sleep may be the single most powerful predictor of a child’s academic performance in school. Source: ABC News

What do you think happens in a classroom when a child or teen lives in poverty, has a poor diet, drinks too many sodas and does not get enough sleep? Do we blame teachers for that too?


Lloyd Lofthouse, a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran, is the award winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition].

His latest novel is Running with the Enemy. Blamed for a crime he did not commit while serving in Vietnam, his country considers him a traitor. Ethan Card is a loyal U.S. Marine desperate to prove his innocence or he will never go home again.

And the woman he loves and wants to save was trained to hate and kill Americans.

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2 responses to “The Uphill Battle for Many of America’s Teachers

  1. George Buzzetti

    April 19, 2013 at 22:50

    I agree with everything said except for one thing and that is that children from the worst places cannot get ahead. In about 1970 my friend and one of the founders of UTLA, Richard Arthur, took over the most criminal and violent high school in the U.S. at the time, Castlemont High School. They had constant gun fights on campus and the last principal was killed in their office. This is much worse than anything we know of now. After Richard took over not even a fistfight. About a week or so into beginning a student came up to him and told him no one had anything to eat including on weekends. He did a survey and it was about 90%. Know of that now? He got Huey Newton of the Black Panthers to give them free breakfasts and later got free food for their families. In less than 4 years over 50% dropout to almost 0%. Also to college from 5-65%. Then the SLA assinated Marcus Foster the superintendent with cyanide tipped bullets and tried twice to kill Richard. He had a family and moved back into the L.A. area and helped to found the highest performing public high school in the U.S. for over 25 years Whitney High School. Do not tell me it cannot be done. Remember the Fish rots from the Head. Leadership and concern is the key.

    • Lloyd Lofthouse

      April 20, 2013 at 07:59

      Thank you George. I agree that children from the worst places can get ahead if the support is there. I saw it happening at the schools where I taught but it was usually the exception and not the rule.

      And those success stories were usually linked to a teacher/s and/or administrator/s who made a big difference in the life of some of his or her students.

      For example, the first school where I taught was called Giano Intermediate. Back in 1979 when I was hired by Ralph Pagan, the principal, Giano had a reputation as one of the toughest most dangerous schools in the San Gabriel Valley. Pagan only agreed to take the job as principal if he had the power to transfer teachers out that were not effective (meaning they went to other schools in the district that were not as challenged as Giano was at the time). Then he hired new teachers (of his choice) or invited teachers to transfer from other schools in the district. Pagan was a Korean War Veteran. Many of the teachers he invited or hired were also veterans of the Korean or Vietnam Wars. And the teachers he kept that had already been there during the hard times who refused to give up on their kids were fearless and dedicated to working with the kids to make a difference.

      I’m thinking of two petite women at Giano who were tough as nails—compassionate tough love from benevolent dictators.

      Before his heart attack that almost killed him, Pagan turned Giano around and that middle school became an oasis for at-risk kids to learn and succeed. A great success story.

      But with more than 14,000 public school districts in America and millions of teachers, can we expect all of the teachers to be the same type of people as the examples both you and I have mentioned in our comments? Yes, the success stories are out there but do they last once the individuals that were responsible for that success move on or get burned out? Can we really expect to duplicate that type of success everywhere? I wish we could.


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