SC teacher’s support for her students expands outside of the classroom
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Classrooms in Crisis
S.C. teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. Here's why and how it can be fixed.
Greenwood teacher Diana Pearson spent a Saturday in March checking on her fifth-grade students, who lately could keep time by the number of shootings killing their friends and family members.
On her way to see them, she drove past the county jail where a former student is locked up, charged with murder in a November shooting at the apartments where she was heading. She passed the high school where later that day some of her students would attend a memorial service for a senior gunned down the week before. By early April, some of her fifth-graders would witness one of their cousins get fatally shot.
"My babies are hurting really bad. They can’t sleep," Pearson wrote in an email to a reporter after the latest shooting. "The violence is getting closer and taking more."
Equal parts teacher, social worker and provider to her students, Pearson views her job as a full-time calling more than a career. She is an anomaly in the way her work extends into her students' lives, families and neighborhoods.
For many of the state's teachers, the various hats they must wear to meet students' needs in and out of class are just too much. Beyond the time demands, many say they feel unprepared to meet the needs of poor students, grappling with hunger, broken homes and even violence.
It's one reason teachers are leaving the classrooms in droves — a trend expected to lead to a large teacher shortage within the decade. Last school year, nearly 7,000 teachers, or 13 percent of the state's teaching force, left their jobs.
"Once (teachers) get into that classroom, they are overwhelmed because they find it difficult to deal with these issues that they themselves have never experienced," said Evelyn Fields, a professor of early education at S.C. State University, adding that teachers do not get the support they need in the classroom.
“You’ve got to be a nurse; you’ve got to be a psychologist; you’ve got to be a parent; you’ve got to be everything,” she said.
Yet, it's a challenge a Palmetto State teacher hardly can avoid.
More than half of the children in all but seven of the state's 83 school districts live in poverty, meaning they qualify for federal health and food programs for the poor or are homeless.
"I’m not trying to raise a president," said Pearson, a 24-year teaching veteran and doctoral candidate at Clemson University. "I just want them to know that they’re not alone out there, that people do care about them."
'Homework's not ... a big deal'
A former social worker who raised her daughter alone, Pearson knows struggle, but nothing compared to her students' experiences. Wanting to help them, Pearson said she's "fostered" several children over the years.
There was the fourth-grader who had anger issues.
"I would bring her home in the afternoons so she could have some quiet time," Pearson said, adding that the child was constantly moving around, bouncing between the homes of different family members. "We also had to give her a suitcase because they never know where she's going to go."
Then there was the student now facing a murder charge, Zantravious Hall, nicknamed Tight.
During his first stint in jail, Tight wrote Pearson's students an eloquent letter, asking them to value their educations and rise above their environment.
"Do any of you want to end up dead or in prison for life for nonsense?" he wrote.
Pearson said she found out that Hall was running from police after receiving a news alert of a Greenwood shooting on her phone. She began texting everyone she knew. A former student texted back, telling her what was happening.
She fired off texts to Hall.
"Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, stop," her frantic fingers typed. "They’re going to kill you."
But Hall's girlfriend had his phone.
“Those are the heart-wrenching ones, where you try to make an impact, and at some point, you have to let them make their own decisions," said Pearson.
She has a crew of current students she looks after, too, called Pearson's Peeps.
On the weekends, she drives to their homes with goodies loaded up in the back of her SUV.
Sidewalk chalk for the little kids she encounters.
Corn chips, sunflower seeds and other snacks to hand out, too.
When she learned some of her students didn't have sleeping bags for an overnight field trip to Myrtle Beach, her Sunday school group at St. Mark United Methodist Church pitched in, raising money for eight of them.
"I just visit. I don’t come for a purpose," Pearson said. "You don’t want them always to think you are here to tell them, 'Oh, your kid was bad.' No, you just come to check on them, and then you realize homework’s not really a big deal."
The visits let her get to know her students' families, to establish a connection. She comes to them, on their turf, because, for a lot of her students' parents, they'd just assume never set foot inside a school again.
"I know that school is not always a happy place for people, and sometimes you gotta meet them where they are," she said.
'She always calls'
Pearson gets to know her students' parents, building a relationship through calls and texts and visits. That way, they know her when she needs to talk about her students' performance in school, and she knows what their families are going through.
On a recent Saturday at the Phoenix Place Apartments, Pearson's first stop was to check on her student Eli Tompkins, 11, to see how he was doing.
“In November, Eli’s neighbor was gunned down, and now today, Eli is going to bury his cousin. So Eli is having a really hard time,” she said.
Eli wasn't home, but his mother, Wendy Tolbert, was.
Tearful, with her hair in rollers in preparation for the memorial service, Tolbert said things were OK at the apartment complex in July when she moved her family there.
But since then, people have been coming around shooting. One day, a man walked down the street in broad daylight, firing a gun into the air, she said.
"My son, he loves to be outside, all day every day," she said, adding, “Parents have to come out here and keep an eye on their kids or they don’t want them outside because they fear for their safety."
Tolbert said she wanted to move the family out of the apartments but wasn't sure where to go. Whenever something goes down in the neighborhood, Pearson checks in, Tolbert said.
“She always calls to make sure we’re all right.”
Next door, a teenage boy had come outside and was standing in the grass, looking at Pearson.
“Come here, meanness. Do I look like a DSS?” teased Pearson, referring to the state's Department of Social Services, whose child-welfare workers investigate cases of child abuse and neglect and have the power to remove children from their homes.
The boy, a former student, smiled and walked over.
Pearson kicked into teacher mode, quizzing him for the reporters with her.
"Were you bad in my class? You better tell them we had it rough! But whose picture is on my filing cabinet? Whose graduation picture is going to be on my filing cabinet?"
Later, Pearson dropped in on Lamarcus Chamberlain, 11, whose parents had just cooked a big breakfast.
Lamarcus isn't one of her students, but he hangs out in her classroom before track practice and helps her out, moving bookcases and doing other tasks.
Over a plate of bacon, grits and biscuits, Pearson bragged on her "baby giraffe" (because he's so tall) to his mom and dad, saying he also helps break up fights, stepping between students.
Pearson also reminded Lamarcus' older brother, in high school now, not to forget about the two free years of education he could get at the community college through a program called The Greenwood Promise, available to high school graduates in that district.
"We love these boys," Pearson told their parents.
These days, Pearson is a familiar face in the row apartments that stretch barely a third of a mile in Greenwood.
It wasn't always that way.
There was the time Pearson called the sheriff and asked him to check in on one of her students. That didn't go over so well when a sheriff's deputy knocked on the child's door that evening.
" 'You can’t just be sending the police to my front door. You got everyone riled up,' " Pearson recalled the student telling her the next day at school.
"The next day, I went down there and introduced myself," she said.
'Not a control freak'
Pearson's teaching style might be a bit unorthodox.
Her first concern for her students when they come to school in the morning is whether they've eaten. She keeps granola bars and yogurt in her classroom for the kids who get to school late and miss the campus-wide free breakfast.
Sometimes a student will come in and put his head down to sleep. On one such occasion, she knew the student's mother worked late shifts.
"He was probably up all night and may have had a hard time sleeping," she said, adding that she let him nap. Twenty minutes later, he was awake and ready to learn.
"Some people don’t like that. Some people would continue nagging on him. ‘Wake up, you’re here to learn, blah blah blah.’ And when that happens, what do you think happens?" she said, noting it would be like "(poking) the fire with a gasoline knife."
Pearson said she can't teach a child anything when his basic needs are not met: food, sleep and safety.
She's developed a reputation for not being very strict, but all her students' reading scores improved in December from the previous year, so her approach must be working, she said.
Pearson said classroom management is not about maintaining control.
"I’m not a control freak. Why do you need control? If you have an active engagement classroom, you’re going to have an active engagement classroom," she said. "If it’s about me controlling people, then I’ve got another problem, and it ain’t the kids."
"You don’t have to control them if they know you love them. They’ll do anything for you.”