The Secret Teacher: ‘Rising tide of anxiety infiltrating our classrooms’

In 2020 anxiety and homelessness must stop becoming the norm in schools

Schoolchildren should know nothing of anxiety and homelessness, but they do, and to disturbing and unacceptable levels.  Photograph: iStock

Schoolchildren should know nothing of anxiety and homelessness, but they do, and to disturbing and unacceptable levels. Photograph: iStock

 

Eamonn seemed a perfectly normal pupil when he started secondary school in 2017, and until Christmas of second year too, which is when the sporadic absences started.

By the end of May he was barely attending school at all and I have yet to see him this academic year. We hear little, but there are rumours of crippling bouts of anxiety which render him incapable of leaving the house.

Kate stays on in my classroom because she doesn’t have a desk to do her homework at when she leaves school. She doesn’t even have a home. She is desperate for people not to know.

As teachers we see first-hand how circumstances such as homelessness affect children

If she could be more open about it, the school could waive the cost of attending after-school study, but her pride simply doesn’t allow it. Being the same matters more. She has no idea that I know, nor that my sister knows her mother, and that as a result I know a lot more than just that she doesn’t have a desk.

I offered the possibility to stay on very casually to all my pupils, but she is the only one who took me up on it – as I was almost certain she would. I don’t always stay myself, naturally, but she feels happy and safe with the door propped open, and I arrange with our caretaker to make sure that it is locked when he is leaving. He doesn’t know the exact circumstances of course, but I bet he could hazard a good guess, and I know that he too is rooting for Kate.

The rising tides of anxiety and homelessness are all too evident in our schools, and surely 2020 must be the year that we stop these trends in their tracks before they set in as norms.

With about 4,000 children in the State in emergency accommodation, homelessness has inevitably infiltrated schools and classrooms. Children should know nothing of anxiety and homelessness, but they do, and to disturbing and unacceptable levels.

Who cares? And more pertinently, who cares enough to do anything about it? And can anything realistically be achieved in 2020? For the good of everyone in our schools something must happen.

National importance

The Education Act 1998 requires that everyone living in the State is guaranteed “a level and quality of education appropriate to meeting the needs and abilities of the person”. The provision of that education is therefore sacrosanct, and by extension eradicating threats to it is a matter of national importance. Problems of the magnitude of anxiety and homelessness do not exist in a vacuum around the individual; they impact on society – in this case the classroom.

In the new Junior Cycle, students are experiencing a new area of learning called “wellbeing”, and in 2020 schools will allocate 400 timetabled hours to it.

This surely is intended to help prevent, deal with and perhaps even resolve crises such as the one we are currently facing with anxiety. Too early to know, of course, but something is at least being done to place children’s wellbeing front and centre in schools.

As teachers we see first-hand how circumstances such as homelessness affect children, and just how badly the longer it goes on. Clear patterns emerge, telling us that children living in emergency accommodation are more likely to be bullied, and since children who are bullied are more likely to self-harm, a downward spiral is set in motion when a child’s family loses their home.

Recovery from this is inevitably slow and can only succeed if the circumstances that triggered the decline change, so it is obvious that prevention must be the ultimate goal.

If our political leaders were looking at the effects of homelessness up close, as teachers do every Monday to Friday, they would be doing more about it. Out of sight, out of mind works both ways. We have those young people directly in our line of vision and do all we can to support them and their families. We do not, however, have access to the financial resources and political power to do enough.

We teachers therefore challenge you to confront our political representatives in 2020, forcing them to put ending homelessness high up on the political agenda as a matter of urgency, since current policies are making no impact.

In the meantime, why don’t our business leaders, and indeed anyone who could afford to celebrate over the Christmas season, make a donation proportionate to what they spent celebrating to someone who cares enough and has the competence to do something meaningful with it? This country has an acute crisis which cannot simply wait for the wheels of politics to be set in motion.

Perhaps the Peter McVerry Trust would embrace the idea of a children’s fund. Forty years ago Fr Peter McVerry housed his first person, a 13 year-old. He has been working tirelessly for people of all ages ever since. We know he can be trusted with our money, and that he cares enough to do something to reverse this trend. He has plenty to do already, of course, but if you want something done properly you ask a busy person, and who better than McVerry to expel the scourge of homelessness from our classrooms, and from 4,000 children’s lives?