Childhood is the age of innocence, of playing football with your friends on a sunny afternoon and when your biggest worry is getting home in time for tea. But, a classroom experiment shed a heartbreaking light on the heavy burdens many children carry alone in their tiny hearts. An American primary teacher gave her students the chance to tell her about themselves. Their touching handwritten replies revealed how little we really know of today's shocking childhood struggles.
A classroom full of 8-year-olds and a teacher eager to learn more about them: Five years ago, American primary teacher in Colorado, Kyle Schwartz, asked her third graders to let her know a little more about themselves. The powerful honesty of their replies broke her heart.
The sentence began “I wish my teacher knew…” and, armed with pencils and markers the children penned their replies. Perhaps she might have expected fun facts about their pets and upcoming holiday trips buzzing on the top of their innocent minds.
Instead, they opened up about the hidden parts of their lives and dark struggles no child should have to bear. Divorce, homelessness, learning difficulties, absent parents, and poverty – highlighting their challenges as well as their strengths.
Replies like: “I wish my teacher knew I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework,” and, “…that my dad works two jobs and I don’t see him much,” flooded in.
Troubles with parents, maybe the only opportunities for the children to speak about them: “I wish my teacher knew that sometimes my reading log is not signed because my mom isn’t around a lot,” and “… how much I miss my dad because he got deported to Mexico when I was 3 years old and I haven’t seen him in six years.”
Another said, “I wish my teacher knew that my mom might get diagnosed with cancer this week and I’ve been without a home 3 different times this year alone.”
“…that my family and I live in a shelter,” wrote another, just one of several in a similar situation.
Schwartz explained that many of the children in her class were living below the federal poverty line, with 90% of them qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunch.
Having taught hundreds of kids over the years, Schwartz’s eyes were opened to the secret lives of her pupils.
“I wanted to know more about their lives and how I could better [support] them,” she explained, “Instead of making assumptions about them, I decided to let them tell me what I needed to know.”
But it also gave them the opportunity to reach out to her as an educational leader.
One child wrote, “I wish my teacher knew not everyone learns the same way, and I wish they knew other people take longer to learn other things,” while others expressed an ambition “to learn more about history" and even “to go to college.”
A collection of the handwritten student notes with research into the shocking reality of child poverty was released as a full book by Schwartz.
On Twitter, the hashtag #IWishMyTeacherKnew has given a platform for a movement of teachers around the world to share the profound, enlightening, and heartbreaking stories of their own students.
Our children are our future. We must never forget to let them be heard. Please share this story so that more children can know they are not alone.