United Tribes NewsA Cradle in the Classroom
Creating a Positive Learning Environment for Student Mothers
By Tanya M. Spilovoy
27 January 2009
Before having my own baby, I had little tolerance for family-child excuses. School was the most important thing. I did not make many exceptions for sick kids, spousal issues, daycare problems, etc. When I had my own son, everything changed. I suddenly realized that while work and school were important, my child was by far the most precious thing in my life. I immediately developed a new understanding and empathy for my student mothers. This essay explores the challenges, difficulties, and rewards for women of having children while pursuing a career and educational dream. It shows practical ways I have made my teaching more child-friendly and how it has positively impacted the educational experience of my female students.
Sahel stood at my desk, her eyes barely visible under her tightly-wrapped hajib as she stared down at the floor. “Sorry I wasn’t here yesterday Teacher,” she said. “My little boy was sick and I had to take him to the emergency room last night.” Her words burned hot in my head…another stupid excuse for missing class. Sahel had given many other reasons for previous absences: a missed bus, an illness, a problem with her landlord. I was tired of hearing them. I didn’t care if the excuses were true or not.
Although I knew that life in the US was difficult for my adult English Language Learners — poverty, difficulty communicating, discrimination, homesickness, culture shock, and post-traumatic war syndrome—I knew that learning English and earning a high school diploma would give them a chance to succeed. Sahel spoke very little English, and her education had been disrupted by war in Somalia and her subsequent flight as a refugee. She didn’t seem to understand the desperation of her situation. She had not turned in one assignment, and it was already week three of the semester.
“Well,” I said coldly, my disapproval clearly visible, “You are currently failing this class. You are never here. Excuses aren’t going to help you get through school!” Her indignant eyes shot to mine, full of tears, hurt, and anger. “He was in the hospital, Teacher. He is still very sick with pneumonia. I can bring you a doctor’s note. School is not the most important thing in the world.”
The meaning of her words struck hard. School was my life. During the day, I taught English as a Second Language in an inner-city grade school. Then I drove through rush-hour traffic to teach another four hours at an all-ESL adult high school for new immigrants. I was working hard to pay off my student loans, a new car, and finally buy the things I had always wanted. But I was also teaching because I loved the work. I felt needed, validated-- like I was making a difference in the world. And there stood a young mother with completely different priorities, telling me that I was wrong.
“Well, just try to be here. You can still turn in your assignments for partial credit,” I stammered, uncomfortable, trying to quickly remedy the situation. But it didn’t help; Sahel never came back to my class. I saw her in the hall a few times throughout the semester. I asked about her son and when she was coming back, but she was evasive. I found out later that she had transferred to another English class.
At a young age, I was aware that boys had more opportunities than girls. Education was not offered freely to the women in my family. My uncles were given cars and tuition. My mother got a sewing machine and was encouraged to get married. At age 28 she went to back to college while working and taking care of a family. She knew that education was the way to independence and self-fulfillment--and she drilled that concept into my head. I wanted to seize every advantage for myself, but I also wanted to empower other women to follow the same path. For me, school had always been the most important thing …until the day my son, Dakota Sky, came along.
I taught twelve hours the day I went into labor. At 3 a.m., on the way to the hospital, I called my principal’s voice mail and listed all of the things that needed to be finished in my absence. I had this baby “thing” all planned out. The baby would just have to fit into my busy schedule. Little did I know that he had a completely different plan. Somewhere between diaper changes and watching his little eyes flutter to sleep at nap time, I realized that nothing else in the world was as important as this precious, helpless, brown-eyed boy. My priorities had to change.
At the end of my maternity leave, I went part-time and quit my night teaching job. I gave up the $20,000 in wages because taking Dakota for walks, to baby yoga, story time, and cuddling were more important than money.
Dakota is two years old now. Until recently I taught English at United Tribes Technical College--a cultural, community, and family-centered Native American Tribal College. The majority of my students were parents. Most are also employed. And I realize that school isn’t the most important thing to them either—the welfare of their children and families comes first. So I adapted my teaching philosophy to make education work for them by making my classroom a child-friendly environment. My office phone rang while I sat reading student essays last October, and a quiet, worried voice asked, “Hi Tanya, this is Cree. My baby Nayln is sick today, and his daycare wants me to pick him up. What should I do?” Instinctively, I said, “If he’s not too sick, you can just bring him to class with you.” And she did. I taught a short lesson; then I held Nayln and gave him a bottle while Cree finished her final project with her collaborative group. Cree didn’t miss her class, and the other students enjoyed seeing the tiny visitor.
Since then, other students occasionally brought their kids to class in an emergency. A few times, parents have had to take their children out of class for a short break. But most of the time, the kids were hardly noticeable. I kept a basket of crayons, toys, fruit snacks, and Play-doh by my office door to encourage parents to come to me for help—even if they don’t have a babysitter. My students knew they could call ahead and get assignments, attend other sections of the same class or submit assignments by e-mail in a crisis. One student, Jackie, had her baby mid-semester and still got a B+ on the final test because of the afternoons I spent tutoring her. She came by every few months to visit and show off her beautiful baby girl.
I know I can’t go back and change what happened with Sahel. But I can make sure that the women I teach now feel empowered to achieve their educational goals without neglecting their families. The result is increased attendance and retention rates as well as better rapport with students. There are definitely times when my office looked more like a daycare than a college, but I was happy to pick up the toys, knowing that their mothers came back to learn again tomorrow.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tanya Spilovoy is a teacher, writer and mother. She graduated from Hamline University with a MAEd in Education with an Emphasis in English as a Second Language. She taught at grade schools, high schools, and universities in Beijing, PR China, Minnesota, and until recently, was an English Instructor at United Tribes. This essay has been selected to be published in the forthcoming book: Empowering Women through Literacy: Views from Experience, which is part of the series, Adult Education Special Topics: Theory, Research & Practice in Lifelong Learning, Mev Miller, Ed.D. and Kathleen P. King, Ed.D. (eds.).