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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Sawyer

Who Will Teach Clara How to Read?

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Following up on our video clip last week — a glimpse at what education during a pandemic looks and sounds like for many — I wanted to write about Clara.

I am lucky enough to have a house-cleaner, Sylvia, who comes twice a month to clean up after me and set our cluttered lives in order. She arrives early in the morning, accompanied by her mother, who cleans with her, and her daughter, Clara. Clara, six years old, gallops in the front door, all smiles and frills and pigtails, asking if my kids are home today.

Chatting happily, she sheds her purple parka and plunks herself down at the dining room table, little legs dangling from a too-big chair, and starts to pull markers and paper and a small laptop from her pink backpack. Her mom plugs in her computer, still trying to get a few bites of a to-go breakfast in her before her school day begins, while Clara writhes in her chair, asking where Gus is (the dog) and when my kids might be down from their rooms. I break it to her that they have online school, too, and may not appear for a while, but she’s delighted to know that they’re in the vicinity.

Scrambling to stay ahead of Sylvia and her mother who take on the house like a SWAT team, I head to the kitchen to make sure it’s ready for them. From a room away, I give a little jump as I hear Clara’s “class” begin—a cacophony of tinny voices, a clatter akin to pans being clanged together, emerges from her laptop, and I wince at the thought of having to be any closer than a room away. Children’s voices, all shrieking or talking or just ululating tumble over each other, and behind them, way in the distance, I hear the cheerful, energetic efforts of a young-sounding teacher saying things like, “Ok, kids, now it’s time to put your markers away.” She sounds well-intentioned, determined, patient, kind; my heart goes out to her—she wanted to teach little kids, not entertain them via Zoom, and by now she must be frustrated, worn out and weighted down by the uselessness of what she’s attempting.

As I pass back through the dining room, Clara chats with me as though her class is nothing but boring background noise, and I whisper to her that I hope she’s muted. She clearly feels no connection to this enforced daily event, and she’s bored out of her mind. “Come read with me,” I invited her the other day, and took her to the living room with a few of my kids’ old favorites: Going on a Bear Hunt and Good night Moon. I’ve kept them on the bookshelves, in case a child should ever visit, and they’ve finally come in handy.

I don’t think that Clara is used to being read to, and she squirmed and talked and eventually ran around the living room while I read on, happily caught up in my memories of reading to my own pajama-clad kids years ago. But when I closed the book, Clara was instantly at my side. “Read me another story!” she implored, her gap-toothed smile five inches from my face. Eventually, as I stood up to get back to my own work, she was beside me, not wanting me to leave, not wanting to be sent back to the inattentive and indifferent world of her computer screen.

Asking Sylvia about Clara’s schedule, I was horrified to discover that she is expected to sit in front of her screen until 3:30pm. “She doesn’t like school at all,” her mom lamented, and I scoffed inwardly at the expectation that any child should sit so long in front of a screen.

When my kids come downstairs for breakfast or a break from classes, Clara lights up and follows them to the kitchen where they chat with her and indulge her requests for toast or sugar-filled coffee or whatever she can dream up to keep their attention. “Can you help her with her alphabet?” her mom asked my son one day as she passed by with buckets and mops. “She can’t even write her name.”

And so, I find myself wondering who is going to help little Clara and all the kids like her? By the time this school year ends, she will have missed a year and half of actual education—the second half of Kindergarten and all of 1st grade-- and will be entering 2nd grade, unable to read or write. She will have had no socializing with her peers, no kind teacher leaning over her shoulder, correcting her grip on a pencil or showing her the lines and swoops of letters. She will not have held a book or roamed a classroom or enjoyed a recess with her little peers for as long as she can remember. Her mom, well-intentioned and kind, has her hands full; a single mom, she cleans three houses a day, her daughter in tow, and likely doesn’t have much left in her to be a teacher at the end of the day, even if her daughter would permit it.

Clara is one of millions of kids in the same situation. She happens to be a nomadic student, traveling with her mom and grandmother to the different houses they clean, making her day’s home at this or that’s stranger’s table. Her clattering classroom travels with her from house to house, and she has learned where to sit in each one, where to find a plug for her computer, where she can hope for interaction with other young people and where she can’t; a dreary life for a little kid with none of the benefits of true education.

The debate over whether or not U.S. schools should have opened more fully during the pandemic is a complicated one and, let’s face it, in such circumstances there are no great options. Other countries have managed education differently, however, and in many instances kids’ lives have been much less disrupted.

This morning, The New York Times reported that approximately half the kids in the U.S. are still not doing in-person schooling, and over the months we’ve read about the toll that this is taking on students and entire families. Kids with learning issues suffer considerably, deprived of the in-person supports they desperately need and typically receive at school; and a range of mental health issues are on the rise in youngsters, along with suicide and suicide attempts. Some states, cognizant of how kids need to be in school, are now putting teachers at the front of the vaccination line, with hopes of reopening classrooms soon.

Given that in the U.S., most decisions related to education happen at the state and district level, we have no single approach to education—its funding, its content or its caliber. We’re a country of extremes, never more apparent than in education where public schools that most of us would consider unusable inhabit one end of the spectrum and outstanding institutions at the other.

Overall, I believe that education has not received the universal focus and support in this country that it needs and deserves, especially if we consider ourselves a forward-thinking or enlightened nation, and the test performance of U.S. students corroborates this; despite attempts to improve scores by our students, the U.S. remains at best middle of the global pack in terms of how well we are teaching our kids. ( U.S. Students Show No Improvement in Math, Reading, Science on International Exam) and (What 2018 PISA international rankings tell us about U.S. schools)

As we head, hopefully, towards the end of school closures and back towards the realm of “normal,” we have a moment to rethink our approach and also a huge task ahead of us: tending to all the kids out there who have spent the last year staring into the lifeless screens that we were trying to wean them from before the pandemic. We will need to backtrack and actually provide the education they never received. In the case of our youngest students, we’ll need to remember that they were never actually taught their numbers except online, that they never developed that pincer grip already so elusive in an age of “swiping,” and that they never learned how to behave in a classroom. When and how will we catch them up?

I think of little Clara and wonder who will actually teach this child to read? When and from whom will she learn to make her letters and write a little story for the first time, illustrated with crayons and markers on a nice big piece of paper? When will she sit in a circle with her classmates and sing a song, a rite of early development so fun and so critical? Most importantly, when and how will she be made to feel that she exists for her society and her teachers as a valuable and individual little soul whose future is precious and worth cultivating?


Elizabeth Sawyer

Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.


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