Guess what? National Geographic emailed and asked if I wanted to join their team as an explorer!
Just kidding about that last part. But they really did email and asked what my thoughts are on the possibility of legislation being passed for schools to start later in the day. Have you heard the buzz about this issue? Basically, school-age kids aren’t getting the amount of sleep they need, which creates a whole slew of problems for them. There’s been a ton of research that supports the benefits of secondary schools starting later in the day, like 8:30-9:00-ish, yet very few (less than 1%) of school districts have actually made the switch.
If you had asked me during my first year of teaching how I feel about school starting later in the day because students are sleepy, I think I would have laughed out loud scoffingly, like Gaston from Beauty and the Beast and said something like, “Well maybe if the students went to bed earlier they wouldn’t be so tired!”
(I was cranky about 97% of the time during my first year.)
But now, with a few years under my belt, my answer is a little different.
First, let me be clear: I am a morning person. Through and through. At sleepovers growing up, I was always the kid who woke up before everyone else and either went to town on my friend’s bookshelf or crept into the kitchen and chatted awkwardly with the hostess’s parents. So, of all the things that are difficult about the teaching life, I’ve never really minded the waking up early part. In fact, I get to school about two hours early because I am way more productive in the mornings than I am after school. If I ran the world and everyone were exactly like me, schools would start at 6:15 so we could be out by 2:15.
But, luckily for you/everyone, I don’t run the world* and not everyone is exactly like me. I teach at a Title I middle school, where many of my students are at or below poverty level. Teaching has changed my life for about a kajillion reasons, but one of them is the way I handle kids falling asleep in my class. I don’t punish them anymore. Instead, I listen. “Hey, I noticed you were pretty sleepy today,” I’ll ask them later, privately. “Everything okay?” Sometimes it’s just a one-time thing—they just couldn’t fall asleep, or lost track of time watching YouTube the night before. But more often than not, it’s due to one of the following reasons:
- Some of my students don’t always have someone around to make sure they go to bed early. Sometimes it’s because the people who take care of them work night shifts or are elsewhere during the week. But even for the kids who do have someone making sure they go to bed at a certain time, kids having personal access to cell phones, TVs and video games makes it difficult for any parent to monitor how much sleep their child is getting.
- Many of my students live an environment where it’s difficult for them to get to sleep or stay asleep. Some of them have family members who encourage them to stay awake or are too noisy, playing music or having guests over into the wee hours of the morning in small apartments where the rooms are close together and the walls are thin. Others may have noisy neighbors right next door, or live in a neighborhood where emergency sirens on their street are nearly a nightly thing. Also, I have way too many students who are responsible for the care of their younger siblings. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a student tell me that the dark circles under their eyes are because their little brother or sister had a stomach virus the night before.
- Some of my students are having trouble sleeping because of stuff they have to deal with during the day. Bullying, domestic violence, unstable family situations, abuse, neglect, hunger, homelessness. This is just a short list.
I know that every teacher’s free time is precious, whether they have a family or not. I know that having another hour taken away from our evenings would be felt very keenly by all of us. But what if we didn’t have to look at it that way? What if having better-rested kids would actually make our jobs easier? What if starting later would cut down on failure rates, absenteeism, and other things that are so widespread at schools like mine, and are actually part of the reason that we have so much work outside of school hours? So, while I’m not totally psyched at the idea of not being able to beat rush hour traffic anymore, I am also aware that there’s more to this issue than me. Even though starting early might work for me, it’s clearly not working for my students. And I don’t get up and go to work every day so that I can learn to write an expository essay or so that I can tell the difference between there, they’re, and their. If they’re not getting enough sleep and there’s a way for us to fix it, we owe it to them and their success to try. (See what I did there?)
For more information on this issue from people way smarter than I am who don’t compare themselves to Disney villains, check out Sleepless in America, a TV special on the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, November 30th at 8 PM Eastern time. And here’s a short clip about the education part of it for you to take a gander.
What’s your take on all this? Holler at me.
*I mean, really, it would fall apart in about twelve seconds.