Hungry Students

“Mr. Spencer, we don’t have enough breakfasts for the whole class,” a kid complains. I double-check the numbers. Zero absent on Cocoa Puffs day, which means that unlike yogurt day, they’re all having breakfast. 

A boy pulls me aside and points to a classmate.”She took two.” 

“But she doesn’t even have one,” I say. 

Reluctantly, I ask her about it. She tells me that she doesn’t have one, because she hates Cocoa Puffs. I ask her to open the backpack. Sure enough, she has two breakfast bags. I take her outside and ask her to tell the whole story. 

She cries. “They’re for my younger brothers. I really thought we had extra, I swear.” 

It is in moments like this that I am tempted to say, “School doesn’t matter when you’re hungry” or “suddenly linear equations feel irrelevant.” In moments like this, I have a tendency to let discipline slip or require a little less work on assignments.

However, I deliberately avoid this temptation. See, hunger is horrible, but that doesn’t take away the value of an education. Instead of becoming more permissive or making excuses as a teacher, I will continue to treat her as a person who possesses an amazing mind. I will show empathy. I will talk to the administration and try to get her the help she needs. But I will also teach her linear equations and persuasive techniques and reading strategies. 

When she talks out of turn, I still correct her. When her work isn’t up to her potential, I encourage her to revise it. I have a nagging sense that I should go easy. I second-guess myself. 

At the end of the day, she pulls me aside. “Thanks for treating me normal.” 

I’m not suggesting teachers ignore hunger or the policies that influence it. Neither am I suggesting that teachers pretend that hunger doesn’t affect behavior and learning. Instead, I’m suggesting that hungry students often want a chance to be normal and that’s one of the best things a teacher can offer. 


John Spencer

John Spencer

Phoenix, Arizona

In my sophomore year of college, I began tutoring a fifth-grader in a Title One, inner city Phoenix school. What began as a weekly endeavor of teaching fractions and editing essays grew into an awareness of the power of education to transform lives. My involvement in a non-profit propelled a passion for learning as an act of empowerment.

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