This article was written by an Auckland intermediate school teacher who asked not to be named to protect the identity of her students.
OPINION: Our kids living in poverty are making the toughest choices. I remember a student who had returned a permission slip for a swimming trip, and said she’d bring the money when her mum got paid. The day of the trip arrived, and she didn’t turn up. We phoned home and her mum didn’t know anything about it. It turned out she’d forged her mum’s signature, knowing she couldn’t afford it, and was hiding in the park, thinking she’d just be marked as ‘absent’.
Kids shouldn’t have to worry about these things – but for too many Kiwi kids, this is their reality. They choose not to burden their families with extras because they don’t want their parents to feel bad. They get resourceful and start to try and survive on their own. And you shouldn't be thinking about survival at this age. It’s really upsetting for staff because we’ll always find a way to help – teachers will pay for trips themselves – but kids don’t want to be seen as ‘poor’, so they don’t speak up.
They worry because they see the awful choices their parents are having to make. Some families are paying $750 a week for a basic three-bedroom house. They have almost nothing left after their rent. So, anything else is a luxury if you can afford it – enough food, or school uniforms, or petrol, or power. We have kids turning up to breakfast club who haven’t had dinner the night before. We ring home and check why kids aren’t at school, and they can’t afford a bus pass.
A lot of our families are on pre-paid power, so when the money runs out, they have no power, no hot water, they’re not able to wash their clothes. Kids don't come to school because their clothes aren't clean. We've got washing machines here, but they're of an age where it's embarrassing. You can hide your poverty at home, hide the shame, hide from the judgement.
For some we only know the extent of their struggle when they come to pay things with WINZ cards and we see $10,000 or $20,000 in debt from emergency housing, or dentistry, or medical care. You know they can never pay it back.
Some families move in together to share the rent – but then you get 14 or 15 people sharing one bathroom, kids on mattresses on the lounge floor. That doesn’t help with students’ health – we see respiratory issues, boils, and it’s partly why Covid cases are spreading so rapidly.
It’s pretty scary right now. Hundreds of our students have Covid or are isolating. And parents really can’t afford to be sick. They work nights and multiple jobs just to survive. Supermarket stocks are really low out here; the more economical products are in high demand, so they are having to spend a lot more on food. They just can’t get back on their feet. We’ve also seen an increase in need around our middle-income earners, who don’t qualify for a lot of assistance.
We do all we can to help. It’s on your mind constantly. We work hard to make sure we have good relationships with our families. During the last two years of lockdowns, they turned to school for support, and didn’t feel ashamed to contact us and say they were struggling. We delivered parcels of KidsCan food and whatever else we could access.
As schools, we’ve really become a full wrap-around service. Our end game is to ensure all our students attend school regularly, so we can help set them up for success in the future. But kids can’t learn if we don’t attend to their basic needs first. It’s a lot more than teaching, and we need all the help we can get.
Help from charities like KidsCan have taken some of the tough choices away from our kids. We used to have siblings missing school because it “wasn’t their turn” to wear the only pair of shoes. Now we have shoes we can give out, and warm jackets, and snacks that the kids can help themselves too in the classroom without feeling whakamā (shame), or food they can line up to get at the canteen, like anyone else who is purchasing things. We have seen a real increase in attendance because of the ability to provide these products at school. And to see a child’s face when they’re handed a hot lunch, or a brand-new pair of shoes, or a warm jacket, no questions asked, I can assure you that look of joy never gets old.