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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: A teacher can rescue wayward students

  • Lory Walker Peroff

    Lory Walker Peroff

By Lory Walker Peroff

The email from my husband read simply “bad news.”

It was followed by an announcement by our governor that the state would soon be furloughing teachers. This meant that teacher’s income would be cut significantly. Living in a state where teacher salary barely keeps me afloat, I knew that many teachers, including myself would need to make some very hard decisions. Yes, this was very bad news not only for myself but for teachers, students, and our whole community.

I shouldn’t be surprised. Due to the pandemic, Hawaii has been essentially closed to tourists. Hawaii’s economy, not particularly diverse, relies heavily on tourist dollars that had stopped flowing into the state. When the state needed to make cuts, historically, education has been at the top of the chopping block.

After the disheartening news, my thoughts kept circling back to Mr. Figinski.

It was a story I had heard many times before. A student was kicked out of private school in eighth grade. Disciplinary reasons cited. He was enrolled in a public school in ninth grade where the disciplinary problems persisted. This struggling student then proceeded to fail ninth grade and was forced to repeat. As his behavior worsened he was placed in a special class for “at risk” students.

During the school year, an English teacher, Mr Figinski, recognized something special in this student. While belligerent, Mr. Figinski also noticed the student was articulate and intelligent. Mr. Figinski, undaunted by the student’s bravado, took the time to talk to the student and got to know his interests. Based on what he learned, he gave the student a book to read. It was Durango Street, a story about juvenile gangs. The student devoured it. Mr Figinski then invited the student to try out for the school production of Durango Street. The student accepted and took the starring role. This built the students’ confidence and set him on a new path.

After the play, the student started to apply himself in the classroom. Under Mr Figinski’s mentoring, he graduated his second tour of ninth grade on the Honor Roll. He continued on to finish high school with honors.

Today the student is in his mid-60s, is the father of four, grandfather of 11, and is fighting Stage 4 prostate cancer. He is also the founder and president of a company that has helped tens of thousands of middle school and high school boys stay out of trouble through sports.

The student in this story is my father.

I think of all the students like my father who in some small or big way owe their lives to a teacher. In light of the impending furloughs, how many great teachers, without adequate income to support themselves and their families, will be forced to leave the profession they love and the students they serve? How many students will lose their “Mr. Figinski”?

Now more than ever, our students need “Mr. Figinskis.” With the pandemic raging on, students of all ages all over our state are suffering. Students are reporting higher rates of depression and anxiety. Families are scrambling to navigate online learning. Many parents needing to work have no choice but to leave students to navigate online schooling without support. Many students have families directly impacted by the virus. How, at a time like this, could we possibly furlough teachers?

How long will it take for our state to realize that hurting teachers doesn’t just negatively impact teachers alone? The impact of teachers is in every fold of our society. The lives that teachers touch cause a ripple effect throughout our entire state.

It is time for state legislators to stand up for education. It is time that all teachers got paid a liveable wage. When teachers are at risk our entire state is at risk. For the sake of the future of our state, it is time to protect our teachers and stop furloughs.

Lory Walker Peroff is a fourth-grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow alumna. She lives in Honolulu with her husband and two energetic, curious daughters.

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