On the other end of the phone, Katrina Miller’s voice is poignant, her responses thoughtful. The sound of flipping paper and scribbling is clearly audible. She’s grading papers during our interview.
Katrina Miller teaches first grade at a Title I school on the west side of Chicago, and also holds her grade level chair, which means she helps oversee other teachers on her team. She begins by recounting her first semester student teaching as an education major, at what she described as a fairly privileged, suburban school in Kentucky:
“Just put in your time and you’ll get the ‘good kids,’ or the AP kids”—this was the advice she recalls receiving from the teacher she was partnered with. “It made me so mad that I [thought], I can’t work within the system. Forget this; I’m done.”
Her alternative was AmeriCorps, where she taught at her first Title I school and found a system she resonated with. Miller thought, “This is the kind of school I want to be at, because I have this very deep belief that it doesn’t matter where a child lives or what they’re born into—they deserve access to a quality education. The reality is that most inner city schools or Title I schools—whether they’re out in the middle of nowhere in a poor, rural region, or inner city—they deserve quality education, and that’s just not happening.”
Her deep belief in more equitable access to education actually began in Chicago with her family. Her mother immigrated from Hong Kong to the States, not speaking any English. Her mother’s whole family stayed in the Chicago area, and eventually she got married and built a life. When Katrina entered the picture, despite both of her parents working, they couldn’t afford to live in a “nice” school district there. In the States, schools are funded by taxes from their respective neighborhoods, meaning the area in which a child lives determines the kind of education they receive—a more wealthy area means more tax money, more funding, and more quality education. The opposite is also true.
"The reality is that most inner city schools or Title I schools...they deserve quality education, and that’s just not happening.”
“Ultimately, my mom decided to leave everything she was familiar with… [to move] to a really white suburb in Indiana, far away from my parents’ support systems, because my mom didn’t want us to become a statistic,” Miller explained, a heaviness in her tone.
So she grew up in the suburbs, going to visit family in Chicago periodically. She recalls being envious of her cousins in light of the teasing she and her siblings received for being biracial—her cousins never experienced that, living in a diverse area.
“Why is it that you have to sacrifice being around other people who understand your language and your culture, just so your kids can get a quality education?” she mused, “I’m thankful for that, and I’m thankful my parents did that. But I never want any other families to feel like they need to leave their support systems to do that.”
After her experience with AmeriCorps, Miller was determined, so she went to get her Masters and started working with KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) Public Charter Schools in St. Louis. Toward the end of her two years there, the pandemic began, and she recalled calling the homes of her 30 students to see who had devices or internet access for remote learning—two of the kids had Internet access, none had devices other than phones.
It served as an unfortunate glimpse of what lay ahead—that summer, she accepted her job with KIPP Chicago where she works today, and where she began her time navigating the pandemic and all the challenges that came with it.
“Everybody talks about how the pandemic was so hard for kids and set them back academically,” she noted, “but… the kids who are impacted the most, are of course the most vulnerable—the ones at the schools I work at.”
“The populations I work with, they didn’t have access to internet, didn’t have access to computers or tablets to do online work. [These] families don’t have a library at home for kids to read,” she explained. “So essentially, for half a school year, kids were doing no academics. And these are kids who are already behind their peers.”
Alongside food insecurity also being a concern for these populations—100% of the students in Miller’s school receive free breakfast and lunch, and some even take backpacks of food home over the weekend—many parents and family members were included in the population of essential workers, who were not only the most overworked, but also the most at-risk, especially before vaccinations or masking were options or norms.
"At that point, I was much more a listening ear or a counseling figure in their life than any sort of academics. And that’s just what they needed.”
“So here we are trying to talk to a kid about a math problem they did on a packet, when their auntie or their grandma or whoever, is getting really sick or hospitalized… I’ve honestly lost count of how many parents, grandparents we’ve lost in our school family due to COVID.” The additional challenge of this was the natural absence of working parents, which then created rhythms of children caring for other children—six-year-olds taking care of infant or toddler siblings, all while ‘in class.’
“I felt really helpless,” Miller described. “At the end of the day, what I can do… is that I can talk to them, and they can share all their burdens with me, and somebody will just listen. And so at that point, I was much more a listening ear or a counseling figure in their life than any sort of academics. And that’s just what they needed.”
When in-class learning began again, she found her first graders to be more similar to preschoolers; they didn’t know letters or numbers, couldn’t read or write anything, couldn’t recognize their own name. Without at-home educational options or support, her students weren’t learning at all. Simply put, the educational gap had widened.
Circumstances have slowly balanced out—imperfectly, but with promise. Her students have the starting ground they need this year. Yet, for better or worse, the burden of the gap continues to rest on the teachers willing to stand in it.
“It’s just a daily fight of calling parents and making sure kids are here every day, because we need every instructional minute to get kids caught up.”
It’s a noble fight—and not without fruit, but a fight nonetheless. Miller describes watching a nearby affluent Chicago suburb spend $15,000 on new furniture, and in contrast remarks, “I buy my students their erasers, their whiteboard markers, their folders… I’m spending my own money to get them headphones for their computers. I don’t even have money for that, let alone to fix the desks that are broken in my room.”
She describes the drain on emotional resources, too, and the tension between teachers as any abdicated responsibility—a day off, for example—falls on one another, on already weary shoulders. The risk of burnout is heavy. A factor in this, as well as a motivation, is that the kids are—by her definition and largely by no real fault of their own—not easy.
“Why are you late? ‘Oh, my mom was too drunk to take me to school this morning.’ Things like that—that’s just common for the kids.” Miller gave this example, as well as kids lacking sleep over drunk and fighting parents. She also recounted what happens when lockdowns occur because of shootings in the area—the kids’ response is often their familiarity with the sound of gunshots: “Every kid in my class knows multiple people who have been shot and killed—that’s the reality that they’re living in. That trauma is present throughout everything.”
Yet, for whatever obstacles the kids face, there’s also the hope that comes in watching them conquer those barriers.
“I have this one student—I call him PacMan—this kid, in kindergarten, was a nightmare,” she says lightheartedly. “I had him slightly better. Now he’s in second grade. And this kid went from not knowing anything because of so many tantrums, to now… coming across the hallway in my class and being like, ‘Look, Miss Miller!’ and showing me As and Bs on his tests. That’s the stuff that you live for.”
Caring for first graders means she gets to watch her kids grow up, but often not bear witness to the potential long-term impact. She’s inspired by the redemption present in some fellow teachers at her school, many of whom grew up in the area themselves, and work now to provide the support they once lacked.
"These are their lives. These are their realities. They’re not asking for your pity. In fact, they don’t want your pity! But how about instead doing something actionable?"
“You don’t always see the long-term effects teaching first grade, because they’re so little… you plant a seed, and you hope they grow up to be an incredible adult, but I get to work with the adults that came out of the west side of Chicago… it gives you hope that what you’re doing really will make a difference for some of the kids.”
The difference to be made, however, comes with a specific vision and humility that Miller fears most people misunderstand. “‘Oh, this is so sad… You’re so great for coming and saving these kids’”—she mimics common responses to her work, and retorts, “These kids are so resilient, they’re going to make it whether I’m here or not… These are their lives. These are their realities. They’re not asking for your pity,” she laughs. “In fact, they don’t want your pity! But how about instead doing something actionable?”
Actions, she proposes, definitely include voting—a more long-term, slow change. More tangibly and immediately, she emphasizes donating extra coats or winter gear to schools, instead of Goodwill, in the winter. She also notes the need for uniform clothing. But also, simple partnership with schools and teachers by “making copies,” being a guest reader, or other ways of volunteering—“That’s huge. That makes so much impact on them.”
Miller laughs when I ask about what her parents think of this teaching environment, and remarks how her mom is concerned it could be dangerous and complains about how she works too much, but “she secretly loves these kids.” Her mom surprises her with hair bows in school colors to pass out to the girls, and enlists their church to get Christmas presents—and bags of food—for the kids. Her dad came to help her set up the classroom. She calls her dad every morning to pray over students. She says, “They appreciate my heart for the kids… and they spoil them, too.”
Our conversation draws to a close, and as she remarks, “If it wasn’t for the kids, I would not be doing this,” I hear paper flips more prominently. I finally realize she’s grading papers and ask about it, and we both laugh. She says, “I hope you don’t think that’s rude,” and keeps flipping with a chuckle.