In my first year of teaching in an elementary school, I had an old veteran teacher assigned as a mentor. Part of her job was to observe the interaction between myself and the students. The school was in a severely economically depressed area. The students came to school without any of the necessary school supplies like paper and pencil. Many were hungry and faced the possibility of homelessness nearly every day. Because it was a neighborhood school, most of the students walked from their homes to school. It was not unusual for a student to be approached by a drug dealer. Overall, it was a huge cultural shock for me. I had left a successful business to become a teacher. Though I was aware of the poverty in my city, I had no experience or no idea what poverty was really like.
Determined to make a difference in the lives of these students, I called on my former business contacts to provide necessities for the students. Frequently, I paid anonymously for the things my students needed. After observing me for some time, the veteran teacher who grew up in the neighborhood and was well known by the parents pulled me aside and said to me something I never forgot. "Unless you are planning to adopt all of these children, you need to rethink what you are doing." She went on to tell me that the adults in the neighborhood appreciated my efforts but wished I had consulted with them first or made the donations appear as if they came from the parents or school. Lesson learned.
I share this story to say that the base of the pyramid of Maslow's theory is basic needs. Maslow identified these as physiological (food, water, housing) and safety (security). As educators, we should have compassion and, whenever possible, provide for children entrusted in our care. The point my mentor was making is that students come to school for less than half the year and only a few hours each day. Nearly eighty percent of the time, students spend their waking and sleeping hours in a drastically different environment than the space educators create for students. The reason Maslow is less applicable to education is educators are unable to fulfill the role that fills the needs of the base of the pyramid consistently. We can contribute, but educators have no way to make sure the physiological and safety requirements are met. Yes, creating a safe environment in the classroom is critical. Educators should evaluate the class from this perspective, and consciously keep the classroom as free from distraction, chaos, and disorder as possible. Young children already bear too much of that in their lives, and school should be the safest place possible.
Meeting the needs of children is a delicate balance. The first responsibility of an educator is to educate. Educators may not have the resources to sustain the long-term physical and safety needs of children. The classroom is a safe space, but at some point, children return to the real world, which is not as nurturing, caring, or giving. Maslow's theory fails to recognize how little control over physiological and safety issues educators have.