Poverty: A Teacher's Perspective
The Signs of Poverty at School
The signs of poverty at school are easy to recognize. Students may not have supplies. They may not be clean or arrive on time. They may lack confidence and come with a disconnect between hard work and the belief that it creates success. Young people living in poverty are often less likely to ask friends to visit. Their parents may be less involved in school. The signs are easy to recognize, but difficult to deal with.
The challenge that school officials deal with lies in the realization that there are many effects of poverty happening simultaneously. The accurate statement often recited is, "We do what we can can while we have them here." We can't change family income or alter parent values in most cases. We can deal with the visible signs that we see at school. Daily things such as school supplies, cleanliness, confidence, work ethic, social struggles and parent apathy are all enough to cause a feeling of being powerless.
Teachers and administrators can feel overwhelmed. With so many things working against some students it often feels that what they do to counter poverty has little effect. In a busy classroom, we focus on one thing at a time. There are just too many things going on. We get them school supplies, but they don't arrive on time. We work very hard to build their confidence up and they are ridiculed for the way they dress or not invited to a birthday party. We painstakingly show kids how their hard work brings success and they forget to due their homework because of last night's chaos at home. It feels like one step forward... two steps back. We try hard. We get tired. We wonder if we are making a difference in these kids that need us most.
Recognize Success Along the Way
When a situation is stacked against us, we need to notice the small gains. A baseball team trailing by 8 runs gets excited when a teammate hits a three run homer. An interception returned for a touchdown is celebrated even when the score is 28-7. These moments of success feed the momentum for the next play. Schools need to do a better job of celebrating moments of success such as: improving attendance, homework return rate, parent communication, and all those moments in time when students feel empowered to become successful through hard work. It is after all, the ability to work hard and advance that breaks the cycle of poverty. I believe there are four key areas to address that when celebrated are a catalyst for increasing communication:
1. strong on time attendance
2. assignment completion and steps of success
3. takes care of self and supplies (clean, has backpack, organized)
4. social success
5. as we work on the first four we have momentum to increase parent communication
When we communicate, we will undoubtedly need to be straight in sharing negative information as well. We need to be honest about discipline and lack of progress when needed. Yet, with regard to helping kids cope with and rise above poverty, the foremost issue is momentum. This means momentum for the student, momentum for the parent/significant adult, and yes the teacher.
Keeping Score in Schools
We need to keep score along the way. If we are to "chip away" when the deck is stacked against us, we need a mechanism to keep track of our progress. A student (maybe a group of students) that are two years behind grade level with all the signs of poverty feels like a football game with a 30-0 score at half time. There is a limited amount of time, a team of players to work with, and an expected outcome by which you will be judged. The coach of the football team rallies his players and coaches. They work together. And....the football team does something that schools don't. They celebrate all the moments in which they don't score, but played the game right. this is not to say that teachers don't pat kids on the back and give praise for small successes. They do. But teachers/administrators don't celebrate their small professional successes very well. Our government leaders and media don't help with this either.
Momentum......it works for us or against us. It is up to us to create the positive energy for momentum that moves us forward.
There is a ton of emphasis on academic standards and achievement. After all, schools are meant to teach skills and knowledge. I believe that kids who are stuck in poverty are in this predicament in small part because of academic access and delivery. Kids and parents are there mostly because they don't think they can succeed. They have given up. They don't feel like they belong with high achievers in school or work. Trying to succeed on a personal level and generational level has become fatiguing. Helping kids get beyond this is not quick. Over the course of a year or more, it is fatiguing for school personnel. It is all about momentum. We need to keep track of kid success like being on time, assignments done to a set of expectations, or clean and ready (a nurse or counselor can help). These should be shared with parents for momentum. We also need to keep track of teacher success such as "got supplies for all", "improved scores for all", "conference turnout",and "contacted all parents." Keeping score along the way is they key to momentum. Momentum either works for us or against us. It is up to us to add the positive energy for momentum to move us forward. The funny thing about momentum is that as it builds, it is is easier to add to it. Yes, we need to set and teach academic standards. Momentum will get kids believing in "life" and believing through experience that they will "win the day". Those pesky academic standards will be the tools to succeed as they see and believe in the possibilities for the future.