Katie M Smith Classroom Management Summer 2008 Christopher Dodge

Poverty in the Classroom
“Children are resilient, and a sensitive teacher can ameliorate the affects of poverty,” ~Shirley Aamidor, Ph.D. Professor of Education IU Kokomo
Poverty is an often overlooked, and very serious problem, and one that is quite personal to me, as I grew up well below the poverty line. According to the Institute for Research on Poverty, “In 2003, 12.9 million children in the U.S. under the age of 18, or more than one in six children, were living in poverty (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).” Poverty is never a child’s fault or responsibility, and yet it rests on their shoulders like the weight of the world. Children carry their poverty into every situation in their lives, including, and perhaps especially to the classroom. Many poor students are not as well prepared to learn as their classmates from more stable homes, and for a number of reasons. Issues like residential mobility and often changing schools, and poor nutrition can severely affect a child’s education. Furthermore, parents struggling to make ends meet are less likely to afford educational supplies that children need, from art supplies, to instruments, to the most basic necessities like clothes, pencils and paper, and are likely too distracted by the rigors of their lifestyle to have enough time or energy to actively engage in their children’s education. As a result of these factors, impoverished children can suffer socially and academically (Pellino, 2007). Poverty reaches into the hearts of its children, and causes them to feel less valuable than their classmates. That very attitude can lead students to strive less fervently than they should to achieve in the classroom despite the obstacles they face (Pellino,


2007). The attitudes of teachers, administrators, other students and community members can have a significant impact on a student’s confidence in the classroom. With that power, there comes a responsibility to use that impact to the benefit all of our students, and especially the less fortunate, in any way that we reasonably can. Mobility is a plight that has perhaps the greatest direct impact on the academic success of impoverished students. Americans, compared to other cultures, tend to move often anyway, but poor families tend to move around more than most, and usually to no great social or educational advantage. Whether it is to find cheaper rent, avoid old debts, or find a better job, many needy students will change schools a number of times before they reach the sixth grade (Crowley, 2003). Moving is a big deal whenever it occurs, and for poor families, it is less likely to be for celebratory reasons. However, the direct stress of moving is only one reason why constant mobility affects a child’s education.
“Although the effects of a single move on school performance may be not be immediately apparent, the cumulative effect of many moves and of missing lessons that teach core concepts upon which future lessons are built is devastating.” ~Sheila Crowley, 2003

Children’s school records are often incomplete from one school to the next. Teachers can have a difficult time estimating where a child is at in his or her learning, and might hence have a difficult time catching the child up to the rest of their class (Pellino, 2007). It is not uncommon for teachers to spend less time catching them up, because they see these students as just passing through. In just the opposite case, teachers with a high number of ultra mobile students might find that he or she spends so much time introducing new students to the classroom, that both the curriculum and the class as a whole suffer.


Children get used to moving so much and can become reluctant to make an effort socially or academically, knowing that their situation is so temporary. It is frustrating for educators to feel the burden of trying to motivate these students, and schools with highly transient student bodies tend to experience higher rates of teacher burnout (Crowley, 2003). Yet another plague of poverty is a severe lack of nutrition. I have heard various comedians make jokes about growing up poor, they like to laugh about the powdered milk and rice at every meal, but for many poor families, that is their reality. Often needy children come to school without a decent breakfast. In too many households, such a poor diet is a fact of life. Lack of proper nutrition decreases brain function, and depletes energy levels, and reduces children’s attention span, which in turn affects the overall quality of their schoolwork and education (Kendall, 2005). Among the many reasons that poor families have not been able to improve their lot, lack of education comes first. Students of any socio-economic status often find frustration in their assignments; they would not be worth doing if they were so easy. However, when a child’s parents are uneducated, and unable to help them with their assignments, homework can become a lost cause. Further frustration enters the equation when poor parents cannot provide their children with the basic tools they will need to complete their assignments; tools such as rulers, markers, dictionaries and encyclopedias, internet access, and calculators (Pellino, 2007). Students whose homes lack these basic tools are at a distinct disadvantage in comparison with their peers. It is here that we as teachers have the greatest need to show compassion and understanding. It is difficult enough on a student when they realize that they do not have the tools that they will need,


but when a teacher becomes impatient with a student because of this, it leads the student to even more feelings of valuelessness and incompetence. “When parents are personally overwhelmed with money and job issues, their children might come second in their attention. There’s little time for reading books with their children or socializing them.” –Shirley Aamidor (Indiana, 2004) Impoverished students tend to suffer in the classroom socially as well as academically. Educators are likely to struggle with behavioral issues even in the most peaceful classrooms, but when the stigmas attached to a low socio-economic status invade the psyche of the student body, these issues deepen. Misconceptions about poverty, such as that poor people are lazy, or that they have a poor work ethic lead to strong negative sentiments about those who suffer with this social disease. Such sentiments are often passively taught to children, and a subconscious resentment and mistrust toward one economic group from another can translate into bullying and social segregation in the classroom on either end of the equation There is a devastating gap in social empathy and understanding between the classes of our society. Because of the differences in household income, and subsequently the differences in lifestyle, separate social and economic classes have separate social and economic values and concerns. “Our students of poverty come to school without knowing how to use silverware. They often don’t know how to use the bathroom since many little boys have never seen urinals or bathroom stalls. Our children don’t know what lining up or walking to an activity is all about… Many have never looked at a book, nor has anyone read to them. We must take time to teach them the basic “howtos” in order for them to “survive” in our classrooms. The survival of which we speak … is one of being able to “make it” in school and also later in life. If our little ones are to learn to read and write, they must be taught how to get along… A child cannot be expected to know how to use a napkin if one is never a part of meals in his or her home. The truly egregious error would be to think that because they are poor they don’t deserve to be taught social skills.” ~Principal Judy Williams, 2006


So what are we doing right now to address this situation? As far as mobility is concerned, schools in Houston have started trying to negotiate with landlords in their district to run leases from summer to summer, to cut down on the number of moves in their district that occur during the school year (Crowley, 2003). Some schools have even resorted to mediating between their student’s families and the landlords, once again, to reduce the chance that that family will move during the school year. Many schools now offer breakfast programs in addition to their lunch program, to ensure that every student has a well balanced breakfast, to help them start the day off right. In my youth, I can remember when these programs were first implemented in my district, and I remember being very glad for them. While I never went without food at home, as I am sure some of my classmates did, the breakfast offered at school was generally of a much better quality and nutritional value than what was available at home. Many schools offer after school homework clubs, where students can have a quiet place to work on their assignments, and receive help if they need it. Here, kids can have access to resources such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, rulers, markers, and other tools that they likely will not have available to them at home. These clubs, being supervised by teachers and other volunteers, not only provide students with a quiet and well equipped place to study, but also with access to knowledgeable adults who can help them. This is perhaps the most valuable part of this program, as such low income parents are often either too tired from trying to make ends meet, or too uneducated to be of any help to their children in this capacity. Though I hold these programs in high regard, and appreciate the effort that they make to alleviate the symptoms of poverty for many children, they really only touch the


surface. The core issue here is the cycle of poverty, and the likelihood is that whatever general efforts schools make to provide life’s basic necessities, that those efforts alone will not change the lives, or indeed the attitudes of the students living in indigent conditions. There are many social factors that contribute to poverty. Situational poverty is poverty as the result of a situation such as a major health issue, divorce, or loss of a good job. Situational poverty is more easily recovered from, but it is hardly any less devastating on the child, and when it is not recovered from, it can do severe damage to the child’s chances of achieving academically. Generational poverty is often a result of children carrying on silently observed behaviors of their parents. In my own life, I have often observed that children of young parents tend to reproduce at a young age. Children who are born into this type of poverty are at an immediate disadvantage. They generally start life off with little to no access to quality healthcare. Further, they generally grow up missing out on valuable educational experiences such as reading with their parents from an early age, taking trips to educational places like museums, or even attending a decent preschool program (Pellino, 2007). It is a rare blessing for a child to rise up from such adverse conditions and succeed in life. There is a much greater likelihood that the indigent child will find themselves in the same position as their parent’s years down the road through a combination of unfortunate circumstances. Young and or single parenthood, combined with a lack of education, or low quality of education, leads to a continuance in the poverty that is the mother to so many of these factors; in other words, the cycle of generational poverty.


Other efforts are being made to address the lack of quality education for the poor on basic policy levels. Some cities have introduced school vouchers and school choice, so that those who live in poor neighborhoods can send their children to a better school. Vouchers have been a mixed blessing though, because everyone wants to send their children to the best schools, naturally, and that leaves the poor schools even worse off than before, and the wealthy schools flooded with too many students. With all of the efforts that we have made toward policies to improve education for the poor, we have yet to succeed in breaking the cycle. Almost every aspect of the school and community is affected by poverty, from the students and families who live with it, to the teachers who deal with all of the educational issues that it brings. Administrators who deal with poverty in their schools have as difficult of a time trying to support their teachers and at the same time, keep test scores high enough to receive adequate funding. More stable families are affected by the impact of all of the disruptions in learning brought about by high poverty rates in the classroom. And so it is to our own benefit as teachers and to the benefit of the community as a whole that we should help those that we can to the best of our abilities. The first step is to understand poverty for what it is; an unfortunate circumstance in which many people live. Sometimes it is certainly a result of poor choices, sometimes it is the result of a bad situation like divorce or death, or loss of a good job, or a major health crisis. Whatever the cause of a family’s poverty, a good education is the first step toward financial stability. It is important to remember that it is not the child’s fault, and we need to treat every child with all of the respect and understanding that they need to foster their growth and success in the classroom, regardless of our own prejudice.


Martin Haberman, a professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin, addresses a core issue relating to the way that we teach impoverished students in his paper “The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching (1991).” This paper discusses the fact that through all of our policy making to try and improve the educational lot of the poor, there is one main issue that we neglect, and that is the pedagogy of, or way of teaching, impoverished (urban) youth. The current accepted method, or what he calls ‘The Pedagogy of Poverty,’ he explains, relates mostly to giving information, assigning work, and giving grades. He discusses the fact that, not only is a teacher labeled as a rebel if they try to teach outside of this box, but they are likely to meet resistance from a student body so invested in this accepted, yet ineffective pedagogy. While Haberman’s paper is certainly passé, it is no less relevant, and his concerns are still very poignant today. Haberman points out that students are not willingly going to trade a system in which their compliance with the teacher directly translates as success for that teacher, ultimately putting the students in control, for one in which they actually have to accept responsibility for their own work, both in success and in failure. Teachers, above and aside from all other conditions, have an opportunity to foster in any and all of their students, not only a love of learning, but a belief in their own capacity that is so crucial to that students success in education, and in life. The first step in fostering that self-confidence is not the curriculum, and it is not the subject; it is making a connection with the student. Only when your student trusts you will he believe you when you tell him he can be more. Parental involvement requires the same type of connection. Many factors can make it difficult to make that connection with parents of low socio-economic status,


including the parent’s lack of transportation, lack of trust in the school system to begin with, or even lack of words, for parents who cannot speak English (Pellino, 2007). For this reason, we as educators must make an added effort to reach and connect with those families, because that relationship is so crucial to the success of the student. Let’s face it, parenthood doesn’t come with an instruction manual, and sometimes parents are at a loss for how to help their children succeed. Parents may not even realize the importance of their involvement in their children’s education, and might prefer leave it up to the professionals. But we cannot let that happen while there is still a chance to connect with those parents. “[Researchers] discovered that human relationships must take precedence over academics. They found that only if parents trusted teachers and felt accepted by teachers could the teachers stand a chance of getting through to them.” –McGee, 1996 (Pellino, 2007) Working to improve the lot of needy children is not the fun part of our job as educators, but it is perhaps the most important. Why else would we choose to be educators, if not to help all children succeed? A high poverty rate affects the entire educational community; hyper-mobility, lack of motivation, and behavioral problems are symptoms of poverty that disrupt the learning process for all students in the classroom. We as teachers have a unique opportunity to educate our students about diversity, including poverty, and to instill in them a sense of acceptance and respect for one another. “This is a great opportunity to include community service learning projects in the curriculum, such as volunteering as a class in a soup kitchen. It is important that these activities be followed with both group discussion and individual reflection to help children think critically about their experiences (Chafel, 1997; Gomez, 2000).” –Pellino, 2007


We need to remember to treat each student with all of the respect, and with all of the expectations that they deserve. We should not look at an indigent student and lower our expectations of them simply because they have fewer resources or even because that is what all of their other teachers have done. Students will only live up to the goals that we set for them, so let us set that bar as high as we can for everyone. In our classroom, we must maintain zero tolerance for bullying on the basis of diversity, or anything for that matter. We must set high goals for all of our students, and we must do our best to provide them with the tools they need to meet those goals, whether that is extra help with assignments, use of classroom resources, or creative solutions when those resources are not available. Above all, we must foster a safe and productive learning environment for all students. We need to try our best to bridge the gap between school, family, and community. This often requires more work for impoverished families, but it is no less consequential. And perhaps most importantly, we need to build in our students a sense of responsibility for their own achievement, and a sense of confidence that they can reach their goals. Very few of us are in a position to cure the poverty in our communities, but we can all do our best to alleviate the symptoms. If we can give these children a chance, a chance to believe in themselves and a chance to escape their disparate conditions, a chance to hope for their future, and a chance to achieve their goals and dreams, then perhaps we can change their world.


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