Teaching Children of Poverty

I teach at a school that is classified as a Title 1 School. That is, a high enough percentage of our children qualify for free or reduced lunch, that they don’t attempt to differentiate the kids. They all get the Title 1 funds and programs. Most are Hispanic (maybe 80%) the rest are mostly African-American with a few Anglo and others mixed in.

It’s interesting to watch new teachers come to our school and the adjustments they have to make to be successful. Some make the adjustments, some don’t. We tend to have a fairly high staff turnover, getting new teachers every year. Some can’t adjust to the student body, some adjust OK, but don’t last. One of the problems is getting experienced teachers to move to an at-risk school. It’s too hard. When I go to training events in the district and other teachers find out where I teach and how long I’ve been there, they look at me oddly. The perception that I have heard at one time or another is, that I must not be ABLE to get a job at a better school. If I was GOOD ENOUGH, I could transfer somewhere else.

The idea that someone might actually CHOOSE to stay and teach at my school is unfathomable for some. If you don’t understand the affects of poverty, then it’s hard to teach the kids. The students at my school might all come from approximately the same economic background, but their perception of that background is different, depending on which group they fall into, and the families perceptions don’t always match up with the perceptions of the (generally) white, middle class teachers.

As an example, an immigrant Hispanic family from central America who’s parents never completed middle school, are going to have a different perception of their life here than the middle class teacher. Compare the cramped, crowded apartment, to the living conditions where they came from, they don’t think they have a better place to live, they know it. We think college, they think high school. By their standards, any job that is a step up from the parents job is giving their child a better life. The family that wants to send the 5th grade daughter back home to Guatemala to help the ailing grandma run the family store is thinking on a whole different level, than the teacher that thinks the girl is throwing her life away by going. Many of the Hispanic families are lifting themselves up from poverty, just not at the same level or to the degree that an outsider might think they should. Ones ability to dream is limited by the past, you tend to set goals, based on your experience. For many, the idea of their child going to college is so far beyond their experience, that they can’t begin to set it as a realistic goal. It’s incomprehensible to them, beyond their experience.

On the other hand, the low income families who are not immigrant families tend to be low income for different and sometimes more complex reasons. But never-the-less, those reasons have an impact on the academic performance of the students. The teacher has the responsibility to try to overcome ANY limitations on what the child can learn or become, and has to do that within the framework of the school. The teacher has little influence on what goes on in a child’s life outside of school. And that perhaps, is the most frustrating thing about working with children of poverty. You have to be good enough to create the changes that will have an impact in how the child thinks, and what their parents think, about what they can do and become, and generally you only have about 6 hours a day, to facilitate that change.

Being a kindergarten teacher, is to be on the front line. It’s their introduction to school. Kindergarten and first grade set the tone and lay the foundations for all the rest of the child’s educational experience. If we do a good job, then they get off to a good start with a good foundation. The measure of that success is difficult to determine. How many high school seniors can tell you the name of their kindergarten teacher?

You live for days like this.


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