Poverty touches many people at some time in their lives. In the classroom, educators come into daily contact with its shadow, whether the worry and struggle at home reveals itself in missing assignments, hygiene, acting out or impaired learning.
According to the Southern Education Foundation, the United States reached a troubling new milestone recently: A majority of public school children (51%) are now considered low-income. While changes in the school lunch subsidy program may account for some of the increase, the bottom line is that poverty is an important issue in education.
What can you, as an educator, do about this systemic ill beyond go to work every day and do the best job you can?
Although you may be helpless to change your students’ family circumstances, you do have the power to deepen your empathy.
Empathy strengthens your relationships with students and families and makes you a more effective ally. Hidden biases, misconceptions and unexamined attitudes about poverty can compromise your sense of empathy. “People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude,” says author and speaker John C. Maxwell.
Many universities have created poverty simulation exercises and workshops to help their students in social services, education, psychology and health care better understand the experience of poverty. Live58, a nonprofit organization devoted to ending extreme poverty has created a game, Survive125, that presents the gamer with typical choices that people living in poverty make every day
Paul Gorski, author of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap, says that educators cannot understand the relationship between poverty and education without understanding the biases and inequities experienced by people in poverty. Class disparities in education are the results of inequities, he believes, not the result of a “poverty culture.”
Many of us have simply acquired our beliefs and attitudes about poverty without really examining or challenging them. One important thing educators can do is to become more aware of these beliefs and attitudes and examine poverty from different perspectives. For example, educators can view poverty from a larger economic perspective and social justice perspective and also try to focus on the resilience of children in challenging circumstances rather than focusing on deficits.