I was the principal of a very large, poor, rural elementary school for a few years. We can debate about which is worse, urban poor or rural poor, but suffice it to say that some of our children came from generations of poverty. During my first ride around the school district I saw that people lived in houses I didn’t recognize as houses. The school was 20 miles from the nearest town and the first time many of our kids went there was on a school field trip. I learned a lot from Ruby Payne.
I used to stand in the main hall and greet the kids every morning as they got off the buses. I remember vividly one morning in December when lots and lots of kids came running in the building wearing brand new sneakers that they couldn’t wait to show me. The sneakers were gifts from the local Lions Club at their annual Christmas party for kids. They could hardly believe their good fortune.
Many of the faculty, mainly women, had grown up in the general area, had gone away to the nearest state college, and had come back home to teach. Maybe it was because they were from the area. Maybe it was because they often married working men without a college education. Or maybe it was because it didn’t occur to them to even think it. But never, in the years I was principal, did I ever hear a faculty member say that the kids couldn’t learn because they were poor.
The district’s motto was, “All children can learn.” We were fortunate to have innovative leadership at the central office, people who were willing to support new initiatives in the classroom as long as it was economical. And one big benefit I had as principal was a social worker who did outreach from an office in the school. Teachers cared, put in the time it took, and achieved success. Never – and I mean never – did anyone use poverty as an excuse when a kid failed.
Currently, however, it has become fashionable for educational pundits and union leaders to cite poverty as the main reason for lack of student achievement. State legislatures in Alaska, California, and Indiana have even taken action to punish poor parents if their kids don’t do well in school. Republican State Representative Kelli Stargel of Florida, for example, introduced a bill requiring parents to spend three hours a semester volunteering in their child’s school. The bill, thankfully, failed, but Stargel noted, “Teachers were telling us, ‘We can only do so much in the classroom. We have no control over what happens with these kids at home.’”
Well, when DID teachers have control over what happened at home? News flash: Never. The teacher’s job is to do the best she can with the raw material that enters her classroom. If she can’t help a kid make progress unless the kid comes from a middle class home, the teacher is in the wrong school district.
Representative Stargel also thought it would be a great idea if teachers could grade parents on their parenting skills and post their grades on the school report card. See below for a few teachers’ take on that interesting suggestion.
Poverty is not a quick fix. Improving teaching and leadership isn’t either, but it can be done is less time than it will take to make all kids middle class. In the meantime, it’s hard to understand why someone would accept a paycheck for work they say can’t be done – helping poor kids learn.