Poverty and Education

A young boy gets out of bed in the morning still hungry from the night before. There wasn’t any food in the house because Daddy has been out of work for almost a year and they don’t have money to buy the basic needs. A few days ago he witnessed strangers coming into the house and taking the furniture because Mom and Dad couldn’t pay the balance on a loan. He gets dressed for school by putting on clothes that are two sizes too big for him. Today is PE and he is supposed to have gym shoes but the only shoes he has are oversized “clod hopper” boots Mom picked up somewhere for free. He knows he will be teased by his classmates for his dress and derided by his PE teacher for his boots. He is hoping there is at least some cornmeal to make mush for breakfast because he is really hungry. There isn’t. He needs speech therapy because he stutters so badly sometimes his parents cannot understand him. Teachers get frustrated with his speech and ignore his questions. Where is the money to come from? Mom and Dad can’t buy enough food for him and the other five children much less luxuries such as doctors, dentists and speech therapists. He goes to school hungry, feet hurting, and dreading interaction with his schoolmates and teachers. He only goes to school because he is forced. The highlight of his day is lunch because he is a lunch room worker and his lunch is free.

This is a real life scenario that is repeated each and everyday across the nation. Families and individuals so steeped in poverty they don’t have a place to live, food to eat or clothes to wear. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs education takes a backseat in meeting the basic survival needs of food, shelter and safety. (Boeree, 2006).

These are not the only problems associated with low socio-economic status (SES) that affect a child’s learning abilities. Low SES has an effect on a child’s education from the time he/she is conceived throughout his/her life. Low SES families do not have access to sufficient health care therefore a mother will not get proper prenatal care. Low SES children suffer from other diseases and illness such as uncorrected vision, hearing problems, and other maladies, all which disrupt cognitive development (Slavin, 2006). Low SES families lack resources to help or reinforce a child’s education. They don’t go on vacations, visit museums or other activities that help middle and upper class families prepare their children for or reinforce what they learn. Many low SES families are from different ethnic backgrounds whose parents do not speak English. Also low SES parents have low educational expectations for their children and do not or do not know how to award their children for academic achievement.

A set of behaviors also accompany low SES that besets education. As a child progresses through school he falls further behind in academic achievement. As this happens he/she becomes frustrated and eventually gives up on learning. Attendance becomes a problem. Truancy leads to delinquency which leads to a myriad of other problems such as drug and alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy. If they come to class they come unprepared and or unwilling to learn. But, in my opinion, the biggest hurdle to educating at-risk children is the teacher.

Many teachers have preconceived notions about low SES children and prejudge them based on those notions. Many times they focus on the student’s undesirable behavior and not on ways to help the student learn. Some lower the standards and alter their curriculum to an extreme slow pace that keeps the student forever behind. Some teachers discount or refuse to acknowledge low SES problems in their students and make no modifications to help these students (Young). With the curve balls and sliders life throws at these low SES students, how can we help them succeed not only in attaining an education but in life?

First and foremost teachers must overcome there own prejudices and cease discrimination against low SES students. That takes great determination and sometimes Herculean effort on the teacher’s part. If a student perceives any type of discriminatory behavior from the teacher he/she will refuse to learn. The phrase “the teacher hates me” becomes a reality and barriers are thrown up in defense. What a waste!

Teachers must foster a safe and secure classroom environment. Teasing and derision must not be allowed. A student should feel safe to raise his/her hand to answer and ask questions without fear of derision from other students or the teacher. More than likely they receive such at home.

At the beginning of the year teachers need to let students know what the rules are in the classroom. The rules should be clear, concise, relevant and should not be excessive (Slavin, 2006). The rules should be accompanied by consistent reinforcers.

At the very beginning of the year students need to know what the standards are for the class. These standards should be high but attainable. Teachers must not lower the standards for an individual but must work to ensure the individual meets the standards. This may require the teacher to modify his/her teaching methods or even the curriculum but never lower the standards. To ensure success the teacher must take the time and become acquainted with each and every student in the class. As the teacher becomes acquainted with the students the teacher discovers what motivates the student to become engaged in learning.

Half the battle of a teacher is learning how to motivate students to learn. Part of the student’s motivation is dependent on his/her SES. Teachers should remain cognizant of this fact in their search for motivation factors and develop strategies to engage the student in learning. A very effective technique of motivating students is the Pygmalion effect (Tauber, 1998). A teacher who portrays a belief that a student can attain high standards results in the same belief in the student. The belief becomes self-prophetic and the student will meet standards.

Teachers must be flexible in their teaching strategies. Teaching strategies may include constructive techniques, cooperative or collaborative teaching. For some individuals, extra time in a one-on-one situation may be necessary for the student to learn.

As students learn and meet standards feedback and reinforcement are necessary to maintain classroom achievement and progress. My experience has been that many times praise in the classroom is the only praise a student receives. This too is a great motivator for many students.

To help a student learn it may be necessary for the teacher to coordinate with other departments in the school or agencies in the community. If a student has a very low reading ability then coordination with the special education department is necessary to coordinate strategies to help the student. If the community has several after school programs the teacher can encourage the student to participate in those programs. If need be, the teacher should attend the first meeting to help relieve the student’s anxiety.

As many tools as teachers have to help them teach they cannot do it alone. Parents/Guardians must become involved in the learning process. Teachers can involve parents through parent/teacher conferences, inviting parents into their classroom and phone calls home. Most parents receive phone calls from teachers only when their child misbehaves but a phone call telling the parent about their child’s success is a great reinforcer and reaps far more benefits.

Communities need to get involved. Big Brothers and Big Sisters is a great community organization that provides tutoring to at-risk children. Teachers can encourage students to participate in the local summer reading program and the public library. This will also help prevent the “summer slide” experienced by low SES students (Slavin, 2006).

Poverty is a vicious cycle without mercy. As teachers we are able to influence and change lives. Teachers cannot save all their students and many teachers become discouraged. But if they can help one person break the cycle then they have helped future generations. I am one of those. The story in the first paragraph is my story. I know what it is like to be hungry, to not know where the next meal comes from, and to share one bedroom with 5 other siblings on one bed. “At-risk” was not in a teacher’s vocabulary back then; you were “slow”, “stupid”, or “retarded”. My stuttering is almost extinct now because of a Sunday School teacher who studied public speaking in college. I was twelve years old when I was in her Sunday School class and she wanted me to give a talk. I told her no. She made a deal with me, she would teach me to give that talk without stuttering if I were to accept the assignment. She was so persistent I couldn’t say no. She kept her word and so did I. That same year, while riding my bicycle, I discovered the public library and the Hardy Boys therein. Reading opened a whole new world to me and the library became my refuge. I will forever be grateful for all my teachers, good and bad, for the bad taught me how not to be, in and out of the classroom.

Boeree, C. (2006). Abraham Maslow. Retrieved November 15, 2006, from Personality Theories Web site: http://ship.edu/~cgboeree/maslow.html
Slavin, R. (2006). Educational Psychology Theory and Practice (8th ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.
Tauber, R. (1998). Good or Bad, What Teachers Expect from Students They Generally Get. Retrieved December 23, 2006, from http://www.eric.ed.gov/ERICDocs/data/ericdocs2/content_storage_01/0000000b/80/2a/2c/f2.pdf
Young, J. (n.d.). The Examination of Low Socioeconomic Students and Effective Educational Motivational Strategies. Retrieved December 15, 2006, from http://dept.lamar.edu/lustudentjnl/Archived%20Editions_files/The%20Examination%20of%20Low%20Socioeconomic%20Students%20and%20Effectiv%E0.pdf