What is it like to be a school teacher in a poor area?


Caveat: I’m not a teacher in a very poor area. I’m a teacher in a poor area. But I still have homeless students and students with extremely deprived home lives.

When you study to be a teacher, you spend almost none of your education learning how to deal with poverty. In two years in teacher college, I suspect I spent perhaps one or two days thinking about this particular problem. The rest of the time was spent talking about how school works, how kids work, how your content works, how your classroom works, etc.

That was almost entirely worthless information to me. Why?


Poverty changes the game so fundamentally that almost everything you learned gets thrown out the window.

Hey kids. We’re going to learn about electricity. Take a picture of your electric bill!

Forget it – some kids don’t have one.

Bring in some plants from your yard!

What yard?

Be on time and bring paper and pencil!

I can’t get to school…because…

Go online and check out this resource.

We don’t have internet.

Don’t forget to bring your book bag so you can bring this home.

I don’t have a book bag.

You’ll need a calculator.

I don’t have a calculator.

Ask your parents to sign this.

I don’t live with them.

You probably learned this last year in Biology

I failed Biology.

You probably learned this last year in Math

I haven’t passed math since elementary school.

Some afternoons, I tutor the kids that go to the private school a few miles from the school where I work. They gladly fork over an almost embarrassingly large amount of money to get their grades up from 92 to 96. They arrive in their BMWs and their Mercedes, they’re very polite, they have a brand new calculator (almost always a really expensive TI) with fresh batteries. Their home has wireless internet. And a butler.

I go home after the tutoring and tutor my own children. I use the money the rich kids give me to buy my own children books and pencils and calculators, and to pay for the Internet and their future college tuition.

I have become almost numb to this situation. But mostly, I’ve been beaten … by poverty. It still gets me sometimes, though, the gross inequities of life, the total and complete lack of fairness, justice, or decency that our society tolerates.

And, as we say in education, what you tolerate you condone.

This is why “failing schools” is a load of garbage. My school isn’t failing, we – my brothers and sisters in education – work as hard as we can. We absorb the derision and the apathy and the disgust of those in the public who claim we’re the reason for failure.

Until we get serious about fixing poverty, we will never “fix” education. And, if we ever fix poverty, you will find that education doesn’t need fixing. We know this because kids in affluent schools in the US are amongst the highest performing students on planet Earth.

We are the richest country in the history of countries. We don’t have to live this way.

Want to learn how to help?

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