Of Poverty and Education

Mike Sheppard serves as General Counsel for Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee. This article originally appeared in TREND, a publication of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Many Americans believe that the major problem within public education is the lack of focus within the administration of a school. They even go so far as to blame the teachers for not providing the adequate time and skills needed for their child to grow and learn on a day-to-day basis. This type of mentality is wrong. As much as we can over analyze the various policies and red tape that go on behind the scenes in these schools, it is imperative that we become more aware and cognizant of the overarching problem that has plagued our schools for years, poverty.

Poverty, in itself, is a very uncomfortable topic. It is a dark cloud that looms in the backyard. It is a whisper that passes by individuals who, rather than confront it, tiptoe around the idea whenever they hear it brought up. But, like it or not, it is a conversation that we need to start having. For many of our schools, especially those that are failing, poverty is right behind it. Many of these well deserving students are held back from incredible opportunities to grow because of lack of funding or lack of resources. This should not happen.

But why is it happening? Why is this a problem?

More than 16 million children are growing up in poverty, meaning that 22% of all children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level of $23,550 a year. Research has shown that children living in poverty have a higher number of absenteeism and dropout rates than those coming from middle class or higher.

Now how does this affect the classroom, and how can we address it as educators?

Lacking a Strong Foundation
For our students, children who grow up in low socioeconomic conditions typically have a smaller vocabulary than middle or higher-class children do, which increases the risk for academic failure. Much of this attributes to lack of exposure. Whether the words are spoken or read, low socioeconomic households will in most cases not be able to provide their child with that elementary foundation. In the classroom, this lack of exposure can impact various lesson plans and achievement for both the teacher and the student. To resolve this type of problem, educators should try and incorporate vocabulary practice on a daily basis. More exposure to new and unique words can enrich the student in successful ways.

Student-Teacher Relationships
Many teachers, especially new teachers to the field, find many students in low-income areas to be behaviorally difficult and inattentive to the work. It is easy to blame the student, but we need to understand their background and their stories. One reason why many students seem unmotivated toward schoolwork is a lack of hope or optimism related to their outside problems. Low socioeconomic students often deal with problems bigger than themselves. Whether they are financial hardships or absent guardians, these types of negative problems can take a toll on the mentality of the student, causing them to act in a very brash and hasty way.

Disruptive home relationships often create mistrust in students. Feelings toward parent or guardian figures that have often failed students at home can be projected onto adults at the school. Classroom misbehaviors are likely to increase because of these at-home instabilities. One thing a teacher can do to aid the situation is to build a relationship with the student. Establishing a relationship with the student can benefit you as well as the overall classroom. In addition, providing positive reinforcement can give the child the necessary confidence to perform on an academic basis. Understanding, listening, and talking with a child can provide you a strong advantage, especially later down the line.

Performance on Assessments
Studies have shown that children from lower socioeconomic background often perform below those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds on state exams. Many students coming from specific communities are found to struggle with core subjects such as reading, math, science, etc. In addition, many of the schools that the students attend lack the necessary resources and teachers to provide them the foundation to develop these core skills. A school can help nullify this problem by strategically analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each of their students. By having this type of data, a teacher is able to break down lessons so that their students can be successful.

There are no easy solutions. We must be willing to admit there is a problem and openly discuss the issue. Government cannot solve all of our problems. Poverty must be challenged community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, classroom by classroom and home by home. Together we can inspire, and we can identify needs and marshal resources to meet the challenge. Together we can defeat the issue of poverty.

For more on education and poverty:

Tennessee’s Poverty Test

TCAP, Poverty, and Investment in Schools

Pre-K as a Piece of the Puzzle for Overcoming Poverty

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Can We Retire the Bad Teacher Narrative Already?

This article was submitted by Becca Leech, a Tennessee teacher with more than 20 years of experience. Read more about her here.

There’s an old story that goes something like this: American schools are in trouble. Our students lag so horribly behind the rest of the world academically that soon we won’t be able to keep pace. And why? Because our schools are full of bad teachers: lazy, mean, stupid teachers who don’t care about students and just want a cushy job where they have summers off. Unions protect these bad teachers so that schools can’t fire them and replace them with better ones, so our schools have become permeated with useless teachers who ruin the whole system and hold our students down.

I’ve taught special education in public schools since 1993, from inner-city Nashville to suburban Murfreesboro to rural McMinnville and, while every school has a few ineffective teachers, most of the teachers I have worked with have been smart, dedicated, and hard-working. These teachers continue to work every day to improve our schools, despite the demoralizing wounds of repeated volleys of the “bad teacher” narrative, so easily lobbed at us by the media, parents, students, and administrators. Last week, I even read it repeated by (of all people) a fellow special educator, in (of all places) this blog that I believed to be pro education – the Tennessee Education Report. Here is what Zack Barnes wrote:

“I am a special education teacher at a North Nashville middle school. Our fifth graders come into fifth grade already behind. It’s our job to catch them up during the middle school years before we send them off to high school. That shows me that we have dropped the ball along the way to middle school. We have come to a point where it’s okay that students come in to middle school behind. That shouldn’t be okay.

There are bad teachers and they should not be in the classroom. There isn’t more I can say about this. Every career field has bad workers, and the teaching profession is no different.”

This from a teacher who has been hired for the sole purpose of helping students with disabilities. When he accepted his position, was he unaware that students are only referred for our special education services when they have academic delays that cannot be addressed by the general curriculum? Was he unaware that student achievement, like all other human characteristics, spans a broad spectrum?

Our job as special education teachers is to accept the students referred to us – all of them, as they are – to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and to develop and implement appropriate educational plans to help them all learn. It’s not our job, and is counterproductive for our schools, to look for someone to blame for student delays. We don’t blame the persistence of illness in our communities on the bad doctors (although we know that some exist), so how do we find it so easy to blame all academic delays on bad teachers?


The Origins of the Narrative

Most of us were once students, and teachers were the face of the educational system to us. We experienced schools and teachers through immature eyes and often developed misperceptions of the roles and motivations of the teachers who taught us. Students who didn’t have good school experiences often caricaturized teachers as mean task-masters who didn’t like kids and just wanted to make them work hard or get them into trouble. Although it was often the structural problems with our educational system that we found frustrating or unfair as students – problems that were at least equally frustrating for our teachers – it was the teachers we saw as the cause. It’s easy for those who want to undermine public education for political or personal gain to play on these unconscious prejudices and transfer the problems with our educational structure directly into the laps of teachers as individuals.


In recent years, there has been a growing effort underway to undermine public education for just such purposes, and it is taking the form of a direct attack on teachers. The documentary Waiting for Superman brought the “bad teacher” narrative into our public consciousness. Politicians and news commentators have repeated the story as fact, ignoring all evidence offered against it. I have only recently begun to hear a backlash – teachers, parents, and students stepping forward to question the truth and usefulness of the tale.


How the “Bad Teacher” Narrative is Harming Education

The narrative of the bad teacher diminishes respect for the profession of teaching and gives ammunition to those working to decrease job security and protections for teachers. With less respect and job security, our schools have even more difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers. We have recently seen an increase in the number of experienced teachers leaving the profession and a decrease in applicants to new teacher education programs. In fact, many of these teachers and would-be teachers cite the lack of respect and poor job security as reasons for staying away from the classroom. When schools don’t have a pool of strong applicants to fill teaching vacancies, they must resort to hiring unqualified or less qualified candidates. This situation creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where students are more likely to fall behind, and critics find even more examples of “bad teachers” to further blame and diminish teaching.


Our Responsibility as a Community

It is true that there are some ineffective teachers among us and some teacher training programs that are not adequately preparing teachers for the classroom, but blame, judgement, and punitive accountability measures are not the answers. Most of the ineffective teachers I have taught with were either new teachers who needed more on-the-job guidance and mentoring from experienced teachers, or were teachers who had once been dedicated to their craft, but were now exhausted and weakened by the difficult environments they taught in and felt powerless to change.


There is no time in our school schedules to provide the support, mentoring, and quality training to help teachers in these situations to improve. Our school systems must find ways to make more non-teaching time in our school day for teachers to collaborate and support one another. Opportunities for teacher creativity, growth, and leadership will also raise teacher quality and improve working conditions.


To make real change, we must recognize that the problems with education are much broader than simply problems of teacher quality. We have to address poverty and inequality as the greatest challenges to education. We have to reorganize our funding structures to provide environments that attract and retain teachers. Most importantly, though, our communities must recognize teachers as the experts who can provide solutions for our schools – not the problems to be solved. If we are to improve the overall quality of education, we, as individuals and as a community, have a responsibility to support and defend the profession of teaching.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

We welcome submissions from educators — if you have a story idea, send it to andy@spearsstrategy.com