How educators understand poverty: One teacher’s perspective

More and more,  poverty awareness is coming up in my teacher education classes. Perhaps this is because I (Yiola) am gaining more confidence about how to frame, discuss, and process the issues associated with teaching poverty awareness.  Or perhaps it is because students are seeing issues of poverty play out in their placements and are comfortable to raise questions in our class.  Whatever the cause for the awareness I am glad this discourse has made its way into my classes.

Ultimately the questions lead to, what can teachers do? I teach two levels of teacher education courses this year: I teach at the Masters level and I am also teaching a first year undergraduate teacher education course.  I can safely say that most student teachers care about poverty awareness and I can also safely say most student teachers do not know what to do about it.

Then a student in my Masters level course shared this link with us:

The video is of one teacher beautifully expressing the trials and tribulations of one student in her class. It is a very sad story. It is depressing. But it is much more than that. The narrative presents a perspecitve that all teachers must have; an understanding that poverty makes life hard… BUT… this is not the fault of the child. The teacher’s acknowledgement that her student is smart and capable and kind is central to this discourse. Many scholars acknowledge that teachers must hold affirming views of their students. And, I sense that most students teachers shrug this concept off as “yah yah, of course. That is obvious. Of course I will like all my students.”  but to move beyond the circumstances and consequences of poverty to see that a child who is experiencing that plight IS capable, smart and kind is not so obvious.
When we viewed the video in class many of us were near tears.  I questioned whether this was a good thing or not. It is important to raise awareness but such awareness cannot  just hang out there in agony and leave students feeling despair. Awareness must move beyond understanding to the “what can I do? As a teacher what am I going to do?”.  Here the video stops short but our discussions continued.  Student teachers began to blend theory with their placement practice to try to make sense of how they could possible make “carrying the one” manageable so students living in poverty can make gains in their learning and their lives.  This is no easy feat. We set out some steps for our work as teachers: The first step is teacher awareness, the next step is having students know they are cared for and believed in, and the step after that to critically assess our own practices so our methods are accessible, manageable, and achievable so students feel success.  Each of these steps require intense reflection, listening, thinking, studying and experience.  I haven’t touched on levels of community or institutional activism and that is with intention. In my experience, student teachers need to understand that work for themselves first.
To have student teachers think and teach in these ways is activism.  Some student teachers are there in their understanding and are leaders… most are not. My goal is to support student teachers’ learning and further their understandings of the social determinants of educational success so they have the knowledge and skills to deal with issues in their classroom.
The video I share above is powerful. There are thoughtful, powerful descriptions in her narrative about her student(s), their families, and schooling that help illustrate just what it means to be a student living in poverty.

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