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My life changed forever when I decided to take a position as a teacher in the largest school district in Tennessee, Memphis City Schools. From the moment I took the position, I had people question if I was “ready” to work in an high poverty environment where many of the students came from backgrounds that would make the “normal” person shudder. I always reassured those concerned friend that I’d be fine, and I was. You see I was hiding a secret that only those who knew me from childhood knew- I grew up as a disadvantaged child.
Just like the kids who woke up mornings wondering if there was enough food to eat, I understood that feeling. I knew what it felt like to not have enough clothes to make it through the week, without repeating an outfit. I watched two older brothers of mine enter the military because there were no viable options for college. For the first fifteen years of my life I was raised by my mother who struggled to take care of us financially. She worked everyday but just like many in this country, we were the working poor. My father was in our lives but as a struggling small business owner, he counted every penny. When I finally was able to secure a job after school, that was the first time I understood the feeling of getting new shoes and clothes for school.
As an educator, I’ve dedicated my life to working in schools that face the same issues I experienced as a child. I’ve had chances to change schools and go to more affluent areas, but I’ve always declined. I want to work with kids who struggle so I can show them that success is possible. So for the past twelve years, I’ve went to work in a place that deals with issues that most people can’t even comprehend.
Working in a high poverty school is hard. To make matters worse, rarely do teacher preparation programs prepare teachers to work in theses environments. So through the years I’ve seen teachers struggle with how to teach in an environment where there is so much to deal with before you can actually begin a lesson. Over the years I’ve tried to read research and other pedagogical materials about how to teach in high poverty schools, but there was a truth missing from these writings. All because you study what poverty means does not mean you feel what poverty means-especially to children.
However, the lessons I learned during the first 15 years of my life are ones that have helped me as an adult when I’ve had to deal with adversities. So many times when a teacher comes to me distraught (seriously..they are usually distraught) because a parent has been aggressive or a child has refused to follow their directions or may have been a little fresh, there are a couple of things that help me give sound, reasonable advice. In addition to living in poverty, I also fit into other stereotypes that many consider hindrances.
- I know what it was like to live in a single parent household- my parents divorced by the time I was seven years old.
- I know what hunger felt like- my mother barely made over the poverty line, according to federal guidelines.
- I understand when a child yells that they hate school- I once was that teenager.
- I know what it feels like to not only a woman but a woman of color.
As I help develop younger teacher’s pedagogy and expertise, I find myself using my expereinces to not only teach empathy but to give them strategies on surviving in the classroom. So in addition to loving and respecting the kids, I always made sure that every teacher knew some strategies for working with kids from these environments:
1. Have clear, understandable expectations. Every child wants discipline no matter how they behave and where they are from. The problem is sometimes they don’t know they need discipline. The biggest lesson I had was when I first started teaching high school I made the mistake of not being clear on my expectations. A month into the job I realized that I needed to be very clear on what I expected and the consistent consequences if those “rules” weren’t followed. So we literally started the class over. A month into my new system, the kids were complaining but I had eliminated a lot of the discipline issues. For example, I expected EVERYONE to come to class on time or have a pass. If a student was late (and didn’t have a pass) they automatically got points docked off their class assignment. The more I stuck to that rule (and the more kids saw how it could affect their grades) students got in line and got to my class on time.
There were times me and the Principal had disagreements, but I was glad she recognized me as a professional and supported me when parents questioned my rules. In addition to having clear expectations, I always put them in writing in my class syllabus. Click here for rule #2.