Should we, as teachers, ignore poverty and other external factors affecting our students?  This question was explored from different perspectives in a recent Washington Post article.  I argue, as many others did in the article, that there needs to be a sense of realism around the entire subject.  It would be an injustice to ignore the students’ background (handicaps) and simply expect them to learn the same way as students with more resources would.  It’s critical to understand the background, challenges, and aspirations of our students. 

A successful business never enters into a new market without first learning about their potential customers.  From market to market, the business will adapt, changing to the needs of their customers.  This paradigm must also apply to education.

Yes, poverty sucks.  I have been teaching in a high-poverty school for many years and I have seen its ugly impact on my students.  Students come to my class…

  • hungry from not having dinner or breakfast
  • tired from having to work the night shift to support their families
  • frustrated from not having a safe or quiet place to study
  • violated from being put in unsafe situations

There are ways address this, meanwhile maintaining high expectations for the students.

Learn about Student Backgrounds

I could go on with the external challenges of my students.  This is my reality and I have to change and adapt to my students’ needs.  First, I learn about my students by calling home, emailing the students’ family, talking to administrators, reviewing students’ files, and talking with students.  This background knowledge enables me to make proper and informed judgements later down the road.

Establish and Enforce High Expectations

All students can learn.  Yet I balance this belief with the understanding that students learn at different paces and achieve at various levels.  I don’t use their external challenges as an excuse.  I remind students (almost on a daily basis) of my expectations and my belief in their potential.  I focus on their strengths and leverage it.  For example, a student who consistently was in fights and had poor academic performance entered into my class.  She demonstrated an outstanding talent in analyzing situations and developing judgement.  I gave her an application attached with my recommendation for a youth program, aimed at inspiring students to pursue a career in law.  I gave her a block of time during class for her to fill it out.  I then mailed it.  She was accepted.  As part of the program she was paired with a mentor ( a legal professional) and visited several college campuses.  Plus, she received a scholarship.  I set the expectation that this young girl could make something of herself and reinforced this through my actions.

Adapt to Student Challenges

Set high expectations for each individual students, then using the background information on the student, assist the student meet these expectations by aligning necessary resources or developing flexible solutions.  Examples of this could be as simple as helping the student obtain and fill out a free / reduced lunch application, or not giving homework to a student that is homeless.  I work hard to adapt my instruction and curriculum to keep the students engaged and learning.  I tweak my lessons every time I teach. 

This is part of teaching.  We teach the students we have, not the students we ideally wish we had.

Do you have a comment?  Should teachers ignore poverty’s impact?  Click here to post your comment.