September 25, 2012

Poverty Should Not Matter. Ever.

Original post in TFA's Pass the Chalk blog by Jarell Lee. He is an E4E-New York School Captain.

At the NBC Education Nation Teacher Town Hall on Sunday, some teachers argued against evaluations and standardized tests, saying that teaching students in poverty makes it harder to reach evaluation and testing goals. My stomach churned, my insides burned, and my mouth whispered, “No.”

Yes, there is a correlation between poverty and student achievement. But it’s just that, a correlation, not causation. It’s disrespectful to poor students to believe that they cannot meet our academic expectations. It’s unjust to not hold teachers in poor communities to these same high standards. What would lower expectations mean for these students? What would lower expectations mean for their future, our nation’s future?

I was a poor kid. Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I attended seven schools in two years as my family moved between homeless shelters. But because of my teachers, I thought I could do anything. My teachers, like Mrs. Swift and Mr. Smith, inspired me and demanded excellence. They taught me to think big and always ask questions. I forgot about my struggles while I was in school. I believed in myself because my teachers believed in me.

As I sat at the Teacher Town Hall, I looked around and studied the faces of some of the teachers that had agreed with the poverty comment. I wondered if they truly believed that we should lower the standards for our students in the greatest need. They don’t.

Yes, poverty and other social barriers make teaching more difficult, but teachers care about their students and want them all to succeed. One teacher spoke about how she donated her personal dictionary despite the needs of her own daughter. Teachers are willing to meet any need, so why does poverty still dominate so many discussions? Why is poverty still such a big excuse for students and teachers not being held to high expectations?

We need to be more specific when we discuss poverty and truly describe the unfavorable conditions faced when teaching in poor communities. We need to separate teaching poor students from the true issue – teaching in poor schools. Poor students can be taught and invested in learning, like I was. When teachers say poor students are difficult to teach, teachers actually mean that it is difficult to teach in poor schools. Let’s change our language to reflect the true problemour system, not our children.

As the Teacher Town Hall ended, I felt inspired. In the midst of a variety of opinions was a theme of passion and collaboration. We all want the best for our students, and that makes me proud to be a teacher.

Jarell taught 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade at the Excellence Boys Charter School in Bedford-Stuyvesant New York. In his spare time, he enjoys writing raps and songs for his lessons, participating in fitness races, and meeting new people.