Are all educators a champion for their students? “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who never gives up on them and understands the power of connections and insists they become the best they can possibly be” profound words by the late and great Rita Pierson! I’d like to think of myself as a champion for kids—ALL kids, even the ones that are hard to love—particularly the ones that are hard to love! As a veteran educator with many years of experience working with our most vulnerable students, I can tell you that poverty does indeed affect a student’s ability to learn. To be clear, I am not indicating that students who are born into poverty are less intelligent or capable, to the contrary, they likely developed multiple intelligences that are not always observable by the data or indicators in which we determine intellect or deem a child to be intelligent, but there are some serious hurdles that they must jump to compete in the race we call education.
It’s no secret that there are many resources necessary for academic success–and the lack of, or presence of these resources– greatly impact the likelihood that a student will succeed in school. Students come to school with diverse values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds and dispositions. All of these can greatly affect student learning, in and out of the classroom. The more resources that a student has at their disposal, the better the opportunities for success. Ideally, students need the following to optimize learning and experience success in school:
- A solid foundation of good physical, mental and emotional health
- Language and literacy development
- Material resources/ financial security
- Support systems
- Positive role models
Schools operate from a middle class set of norms and therefore the institution expects that all students are familiar with this model of governance. Our impoverished students often arrive with major deficits that prohibit them from being successful in school. They often are unaware to the ‘hidden rules’ for academic and social success in school. Many of our impoverished students are disadvantaged in not understanding of set norms and have not had experiences in successfully navigating them. In order to increase student and staff efficacy, it is necessary to create a bridge between these two very distinct and different worlds and create a culture where all students can achieve.
In the US, the number of students living in poverty is rapidly growing. These students are in our schools –and sitting in our classrooms. How can we help them be successful? It all begins with the educator! School wide initiatives that include staff development is a critical component and important first step in addressing the needs of impoverished students. Staff members must participate in activities and opportunities to explore diverse learning styles, ways to build executive function skills, proven strategies on connecting with students and parents of poverty, and the uncovering of personal biases. Adoption of a culturally responsive school approach will create a harmonious culture where all students feel valued and have a strong sense of belonging. As James Comer says, “no significant learning happens without a significant relationship”, so it is incumbent upon every adult to attempt to forge positive and meaningful relationships with individuals. Students work harder for people that they like–and they buy into learning after they buy into the relationship. Once a positive relationship has been established, teachers can begin to focus on differentiating instruction according to the student’s needs and facilitate authentic learning. Every child is unique and not every approach will work with all students, but here are some tried and true actions that have been successful with students of poverty:
- Give respect, every day, all day!
- Avoid strong directives, give options when possible
- Model adult thinking of acting responsibly and making good choices
- Disciple with dignity- the goal of discipline is to change the negative behavior
- Embed social skills and pleasantries as often as possible
- Provide role models and/or mentors
- Connect them with additional resources
- Ensure that the Maslow’s stuff is taken care of
- Be inclusive-invest in them and they will invest in the school
- Celebrate effort and achievements
- Help them navigate difficult experiences and activities
- Meet them where they are, shed pre-determined ideas about students of poverty
- Believe they can!
Now, more than ever, educators must find ways to provide equitable education opportunities for all students. Let’s work collaboratively and collectively to ensure that impoverished students have access to the necessary resources and supports that are the foundation for great learning. Together we can create a nation of champions!
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela