Monday, October 15, 2012

Giving Our Teachers the Tools They Need to Overcome Poverty

Dr. JoAnne Ferrara is the department chair of Curriculum and Instruction at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY. She is the co-author of an forthcoming book about community schools with Children’s Aid Society Director of Community Schools Jane Quinn.

I applaud American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s support of community schols and its impact mitigating the effects of poverty on student achievement. Teachers, especially those in high poverty schools, have always known that poverty and achievement are inextricably linked.  How often have teachers in these schools witnessed students coming to school hungry, tired, sick, or lacking a winter coat. To expect students to be receptive to learning when their basic human needs are not met is a disservice to them and the professionals that teach them. Combine these factors with the national test frenzy and you have a recipe for poor performance and teacher/student burnout. 

Our current educational focus on teacher accountability tied primarily to students’ outcomes on standardized tests neglects to acknowledge the multiple factors and developmental needs which are critical to student learning. Moreover, to publicly berate teachers for poor students’ performance without understanding the broader context of teaching and learning is akin to planting a seed and expecting a flower the next day.  When did shame become a mechanism for improved performance?  In his role as the executive director of the Campaign for Educational Equity, Michael Rebell charges that the nation must examine the “extensive pattern of childhood poverty that inhibits educational opportunity and educational achievement.” Unless we address this “white elephant” in the room significant changes will not occur. One way to tackle some of the obstacles related to poverty and student achievement is through a concerted effort of school officials and the community.

For more than a century, community schools and their predecessors, settlement houses, provided services for children and families in need (Children’s Aid Society, 2011). Central to the community school model is the belief that in order for children to be academically successful meeting all of a child’s developmental needs must be first and foremost. For many children living in poverty represents either lack of limited access to basic necessities often taken for granted in middle class and affluent households. Community schools therefore garner the resources of the community through partnership with social service agencies or non-profit organizations to provide a network of programs at the school site where they are easily accessible. In this way community schools develop a culture where children’s overall well-being is supported, so that teachers can focus on the job of teaching.  

During her successful fifteen year tenure at a community school in Port Chester, N.Y., retired principal, Eileen Santiago, reminds us that “community schools help to ameliorate the barriers to learning by creating comprehensive and integrative programs and services for children and families.” As one of her former teachers remarked, “Poverty permeates the lives of many of our children, but here we have a “Yes I can, attitude”

Every teacher that I have worked with, or supervised, during my career as a teacher, public school administrator, and a college professor have tirelessly advocated on behalf of their students by intervening in ways that were beyond their classroom responsibilities. I know countless teachers who keep their classrooms stocked with healthy snacks for children who come to school hungry; or spend their own money to keep extra clothing on hand when the colder weather sets in.  I can recall being at school in a primary classroom where the teacher gave up her lunch hour to buy a birthday cake for a youngster who would otherwise miss an opportunity to celebrate her special day. 

These few cases serve to highlight the compassion and dedication teachers have for the students in their charge. To reduce the professional to merely student performance outcomes is somehow missing the point. As educational researcher, Linda Darling – Hammond (2006) notes when students’ needs increase teachers take on additional roles that are usually more social service in nature. When teachers assumed parentis loci, their professional roles take on a whole new meaning. Clearly educators and policy makers need to think deeply about ways to help teachers address poverty at both the classroom and school-wide level.

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