ARTICLE

Addressing Poverty Bias in the Classroom

My nana is laughing as she tells me one of her favorite childhood stories. As her cheeks lift into a smile, I can see the teenager who boldly told her teacher that threats to visit Nana’s parents about her behavior are ineffective. “You see,” she said, “they don’t speak any English.”

Editor’s Note: In January, Teaching Tolerance launched a new series of lessons called Issues of Poverty. This week’s featured lesson can be found here.

My nana is laughing as she tells me one of her favorite childhood stories. As her cheeks lift into a smile, I can see the teenager who boldly told her teacher that threats to visit Nana’s parents about her behavior are ineffective. “You see,” she said, “they don’t speak any English.”

Nana grew up with the poverty line being several inches higher than her family could reach. After emigrating from Greece to South Wheeling, W.Va., my great-grandparents, like many others in the neighborhood, struggled to learn English and find long-term work opportunities. About 46.2 million Americans are still striving to get above this symbolic line. This statistic reaches urban neighborhoods, suburban developments and rural landscapes. Poverty affects 22 percent of U.S. children.

My nana’s story has come to symbolize a division I frequently notice between students living in poverty and their teachers.

As educators, we must reconsider what we know about poverty and recognize how poverty relates to our classroom. We cannot take on a missionary mentality in which we conceptualize our job as one that offers some type of salvation. It is just as important for those who are natives of a community to be mindful to avoid the “it’s always been done that way” creed. Finally we must recognize poverty myths, critically question pedagogy we use and access resources that will aid our educational practices and thinking.

We must work hard to avoid some common poverty myths:

  • People living in poverty think, act, speak and dress a certain way. This is often called the pedagogy of poverty or deficit thinking. As pointed out by Paul C. Gorski, this type of thinking is false and impedes student learning.
  • Poverty is self-inflicted. This comes from the mistaken belief that living in America affords everyone an equal opportunity to succeed. Paul Theobald and Jonathan Kozol use history and research to discredit this myth.
  • The goal of education in impoverished areas should be to provide students with the opportunity to leave. In rural America this is often called outmigration or learning to leave. As discussed in the book Hollowing Out the Middle, if we continue to offer this as the only option for success, we will continue to perpetuate poverty and classism throughout the United States.

As educators, we should adopt the habit of asking critical questions. When it comes to serving students who may be living in poverty, here are some questions to consider:

  • When reading or listening to a presentation about poverty, contemplate: Does this person stand to make substantial financial gains from marginalizing impoverished people?
  • As you interact with students and families living in poverty, consider: What false assumptions might I be making? Are there things I can do to make sure parents are able to access their child’s grades, attend school events and receive pertinent information about school policies, procedures and upcoming activities?
  • Remember the impact your classroom practices have on the surrounding community: Do my ambitions and contributions support the strengthening of my community or do they encourage outmigration?

Nana never mentioned how the teacher responded to her. However, I like to think she bandaged her wounded ego and acknowledged both the bias and humor in her mistake. Finally I hope she realized, as I have from the story, that we never stop learning.

Yahn is a middle school language arts teacher in Ohio.