Educating Children in Poverty: Only Effective Teachers and Principals Can Save the Lives of Children in Poverty

We Face an Enormous and Crucial Task.

The very title, “Educating Children in Poverty,” here presents what one could easily think of as a daunting or impossible vision. When one considers the large numbers of children in poverty in America as well as internationally, the count feels overwhelming: fifteen million children live in poverty in our country.1 That figure is probably low. If parents or other caretakers are included, the numbers increase significantly. We are failing these 15 million miserably: in June of 2006, we learned that seven thousand children in our nation drop out of school every day,2 accurately predicting a life of poverty for 2,555,000 additional youth and families each year. Considering what we see and read in reliable sources, it would behoove Americans to stand up and say, “No more! “

No more will we stand by and see the waste of resources while children and students suffer; no more will we watch as children go hungry, without shoes, clothes, food, a decent environment, health care, or someone to assist with homework! No more should children go to schools in this country where termites infest walls; windows leak; bathrooms don’t work and the overall look of the school house is that of a jail. How long will we wait before America itself ranks as a third world country? To most, that idea is repugnant and always seems so far away from our everyday reality. We should, as a believing nation, shout “No more will we ignore our children – our nation’s most precious resource – who are needy!”

Righteous indignation is not, however, what we see everyday in America. Apathy is what we see. We see the American way of life before our eyes, which includes poverty, crime, drugs, gangs, the “miseducation” of children, people attending all-white churches, all-black churches, all-Asian churches, etc.; sometimes these houses of worship are integrated. Most of the time, integrated or segregated, the believers are content in their beliefs. They are good people who believe they are on the right track in their lives. They are good people who may never see the third world coming to their back door, but their grandchildren and great grandchildren may live to see an entirely different and bleaker picture if we continue to stand back and live with the status quo.

Accepting the status quo will bring America to its knees. And while starting on our knees is an appropriate beginning, sincere Americans must make an intense examination of what needs to be done to stop the decline of our country’s educational system, and act! In the next decade, school as we know it will have to radically transform, and we will have to expand and make relevant the ways we instruct our youth. Graduating all of our youth is the key to saving America from being the next third world, and teachers and principals who are leaders are the solution to ensuring this happens.

In the next few pages of this attempt to bring hope to a seemingly unpromising terrain, we will be making an effort to be specific about what might be done to help each child graduate and have access to the fullness of the American dream.

Only Schools Can Save Children in Poverty

One researcher in this century, perhaps more than any other, who has continued to bring the plight of children in poverty to the forefront, is Dr. Martin Haberman. Dr. Haberman is The Distinguished Professor of Education Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. Few have matched his efforts to crusade for excellence in educating children in poverty in the United States. Dr. Haberman’s book, StarTeachers: the Ideology and Best Practice of Effective Teachers of Diverse Children and Youth in Poverty (2005)3, has sold more copies than any other publication from Kappa Delta Pi, the International Honor Society for Educators. Dr. Haberman is known nationally and internationally as an expert on specific strategies to meet the educational needs of children and youth in poverty. In order to understand the power of the strategies proposed, one must understand the role of school in the lives of children and youth in poverty. Notes Dr. Haberman:

“For children in poverty being successful in school is a matter of life and death. For those without a high school diploma, the likelihood of ever having a decent job – one with adequate health insurance and some form of retirement account – is extremely remote. Being a drop-out or a push-out dooms people to dead-end jobs, living in unsafe neighborhoods, and never being able to fully provide adequate health care for themselves and their families. It also means that those who are miseducated never develop the individual potentialities that would give their lives greater meaning and society the benefit of their participation and productivity” Martin Haberman (p. 98).

How can we find teachers and principals who agree that school for children in poverty is a matter of life and death? How can we ensure that every child has a teacher and leaders who see it as their job to identify individuals for each classroom who are on a mission?

We need teachers and principals who think of themselves as airplane pilots. You would not want to get on an airplane with a pilot who says, “I’m very good at flying. I fly this jumbo jet every day. I’m very good at taking off as well. I have that maneuver down pat. Now sometimes, I have trouble landing. I land 90% of the airplanes I fly. But, you know, win some; lose some!”5

You’d get off that airplane right away! Yet children have no choice like that, unless you define dropping out as a choice. This society makes all children attend school, whatever that building looks like. We schedule them into classrooms with whoever is standing at the front of the class. That individual may or may not understand their job, particularly with children and youth in poverty, as a matter of life and death.

Some teachers and principals see their job as this fundamental, and they define that job as insisting that all students master basic skills, do well on tests, and graduate. Certainly this is a beginning. However, if this is all they do, the death-defying drop-out rates will certainly continue. “Star” teachers and principals see it as their central job to motivate and engage students and to make them lifelong learners, problem-solvers, and contributors to this nation’s democratic way of life. The vision of educators as enablers of social justice is the cornerstone of each school that truly saves children in poverty. It is the rationale for doing whatever it takes to ensure that each child has full opportunity. It is not enough to close the achievement gap on minimum skills tests so state departments of education stay happy. What is needed is a pervasive and thoroughly shared ideology and belief system that, when in full implementation, makes the school the hub of the neighborhood – a place where parents, members of the faith community, local organizations and businesses, and diverse newcomers to this great country feel totally welcomed and served.

What Beliefs Serve Children and Youth in Poverty?

If you want to see what people believe, do you ask them and get them to tell you or should you watch what they do? Seeing is believing. Dr. Haberman’s lifelong work has centered on his practice of going around the nation to schools and asking principals if he can observe the most successful teachers in that school. He then asks these teachers their beliefs. Over and over again, the same beliefs come up.

Persistence. These beliefs include that 1) teachers should be literally endlessly persistent.6 A “star” teacher will not say, “Some get it; some don’t.” S/he will search repeatedly, using every tool in a very large toolkit, to find a way to help each child learn. The belief that it is the teacher’s job to keep trying until they are successful is widely accepted in the research:
Teacher persistence helps foster effective teaching. Specifically, teacher persistence may promote high expectations for students, the development of teaching skills, teachers’ reflectiveness, responsiveness to diversity, teaching efficacy, effective responses to setbacks, and successful use of reformed teaching methods.7
When teachers do not believe this is the heart and soul of their job, they blame the students for lack of attention, motivation, or capability. What is, in effect, the teacher’s lack of persistence ends up as a failure on the students’ report cards. Have many of us have heard, “Look around. Only 50% of you will be here for graduation.” This bravado reveals a paradigm of teaching as a sorting machine, not a supporting environment. The only way to ensure the success of every child is to try endlessly until the magic works.

Protecting Students’ Learning: Who is the Stakeholder? The second crucial belief centers on preserving learning for students at all costs. “Star” teachers create relevant teaching by discovering what is “hot” for students as well as what is important to them and integrated lessons explore these meaningful themes. Star teachers’ teaching often looks a little different from that of other teachers who may be more traditional: may have students lined up in rows, may have primarily teacher-directed environments, may confuse quiet for learning. Sometimes this very relevant instruction even clashes with the bureaucracy and effective teachers are challenged to choose between “obeying” and promoting student learning. A “star” will always opt for the real stakeholder in the organization: the student, and they will go way out on a limb to preserve student learning.

One time around Thanksgiving a teacher brought a turkey into her urban children’s classroom. One hundred percent of the children in that class had never seen a live turkey before, and the excitement was palpable. Pretty soon word had flown through the whole wing that Ms. J had a turkey. Some of the teachers asked if their children could come see it in its little pen. Groups of happy children were filing in and out of this “star’s” happy classroom. But a few teachers were jealous; they went to the office and starting raising “concerns” about danger and disease. The principal (clearly not a “star”) went to see the turkey and, echoing the envious teachers’ jargon, told the “star” to take the turkey home. The star teacher managed to bargain one more day out of the principal, but, inevitably, the excitement, relevance, the potential lessons of the real-world object were agitated right out of the classroom.

The ability to advocate, gently negotiate, and hang on to whatever works with students while they are clearly achieving is a star ideology; in its absence, school becomes irrelevant and students drop out8.

Putting Theory into Practice. Successful teachers are lifelong learners of new, more effective and relevant ways to teach. Effective teachers and principals believe there is an indispensable body of ever-growing knowledge they need to acquire in order to help their students learn and achieve. Continuous educator improvement requires that teachers bridge theory (what they learn from experts modeling in the classroom or in staff development) to practice (how I will do this for my students). Too often, after a learning session, teachers might be heard saying something like, “That won’t work with my students!” Too often, they don’t even try something new or different; they have their first year of teaching 30 years in a row.

“Star” teachers, on the other hand, use student data such as test scores, attendance and referral data, student conversations, and peer review to gauge how well they’re doing motivating and helping students achieve. They align their own development to their students’ needs and seek out appropriate ways to increase their own skills in the teaching profession. This constant back and forth between theory and practice enables good teachers to keep on growing and changing. Gone forever is the sleep-inducing overhead projector, the yellowed and cracked syllabus and the third generation of some high school students saying, “My Grandpa said that was exactly what Mr. Jones taught when I was there. Nothing’s changed.” “Star” teachers are quick and agile learners who acquire whatever strategies are needed to help keep students motivated.

Approach to At-risk Students. “Stars” will not label students, but will be quick to understand that, amidst many factors that cause students to be at risk for school failure and dropping out (such as chaotic home lives, poor nutrition and health care, violence in the neighborhood), school itself causes at-risk students to be even more at risk. This occurs when schools systemically fail to motivate students; sort students into the middle class “gifted” and the underclass “special education;” when students in poverty go to the most run-down schools with the least experienced teachers.

“Star” teachers understand that excellent schooling for children in poverty is a social justice issue: equal and excellent education for all means access to high status jobs for those from poverty backgrounds; they will not be forced to do only menial jobs, serve in the military, or spend their lives avoiding jail. Ironically, says Dr. Haberman, in the current dysfunctional system, “For diverse students in poverty the agreed-upon goal of the larger society is to educate them to be happy, compliant losers than antisocial ones” 9. As difficult as it is to hear, there can be no other conclusion but that our society is content to allocate certain teachers, principals, buildings, and course quality to those who we tacitly already consider to be the no-hopers.

Professional vs. Personal Orientation. Have you ever heard of a child who came home from school and said, “My teacher doesn’t like me”? Perhaps your child or you yourself remember a teacher whose personal feelings toward the learner were so transparent that the relationship between the student and the teacher preempted all learning. “Star” teachers’ relationships with students are professional; regardless of whether or not they “like” the child, they will continue to endlessly try to help that student learn. This is quite different from the “personal” relationship with a child that a parent might have. If I only teach the ones I love, what will I end up teaching the gang-banger or the drug-runner? Will I give up on the child raising a child who is also promiscuous? “Stars” teach all children regardless of their feelings about the student in a professional manner and they build a trust that is independent of the students’ personal behaviors or foibles.

Burnout: The Care and Feeding of the Bureaucracy. Particularly where the poorest children live, in the 120 largest urban cities in our nation, as well as in rural areas of poverty, schools have bureaucracies that can wear teachers down. It’s not the work; it’s always the bureaucratic and time-consuming processes and interruptions that cause “stars” to become exhausted. Large bureaucracies, further, “rank” personnel in terms of salary and prestige from high (in central office with a large paycheck and far away from children) to low (with children and with a small paycheck and miserable benefits)10. Happily, “stars” recognize this reality; opt to accept these disadvantages and relish being with children despite the challenges. They also know these challenges might burn them out and they network with one another to keep children at the center. The antidote to burnout is working together; the solution is not taking a cruise or yoga. While these “vacations” might help, they do not cause even small improvements in the working conditions of teachers amidst large bureaucracies. Learning from one another; achieving milestones with children, and supporting families help “star” teachers over come burn out and not turn over.

Fallibility. “Stars” as well as quitter and failure educators understand (almost always) that everyone makes mistakes; everyone is human. However, which mistake is really a mistake and which mistake is less consequential? This key issue separates individuals who are capable of building trust from those who are so unconsciously incompetent that they have not even realized they broke trust. When a teacher or principal offends a student and breaks trust because they failed to admit to a mistake, all learning goes out the window. Covering up, blaming someone else, manufacturing excuses are the behaviors of someone who not only cannot admit to a mistake but cannot model conflict resolution. Many high school or college students remember a teacher or professor who said something to them that wounded deeply, and those words still sting to this day. Only “star” teachers and principals realize that breaking trust is an achievement-killer and the only way to build back a bridge is an apology.

Reprinted from Hope for Children in Poverty: Profiles and Possibilities edited by Ronald J. Side and Heidi Unruh, copyright © 2007 by Judson Press. Used by permission of Judson Press.