Poverty and The Miracle Workers: We All Bear the Burden

A miracle is defined as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause (according to dictionary.com). I may be way off, but sometimes when I think about education and the achievement gap, I feel that as educators we are the miracle workers. That’s not because we are solely responsible for the success or the lack there of for our students. And it’s certainly not because we are actually working miracles on a daily basis. I mean, sometimes we are foolish enough to believe we have supernatural powers-but most of us know that we don’t.  Mostly, it’s just because we are more in tune with the struggles of poverty that our students face on a daily basis, yet we are working our hearts out (quite literally) to help them defy the odds. 

Essentially, we are trying to work miracles. I’m certainly not saying that it can’t be done. If I didn’t believe what we did makes a difference, I wouldn’t still show up everyday-seventeen years later after I started. We work hard everyday. We tell children that the odds are in their favor, even when we know they have so many stacked against them.  We persist and ask them to do the same, even when things are hard. We build hope every minute of every day. We don’t let test scores, school report card grades, or school to school unfair comparisons discourage and define us. We march forward in spite of it all, sometimes pretending to be oblivious to what is really being asked of us and what our students are really facing outside of the school day. However, it’s high time all of us (educators, policy makers, community members, and everyone else) take a deeper look at poverty and its’ layered and complex impact on public education.
Last weekend, I read an article on the implications of poverty on children and their school achievement. The Early Catastrophe, You can read more on this study here. The article describes a research study by Hart and Riley in which they studied 42 children beginning at birth. They specifically sought to find the difference in language and vocabulary acquisition and expression at various income levels. What they found, astonished me. By age three, there was nearly a 30 million word gap between children of affluent families and their impoverished peers. Some have criticized their study noting that the methodology was flawed while others have cited it as clear evidence that the achievement gap begins in the womb. While research is an important piece of information that assist educators in our decision making in schools, the personal narrative of teachers, principals, and students cannot be ignored. So often we hear the importance of triangulated data, yet as schools we are judged on one quantitative measure. The personal narratives matter too.
This morning I read an article that nearly brought me to tears. The article, in today’s Washington Post, Graduate, but to What?, paints the bleak picture of a high school senior’s journey to graduation and his quest for life afterwards trying to find a job. It seems life dealt him a bad hand from the moment he entered the world. He left the hospital with his grandmother from birth. Never receiving the nurturing and love all kids need from their mother, for its’ the natural order of species on earth. The article goes on to cite roadblock after roadblock, some caused by poverty, some by poor decision making that he faced. Summarily, it gives the reader an inside view to how intergenerational poverty and where you grow up poor, has far deeper implications on the future of children as opposed to circumstantial poverty. This quote from the article, moved me so deeply: “Here in the Deep South, poverty perpetuates from generation to generation like in no other region of the country, data shows, and the obstacles that hold back new high school graduates shine a light on a vast economic struggle that differs in its expansiveness from the concentrated problems seen in urban hubs.” It’s an article worth reading: http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/business/2015/10/17/poor-students/
I have worked as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, and principal with students in the deep south, many of them from poverty. Perhaps it is the personal narratives that came rushing back to me from students whose hope I am working to restore or build or maintain, because no matter how positive I am, trauma, poverty, violence, and mere chaos surrounds them every minute that they are not in school. Poverty matters and so does a quality education. Over my seventeen years in education, I’ve heard many say, “Look at you. Being poor is not an excuse.” They are right. Poverty is not an excuse, but it is an explanation. While it may not be the only explanation, to dismiss it as an excuse and not give any credence as to the role it plays in the lives of our students is abysmal. It matters, just as high quality teaching, great leadership, and focused efforts matter. It matters too.
It is an explanation for why obtaining a high quality education is so much more challenging for students of poverty than for others. It is an explanation for why paying attention in class is difficult when you are hungry, or cannot see, and do not have the glasses you need. It is an explanation for why your papers are not signed by a parent, because they are working multiple jobs and are only home to sleep. It is an explanation for why studying is difficult when there are not lights in the house because some other priority (food, shelter, transportation) took precedence over the electric bill, and the person who should help you can’t because they do not know how to help, not because they do not want to do so. It is an explanation for why bringing in your project proves to be not worth the trouble of explaining to your teacher why you did not follow all the criteria on their list because you used what you could find to complete it rather than having all the requirements that the other kids parents did for them anyway. It is an explanation for why some students are quick to anger, cry, or have trouble placing the trauma they face from home (abuse, neglect, drug addiction, domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment) on “the shelf” for seven hours so they can focus on their education to get out of the situation they are currently in right now. It is an explanation for why I graduated from Clemson University, with several thousand dollars in student loans, and used a great portion of my income to further my education for all three of my graduate degrees. It takes money to borrow money. Some people just don’t get that. I’m proudly Dr. Latoya Dixon, but that title has a $30,000.00 price tag along with the hardest academic work I’ve ever done. 
So I agree. Poverty is not an excuse. There were no excuses made for my sisters and me. My mother would tell us, “an excuse is whatever you want it to be”. However, poverty was an explanation of why my mother begged the used car dealer to give her the loan on a 1987 Ford Tarus in 1991, even though her credit did not warrant such, and even after he said no, so she would have dependable transportation to get my sister to college and back home. Sad part of this is that the car broke down on us taking my sister back to college after Christmas of her freshman year. And so the cycle of fixing the car continued taking priority over other things that we needed. It is an explanation of why I began working at McDonald’s at age 15 and saved as much money as possible until the summer of my sophomore year in college, because I knew to become a teacher, I would have to do student teaching and catching a ride was old. People get tired of taking you and they overcharge for gas money because they can. It is an explanation for why my sisters and I sharpened pencils with butter knives, and made glue with flour and water, and used shoeboxes and coat hangers to do our projects for school, instead of the beautiful three section backboards that were often required in our projects-taking a lower grade for not following directions when we did the best we could. In a recent conversation with one of my sisters, I said to her, “Thank God we grew up poor where we did.” As I continue to read more research about economic mobility and intergenerational poverty, the more I believe that if my mother had raised us in a different geographic area of the country, our story’s ending might not be quite the same. 
So no, poverty is not an excuse for why students are not performing as others say they should be or to the standard required by state policy makers. It is, however, most certainly an explanation for why their performance so greatly differs from others who are not experiencing the trauma and crisis that often comes with being poor. To simply dismiss it as an excuse is wrong (in my humble opinion). It’s like dismissing addiction because we know that cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol aren’t good for the body or mind. While we realize that smoking can cause lung cancer, we don’t bother to help those who desire to quit and can’t because they are addicted, because addiction is no excuse for continuing to smoke, or drink, or do drugs for that matter. Make sense? It doesn’t to me either.
WE are the miracle workers in education. We don’t just talk about the issues. We work to make things happen. We are on the ground level day in and day out helping our children in a world where it might seem impossible to them that they can make it out of their situations. We are the miracle workers who come in early, stay late, give of our personal selves and resources, to make the educational experience the best it can be for all of our students. And yes, it is our job and professional responsibility, but some days it seems the moral obligation of such belongs only to us. 
In a discussion on twitter with my co-principal and a fellow administrator in a different state, we began discussing our reactions to The Early Catastrophe. When my co-principal posed the idea of universal early childhood education, the other colleague asked, “Should tax payers bear the burden?” I don’t think I ever answered him, but here’s my honest answer:
We all bear the burden. We build schools and give our best effort to build productive, contributing, and productive citizens in spite of all they face. When we create a more educated society everyone benefits. Personally, I’d rather bear the burden of building a preschool instead of a prison. While I don’t have all the answers for how we combat such an overwhelming problem with sobering statistics, I certainly know that I’ve had the opportunity to serve with some of the most committed, dedicated, and hardest working people who are trying to work miracles, in spite of the accountability rhetoric that names our schools as failing, and our children as numbers in a data set. Behind every number there is a story…and WE are the miracle workers.
Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder,

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