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Preparing Teachers for an Unfortunate Reality: Impoverished Students

How can we modify education programs to make sure that our teachers look beyond simple stereotypes about the perceived deficits of poor students?
(Photo: Vlue/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Vlue/Shutterstock)

The popular photography blog, Humans of New York, is currently running a series highlighting students and educators at the Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a low-income school in Brownsville, New York. This feature has prompted a generous response from readers, who have donated over a million dollars through the crowdfunding platform Indiegogo to fund college trips and scholarships for Mott Hall’s students.

While the reaction to this specific project is unique, the challenges of schooling in high-poverty neighborhoods are not.

Over half of all children in public schools in the United States are now considered poor, according to a recent report by the Southern Education Foundation, which defined low-income by the percentage of public school children receiving free or reduced-price lunches and points out that this benefit was available only to families living in poverty or near-poverty in 2013.*

This means that the challenges experienced by the students in New York are not an anomaly, but represent a new normal for most schools. Most educators, any public school teacher can tell you, must respond to basic needs like hunger and mental health before the first lesson of the day.

Accompanying the Humans of New York photo series on Mott Hall Bridges Academy are the stories of educators, many of them women of color, responding to the needs and challenges of their students in compelling ways. One such post featured a student named Vidal who said the following about his principal, Ms. Lopez:

When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.

If we were to structure teacher preparation programs with students like Vidal in mind, how would this change the way that we recruit and prepare educators?

Most obviously, we would prioritize socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic diversity in our recruitment of prospective teachers. Nationwide, about 80 percent of the teaching force is middle class, female, and white. This stands in sharp contrast to a student population that is majority low-income and increasingly made up of students of color.

A widely reported Reddit thread recently exposed the often invisible or ignored ways that families living in poverty have to try and get by to survive in the U.S. But the experiences and perspectives of low-income students can be difficult for middle-class teachers to understand. Teacher education programs that promote diversity need to also provide context, training, and direct experience with low-income schools and communities.

With our education students at the University of Texas, this means understanding how historic and ongoing segregation in cities like Austin perpetuates poverty and unequal schooling opportunities for students of color.

While historically black and Latino schools on Austin’s East Side struggle to keep state funding, for example, the nearby affluent district of Westlake regularly raises millions of dollars in parent donations to supply their children with extra electives, teachers, 1:1 iPad initiatives, and worldwide training programs for their teachers.

These disparities are obvious to us as they’re right outside our front doors, but they exist across the U.S. in many different forms.

Preparing teachers with poor students in mind means understanding why this segregation exists but, more importantly, it also means physically leaving the college classroom and requiring prospective teachers to spend time in schools, churches, community centers, and other institutions in working-class communities.

Many times, educational practitioners develop an inaccurate single story  that focuses on the perceived deficits of poor students and their families. Simple experiences—like ordering pan dulce from a neighborhood bakery or attending a Sunday morning service—allow our teacher education students to develop a more accurate understanding of the resilience and cultural assets of local communities of color.

Teacher education programs should certainly be held to high standards, but current proposals to expand standardized testing to teacher education are a step in the wrong direction.

These plans lack a foundation in evidence and threaten to narrow teacher education curriculum in harmful ways. Besides knowing content and developing an understanding of varied teaching and learning approaches, those studying to become educators need experiences within communities different from their own.

Instead of narrowing teacher education program content, we need to help teachers appreciate and understand what young children and families in poverty need and want from educational communities. We should focus on creative ways to prepare teachers to respond to the needs of all students.

*UPDATE — February 13, 2015: This sentence originally stated that more than half of all children in U.S. schools are considered poor—the report actually shows this applies to public schools only, not all U.S. schools.