Before I returned to the classroom, and when I was a college professor, I was completely convinced by the infallible innocence of those in poverty. They are the victims of an insatiable capitalism and every accommodation should be made to help them succeed, and every allowance should be made to help their children succeed as well.
In that aforementioned position, I was somewhat detached from it all. I was surrounded by largely white colleagues whose sympathy and guilt about persons in poverty overflowed. It felt as if no metric or measurement of academic success was valid until all differentiation based on income was eradicated.
I still possess a great many of these beliefs about poverty and education. I don’t fall anywhere near the reformist camps who still refuse to recognize that poverty has more influence on educational outcomes than the best teacher or curriculum could possibly provide. But my views are more complicated now by actually doing the hard work of teaching in a low-income community of color.
Contrary to some of the more vague conversations on education and poverty that I’ve encountered in policy and activist circles, as a teacher, I have specific problems that I/we need to solve. Across the board, participation in parent conferences is very low. I think I had six of 18 this year, despite phone calls and several notices and reminders.
We had one parent show for our PTA elections, despite a slate of potential candidates. The candidates didn’t even show. We do our best every day to reduce violence and help students solve their problems in more peaceable ways. Then, when we overhear parents talking to their children, it’s, “Well, if she hit you, then hit her back.”
Children are allowed to stay for after-school activities until 6PM, Monday through Thursday. But then several kids won’t get picked up until 6:45. We know you’re not working, so where’ve you been?
Millions and millions of dollars are spent (we could be spending more) on healthy school lunch options (we could be doing better). Then I see kids walking in with cans of soda at 8:30AM or, in one more extreme case, two kids walked in with a half-melted tub of ice cream. Babies walk babies home every day, several blocks, and we worry about them making it home safely.
The biggest mistake a reader could do right now is chalk this up to the ranting of some privileged, white a-hole who can’t understand the lives of persons of color in poverty. When I first started teaching, I carried with me every single sympathy and attitude and predilection that made me sensitive to the various issues of race and class that so many activists and advocates discuss.
But it’s my colleagues of color who’ve complicated my perspective. It’s not always been explicit, kind of like a buzzing in my ear over the last three years. It was their reactions to manifestations of poverty in our students in parents. I’ll watch Child Protective Services get called on a parent who’s late picking up their child. I’ll overhear use of the word “criminals” in reference to students. No patience given when parents don’t have money for field trips because they can otherwise afford Jordans for their kids. Parents flood the phone lines asking about turkey giveaways: eyeroll, eyeroll, eyeroll. Parents get called when a child misbehaves, knowing full well that child gets their tail whipped when they get home.
It’s been like a slow chipping away of this edifice of idealism and advocacy that I carried into the classroom. The realities of getting parents and kids to play ball with you distract from the larger messages of poverty and education. The minutiae of every day, and the stress it causes, hinders our ability to empathize and advocate.
At this point, after nearly 700 words, I don’t know if I can explain this correctly. I’ve certainly made no concrete decisions or solidified my views in one way or another. I just feel different now, less sure about what I thought before.
I’m wondering if anyone else thought about this.