Something you need to know about working in elementary education: There will be a fair amount of parenting mixed in with your teaching. These small children are with you for six hours a day. It’s unavoidable that during those 30 hours a week, sometimes they will need a little mom-time or dad-time for:
- cuts and scrapes
- bruised egos
- social drama/trauma
And their need for parenting may be even more fundamental. You’ll need to look out for:
- inadequate clothing
- untreated illness
- poor vision
… and a host of other items, depending upon the composition of your school’s students.
The teacher-parent connection
If you don’t accept your role as a teacher/parent, neither you nor your kids will achieve all that you hope for. What if you have never been a parent, or a parent of the age of kids you are teaching?
You’re in luck: you get to practice!
You will find that the need for your parenting skills will increase as the neighborhoods in which you teach get closer to the poverty line. Poverty is a huge factor in the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students, so let’s look at the role you will play with these kids in greater depth.
The path from poverty to success
… leads through school. Student-centered teaching is a mindset that places each and every child in the center of a teacher’s attention – a mindset that does not allow any excuse to stand in the way of student success.
There is no lack of data regarding the societal challenges of educating the segment of our population that lives in poverty. The kids from homes in poverty are at-risk students in dire need of dropout prevention that begins before kindergarten.
And from a large-scale, society-wide perspective, states and districts with a large proportion of their population living in poverty can be expected to have lower overall test scores than areas with higher incomes.
But does poverty provide any excuse for an individual teacher to justify poor performance from any of her students?
In a word: no.
Every child can make academic progress every year, regardless of their starting point. That is the best gift that any teacher can give a child from a disadvantaged background.
Here is the big picture: The promise of public education is that anyone, no matter what background they come from, can get a free education that allows them to achieve their life goals and improve themselves.
When any school fails to educate a child who is living in poverty, our society as a whole has lost an opportunity to create a happy, productive citizen who can make positive contributions to our culture, economy, and vitality – in short, a citizen who can help solve problems, not contribute to them.
The big picture is important, but my focus rests on individual children.
Will that kid who showed up this morning from a home in poverty have a better life in ten years? Or will she be well on her way to repeating the choices of her parents and grandparents? Teaching in a student-centered classroom means that you make this choice about her future every day.
K-6 is the key
I strongly believe that kindergarten through sixth grade is the key. If we pass a kid on to middle school who is not reading, writing, or calculating at grade level, then he is officially an at-risk student who is very likely to fail, even with extensive efforts at dropout prevention in high school.
Would you want to go to school every day if you were utterly lost because all the subject matter was over your head?
In contrast, if your teaching has played its part in growing a student’s skills so that they keep pace with his grade level, then he is set up to really take off in the upper grades. At the very least, he is not working against a stacked deck during his vulnerable teen years.
Making it work in your classroom
We have resources available to help at-risk students. Paying attention to the needs of individual children helps them forget (at least while in school) that they have extremely challenging lives at home. Counselors, principals, and school nurses can help arrange for:
- Shoes and coats. Learning is easier when a child is warm.
- Doctors and dentists. Have you ever tried to focus with a toothache?
- Glasses. Seeing the board is a fundamental requirement for learning.
- Speech or hearing therapy. Speaking and listening clearly is fundamental, too.
- Groceries. So they aren’t starving on Monday morning from lack of weekend food.
- Counseling. For emotional issues that may stem from problems in the family.
- IEP’s. For targeted assistance, because no one may be working with them at home.
- Homeless student transportation. So they can stay in the same school for continuity.
And the most important part of this equation, as we’ve discussed, is your attention.
Where do we end up after all of this time and attention focused on creating a student-centered classroom? Do we still have kids that can be categorized as “in” or “out” of poverty? Not if we are doing our jobs.
Instead, because of our devoted approach, we simply have a classroom full of children. Children who are:
Now all we have to do is teach like their future depends on it.