Thursday, December 13, 2012

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes (If they have shoes)

I have always struggled with being a softy, especially early on in my teaching career. It wasn't a big issue when I taught 1st grade or 3rd grade, without digging deeply into underlying issues I could help students with those basic needs.

If a 6 year old is...
  • Hungry? feed him
  • Tired? Send him to the bean bag chair, give him a blanky & let him nap
  • Crying? Hug him
  • No supplies? Buy him crayons, paper, pencils etc..
  • No field trip money? Easy to cover that, I'll grab my purse.
My struggle with the balance between empathizing & enabling happened as I began to work with middle school & high school kids. These kids still come to school, hungry, tired, crying, no supplies & with no money but the solution is harder.

The first year I worked at the MS & HS level, I saw many of the students I had previously taught in 3rd grade. I knew their back story, was aware of  their poverty, I had made those home visits, turned  names in for gift baskets at holiday time & to the local churches for other kinds of assistance. Many times I thought the secondary teachers were too hard on these kiddos. Some actually were too hard, but I was too easy &  needed to learn the balance between too hard & too soft.

Ginny, a child I had in 3rd grade, was in the hall, up against the wall and a teacher was in her face. The teacher was frustrated, I don't remember why he was inches from her face, towering over her in a posture meant to intimidate,  but I do remember the detached, dejected look on her face.

Did he really think raising his voice and yelling at her would reach her? Help her? Change her? What in the world could he do to her that she hadn't already survived?

As infant she had been tossed down the stairs and had both legs broken, by the time I met her, she was 7 years old & her grandparents had been called to come get her & her sister from child protective services in another state. The girls had been found by a landlord, filthy, hungry curled up together on a urine-soaked mattress all alone.  Without going in to too much more detail,  life with her grandparents wasn't much better.

She couldn't care less if you are disappointed in her, or if you have "had it up to HERE" with her. She had already survived much more than your disapproval.

So how in the world, when you are a middle class person, raised in a middle class family in a small rural town by both parents, going to your grandparents every Sunday for dinner (after church and catechism) to play with all of your cousins, with support coming out of your ears, do you begin to know how to help the Ginny's of the world overcome all the fences & hurdles that come with poverty?

I do know one don't learn that in a 3 hour, 1 semester college course!

I went to speak with Deb Carter, our middle school principal at the time, I knew she had more experience than I did and told her the above story. She shared with me that she had seen this lack of understanding, this inherent frustration , this lack of experience to work with students/families in poverty over the short time she had been with our district and she  had been considering her next steps. (She came to us from a much bigger district who had already felt the consequences of the sinking economy)

She is a firm believer in "When you know better, you do better", so she set out to help us "know better".

In the 80's, when much of our staff first began teaching here, we had a free & reduced lunch rate of 5% and teachers were the middle class. Very few kiddos were truly poor, a stern look & a quick, "when I see your mom at the ball game this week and students quickly capitulated and fell in line.

Fast forward 20 years,  we now sit at over 60% free & reduced lunch and teachers are the wealthy folks in our town, the loss of manufacturing jobs hadn't hurt the teachers, but it sure had hurt everyone else.

In Deb's opinion, the staff just needed to open their eyes to what was happening to their city, leave their comfort short...when they know better, they will do better.

She was right!

We all began to open our eyes & truly acknowledge the epidemic of poverty hitting our little town.  This district is staffed with excellent teachers who truly want the best for their students (true everywhere, not just our little corner of the world) As soon as we all had our "Ah ha" moments, action was taken in greater force than ever before.

Teachers did book studies around breaking the cycle of poverty (reading Ruby Payne & more), they worked to empower students and families, brainstormed wrap around programs to support every single student, the capacity for learning & loving at our middle school was & is awe-inspiring!

Teachers & admins connected with our wonderful community members, who un-endingly (to this day) donate coats, shoes, clothes and school supplies. My neighbor heads up a program that gives hungry kids a backpack filled with food to get them through the weekend til they can have breakfast & lunch at school again. Even on the snowiest of days we don't cancel schools, too many kids will be cold & hungry if we do.

I am so blessed & grateful to live in a community that is generous. BUT...that is the sort of easy part. I'm good with giving food, clothes and money.

The hard part is saying...I know your life sucks right now, I now your mom/dad is drunk, or on meth or gone but YOU MUST PERSEVERE & I'm not going to be easier on you, excuse your sleeping in class, or let you get away with not doing the work needed to meet your life goals.

How do you empower, not enable?
How do you have empathy but not pity?
How do you support but not "do for"?

I'm still learning, I learn from my PLN, from my amazing New Tech Network colleagues & I learned so much from my friend & colleague, who first led me on this path of "tough love" emphasis on the love part!

No comments:

Post a Comment