Poverty is a huge factor affecting the performance of our elementary students. Schools, districts and states with a high percentage of low-income families can reasonably cite poverty as one explanation for lower test scores or poor performance in other measures of student achievement.
My concern, however, is always for the individual children in my classroom. At that level, should poverty be any excuse for poor student performance?
In my opinion, absolutely not! Every one of our students can make significant yearly academic progress no matter what the quality of their home life.
I believe a lot in the promise of public education. Our schools are supported by taxes, and every family pays those taxes. In exchange, we promise (or should promise) that we will do our utmost to provide an excellent education for every student who walks through our doors.
Dropout Prevention Starts Early
K-6 is critical to student success. I teach fourth grade, and it's my opinion that elementary teachers have much more impact on the long-term success of a student's academic career than teachers in any grade that follows. If we don't start children off on the right foot, they'll face an uphill battle clear through high school -- if they even make it through high school.
How do we do that? By ensuring that there is a level playing field for each and every child in our class. Here's how.
The first step is to adopt the mindset that every student in our class is absolutely equal, regardless of their background, family circumstances, academic level -- or even their personality. That may seem like a given, but consider whether each of these best practices are being applied consistently in your own classroom.
Students should never be separated for the convenience of the teacher. For example, even if children have multiple IEPs and need to come and go to the special education room frequently, they should not be seated in a group near the door so they can slip in and out without disturbing the rest of the class.
Segregation of this sort automatically puts children into a different category and places them at a disadvantage when interacting with their peers.
Every classroom will have children who are talkative, disinterested or apathetic. All too often, these children find themselves at a desk at the back of the room -- exactly the opposite of the location where they should be seated. Every child, no matter what attitude he brings into your classroom, deserves his fair share of time sitting in the front row and getting the teacher's full attention -- even if he never responds to it.
No Put Downs
Even slight amounts of verbal antagonism must be absolutely unacceptable. In a close-knit classroom community, no one is teased because of such things as a speech impediment, odd clothing or any element of her personality or way of expressing herself. Our classrooms must be judgment-free zones where any elementary-age child can feel free to be herself, even if she is silly and immature. Once a student knows that others won't make fun of her for just acting naturally, she becomes free to succeed academically because she's no longer leashed to the worry of satisfying the expectations of her peers.
In the successful classroom, every single student must feel that he is a first-class citizen with all the rights that come with that status -- including the right to simply be himself.
Provide the Basics
Children who come from a disadvantaged background may suffer the consequences while at home, but once in school, teachers must use every resource at their disposal to remove impediments to learning.
This means accessing any resources that may be available through our building administration or district to provide:
- Warm clothing in the winter
- Access to free or reduced medical care and eyeglasses
- Therapy for hearing or speech issues
- Counseling to help deal with problems at home
- Special education support
- Transportation (if they qualify as homeless students)
- Food for weekends and holidays
Fulfilling the Promise of Public Education
After taking all of these steps, do we still have any children that can be classified as "in poverty" while at school? Or do we simply have individuals who are clothed, fed and personally cared for in an accepting and supportive environment? These children may still have academic challenges, but in that regard they're not unlike students from any economic background. We've truly leveled the playing field so that we can now focus on their individual academic needs.
In short, we just have a classroom filled with children -- children who are ready to learn. Now all we have to do is teach like their individual futures depend upon it.