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May 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 8

One to Grow On / Teachers Who Stare Down Poverty

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My family wasn't wealthy when I was a kid, but neither did I experience mealtimes without food on the table, holidays without gifts, or sickness without resources to visit a doctor. Poverty existed only on the fringes of my world.
My first encounter with poverty that felt "real" came when some friends and I took toys and food to the house of a woman who worked in our college cafeteria. This woman, whom I'll call Mary, was cheerful and funny and paid attention to students in a way that made us feel seen. One day, when my friends and I drove by, we saw Mary at a bus stop crying. We stopped and asked if we could give her a ride. "I'm sorry you had to see me crying like that," she said. "I'm a single mom. Sometimes it seems too hard."
We didn't know what to do, but we wanted to help. So later we brought by things we thought Mary's kids would like. In her house were three little children asleep on two mattresses on a concrete floor. It was cold, and the smell was unfriendly. There were some clothes folded on a table (with no chairs) near a window that was too tall for the children to see out. I can still recall the physical feeling of fear that made me want to run away.
I wasn't afraid of the neighborhood and certainly not of Mary, who felt like a friend. But I wanted to escape what I instantly sensed to be a problem beyond my capacity to understand, let alone address.

Learning Not to Run

I've thought of that moment often in my years as a teacher. In some small, important way, Mary sensitized me to the lives of students who came to my classroom from similar circumstances—and returned to those circumstances night after night. I understand the weight of their world better than I once did. Yet in some ways, I still have to fight the urge to turn away from the immensity of their challenges because I feel so inadequate to address their needs.
Over time, however, I've learned from children who live in poverty—and from educators who risk involvement with those children because to do otherwise is unthinkable to them. These educators are coarchitects and coengineers of possibility.

The Architecture of a Dream

Certain beliefs and practices are central in the lives of educators who help children of poverty turn their hopes for better lives into reality. These educators
  • Believe without reservation in the capacity of each student to succeed personally and academically. They accept as a given that there are few limits on what individuals can accomplish through hard, savvy work.
  • See richness in the lives, experiences, and cultures of youth they mentor. They affirm the strengths that are an inevitable part of every young life.
  • Connect on a level that conveys belief in a young person's worth. They persist in giving this message even when the youth rejects connection—often from fear that another adult will let him or her down.
  • Make their faith in the young person visible by offering opportunities for new experiences to expand that child's sense of possibilities. Whether it's an offer to go to computer camp, a chance to join a group of kids going to a basketball game or a play, an invitation to study with others in the teacher's room during lunch, or a suggestion to try out for a team or a choir, the message is that the educator can imagine these students succeeding in a context they have considered closed to them—and will support the opportunity.
  • Help the young person learn to set goals and take actions toward accomplishing them. Goal-setting and planning are learned skills crucial to success in almost any area. Educators who stare down poverty don't assume students come equipped with those skills.
  • Take a diagnostic/prescriptive approach to developing students' academic skills. They determine which skills the student will need in order to pursue a goal and cultivate those skills. This may include helping with reading, writing, public speaking, applying for college, advocating for yourself in situations in which you feel wronged, using public transportation, or many other skills that students from privileged backgrounds assimilate.
  • Support students in learning to live comfortably in two worlds. Often the invitation to build a dream is an invitation to move into a different circle of life, one remote from the familiar. Teachers must help young people become bicultural. Rather than suggesting that kids from poverty backgrounds must leave behind language, music, customs, and other elements that shape their lives, these mentors help students extend their experiences while still valuing the experiences they grew up with—and deal with the accompanying emotional tensions.
  • Build networks that support both achieving and belonging. It's lonely to have aspirations that set you apart from friends. Finding peers who have similar dreams or who have recently taken significant steps toward such dreams enhances the likelihood of persisting in the face of inevitable difficulty. Likewise, networks of caring adults throughout the school and community provide concrete evidence that there is support for this journey.
  • Sign on for the long haul. Difficult roads are seldom either short or straight. These mentor-educators accept that the students whom they champion at age 10 will still need their support at 16. When failures happen, they help the student refocus, regroup, and restart.
Whether they become activists for social justice or quiet guides through a sort of "underground railroad," these educators help kids rewrite their prospects. We're all better for what they do—and for what we can learn to do from them.

At the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish, Jr. professor and chair of Educational Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, teaching post-graduate students, mainly in the areas of curriculum design and differentiated instruction. She is also co-director of the university's Institutes on Academic Diversity, where she strives to help educators understand the principles of differentiated instruction and develop competence and confidence in creating responsive classrooms that meet the diverse learning needs of today's students.

As an educator for more than 21 years, Tomlinson has worked as an elementary and a secondary public school teacher. She was named Outstanding Professor at Curry School of Education in 2004 and received an All-University Teaching Award in 2008. In 2016, she was ranked #16 in the Education Week Edu-Scholar Public Presence Rankings for "university-based academics who are contributing most substantially to public debates about schools and schooling," and as the #3 voice in Educational Psychology. She's written more than 300 books, book chapters, articles, and other materials for educators.

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