Volume 16 Issue 3
A little understanding goes a long way when it comes to teaching and connecting with children who may be experiencing poverty or homelessness.
“Having empathy doesn’t mean reducing schoolwork or teaching less,” says Lynette Henley, a member of the Vallejo Education Association and teacher at Hogan Middle School. “It just means being aware that your students are struggling with other things besides school. Keep your expectations high, but be aware they face challenges getting to school every day. They may have adult responsibilities, like helping to raise younger kids or running a household because their parents need to work.”
Henley makes sure her students have supplies like paper and colored pencils, so they can complete homework even if they can’t afford school supplies. She also offers those without a computer other options for completing assignments at home.
“Don’t make it impossible for them to do the work if they don’t have access to technology,” advises Henley.
It’s best not to be judgmental about their family situation, says Bret Baird, a teacher at Kennedy Middle School and president of the Redwood City Teachers Association. “It can be tempting to make excuses about parents even before we contact them, and assume that they can’t help their children with school, since they didn’t go to school themselves. But that is a false assumption, and they can be taught and encouraged to help their children with school. If you show them how they can help, they will gladly do it. We can’t underestimate them, because these families are incredibly resourceful and courageous.”
All parents, even poor ones, want their children to succeed, says Baird.
“I make connections with parents and let them know I’m going to push their kid to do his or her best,” says Sara Camm, a teacher at Orange Grove Elementary School and member of the Anaheim Elementary Education Association (AEEA). “I speak in Spanish to get my point across, even though my Spanish is bad. I invite them into my classroom and remind them they don’t need a special invitation to volunteer. I have an open door. I also tell my kids they are welcome to come in for extra help before school or at recess or at lunch if they need help with their homework.”
Jaime Ramirez, a teacher at Mann Elementary School and an AEEA member, says he is constantly checking for comprehension from students whose English is limited.
“I am listening to their responses and giving effective feedback. My students know that I could be calling on them at any time. I give them small chunks of information instead of teaching for 30 minutes straight, because I know I could lose them otherwise.”
Sometimes students who are poor or homeless need extra support.
“Have an open heart, look inside that child and give that child an extra ‘I care,’” says June Garland, director of community services and support in Newport-Mesa Unified School District. “Kids want to know somebody is in their court, and knowing this can change the entire child.”
As a cautionary note, she says, it’s best never to promise anything.
“It’s tempting to say things like ‘We’ll take care of you’ or ‘I’ll help you,’ but it could just be another broken promise in a string of broken promises of those they have trusted,” says Garland. “It’s best to say, ‘I can only do so much. I can give a Band-Aid to you. I can give you breakfast or lunch, but I can’t change your circumstances.’ It’s best to be honest.”
According to education expert Diane Ravitch, schools should focus on the “whole child,” not just on improving test scores for children who are poor and not proficient.
“We should be helping them develop resilience and coping skills, and also nurturing hope for the future, understanding that their schooling can be a powerful tool to transform their lives. Every teacher should cherish the dream of being an inspiration to his/her students.”