Thursday, January 7, 2010

What does poverty look like?

It looks like this:

  • Her clothes are dirty and mussed, but there is grocery money, no money for the laundromat. The kids who cannot wash her clothes because the washing machine broke and the family cannot afford to fix it. It is a deep embarrassment, especially when others make fun of the way she smells.
  • His hair is never washed. He smells and has dirt under his finger nails.
  • It is the child who eats his lunch for snack, because a parent has given them nothing for breakfast, they have no understanding of the importance of a good breakfast, or had to leave for work before the child left for school.
  • It's the latch key kid who spends hours hanging around the school yard, getting into trouble.
  • She stuffs her rain boots with plastic to get herself through the day. It is the child who doesn't wear a winter coat, or winter boots in sub-zero weather. Her mitts she claimed from the lost and found. She is to embarrassed to go to anyone for help.
  • The child who is continually turning up late for school...she is too tired, hungry, or has a parent without the intellectual ability, or addictions, who is unable to set up routines. Most kids want to be part of something lik school. It is their foundation.

What does poverty sound like?
  •  It is in the sound of the aggressive, verbally abusive kindergarten child who is angry that the other have spanking new backpacks, with cute lunch boxes, filled with goodies, with scrumptious sandwiches. 
  • It is the child who is picked on because he is different, belligerent, and uncomfortable because he cannot afford money for the field trip. He gets suspended to avoid having to pay for the trip.
  • It is the kids who bullies others, stealing money from backpacks to cover up for himself.
  • It's the kid who tells you that s/he 'forgot' his/her lunch. 
  • It's the kids who cannot take the milk program, despite being thin and malnourished, because s/he cannot afford the 35 cents per day.
  • The lonely kid who talk and visits with you every recess, who tags along, wants to hold your hand (in elementary school) or asks to stay in to 'work' at recess. She chatters every day, and look to you as a shining beacon in the dark. You may be the only adult in her life who is stable and whom she can depend upon.
Why are these kids in this situation?
Their teachers and peers blame parents. Yet, in this economic climate, many families are one pay check away from losing an apartment or a home.
Illness in a family who depends on hourly wages has a profound effect on a family. If you are ill, you cannot work. Middle class teacher do not understand.
Families are in trouble because of family violence, physical, social and emotional abuse, as a parent lashes out at loved ones, not knowing what else to do. Anger is a result of fear for not caring for a child.
Children are victims of their economic situation. They do not cause it.
Parents have to work shifts, especially single parent families. They cannot always be home.
Families can lose homes due to situations beyond their control: fire, theft, and for those who cannot afford home or tenant insurance, they will be left with nothing.
Children in newly divorced families often will face vastly changed financial circumstances. Many are, again, embarrassed to admit that they do not have money for those expensive school activities. Privately, they might want help and help they should get.

What can teachers do?
  • Figure out what the behaviours mean.
  • Understand them, and look beyond the picture that they present. One day, with your help, they can rise above their poverty. They need someone to believe in them.
  • Prevent bullying by kids who make fun of those who are different. 
  • Approach your principal who will have funds, or contact the Family Council in your school. They will provide funds for kids who cannot afford to go on valuable field trips.  
  • Provide healthy snacks, give them free milk, with no fuss made.
  • Raid the 'lost and found' for clothes. 
  • Many large big box stores have funds to provide clothes, or pay for supplies for these children.
  • The snowsuit fund has a marvelous program.
  • Buy the child, with a parent who cannot get her up on time, an alarm clock. A simple solution.
  • Contact local agencies for help: Rotary Club, Kiwanis Club, Red Cross, local churches, synagogues, or mosques.
  • Pay for the child to visit the breakfast club, if you have one. If not, create one. This is a terrific way to help kids get a start on the day.
  • Create an after-school club. Seek parent volunteers, or funding through YWCA, or Youth Programs.
  • Understand that it is not the child's fault. They want to be just like their peers. 
  • Offer the student the school shower, if they need a shower. Again, the parent/teachers association can provide towels and soap for these kids. Even a change of clothes. One of our best volunteers, formerly the parent of kids in the school, now a grandparent to a couple of our students, lived across the road. She could help out by taking clothes home and washing them.
  • Understand your demographics. Many classrooms have a wide range of socioeconomic levels. As a newly single parent, I was up to my eyeballs in debt: finding first and last month's rent (even as a full-time, employed teacher) was difficult until I got back on my feet. A husband who cut off my December child support (at the whim of his lawyer to force me to settle) rendered Christmas impossible. Meeting the needs of my children was difficult. 
  • Realize that working class families are working hard for that reason: they are working because they need the money. My son's classroom teacher was demanding $5 per week for arts and crafts activities, which I could not scrape up. I wrote a letter to the teacher, copied to the principal, explaining that this was beyond my means.
Many children rise above poverty, verbal abuse, neglect, to achieve and give back to society. Do not let them slip through your fingers. Give them a soft place to land. Give them hope, love and, above all, discipline and self-discipline, values and morals. We owe it to society for being part of the educational system.

    Cartoon courtesy: Graeme MacKay @

    1 comment:

    Grandma K said...

    My daughter and I just saw the movie "Precious." That movie brought me back to my teaching career where I would encounter students who came from abject poverty and/or an abusive environment. And we expect these children to be able to learn.

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