I left my reading of Dr. Donna Beegle’s “See Poverty, Be the Difference” to the end of my summer reading. I should have read it sooner so that I had more time to digest, reflect, and think about how I can apply what I’m learning to the start of a new school year. I’m starting to be able to synthesize much of what I’ve been learning about leadership and learning this summer.
Right now I’m thinking about my purpose as a school administrator – to treat each person as an important human and give them the opportunity to be important in the world. Some of the biggest challenges in my day to day work surround supporting students and their families who are living in poverty. Often these kids and their families are marginalized, stereotyped and judged as being lazy, stupid, or addicted. But there are significant structural causes for poverty. In British Columbia, according to the BC Teachers’ Federation,
“Poverty in British Columbia is structural, brought about by a low-wage market, woefully inadequate welfare provisions, the loss of low-rent housing, and discrimination. Balancing basic expenses of rent and food on limited income is increasingly difficult.?
I also watched, and very strongly recommend, the documentary “Four Feet Up” by Nance Ackerman. It’s a very compelling and realistic view of a child living in poverty in Canada. You can watch it here.
Here are a few of the important “aha” moments I’ve had while viewing and reading:
1. It is ultimately important for people who serve those living in poverty not to judge based on clothing, speech, or situation (ie being evicted, not having food, etc.) Poverty can be generational, or caused by a traumatic life event, and often families are working as hard as they damn well can to get by. Kids may feel a great shame in not having the clothing, food, or stuff that other kids have. Parents may as well, but they often have a sense of pride in their resourcefulness and ability to survive. Yes, they may need help to access supports and resources for themselves and their families. We may think we know best how to get that help. But we need to honour their strengths and develop the trust that will allow us to help.
2. Poverty has many characteristics of an oral-based culture, so written communication is pretty useless. Sending home a newsletter or having a beautiful website full of information is just not going to get there. “If you don’t get a response, the communication didn’t work.” This got me thinking about the amount of paper we send home to families, and how much time we spend chasing down responses. Is there a better way?
3. Children and families living in poverty often attribute their situation to personal failing. That somehow people in middle class are smarter, or better, than they are. They just don’t see opportunities as being available to them, and often in school they don’t equate effort with success – they think the successful kids are innately better or smarter than they are. When they are taught about the structural reasons for poverty, and are able to see that they are just as creative, smart, and worthy as anyone else, suddenly opportunities seem more possible. We can send these strong messages daily in our work with kids!
4. Education, to many in poverty, is not really seen as a benefit. As much as we may tell students and parents that education is important to getting a good job and making good money, at a daily level school is an additional stressor that many families just can’t cope with. And getting a job just means working really hard and still not having enough to get by. Schools need to do a better job of putting the benefits of education in a context that makes sense to and is motivating to kids living in poverty.
5. Access to quality education, proper language (middle-class print-based language) and caring mentorship are the most important keys to breaking the cycle of poverty. We have to believe in the ability of all children to learn, to move forward, and to help them be able to demonstrate their intelligence and talent. We need to believe in them until they can believe in themselves.
6. Trauma and chronic stress can be misdiagnosed as ADHD. Instead of working so hard in School-Based Team and parent conferences to get a diagnosis (which doesn’t change anything), our energy should just be put into finding and doing what works for that child. This reinforces my belief in the Collaborative Problem Solving approach developed by Dr. Ross Greene.
I know that as school starts up I am going to be taking careful stock of my attitudes, assumptions and approach in working with our students and families who are living in poverty, and continually working to live my purpose every day.