Sunday, September 20, 2020
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How does poverty affect teachers in classrooms?

The Virginia-based Communities In Schools, along with Public Opinion Strategies, conducted a national poll of US teachers from May 8 through May 12. The poll was among the largest and most in-depth examinations of issues facing teachers, from the teacher viewpoint.

  • 92% of teachers who responded to the poll saw student apathy, disruptive student behavior, and a lack of parental involvement as problematic
  • When asked to identify and rank problems facing their local schools, 88% of respondents said poverty is a barrier to learning
  • 91% of teachers said they’d spent their own money on supplies, and 54% have used their own money to help feed students

That poverty is a problem for schools isn’t news—it has always been a problem in my view. But what is news here, I think, is the high percentage of teachers who dig into their own pockets to buy food for their students. This signals a need for more wrap-around services in our schools, services that don’t appear to be working at present.

You can argue about what causes the lack of wrap-around services, but the problem is, in truth, complex. On the ground, in our classrooms, teachers see a growing trend of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, a status that serves as sort of a national indicator for poverty in schools. If I were in their shoes and I honestly loved the work and the students, I would make sure they had enough to eat as well, given whatever resources I had.

The number of students in the US who qualify for free or reduced-price meals just recently crossed over the halfway mark, Education Week reported in January. Children eligible for free and reduced-price meals made up at least half of students in 21 states in 2013, according to an analysis of the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics. In 40 states, at least 40 percent of all public school students qualified for free and reduced-price meals.

And with that trend in mind, the results of this poll are just about what I would expect. Also, about half of the teachers said they’d helped a student get new clothing or footwear, and nearly one-third said they’d arranged for a student to receive medical attention.

Not having enough food to eat, not having clean clothes to wear or notebooks to write in, and not getting a medical problem, like a toothache, looked at—these non-academic “barriers to learning” don’t require a teaching certificate to fix; they require love and commitment to young people in our communities.

It’s time for schools to invest more in this kind of support and pay salaries of people who provide wrap-around services. School districts can use some of the money they had set aside to buy more computers or bandwidth to accommodate online tests. We don’t need to hear about the differences between capital and operational expenses; we do need to figure it out.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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