Everything I need to know about teaching students from poverty I learned from parenting books

by Mr. Sheehy

My colleague has been teasing me lately for walking around the building with a copy of Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty. He says it makes me look like the ultimate teacher, devoted at all times to fleshing out the best in my profession. I say it makes my efforts to move into the next salary lane fairly conspicuous. Either way, the material is interesting and I recommend that teachers and others interact with it either by reading the book or attending some sort of session devoted to the topic.

The most interesting thing for me is how much the material Payne presents echoes the material my wife and I read to improve our parenting (I give my wife the credit for reading the high majority of the parenting material and then sharing it with me). Payne’s main contention is that our professional society and schools run on the middle class’s values and its hidden rules. Students from generational poverty do not know those rules and therefore are not able to succeed. The refreshing thing about Payne is that she demands no exceptions for these students, but instead draws our attention to what they need to learn so that educators can successfully call them to high standards.

After discussing the hidden rules of poverty and of middle class, Payne begins to map out how educators can approach teaching students from generational poverty. Some of her explanation is pretty confusing, but the basic idea is that teachers should mediate for students and teach them the mental strategies they need and have not yet been taught:

Mediation is basically three things: identification of the stimulus, assignment of meaning, and identifcation of a strategy. For example, we say to a child, “Don’t cross the street. You could get hit by a car. So if you must cross the street, look both ways twice.”

See what I mean about it being kind of confusing? The rest of the chapter I’m in maps out a mass of input strategies and output strategies and explanations of the missing cognitive links. It’s fairly interesting but I can’t help thinking to myself that there is no way I’m going to remember any of it when I get into that classroom and begin interacting with actual students.

What I will remember is that if you suck out all the professional jargon you basically have the parenting books and strategies to which I’ve referred. The strategies to which my wife and I ascribe insist that we call our children to high standards, that we attempt to train their hearts (not strive just to gain outward compliance), and that we show them why they need to do certain things and how they can go about doing them. For example, Eldest can get angry and can even throw a good tantrum.  Our response to this four-year old’s anger is to teach her that 1) we understand that she is upset and agree that is is frustrating when things do not go how she wants them to go, but 2) it is unacceptable to scream and thrash around when she does not get her way, and 3) when she does get angry, she might try taking a deep breath and walking into another room for a minute until she is ready to be her sweet self again.

There are certain strategies we use to intervene in the life of a four-year old and other suggestions we give, but the principle is not much different no matter what strategy or suggestion we use to apply it. The idea is that the child has to learn how to be courteous and kind and self-controlled–in short, how to behave. It’s called parenting, and it’s essentially the same thing as the mediation to which Payne refers.

When I walk away from Payne’s research and strategies, this is likely the message I’ll take away: “You know those things you taught your children when they were little? These kids never learned that stuff. You need to teach them.”

It’s the simple message I take from a more complex book, but I think its core is what Payne wants to convey.

Thus I walk around with A Framework for Understanding Poverty on top of my papers, possibly because I am striving to improve my teaching and possibly because it earns me a credit, but in truth I might as well strut around with Shepherding a Child’s Heart or  Making Children Mind without Losing Yours or Grace Based Parenting or Growing Kids God’s Way, for they have taught me as much about intervening in the lives of of my students as anything I have read that targets teachers.

Thanks for reading.