Poverty Is a Context, Not an Excuse

October 11, 2012 Published by

The new school year has arrived and with it the opportunity for me to do a number of presentations to various school districts and other organizations on the subject of dealing with kids from poverty. In my first week of school, I had the privilege of speaking to school bus drivers, city bus drivers, the K-12 faculty of one of the rural districts I serve and the small staff of a brand new alternative school in another district. In every audience, there are various attitudes that are fairly easy to read on the faces of those about to be subjected to my marvelous insights!

“Who is this joker?”

“I have so much stuff to do in my room.”

“I can hardly wait to hear what he has to say. This is going to be so interesting.” (Usually younger folks who think they are still in college!)

More seriously, poverty and other social issues are emotionally loaded subjects. Because of the strong emotions associated with the subject of poverty, there are those who are obviously resistant along the lines of “Great! Here is someone else to make excuses for these people.” And at the other end—those who are obviously receptive to anything that smacks of tolerance and learning to accept people just the way they are. “You can’t blame them for how they are! Just look at where they have come from.” I think both of these attitudes are unfortunate and potentially damaging to real children who have real potential and real needs. Both lead to justifying and excusing, which are not helpful to those students who are often most in need of what school and other systems have to offer.

Among the criticisms I have heard about Dr. Payne’s approach to addressing poverty is that seeing poverty through Dr. Payne’s lens results in lowered expectations for kids in poverty. Both of the above attitudes could certainly result in a view of kids in poverty that concludes that there is no way they can meet expectations. But if those who are exposed to A Framework for Understanding Poverty concepts come to and apply the conclusion that somehow these concepts justify lower expectations, they are missing the power and opportunity that Framework affords those who are working with under-resourced students.

One of my favorite slides in the current Framework material is Key Point #13:

            Mutual respect is:

      • High expectations
      • Insistence
      • Support

Dealing with kids in poverty through Framework’s concepts has led me to the conclusion that not only should we not expect less of kids from poverty, but rather that expectations must be more clearly defined and rigidly enforced. All three of the above points are necessary to enhance the possibilities of success for kids coming from under-resourced backgrounds.

High expectations are necessary because so many of the kids I work with have had limited exposure to high expectations; at least as they relate to achievement and education. They may have heard or seen expectations but never completely understood their relevance or perhaps more importantly how to meet them. I have had some success working with a variety of visual mental models to help teach and reinforce both expectations and the steps to meet them.

High and clear expectations are also needed because life in poverty is often fluid in terms of changing priorities and expectations. This can make it difficult not only to meet expectations but even to know which expectations to meet. It might be that the school “system” has contributed to this confusion by having so many expectations from grades and behavior to fire drills and lunch room regulations.

Insistence is necessary because it is helpful for keeping focus and understanding the importance of meeting expectations. Many students, from poverty or not, have difficulty keeping their eye on the goal. The kids may need that outer voice that encourages and even demands, “I will not let you fail at this task.”A few positive outcomes and the need for the outer voice fades as the kids develop their own inner voice based on confidence obtained from repeated successes.

Support is necessary because many students lack the necessary skills to meet the expectations to which they are held accountable in the education system. Support may be needed for skill development in areas ranging from time management to academic skills to emotional resources for dealing with frustration. In the meeting of expectations with support, skills are also being developed to better meet future expectations.

It is also important to mention that all three are necessary. Expectations and Insistence without Support is going to lead to frustration and even bitterness or perhaps more likely, enabling—the student meets the expectations because we insist that he do so, but in the end we end up doing most of the work ourselves! Expectations and Support without Insistence can also be seen as rules and procedures without relationship which, according to the well-known saying, leads to rebellion. Insistence and Support without clear Expectations is directionless. Stability is found in adequately providing all three parts.

Another way to look at it is to see these three as the What, Why, and How of meeting expectations. The Expectations are the What, Insistence becomes the Why, and Support is the How. My experience in schools tells me that as a system, we have lots of Whats (Expectations) and believe that we are providing the Hows (Support), but are deficient in the Whys  (Insistence) that can make the educational process relevant to students whose backgrounds have not made it so. So when the system sees kids in poverty not doing well, we hear, “What do you expect from those kids?” or “Those poor kids, they have had such a hard life. We can’t expect much more.”

Some have heard Dr. Payne’s material and believed it to be more of the same—excusing kids from poverty or liberating them from the unrealistic expectations of the school system. For me, the Framework material is useful because rather than excusing kids from poverty, the concepts have liberated the kids I know from MY beliefs regarding their capabilities and potential. The Framework material gave me a context for understanding the difficulties that under-resourced students face. It did not provide an excuse; for me or for the students! Rather than modifying (translation=reduce) expectations so that under-resourced kids can meet them, I now understand that the expectations need to be more clearly defined and more rigidly enforced through Insistence and Support. Rather than being satisfied with under-resourced kids not meeting Expectations (but “they did the best they could”), I now understand that the resources in the system need to be applied in ways that prove to the system, and more importantly to the students themselves, that they can be successful. This is hard work for sure, but so gratifying and one of the main reasons most of us got into education in the first place! So roll up your sleeves, define those Expectations clearly, and then do whatever it takes to help the kids you know meet those Expectations—no excuses!

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This post was written by Jim Ott

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