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Making a 'Substantial Difference,' Despite Student Poverty

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Memphis residents cannot go far without seeing a billboard or image on the side of a bus featuring an "irreplaceable," one of the city's most effective teachers. These teachers rank in the top 10 percent of teachers based on observations and student-achievement data. However, according to recent comments by Memphis Education Association President Keith Williams, these teachers and their colleagues will not be able to "make a substantial difference" with our students because of poverty.

Williams' comments unfortunately echo the same kinds of remarks we've heard for years from all corners of the country. I'm a teacher who knows that poverty presents many challenges, but it does not prevent teachers from making a substantial difference.

In response to Williams, Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman published a guest commentary in The Commercial Appeal, and I was honored to be one of two teachers featured in the piece. I appreciate the commissioner's accolades, but the "proof is in the puddin'," as they say. I know that effective teachers can make a difference with low-income students because my students show me every day that I am doing just that.

At my school, an alternative program that serves youth who are expelled or recently incarcerated, a "substantial difference" is necessary. My students struggle with poor attendance, behavioral issues, emotional challenges, and below-grade reading levels. Many students enter my classroom with failing grades and apathetic attitudes toward school.

However, I make contact with parents and demonstrate to students that I care about them personally, and this year I have even seen a drastic reduction in discipline referrals in my classroom. I also watched my seniors create four-page research papers after saying they couldn't do it. Now, many of them are graduating when they thought they'd already missed their last chance.

My juniors conquered the state writing assessment this year. Their initial response to our practice writing was absolute dread, but we toiled together, and I refused to let any of them quit. I called their parents to ensure they would be present and graded their revised essays every night. On test day, attendance was higher than ever before, and I was awed by the students' eagerness to get started. They struggled with the new Common Core State Standards-aligned structure of the assessment, but the scores revealed that more than half of the class scored proficient or higher. That is a "substantial difference."

Above all, I try to embody the core belief Commissioner Huffman addressed: optimism. Students, teachers, and administrators cannot use poverty as an excuse. We have to see through it and teach students how to maneuver around their obstacles. Our optimism becomes their hope.

Transcending Barriers

Williams' comments also remind me of another claim I've heard before in Memphis: That many teachers cannot relate to their students' backgrounds—cannot understand their poverty and what it means to have their skin color—and therefore cannot teach them. I suppose this means that as a middle-class white teacher who currently teaches disadvantaged African-American students, I should transfer to a school where I will be more beneficial to "my own kind." But if you visit my classroom on any day, you will not see disconnect. My students respect me because I respect them; the economic and racial barriers are down because we chose to take them down. I refuse to leave because my current school is indeed where I am making "a substantial difference."

After 11 years of teaching, I have learned that there is a secret ingredient to effective instruction that transcends barriers. When students recognize that a teacher is genuinely interested in their present and future, a desire to learn emerges. As teacher and students interact daily, relationships begin to work in both directions. The students want the teacher to be proud of their accomplishments and the teacher wants the students to believe that they can achieve any goal.

Regardless of the challenges my students face outside school, they hear the word "college" come from my mouth daily. We are always prepping for that place that was once so elusive to them, assembling a reality in their minds. They know that I will smile and welcome them to class, that I will expect the bell work to be done immediately, that I will walk around the room to reach out to each one of them during the lesson, that they will have to complete their work and answer questions, and that we will discuss and argue over the day's topics. When we are finished for the day, they know that we will do it again tomorrow.

I challenge them to focus on their opportunities instead of their "lack of privilege," as one of my students refers to his situation. I challenge them to address the needs of their community and understand where the obstacles come from. I challenge them to stop thinking with a "privilege vs. poverty" mindset. I challenge them to learn what they can because knowledge is power.

I teach. I am making "a substantial difference."

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