Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

For Teachers of Children Living in Poverty, The End of the Year Brings Mixed Emotions

By Justin Minkel — April 30, 2019 6 min read
Illustration of hand helping a drowning hand from water.
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The end of the school year brings a powerful reckoning.

For three seasons, we have given our days and hours to the children in our care. We have thought about them while taking a walk on a Saturday morning, laughed with our friends and family about hilarious things they said or did, and worried about them in the hours between school days.

We have filled our cart at Amazon and Scholastic, putting school stuff on our own credit card because the class rug is just too disgusting to make it another week, the kids will love that giant illustrated hardback of Charlotte’s Web, or we’re finally splurging on 144 pre-sharpened pencils shipped from China because we can’t take another day of the relentless grinding that lasts a small eternity for every tooth-marked pencil with a broken tip.

Now we’re heading into May. The end of the school year is simultaneously so close we can taste summer break and agonizingly distant, like that bizarre time warp on a road trip when you’re finishing up a long day of driving and the final 45 minutes feels longer than the first 10 hours.

This time of year, we consider with a sense of pride and wonder how far certain children have come. Struggling readers who stumbled over simple words just eight months ago have become voracious readers who burrow into books like the outside world has ceased to exist. Unhappy kids who threw tantrums the first few months of school have become lovable little scholars who throw their arms around us each Monday like it has been a year instead of a weekend. We have a hard time imagining the fabric of our days once their laughter, affection, and potent emotions are no longer woven into our routines.

We also face the reality that a handful of our students are not going to reach grade-level standards by the end of the year. For those of us who have chosen to teach children living in poverty, this piece of our end-of-the-year reckoning can be particularly rough.

Education Can’t Fix Poverty

Here’s a hard truth: The children who need school most desperately are often the most exhausting to teach.

Not because poor kids are wild, disrespectful, or come from “bad families.” Not because there is any portion of accuracy in the racism-steeped stereotypes about black and Latino kids living in the inner city, nor the class-based stereotypes about poor white kids living in rural America.

Teaching poor kids is wearying because of a brutal fact: Poverty in America will break your back.

The gap between what children in poverty need and what their teachers are able to give them is too vast for any teacher to fill.

Children who have adequate health care, secure housing, plenty of food in the fridge, and hundreds of books at home will always have a titanic advantage over children who endure shoddy health care, homelessness, food insecurity, and have only a handful of books on their shelves.

The legitimate truths we hold onto—“Poverty is not destiny,” “My students are just as smart as more affluent kids in ‘better’ neighborhoods”—can brew an ugly falsehood: “If these kids don’t all make it to grade level by the end of the year, I have failed them.”

The convenient myth that education can fix poverty persists. It’s a narrative that issues from various mouths, from opinionated strangers at cocktail parties to politicians who would rather blame teachers than do the hard work that real equity requires—building a society where every child has a fighting chance at the life they dream.

As time dwindles to help our struggling readers, writers, and mathematicians get to where they need to be, it’s hard not to let the insidious accusation sink in: “If some of your students don’t reach grade-level standards this year, it’s your fault.”

Confession Time

Since the year 2000, I have taught children living in poverty. Subtracting the years when I went back to school for a master’s or took time off to be a stay-at-home dad, I have taught 13 classes of 25 or 30 students each.

In all those years with all those students, I have never finished a school year with every child reading on grade level.

I’m hesitant to admit that reality. I know that in many people’s minds, especially those distant from the day-to-day work of teaching children who live in poverty, this disappointing career statistic reveals me as a fraudulent teacher.

I got a master’s in elementary education from a great program. I was named a state Teacher of the Year and won the Milken Educator award. So why can’t I get 25 students to read on grade level by the end of the school year?

The reasons, no matter how legitimate, sound like excuses. Students with learning disabilities, who didn’t receive a diagnosis and the services they needed until the end of the year. Kids like Santiago, who arrived in my class from El Salvador in December, speaking almost no English and knowing no letter sounds in either language.

We have to hold two ideas in our minds at the same time:

  1. Children who live in poverty can excel. All 25 of my current students are poor. All but one are English-learners. Yet 22 of those students will end the year reading on or above grade level, including six who are already where they need to be at the end of next year.
  2. Having a child in your class who falls short of grade-level expectations does not mean you failed that child. Three children in my class will not reach the benchmark by the end of this school year. I have done everything I know to accelerate their reading, and they will make a year’s growth, but it’s excruciating to accept that they will leave my class reading below grade level. That pain means we love our students. It doesn’t mean we failed them.

The Kind of Miracles We Work

Teachers don’t work the brand of miracles we wish we could. We rarely take a child who cannot read and turn her into a proficient reader in a single year. We don’t have the power to pave an untroubled path through life for a child with deep-seated anger issues, autism, or a learning disability.

We cannot provide a child with enough food to eat, a secure home, or the promise that her family will not be torn apart if one or both parents are undocumented.

Teachers cannot fix poverty, no matter how hard we work or how much we love our students.

Instead we work gentler, more gradual miracles. We nurture students who make a year and a half’s growth in a single year, despite the barriers of poverty and learning English as a second language. We provide kids who rely on school for fundamental needs with a refuge where they know they are safe, respected, and loved.

Real miracles are often imperfect. They’re not immediate and they’re not flashy. They take time. You have to be paying careful attention to recognize them at all.

The end of the school year should elicit reflection on hard truths, including the ways we failed at times to be the teacher our students needed. We should commit to what we’ll do differently next year when we find, like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, that the spirits have given us another chance. But we should also show ourselves the generosity of spirit we offer our students when they struggle, stumble, or put their whole hearts into a dream but still fall short.

Teachers know two truths. The first: Deeper change is possible than most people can fathom. The second: It takes so much longer than you would ever expect.

In the movie Away We Go, a couple who have adopted their children explain the abundance of love it takes to make their family work. The mom speaks a truth that resonates for those of us who teach: “You have to be so much better than you ever thought.”

In the past year, we have come to love children who were once strangers. For them, we become better each year than we ever thought we had to be. That transformation is a little miracle in its own right.

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