For 14 years, I taught in schools with students from low-income households. It was a source of great professional fulfillment for me. I witnessed daily triumphs and joys that more than offset the particular difficulties in working with economically deprived children.
On the day the district presented me with its Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching, a colleague approached me, pointed to the award, and suggested that now I could finally “get out of this low-income school.” I think he meant I could get a job at a middle- or high-income school since I had an award to my name.
Often the public, and even educators, view working with economically stressed children as something that lesser teachers do. There’s a perception that the really good teachers work in schools that cater to students from wealthy families.
Working with children who live in poverty requires some special skills—skills that took me years to develop. I watched beginner teachers come into my low-socioeconomic-status, or SES, school and flame out because they lacked management skills. Teaching is a tough job. Nationwide, roughly 40 percent of new teachers quit within the first five years. This rate is 50 percent higher at schools in low-income communities.
I saw successful, experienced teachers transfer into my low-SES school and fail because they didn’t have the specialized skills they needed to work with economically stressed students. Teaching these kids and working with their parents does not come naturally for many teachers.
I’ve also witnessed high-poverty schools become the laboratory for training new principals. To move up the chain, these neophyte principals feel pressure to play along with more experienced administrators who might request the transfer of one of their struggling teachers to a low-income school. This doesn’t happen often, but the impact of a low-skilled teacher on a fragile population of children can be devastating. New principals typically lack the training and experience to follow the prescribed steps to improve the weak teachers or fire them.
Studies show that experienced teachers are far more effective than newer teachers. So when an experienced teacher leaves a low-SES school, the loss in experience and leadership places an additional burden on the remaining staff. Since teacher turnover causes the most harm in schools with large populations of disadvantaged students, our kids struggle to overcome the effects of both poverty and an unstable, rookie teaching staff.
Often the public, and even educators, view working with economically stressed children as something that lesser teachers do.
Top professional educators working in low-income schools must often face the scorn of politicians and pundits who label their low-SES schools as “failing.” It is clear to me that people who use this appellation don’t truly understand why these students lag behind their middle-class or privileged peers. My students lived with poverty-related stress that impaired cognitive and emotional functioning, and they struggled with learning disabilities at a higher rate than other populations. When immigrants moved into the area, the most affordable housing was near our low-SES school. As a result, we often had English-language learners, many of whom had never been in a classroom before. And yet, what we were able to accomplish with these students struck me as bordering on miraculous.
But these kids still scored low on standardized tests. And, predictably, to many observers, low scores meant we were a failing school. Trying to shame the teachers who work with economically deprived learners into closing the achievement gap only motivates the successful teachers to work somewhere else. And that’s exactly what happens.
Who’s left to teach these students?
What if teachers in low-SES schools were specifically trained to work with children who live in poverty? What if the teachers had a special add-on credential that said to the world, I’m a highly trained specialist working with the kids I choose to teach? The teachers in high-poverty neighborhoods could show that they are there not because they are inexperienced, transferred against their will, or because there was nothing better available. Those teachers are there because they want to make a difference in the lives of these kids. It’s their area of expertise.
Part of the training for this specialization would need to include working with experienced teachers and university-based educators who have studied and developed curriculum for this specialization. A casual review of teacher-training courses in my home state of Oregon revealed that none specifically addresses the teaching techniques and special needs of underresourced learners. If the credential existed, it’s safe to assume that such courses would be created: Colleges would need to get classes up and running for teachers to acquire this new credential. It would stimulate research into special methods and skills necessary to be successful in the low-SES classroom.
And me? What happened to my commitment to these precious underresourced learners? Maybe, like a tiny pebble in my shoe, I finally started to notice their needs were wearing at my enthusiasm for teaching. Had I received more support, I would likely have stayed where I was. Instead, I needed a change. After grappling with my flagging enthusiasm and arduous commute, I finally applied for a position at a high-SES school closer to my home.
When the test results came in showing my new school as “highly effective,” the principal attributed it to the hard work and talent of the teachers on staff. I was the same teacher at both schools, but was suddenly valued differently. Many of my former colleagues are still toiling in the dark, without any praise or recognition. And I still feel guilty about leaving them behind. But faced with many professional challenges, including those of the struggling colleagues I tried to help, the job became impossible for me.
We need to elevate our respect and the skills for teachers at high-poverty schools. Training and support for an add-on credential could go far to contribute to the stability and quality of the teachers who serve our most fragile students. It is time to recognize and reward these educators for their hard work, so we can stop them from walking out the door. I don’t want my story to become theirs.
A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2016 edition of Education Week as In Low-Income Schools, Teachers Need Guidance