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Poverty: The Elephant in the Classroom

Matt Amaral

Poverty:Even though in our current educational climate it might seem unpopular, I’m just going to say it —I am getting tired of hearing about Race and Ethnicity in Education.


The reason for this could not be simpler: When we talk about the special needs of black and Latino students, the unsaid inference is that they are somehow deficient because they are black and Latino. I’m tired of ONLY talking about how different they are, and how we need to approach our minority students in a different way because of their culture or the color of their skin.


Believe it or not, there is something more important we should be talking about: poverty.

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Poverty seems to loom over every staff meeting and workshop I’ve ever attended—it is an enormous shadow sitting in the corner of the room, and nobody seems to want to address it, even though they all know it’s there. Poverty is the elephant in the classroom.


Our black and Latino students are unsuccessful not because of their ethnicity. And we can talk all day about White Privilege, but the reason our minority students are less successful than our Asian and white students is a simple matter of economics.


Some of the worst students I’ve had have been white students. Some of the worst students I’ve had have been black students. I’ve also had some pretty bad Latinos. Asians haven’t been my best students either. But no matter their ethnicity, the MOST common trait I’ve seen among struggling learners is that they are poor.


If you have a black kid from a rich family in your class, and he is sitting next to a poor white kid whose parents are drug-dealers, who is more likely to do better? The rich black kid.


Despite how much we want to talk about the white kid being born with White Privilege, and the black kid being, well…black, and therefore deficient in some intangible way, none of it holds water when you recognize the power of poverty.


I have been bothered to no end over the last four years because of the fact that everything I read, and every training, workshop, and staff meeting I go to refuses to talk about poverty. All they want to talk about is race, and they ask questions like this:
What are you doing for your Latino students?
What are you doing for your black students?


We are given basic strategies to make sure we are letting black boys participate enough, or encouraging Latinas to become more independent by reading The House on Mango Street. This is good stuff, and should be included in our conversations, but our conversations should include other aspects of urban education as well.


When we use a race-based approach in this way, especially in low-income areas where everyone is poor, we forget to ask another important question:
What are we doing for our white and Asian students?
The answer to this question is—nothing.


Now I’m not going to call this reverse racism. Racism implies prejudice, and the main tenet of race-based education is that everyone is equal, and nobody should be discriminated against. Nobody is being racist, but this focus on dark-skinned students bothers me when I see the exact same problems in all my students who live below the poverty line (and at my school that’s over 50% of them), not just Latinos and blacks.


In low-income public schools, everyone is in the same boat. Let us not forget Native Americans are worse off than blacks and Latinos. And I might even argue that in diverse inner-city schools, being white might even make life more difficult.


At the school I teach, white kids are a minority, so the really poor white kids are some of the worst kids in the school. Plenty of Asian kids are failing too. So why are we using all of our training hours thinking about the color of a kid’s skin instead of focusing on the BIGGER problem?


Why don’t we ever ask this question: What are we doing for our POOR students?


I would love to go to a workshop that focuses on strategies for dealing with kids who live in poverty. How about we give practical strategies for things really going on in our class? Why don't we ever learn how to teach ghetto students?


This is not to say we shouldn’t teach teachers about our minority populations, and the different cultural aspects that affect how they learn. Some of these discussions are very powerful.


I’ve been in rooms where some white teachers didn’t realize the power White Privilege had in their lives, and were shocked by the stories of struggle they heard from Latino and black colleagues. These discussions were filled with tears, and many teachers leave them with a different perspective toward their students, and society in general.


For teachers who did not grow up in a diverse area, or who have not studied race-based education, it is necessary to read and understand at a deep level. But that doesn’t mean EVERY SINGLE workshop, seminar, and staff meeting needs to focus on it.


One of the grossest ideological errors we have made in education is our misconception that ethnicity is the most important focus area for study and training.


Of course, race-based education and socio-economics go hand in hand, and should be taught together. But one is more important than the other, and we have it backwards. We need to learn how to teach poor students to read and write before we get them to appreciate the nuances of multi-cultural literature.


With so many students in poverty, we need to figure out how to teach them all, no matter what their skin color. 

Is your school addressing how poverty affects your students? Share in the comments section!


This article is printed with permission of Matt Amaral. A version of the article appear on his website

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