At my new school, I come in semi-regular contact with someone who likes to talk about my old school, which was a Title I school in an urban area. She will say things like,
“I bet it’s nice to not have to lock your room every time you leave now, isn’t it?”
“It must have been so frustrating trying to deal with those parents.”
“When I found out Phoebe was zoned to that school, we moved in less than a year. I just couldn’t risk her being influenced by some of those kids.”
When this individual says things like this, I first have to bite my tongue. I was cursed with a sharp wit, which, combined with a Mama Bear protectiveness of my former students and their families, creates some fairly hostile responses that I luckily have managed to keep inside my head.
Then I take a deep breath.
Then I try to gently and without judgment show her that her notions about my former school and the students in it are misguided; that I loved those kids and my job fiercely and my leaving had nothing to do with either.
This woman is not alone. And she’s not a bad person. She is, like I would say a disturbing majority of the country, sorely under-informed of the realities of the relationship between poverty and education.
Based on conversations I find myself having over and over, both with this person and with others, these are what I believe are the four biggest and most dangerous misconceptions about working in Title I schools.
1. Teachers (and their possessions) are in danger. If you Google “Is teaching a dangerous profession?” you’ll find tons of results about how across the board, teaching isn’t exactly safe. But this is the case for all schools, not just Title I. I once had money stolen out of my non-locking desk when I was collecting money for a fundraiser at a Title I school my second year (rookie mistake). But in the five years I taught in Title I schools, that was the only time I had any of my personal items stolen or damaged. I know teachers who have been teaching longer than me and in schools far wealthier than the ones where I worked have had their purses stolen, tires slashed, have been sued, had threatening anonymous emails sent to them—the list goes on. Fights were commonplace at the Title I school where I worked, but take a look at the nation’s worst school massacres and you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that wasn’t in an affluent neighborhood. Anything that could happen to a teacher in a poor school can (and does) happen in wealthier ones.
2. The parents don’t care. This is one of the things I hear a lot, and every time I hear it I want to set my arm on fire. This could not be further from the truth. Upper middle-class and wealthy people tend to look at the habits and actions of poor people and assume the parents don’t care about their child’s education or well-being, and their thoughts usually come in the “If they cared, why don’t they…?” format. Why don’t they ground their child or remove privileges? Why don’t they meet with the teacher? Why don’t they enroll their child in tutoring? Why don’t they write a letter to the school board? Why don’t they move into an area where their child will be zoned to a higher-performing school?
The problem with all of these is that these solutions are coming from a mentality of wealth. Wealthy people can ground their children or remove privileges because the household can afford for someone to stay home and ensure the child complies AND wealthy people don’t have to worry about their kids getting angry with them and going off to join the gang a few blocks over. Wealthy people already have flexible jobs that allow them to leave to meet with the teacher. Wealthy people can afford the high prices of homes and apartments in areas with high-performing schools, AND wealthy people are given better interest rates on homes in those areas. Wealthy people have the resources to 1) find tutoring, 2) have transportation to and from tutoring, 3) pay for tutoring.
Imagine you and your teenage daughter getting out of your new Honda Civic and a lady walking up to you and saying, “You know, if you really loved your daughter and cared about her safety, you would trade in your Civic and go get the Mercedes G-Class SUV. It’s much safer.”
Would you say, “Oh, wow, thank you—you really understand my needs! I’ll return this junky car in tomorrow, take out a second mortgage, and find a job that pays twice as much so I can buy that car which costs over $100,000. Thank you, kind stranger—I mean, savior!”
Uh, no. A ridiculous scenario, right? And yet so many people tend to pass similar judgments on people in lower classes.
In the five years I worked at Title I schools and met with parents, I never once met a parent who I didn’t fully believe loved and cared about the success of their child. Were some of them struggling balancing work and family life? Of course. Was it frustrating for me as their teacher? Of course. But I think if you ask any long-time teaching veteran of a wealthy school, she will be able to tell you plenty of stories of parents who hadn’t found the work/family balance, either.
3. The kids aren’t motivated. This is another huge misconception, one that I hear a lot from people in and outside of the education world. When they say something to this effect, I think they’re trying to make me feel better about having left, as if motivation isn’t something you can help develop in a child and I was right to have changed schools. But this misconception makes me so, so sad.
Deep down (and sometimes not even very deep down) every child wants to be successful. Every child wants to be smart. But sometimes there are huge obstacles that get in the way of this learning. Some are related to academia, like undiagnosed learning disorders, a language barrier, having huge class sizes that prevent personalized attention or opportunities to be challenged. Some aren’t related to academia at all, like trauma that has happened or is actively happening outside of school, and makes learning impossible. There are so many reasons children in poverty get behind, but it’s not because they have no intrinsic motivation. Having less motivation is a symptom of being behind and feeling helpless.
If you put me in a master’s level course at the Sorbonne with my one semester of French I took eight years ago and demanded that I pass, I would tell you you’re insane, drop out, and then go eat macaroons for the rest of the semester or until my money ran out. (And if you’re reading that scenario and thinking, “No, not me! I would hire a French tutor, I would buy Rosetta Stone, I would find a study group and seek language assistance from the school and I would definitely pass because I’m so motivated and great,” you’re using the wealth mindset—all of those are skills and resources that could only be acquired if you are already wealthy, understand the system, was part of a system that worked for YOU, and have had years of confirmation that hard work always leads to success.)
4. The teachers aren’t as good. I went through my entire K-12 schooling in one of the best districts in the state (and I believe at the time, one of the top twenty or so in the nation) and my entire middle school learning experience apart from maybe three teachers was a joke. I remember asking my science teacher, a woman who was only a few years away from retirement, if could choose Pompeii for a research project we were doing. First she asked me what Pompeii was, and when I told her, she rolled her eyes and said, “No, you can’t research a fictional event.” When I told her Pompeii was real, she very nicely told me to save it for my creative writing teacher.
What I’m saying is that sending your kid to a wealthy school does not necessarily mean you are sending them to good teachers.
Having taught in two Title I schools and a non-Title I school, I can assure you that both kinds of schools have their fair share teachers who are super-amazing and teachers who are not-so-amazing. For every burnt-out teacher in a Title I schools who passes out worksheets 180 days a year from behind a desk, there is an identical teacher doing the same thing at a wealthy school.
I would, however, say that teachers in non-Title I schools are for the most part less stressed and better supported, and I do recognize the impact this can have on performance. But again, this goes back to one of many issues created by the system (large class sizes, administrations having hands tied with discipline control, standardized testing), not an issue with the people who choose to work within it.
Now in clearing up these misconceptions, am I trying to say that kids in Title I schools receive the same educational quality as kids in wealthy schools? No. The majority of kids in Title I schools are being drastically underserved compared to their peers in wealthier schools, and it would be ignorant to think otherwise.
But what people need to understand is that the inequality has nothing to do with the teachers or children or parents of children in those schools, and has everything to do with the systemic abuse that year after year directly affects those who learn and work in those schools. I wish, when I talked to this person I mentioned at the beginning of this post, that I could tell her that she needs to stop being afraid of poor people and start being afraid of the people who are keeping poor people poor.
Wouldn’t it be cool if Hollywood made a movie highlighting the ugly brokenness of the system across schools instead of a sugarcoated story of how one (usually upper middle class) teacher saved the day for a limited group of people?
Sigh. Teaching is wishing.
P.S. Not knowing about Pompeii doesn’t make you a bad teacher. Refusing to know about Pompeii makes you a bad teacher.