Students, poverty, and stress: Teacherpreneurs can help

One in ten U.S. children live in deep poverty. Teacherpreneurs can bridge the spaces between classrooms and communities to enact the policies students need.

This weekend I couldn’t help but think deeply about our work and many others who also seek to improve our nation’s public schools. In Sunday’s New York Times (July 28), Moises Velasquez-Manoff penned a poignant essay on “Status and Stress” and how the circumstances of social class and poverty—and the sense of helplessness they can engender—have “grave consequences” for life chances for children and adults alike. He writes:

The more helpless one feels when facing a given stressor…the more toxic that stressor’s effects. That sense of control tends to decline as one descends the socioeconomic ladder, with potentially grave consequences. Those on the bottom are more than three times as likely to die prematurely as those at the top. They’re also more likely to suffer from depression, heart disease and diabetes. Perhaps most devastating, the stress of poverty early in life can have consequences that last into adulthood.

He reminds us that more than 20 percent of American children now live below the poverty line, a dramatic 35 percent increase over the last 10 years. Velasquez-Manoff points out that the United States is 26th in childhood well being, out of 29 developed countries. And “when considering just childhood poverty, only Romania fares worse,” he says.

One in ten of our nation’s children live in what sociologists call deep poverty. And it is deep poverty that creates early life stresses in children—a fact corroborated by neuroscientists who have shown how anxiety and tensions can “disrupt the healthy growth of the prefrontal cortex,” inhibiting the cognitive development that is critical to academic learning. Velasquez-Manoff, citing Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University, alerts us to the fact that “poverty gets under the skin” and that as a child, your “parents’ social standing and your stress level during early life change how your brain and body work.”

Today’s education policy in the U.S. still centers on “fixing” teachers more so than addressing the system under which educators (teachers and principals) work and students learn. Even the best individual school administrators do not have the know-how and/or bandwidth to address the needs of growing numbers of students living in poverty—who face serious stressors—as well as highly mobile families and second-language learners.

Enter the teacherpreneur

Teacherpreneurs are classroom experts who have the time, space, and reward to know students and their families (and their life circumstances) to incubate and execute ideas that can best serve them. We know from both research and experience that so many career teachers, who do not want to leave teaching, have solutions in mind to address the real problems facing their students. But outdated school organizations, administrators who don’t want to teachers to lead, and reformers with narrow policy agendas can get in their way.

Do we need to find ways to make teacher evaluation results-oriented? Yes. Do we need to close down poor higher-education schools of education? Of course. But most important, we must, as a nation, look hard at the facts and the life chances of the children whose lives we seek to improve. And we need to get over our fixation with just fixing teachers.

A recent MetLife survey, which I now often reference, suggested that almost three quarters of a million teachers very much want to remain in teaching and serve in a hybrid role to address the complex problems their students and families are facing. What if our performance pay plans focused less on individual teachers’ value-added ratings on a 20th-century test (based on 19th-century principles of teaching and learning), and more on cultivating and rewarding teacherpreneurism for schools to morph into 24/7 community hubs for integrated academic, social, and health services? What if more administrators in our public school system taught some students, so more teachers can lead from the classroom?  What if teachers had more time during the day to learn with colleagues and share their knowledge of and experiences with students, families, and the community?