Urban teachers, why can’t you just teach?

There are few days when I can walk into my classroom, and I can exclusively focus on teaching. Being an urban teacher requires me to take on many different roles throughout the course of a day.  My main role is an educator, but sometimes first I fulfill many other roles before I  begin teaching.  Many times I am a nurse, parent, mediator, counselor, and mentor.   While my attention is diverted to these different roles time is taken away from my central purpose in school: teaching children.  Urban teachers have to deal with much more than just educating our students, and that’s why we can’t walk in to our classrooms and just teach.

Ruby Payne discusses the concept that students in poverty do not follow middle class values in her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty.   Basically Ruby’s work focuses on the premise that in our society  students come to school with the social and basic academic skills to enter school on a level playing field.  Ruby’s experience (and mine, for that matter) with students from low socioeconomic levels prove that this is not true.  Students from poverty are not coming in equally prepared as middle class students to learn.  And since our schools are based on middle class values, they are set up in a way that is conducive to what middle class students need.  This is very frustrating when you are a teacher in a poverty-stricken school, because the needs of our students are much different.  Our schools are not equipped to handle the issues urban students face daily.

Issues Students of Poverty Face Daily

  • Hunger
  • Lack of shelter
  • Emotional problems with no access to mental health services
  • Untreated health issues with no access to treatment
  • Emotional trauma due to environment (e.g. violence)
  • Little background knowledge due to less exposure to life experiences
  • Lack of social skills

Imagine if the students you taught walked in your classroom and didn’t even have the basic necessities to survive.  Imagine if a student came in exhausted day after day because he couldn’t sleep due to the fact that his whole family was held up at gun-point and robbed.  Imagine that your students have never left the city in which they were born.  Imagine that a student of yours came to school every day after sleeping in a car every night for years.   Imagine a student of yours lived with estranged relatives because both of their parents were in jail.  Imagine what issues you’d have to deal with if these were your students.

I don’t have to imagine what these students are like, because those are my students- and it is my job to help them break free from what is holding them back so they can learn!  Teachers – it is our responsibility to this nation to make it clear to the politicians that students of poverty are behind even before they enter our school buildings.  How are teachers and policy makers going to work together to change this inequality in our nation?