When I first started teaching, I attended a series of trainings by Ruby Payne and her associates. At first, I thought it would be just another training, but almost immediately, I realized these people actually knew what they were talking about, and more importantly, they were saying something I liked!
Many of the students we teach today have struggles they deal with on a daily basis. The news media (and educational specialists, etc.) like to say that this is a new problem, and that the growing level of poverty is changing the playing field for our students. I don't agree. Oh, I admit that there are quite a few kids out there that experience some level of poverty (nothing compared to the rest of the world), and I will accept the idea that this interferes with their content learning; however, I will not agree that this is a new problem. It is as old as time. The difference... now we simply hear about it more.
And, poverty is not the only problem our students face. Some are abused, some are neglected. Some must care for siblings or parents. Some must deal with other hardships that are beyond my ability to imagine. BUT, and this is a big BUT: These problems cannot be excuses.
Here is where some of you reading will begin to turn away from the screen, cursing me for being so harsh and uncaring. But, in the real world, our students must be prepared. And I know very few employers who will care if the electric was turned off or if they only had scraps as a meal the night before. In our nation, the workforce does not accept excuses. So, if we DO in the classroom, we are setting our students up for failure.
There were moments in my life as a child where I had to struggle to survive. I remember standing in line with my mother for a cheese block. I remember going to assistance organizations to have our heat turned back on. I dealt with the extremes of parental neglect and abuse, and never knew which to expect when I got home from school. But, I NEVER told my teachers that I struggled. And I NEVER wanted to be made an exception or allowed any excuses that wouldn't fly for my friends. And, more than anything else, I wanted to feel successful. I wanted to know that I could do something for myself, and that I could do it right. I wanted that approval.
In our schools, we are told every day about the poverty of our children. We are reminded that they struggle overnight and in the mornings and when they get home. We are warned that they do not have supplies, parental assistance, or positive role models to guide them in their learning. And we are often encouraged to give these kids "breaks" to help them "pass" through the system. If that is what we do, it is the same as stabbing that child in the chest and watching them bleed.
Children need adversity to learn to deal with life. They need to struggle to learn the skills of survival. And, while it may be a tough lesson to learn, it will only make them stronger. If we, as teachers, only support them by accepting excuses ("I couldn't do my homework because our power was off."), we are instead teaching them that they do not have to do anything, that life will just go on without them, and that truly they do not matter.
In my classroom, it may seem like a tough love lesson every day, but my students know what I expect. They know that I demand extreme structure, that my due dates are due dates, and that I do not "care" if they have an excuse for their lack of preparation or participation. However, they also know that I want the best for them, I want to see them gain success for themselves, and I "care" enough to put the hard stuff back on them.
Life is a tough lesson. And no, it is not fair. And, yes, my views on this are very harsh. But, I know the truth about growing up in the gap. If you don't learn to fight your way out, you will always be there.
Read more about this topic, and many others in my book, A Lesson Plan for Teachers, New and Old!