Poverty and Education

We had an amazing presentation from Bonnie Morton (Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry) on Monday lecture.
And I wanted to take a little time to reflect on Poverty in our society and words from Bonnie today.

I grew up in a working class, but a middle class family. We did not have any lavish life style, very few family trips, lived in company’s apartment building longer than anybody lived there (18 years) but I never had to worry about my basic needs – food, shelter and clothing. My father worked hard until his retirement, I never heard him complaining about his work at home. The neighbourhood I grew up was just starting to redevelop as a nice suburb and upper middle class families were moving into brand new houses, and there were still like us renting in the apartments, or row houses (they were very few of them though, because those houses were torn down and new ones came up).
There were unspoken understanding inside me, or it was the adults’ attitudes about social class, that I classified out neighbourhood into 3 levels – row house=little poorer than me, apartment=average, and own house=richer than me (plus landlords=riches). It is shameful to think back about my perspectives, but as long as somebody is poorer than me I was secure = meaning I am not that poor, I am average , or not in the bottom. Although I thought about if I were rich (like if I had a million Yen..), I did not try to see beyond my world. Especially avoided the dark grey areas that were known to be lower income housing or back allies of the city centre where homeless people on the cardboard boxes. As long as work hard, I would not be in the bottom – that was my perspective. In other words, lower-income people didn’t work hard enough. Never occurred to me to think about the circumstances they were in.

First time I started to see the world with poverty was when I came to Fort Qu’Appelle. There are distinct divide in this small community, population of 2000. Wealthy families with large mansions and cottages around lakes, middle-income families with nice, modest homes with yards and vehicles, and low-income families in trailers, on social assistance. I felt same attitude I experienced as a child, people in middle or upper class looking down on people in struggle. Blaming them for the situation they were in: they depend too much on social assistance because government pays them for being lazy, if they work hard enough… etc. That was little over 10 years ago.

I saw the change started to happen when the schools in Fort Qu’Appelle changed to community schools. We became more educated about poverty and became more supportive toward family circumstances. We became more culturally responsive toward First Nations in the community and positive influences were brought in. All of the good things are happening; however, one thing struck me while I listen to Bonnie’s story.

Bonnie stressed about learning “Basic Skills” is fundamental for children from struggling families. Education is a way out of the situation.

Reality is that as teachers, we tend to rely on families for students to be “school ready” before entering into schools. Meaning, expecting a child to have some basic skills, such as a child to be able to hold pencil, spell own name, recognize ABCs, count to 10 and knows those numbers, can use scissors and sit at a desk. And I think children who will be taught or receive activities to foster these skills at home are usually families from middle and upper class families. And I believe many teachers tend to be raised in middle class families who were taught basic skills before school started. I was one of them.

I have seen some students who entered kindergarten without any of those skills. And usually they were from families in poverty. For them, the start line is way behind from their classmates and they have to struggle from beginning. When they enter into grade one, family reliance becomes more intense – especially reading. As normal routine, I have seen teachers sending several books home with students each week, expecting parents to help them read. I have heard some teachers stopped sending books to particular students who kept forgetting to bring books back. The teachers’ comment was, “Oh, they will lose it again.” This does not help the students, they would fall behind again. But do we consider about their family situation? Chaotic environment? Can parents read?

It seems like school is not a good place to learn for struggling families, if we don’t change our attitude.

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