By Jill Telford and Berna Artis
There are many issues and reasons when it comes to children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds not doing as well as their affluent counterparts. Children deserve high quality education, equity and equal opportunities regardless of their origin, socieconomic status and family tree. They deserve to realize their full potential and grow into their highest capacity. Educators and families must have strong partnerships. This can be established when teachers treat everyone fairly and ensure children and families feel safe, welcomed, loved and cared for. Just as there are rules in the classroom: be safe, be kind and most of all take care of each other. I am a preschool educator at heart. When I say let’s hold hands and stick together like peanut butter and jelly I mean it.
There are two myths about the achievement gap: low-income families have lower expectations for the academic achievement of their children and students from low-income families have much lower motivation to learn. This is false. I come from lower class and we struggled. I never knew we were poor or how much my family sacrificed to ensure I made it so to speak. It comes down to many influences but I will talk about two main influences: family expectations and how teacher(s) perceive their students. Teachers must have high expectations and a belief in their students that they can in fact succeed and they are somebody. We all are somebody. You can tell so much about a person by how they treat people…every person no matter who they are.
Our exposure and our experiences make us who we are and who we are to become. My family, especially my sister, pushed me to succeed and had high expectations of me and motivated me to learn. She would stay up most nights mispronouncing vocabulary words to ensure I knew them for the next day. At a young age, I was taught to read to understand not by anyone else but my older sister. When I was failing, my sister figured it out by asking and talking with my teachers. A strong school family partnership is key to change someone’s trajectory in life.
I believe a family is a child’s first teacher and wants what is best for their child. At times they may not know what to do and seek help. Families do the best they can. When a child has someone in their life who truly cares, anything is possible. Children are resilient and need a dedicated role model to help them. When a child has a handful of individuals who care and do the best they can, they are empowered and they believe in themselves. There is no excuse why we cannot help children and families through education. Education turns lives around and is the cure for poverty.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime (Chinese Proverb).
As opposed to Jill, I grew up in a highly diverse neighborhood. Christians, Jewish, Muslims, rich, middle class and poor. There was no upper middle class then. I remember going to elementary school and being in a classroom of 32 students with only one teacher. My mom was the room parent for five consecutive years and she contiued to stay engaged in parent-school association until I got to my senior year in high school. I must say I owe my success to my parents and their ever lasting support.
Education starts at home. First, we learn to be a good human being by treating one another with respect, understanding and showing empathy. We learn to take turns listening and speaking. We carry these personal traits to school life. Then we start learning the academics. When I was growing up, my parents would tell me “never talk about money or what you do over the weekend or on breaks. It is rude to brag about what you have. You can hurt others’ feelings because you do not know where they come from and what they can or cannot afford”. Today, I teach the same thing to my son. There are so many other things we can talk about and share with each other. There are so many ways we can support each other, work and grow together.
Achievement gap is unavoidable in today’s world but it can be minimized. This is only possible if we work together. Shared understanding of what high quality is by all stakeholders, exposure to cutting edge information, various experiences and collaboration with others. These are some of the most crucial factors in progressive education. We are raising children in the 21st century, therefore we cannot continue to think like and use the methods from 30 years ago. Family styles, parenting styles, technology and many other things are different than the way they were in the old days. There is so much research out there, within our reach. One click of a button and information is in front of our eyes. No need to wait, no need to check out the book from the library, in many cases, no need to pay for it…So, if we know better and have more information, why not apply this knowledge into our classrooms and provide our children enriching experiences and prepare them for success?
Assumptions as Jill desribes at the beginning are no different than stereotyping people. How many of us think it is not OK to stereotype? I am sure, MANY of you who are reading this right now. There are families who are fortunate and there are ones who are not. There are families who want the best for their children but they do not have the means and there are ones who do not know what is best or how to provide the best. Anytime I come across a family who is not as fortunate as I was when I was growing up, I spend more time with them. I reach my hand out farther and try to pull them closer. Why? Because I may be their only chance. I may be the one who is supposed to break the cycle for this family. Because 8 to 10 hours this child spends in my care may be the happiest and the only productive time period he or she has. Helping someone achieve does not always cost a lot of money. We only need to pay attention, listen and reach out within our means. When it goes beyond our means, we can partner with others and ask for help. Remember we said closing the gap is only possible with collaboration? Well, it really is.
Achievement is not only for a certain group of children. It is for all. All it takes is an opportunity. Any one of us can be that opportunity for a child who then may become a doctor, scientist, teacher, lawyer, police officer, entrepreneur and who knows.. perhaps the future president.