I recently received Matthew Desmond’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Evicted. This book takes a look at “hope and loss” connected to housing, and “the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.” The title got me thinking about the children from low income families I have taught, who have either faced the threat of eviction or been evicted from their homes.
There have been moments in my teaching career when I have either learned through staff members or from my students themselves that they were 1) homeless; 2) living with friends or other family members under stressed circumstances; or 3) in fear of losing their home due to a parent’s deportation, health crisis, or loss of employment. The common thread between all of these scenarios is how poverty is tied so closely to home, that place that gives us a sense of physical safety and emotional security. Poverty as it impacts housing is more than just a structural concern; communities with higher rates of homelessness often experience higher crime rates, reduced access to medical facilities and fresh food, negligent landlords, and other inequalities.
Homelessness and the impacts of poverty significantly impact children in the classroom. Students come to school exhausted, withdrawn, anxious, hungry, and some even choose to remain at school for hours after the last bell rings. When children don’t have a safe and secure place to live with their family, how can teachers expect them to perform at their optimal level in school? Yet, our educational institutions expect teachers and administrators to hold high standards for all children and to solve educational challenges children face in our classrooms. However, extreme economic disadvantages are institutional problems that bleed so heavily into the classrooms that one teacher is limited to what he or she can humanly do to mitigate the impacts of poverty, especially as it impacts home. At best, teachers are loving advocates to our poorest children. Here is what advocacy has looked like in my classroom over the years: securing affordable glasses, sending students home with choice books to read, reporting health & dental concerns to the nurse and symptoms of anxiety to the psychologist, providing food, before, during or after school, buying school supplies, reducing workload, alerting the social worker to homelessness concerns, and driving students who fear walking home. But probably the most effective way I have lended support to children experiencing the effects of poverty, has been to be a trusted listener. Teachers do this all day long. We listen, support and offer our love to students who experience setbacks rooted in the limitations caused by poverty.
Closing the educational gap requires much more than what happens in the classroom. I’m dumbfounded by policy makers who keep rubbing their foreheads and wondering why our educational institutions have not made significant progress closing the achievement gap. Maybe if we take a hard look at other institutions, namely, safe and affordable housing first, gains in educational performance will follow. As Emma Garcia, an Education Policy Institute researcher recently stated, “There is only so much that even comprehensive well-designed (educational) programs can do to mitigate the pressures and effects of disadvantage and low social class. Indeed, some communities are seeing benefits from offering comprehensive supports, but to really eliminate the inequalities that begin at the very start of children’s lives, we must tackle severe economic inequalities head on.”