The "grit" narrative says that if someone works hard enough, then they can escape poverty. This is a great message to get behind until you consider the contrapositive that logically follows: If someone doesn't escape poverty, then they didn't work hard enough.
I've been thinking a lot lately about poverty. I've been struggling to come to terms with what it means for me as a high school teacher. I see the effects of poverty on my students every day. I have taught students who were transient or homeless. These kids often sleep in weekly rate hotel rooms, friend's couches or floors, or worse. I have taught students who are forced to take care of themselves for long hours each day because their parents have to work night shifts to keep food on the table. I have taught students who wear what may be their only sweatshirt to school every day, sometimes to try and cover up their smell from not being able to shower for days. Poverty is not a new phenomenon in America, but addressing it has become increasingly important in education – over 50% of public school students now live in or near poverty, the highest percentage in over 50 years.
There are many emotions that guide how educators perceive and respond to poverty. Many educators respond first with compassion, checking that students have food to eat and that their basic needs are taken care of. That way, students can be in a position to focus on learning. Students living in poverty often lack things near the base of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. While the ideas behind Maslow's hierarchy are not without criticism or question, his ideas are powerful because they resonate with what we often observe in society. If a student hasn't had a meal in 18 hours, it's not hard to imagine why they might struggle to stay engaged in math class.
Taken to the extreme, teachers who respond only with compassion can un-intentionally perpetuate what President Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations". If my student is worried about where she's going to sleep tonight, maybe I shouldn't press too hard if she doesn't seem engaged... right? If one of my failing students shows improvement right near the end of the semester, maybe I should give him a passing grade instead of piling more stress onto his plate... right? Rationalizations like these lead to lowered expectations for students who need support the most. Given the strong correlation between income and race in America, this is more than just an economics issue. In his same speech, President Bush stated that when it comes to the lack of education results in impoverished neighborhoods, "whatever the causes, the effect is discrimination."