Poverty, Grit, and Teachers

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."

Teachers who respond with too much compassion see poverty as an intractable problem [and] can end up looking more like educational hospice workers than like motivated professionals.

It's no wonder that many compassionate teachers run from this trap and instead, respond to poverty primarily with a sense of intense urgency. These teachers believe that the effects of poverty are debilitating, but even more debilitating is the idea that students' struggles might be compounded by low expectations. Teachers responding with urgency see every day as an opportunity to motivate, understand, and to teach their students what they think they'll need in order to break out of poverty. Teachers look to the students who "have made it" as proof of what is possible for students living in poverty. Poverty is beatable, they believe, and it is done by working harder than everyone else around you. Hard work certainly helps students overcome situations of poverty, but a singular focus on the value of hard work can have unintended consequences.

This idea that hard work is the key to breaking out of poverty has most recently been re-incarnated by the term "grit". Psychologist Angela Duckworth describes that "grit" is the "passion and perseverance for very long term goals" and that it is a strong predictor for success. Her core research is something I agree with, but her message has been expanded and co-opted into what is often criticized as the "grit" narrative. 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 somes doesn't escape poverty, then they didn't work hard enough. Increasingly more Americans are rejecting this idea. Mike Rose notes in "Why School?" that "we have a long-standing shameful tendency in America to attribute all sorts of pathologies to the poor. Writing in the mid-nineteenth century, the authors of a report from the Boston School Committee bemoaned the 'undisciplined, uninstructed, ... inveterate forwardness and obstinacy' of their working-class and immigrant students. There was much talk in the Boston Report and elsewhere about teaching the poor 'self-control,' 'discipline,' 'earnestness,' and 'planning for the future.'"

Teachers who subscribe to this "grit" narrative risk conveying the idea that poverty is caused by poor work ethic. The "grit" narrative presents America as a meritocracy where everyone person has full control over their destiny. The "American Dream" is certainly a seductive idea. It is also little more than a fairy tale for many living in poverty today. Just looking at the few examples of poor minorities who have broken through the barriers of poverty creates a blindspot towards all of the other reasons that make it difficult to break through those barriers. These other reasons desperately need attention – both inside and outside of the school system. I see the "grit" narrative as a classic confusion between correlation and causation. This narrative and other ideas highlight the risks that teachers take if they act purely out of a sense of helpful urgency.

So what, then, is a teacher supposed to do about poverty? Teachers who respond with too much compassion see poverty as an intractable problem, at least for the students currently in front of them. In the face of such dire circumstanses and statistics, these teachers can end up looking more like educational hospice workers than like motivated professionals. Teachers who respond too much with urgency see poverty as an immediately solvable problem. Moreover, they believe it can be solved when individual students work very hard within the confines of school, an institution that only represents about 20% of a student's waking time during a year. Clinging to idealism, these teachers can end up as peddlers of false hope, leaving those who don't "make it" to believe that it's primarily because they didn't work hard enough.

I think that teachers on both of these extremes have it wrong. I believe that poverty is an enourmous and complicated problem and I believe that it can be solved both for individuals and for society. We must acknowledge the complexity head-on and all work hard over time towards progress. We must gather collective will to address the broader symptoms and causes of poverty more effectively. Of course, this will require stronger consensus on what causes and perpetuates poverty in America, but that's another story.

In the mean time, we must work in schools to understand communities and their strengths better. I think true empowerment will come from helping poor communities build up and support themselves over time. A child born into poverty shouldn't have to understand and master two cultures filled with values, rules, and habits in order to find success. We must work every day as teachers to help students truly see and to question the world as it is, not as we model it to be. There are no easy answers or paths when it comes to overcoming poverty for a student. So, for tomorrow, I'll work to show each of my students both compassion and urgency because until they have an equal playing field where hard work truly does cause success, my students will need all the personal strength, motivation, and knowledge that they can get.

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