Poverty an Hour’s Drive From Campus
November 8, 2007
The Southern Educational Foundation reported last week that over half of all public school students in the region are now living in low income households. Commenting on the report, John Norton, of the Teacher Leadership Network, writes that in the South, “the most important ‘export’ has become factory jobs in textiles, furniture and other manufacturing”.
I’m challenged by how to teach my students about the complexities of making one’s living in this new economy. I struggle to find relevant readings and media to represent the scope of economic change in the past generation.
Just last week, I was talking with a colleague about my frustration with the reading materials available for our courses. Many of our students come from families that have been set economically adrift in a single generation. The parents of many of our students worked in manufacturing, in natural resources, in small businesses that couldn’t compete with the now ubiquitous Big Box stores. Many will teach in semi-rural and small town school districts in which privileged children living in new developments built on failed farmland will ( at least until rising property values drive out even moderate income families) attend school alongside the children of the milk truck drivers and convenience store clerks who haven’t seen black ink in the ledger book for the past 5 years and are weeks away from bankruptcy.
And in the rural South, children of parents who were laid off from the mill after decades of back-breaking work attend school with the children of the immigrants working in the poultry plants and in decaying orchards. There is virtually no chance that new family-wage jobs will be available to these kids if they do graduate from high school. The more privileged kids are in private schools down the street.
Yet the readings with which I might teach about critical perspectives on schooling are almost all focused on urban schools.
There are, of course, common challenges in teaching kids without health care or hope, regardless of where they live.
But too few texts in education represent the many faces of childhood poverty. Too few explain that many of the children living on farms, in decaying small towns, in the inner ring suburbs in our classrooms will be simply puzzled by teachers’ promises that doing well in school will shield them from the fate of their parents. Too few texts represent the lives of children who live just beyond the reach of the travel budgets of research grants, whose parents and grandparents thought that they were playing by the rules but now can no longer feed their families.
How do we prepare teachers for work in small towns, in rural areas, in the small cities built around “the mills”, in places in which the residents themselves are still trying to understand what happened to their dreams, where schools may well seem to simply be part of “the system” that betrayed them beyond measure? How do we trouble teachers’ understandings of the place of schooling in these new economic times?