Teachers have a difficult job: They’re in charge of a room full of children, with a variety of learning needs, and they’re working to make sure kids learn what they need to learn to move onto the next grade and to do well on standardized tests. Not only do they have to be effective in helping their students learn, they also must know how to deal with behavior problems and how to meet the emotional needs of the kids in their classrooms. And poverty can make those problems worse.
Ann Jarrett, teaching and learning director for the Missouri National Education Association, said poverty impacts teachers and their ability to teach in several ways.
"Kids who are hungry or tired have difficulty with self control, and they have more difficulty learning and paying attention, and that causes more disruption in the classroom," said Jarrett.
And if a child is dirty, sleepy or disruptive, they might be the target of teasing or bullying by other students.
At Watkins Elementary in northwest Springfield, 78 percent of kids are enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program. To qualify, the maximum income for a family of three is $38,443. For a family of four, it’s $46,435, and it goes up as you add more children.
Savannah Acevedo has been a teacher there for six years, since she graduated with a master’s degree in education from Evangel, and is currently teaching first graders.
She said poverty shows up in her classroom in lots of ways.
"They can come in really distracted from maybe their clothes are dirty or they're wearing the same clothes as they were yesterday or they're hungry because they haven't had breakfast yet, so those are the first things that I think of," said Acevedo.
Children in Title One schools eat breakfast in the classroom, so those who don’t have enough to eat at home can get a good start to the day. Acevedo’s approach to address the needs of kids who are dealing with other things—like lack of sleep due to conditions at home or parents who are absent for various reasons--is to greet them with a kind voice and smile "because sometimes they get off the bus and they're worked up or they had to walk to school alone, and they just come in sad and so we just try to start with encouragement and greetings. The kids greet each other," she said.
According to Acevedo, kids in poverty can be dealing with trauma and are constantly in a survival mindset. Getting them into a calm state of mind to prepare for learning is a challenge she deals with every day.
And just getting them caught up to where they need to be can also be a challenge.
"A lot of my kids are at home with their older siblings all the time, so they're not getting a lot of educational support at home and so they come to us with lots and lots of gaps," said Acevedo.
She tries hard to connect with parents who often are eager to help their children catch up but aren’t sure how. Many might not have resources at home like books or scissors. Working with families, she said, is what makes education successful.
She also finds, year after year in the lower grades, kids who haven’t learned social skills "because they don't know that when we talk to people we look at someone in the eyes and we practice taking turns while we play," she said.
Those are things kids learn if they attend play dates or have other similar experiences as toddlers and preschoolers. She tries to incorporate social skills learning opportunities as much as possible throughout the day.
Another challenge is working with kids who frequently move from school to school due to their families’ housing situation.
She’s reached into her own pocket at times to help a child who has a need such as school supplies. Watkins sends food bags home every week with families that can’t afford groceries, and the school partners with local organizations, including churches to help meet the kids’ needs.
Doug Pitt, with Care to Learn, believes teachers shouldn’t have to spend their salary to buy items for students in need since they’re already buying supplies for their classrooms.
"Most of our teachers are awesome, and they're compassionate, so when a kid needed shoes they're dipping into their own purse to try to find it and make it happen," he said. "And, let's just be honest, they're not compensated to be that arm of the social network here."
That’s why programs like Care to Learn, which work to meet students’ basic needs, are so important. Pitt said they want a teacher to teach.
"It just frees them up so they're not that disciplinarian. They're not getting weighed down," he said. "We know that's part of their role. It's always going to be, but everything we can do to lessen and just bring some joy into their life--because they're people. When you're dealing with--it's not just Johnny hurting. Sometimes they're dealing with the mom, the grandma, the brother or sister, and they're really getting a lot more sordid details than they really want to deal with. They don't have a choice."
It’s really hard to see kids struggling at school who deal with poverty at home, according to Acevedo. And some things, she said, keep her up at night. But there are coping strategies she uses.
"I think that we just have to focus on what is within our control, and we have to focus on 'what can I do in my classroom to make them feel like this is a constant safe space, and when I'm in here I'm loved and I'm safe and I learn,'" she said.
She has to focus on the fact that they’re making a difference in their kids’ lives by providing that safe space during the school day. And teachers at Watkins, who often deal with similar situations, learn on each other.
"All of us in this building are doing those kinds of things, and so it's special because we share that...and we know that we need each other's support, and we're not afraid to say that and lean on each other, but that is definitely something that keeps everybody going as well," said Acevedo.
The school offers in-house professional development for teachers. And Watkins is part of a pilot program in which the Springfield Public School District is partnering with Burrell Behavioral Health to help kids who might need mental healthcare.
Acevedo hopes that by getting students the mental health services they need, they’ll be better able to learn when they come to school.