I like to consider myself culturally aware and have a solid understanding of poverty and its affect on my students. I have taken several multicultural courses and immersed myself in a school whose culture is vastly different than mine. Despite all these experiences and assumed expertise, I find it surprising that I was both moved and troubled by the readings from this last week. Many of the facts and case studies were not surprising; I had seen many of them before. What was surprising was a quote that put the whole thing in perspective. The statement from Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, and it really seemed to hit home the disadvantage my students from poverty are left with. The quote reads, “One of the biggest difficulties in getting out of poverty is learning how to handle money. How can you manage what you have never had? If you gave me fifty head of cattle and told me to manage this small herd, I would be in trouble, and my cows would be in even bigger trouble. How can I manage cattle when I have zero experience with cows”?
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Being from a small town and growing up on a farm, I know the challenges associated with raising cattle. I know the needs, the knowledge and skill needed to raise a healthy cow and make a profit. If someone were going to go into this profession with no knowledge or understanding of what they were doing, I would almost guarantee failure, as the things you need to know for success are not obvious or easily attained. When I considered this quote and its ramifications on my career as a teacher, it made me very uneasy. As a teacher I feel as though I do a good job of helping my students prepare for their futures and give them the tools to be successful. I realized however that by only teaching to the content, I am only preparing the middle and upper class students, roughly only thirty percent of my students. The vast majority of my students don’t have an understanding of money or how to manage it but it is so much more than money. As a result of their generational poverty, they don’t know how to interact in the business world. They don’t know or have an understanding of the expectations associated with a career or live in the middle class. They have not learned the unwritten rules that make people in the middle and upper class successful.
As the book stated, “they don’t know the language of green. ” Instead of teaching them these things that will likely be necessary if they are ever to advance in life, I am in the class everyday teaching them Trigonometry, a topic that is geared toward the careers of engineers and architects. I am not sure if this was the intention of this reading but I truly feel like I am wasting the time of my students by simply keeping the statues quo. It is not enough to just teach them the content; we have to teach them the language, values and behavior that will prepare them for success. Without this alternative curriculum, the school system is simply perpetuating the separation of classes. I am ashamed to say that despite my assumed knowledge and understanding of poverty, I have done nothing to help lift these students from it. Being less than a week out from this realization, I have not developed a plan of action to address these issues but I feel that if I am going to call myself a teacher I have to do more. I find it strange that I have always known the limitations of poverty and difficulty of advancing from it, but I have never considered the implications I has on my students and on myself. The most frustrating part of this epiphany is the fear that I am contributing to their status in poverty. I feel that I am simply a cog in a system that works against the success of some of my students. How am I going to change their lives through mathematical content?
Although math is important and necessary, I have a hard time believing math alone will help these students. If we are going to truly call ourselves educators, we have to start teaching our students what they need to know. We have to teach more than Trigonometry, we have to teach them the values, behaviors, language and codes of the business world. Without this knowledge they simply have fifty head of cattle and no idea what to do with them.