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Mary Spiker, Idaho 2017 Teacher of the Year, Addresses High Poverty Effects on Education
posted by: Cindy Omlin | May 08, 2017, 06:47 PM   

mary spiker toy headshot 2Every year presents unique opportunities to teach and to learn in my classroom. For example, 8 years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. I taught through my entire treatment and included my students every step of the way. My students and their beautiful families gave me a reason to get of bed, even on the hard days.  I wanted my children to be part of the journey with me but I did not want them to be afraid. The children, with the help of their families designed hats for me based on favorite children’s book. Then they created some kind of a journal to go along with the story. I would wear a different hat every day and share the story with the children. At the end of the year we put all of the books, hats, and journals in special bags and donated them to the local Relay for Life. They were auctioned off and some of them were donated back and shipped to Primary Children’s hospital. My students and their families joined me in walking my very first survivors lap.

The cancer center sent in a counselor to talk with my students so they would understand what was going on. He put a chunk of sod on a cookie sheet that had a large dandelion growing in it. When he cut the dandelion out he talked to them about my lumpectomy. Then he sprayed water but pretended it was a poison to kill the roots that were left behind when he dug the weed out. He compared that to the chemotherapy. He explained how that poison would cause my hair to fell out. He even brought in wigs and for the children to try on. We took the time to listen to their stories and answer their questions…even the hard ones like -  Mrs. Spiker are you going to die?

I will always remember the last day of school, instead of the kids giving me a hug when they left for the summer they simply wanted to rub my bald head.  One of the students in my class left that year declaring she was going to be a doctor when she grew up and put an end to cancer. Eight years later, she is still planning on becoming an oncologist. 

I could share with you about our 50's day of learning celebration where we compare and contrast the 50's to today. Justin Beber---James Dean????

Where we write 50 sight words, record our numbers to 50, read Dick and Jane readers, and learn to hand jive. I could tell you about the bear's den that is currently set up in my classroom to bring learning to life as we practice reading to them, research them, and write opinion papers about whether we would like to hibernate for the winter and why.

I could tell you my students leave my classroom reading and writing or how they see themselves as artists, scientist, architects, mathematicians, and so much more.

Instead I would like to take the opportunity to talk about child poverty and what it looks like in my classroom.

There are many issues facing education today that we must focus on in order to offer better opportunities to our students: Common Core State Standards, Technology Usage, Social Media, Politics, High-Stakes Testing, School Leadership, Climate and Student Poverty are just a few. Child poverty is at the forefront of these issues because of the impact it has on a daily basis in homes, schools, and communities. Due to slow economic growth, childhood poverty rates are higher in the United States than in any other industrialized country and the rate is on the rise.

As of 2014, 33 percent of all people who live in poverty were children-more than 15.4 million, or 21 percent of all children in the United States. Another 15 million reside in low income families. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014.)

The number of people in poverty in 2014 climbed to 46.7 million - one in seven Americans - the largest number since poverty rates have been published. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2014.)

Poverty has an effect on the social, emotional and physiological make-up of children which all directly impact a student’s ability to make academic progress in school. 

According to Eric Jensen (2009) children raised in poverty are likely to display acting out behaviors, impatience and impulsivity, gaps in politeness and social graces, a more limited range of behavioral responses and less empathy for others’ misfortunes. 

"Social and economic disadvantage contributes in important ways to poor student achievement. Children in poor health attend quality schools less regularly. Those with inadequate housing change schools frequently, disrupting not only their own educations but those of their classmates. Children whose homes that lack intellectual stimulation enter school already so far behind that they rarely can catch up.” (Rothstein, "A Nation at Risk" Twenty-Five Years Later.) 

Financially disadvantaged parents are often accused of not valuing education and seen as uninvolved in their children’s education. However, research shows us repeatedly, that is not the case. 

Low income parents hold the same attitudes about education that wealthy parents do. (Compton-Lilly, 2003, Lareau and Horvat, 1999; Leichter, 1978)

Parents with low income are less likely to attend school functions or volunteer in their children’s classrooms not because they care less about education, but because they have less access to school involvement than their wealthier peers. They are more likely to work multiple jobs, to work evenings, to have jobs without paid leave, and less likely to afford child care and have transportation. 

It might be said more accurately that schools that fail to take these considerations into account do not value the involvement of poor families as much as they value the involvement of other families. (Paul Gorski, Educational Leadership, 2008.) 

A key to altering the cycle of poverty for children is empowering parents. Developing highly-qualified teachers that create safe and respectful school cultures helps to build long-term trusting relationships with parents. Schools are more than a place to learn how to read and write. They are a place to build social and emotional development as well. Providing teachers and parents with a network of qualified professionals in meeting the child’s and family’s needs is critical in changing the cycle of poverty. Highly skilled educators working with parents to break down historical limitations will allow schools to be creative in educating all students. Quality education combined with a loving environment has the power to end the cycle of poverty. 

It is our job as educators to recognize all students, set the bar high and strive to make school the best part of their day. We must persevere in our efforts, develop a “No-excuse” mentality and be willing to employ innovative ways of engaging students. Children and parents need to know that education can change circumstances and offer new possibilities. Education is all about building relationships - with students, the teacher next door, down the hall, across the district, and globally. Parents, families and the community at large must play a role in the educating of this precious commodity. It is about learning with and from one another, sharing ideas, and being willing to ask for help. It’s about working together to create something bigger and better for our children than we ever could have accomplished alone. 

We must develop a partnership between the school, the home and the community where we pool money, skills, and resources to ensure all our students achieve success. This partnership must be built on trust, respect, and a common vision. We must strive to build schools, homes and communities where our children have their basic needs met and are provided the essentials they need to learn regardless of their economic level or background. There is no room for pointing fingers but rather a joint effort must be made to create an environment where children are safe, loved, valued and well educated. 

I teach kindergarten in a high-poverty school in the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District. I teach a total of 50 students-25 attend a T/TH session and 25 attend a W/F session and they alternate Mondays based on instructional hours.  Reading about poverty and its implications is insightful but experiencing it through the lives of my five-year old students makes it real.

Let me take you on my journey to demonstrate how effects of poverty can play out in a classroom. Let’s begin with…

Back-to-School Night - Parents expressed concern about their child’s readiness to enter kindergarten because of behaviors (Child was a handful, or didn’t listen, or was severely ADHD and they didn’t believe in medication). Although I’ve heard these concerns expressed repeatedly over the years, I never had the sheer quantity as I did this year. I didn’t know whether to be afraid or to write it off as parents being over anxious and simply worried about their child beginning kindergarten. I had to remind myself that they were only five years old and I have challenging children before and we survived. 

Kindergarten Orientation was my first encounter with my students. Several of them entered the room angry and very defiant when asked to complete a task. One student fell to the floor, curled up in a ball, and cried the whole time. Parents were unable to console or redirect. I was still thinking the children just needed some time to adjust to their surroundings and to the rules and routines. 

Being overly prepared I was more than taken back on the very first day of school. I had several children who not potty-trained and not because of any disability. Some children were trained to use the restroom but didn’t know how to wipe themselves. It is typical to have kindergarten students occasionally have accidents at school. But the number in need of assistance was astounding. 

The bathrooms were not the only issue. The children lacked social skills of any kind. Five-year olds are egocentric and everything is me, me, me. However, it was more than that. The children had no regards for anything or anyone. Typically, there is a honeymoon period but not this year.  They did what they wanted, when they wanted and again, it was the sheer number of students, a little more than half of my class, exhibiting this kind of behavior. 

At the end of the day, I cried. I cried for my students and my heart broke as I wondered what had happened in their young lives to leave them so broken and full of anger. Five-year old children should be jumping in mud puddles, riding their bikes, playing with friends instead of carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. I hoped the first day with my other class would bring better results. 

But it didn’t. I had children running out of the classroom, throwing chairs, dumping anything and everything, laying on the floor kicking and screaming at the top of their lungs, pulling things from the shelves and walls, crawling under tables, over tables, fists would fly and feet would kick for no apparent reason, it was absolutely unbelievable. I am usually able to curb and redirect behavior. However, I was unsure which fire to put out first because there was an inferno. Prayer may not be allowed in schools but this teacher never ceased praying. 

I knew if I wanted a different outcome, I would need to do things differently. Trust me, if you would have walked into my classroom during the first several weeks you would not have thought “That teacher should be Idaho’s teacher of the year.” I am not sure exactly what you would have thought but you would have known that there was a limited amount of academic learning taking place. I worried about that also. But I knew I had to build relationships and get the behaviors under control before any learning could take place. 

As behaviors continued to escalate, I realized I was losing the battle as other were students joining forces. To demonstrate the magnitude of what was happening on one particular day I had 12 adults staff members including my principal, counselor, and behavior tech. in my room trying to intervene. 

At this point, building capacity amongst staff members was essential if these children were not only going to survive, but thrive. We met and discussed each of the children at length and identified areas of need. We then placed the children with similar needs together. My principal, school counselor, and two behavior techs took one group and worked on social skills such as compliance, turn taking, respecting boundaries, empathy, and self-regulation for a half-hour per day. During this time, I worked on academic skills with the other children. We continued with this schedule up until Thanksgiving break.

It wasn’t until Wednesday, November 16ththat we had our first good day from bell to bell. On that day, we had visitors in our school doing some observations. When they walked in, I froze, uncertain of what they may see. We were working in our literacy journals and attempting to write our first sentence. My students were spot on. They were stretching out words, listening for sounds and thinking about what was happening in their mouth when they made that sound. One of the executives commented to the principal that he bet she had a hard time getting parents to put their children in any of the other teacher’s class because I was doing such an amazing job. She laughed and explained how our year had started.

I found myself feeling very emotional because I never would have tasted the sweetness of that day had I not gone through all the trials leading up to it. I was so proud of my little kindergarten family. 

Today my students operate as a kindergarten family. We take care of one another and work hard at respecting each other and property. We are on target to meet grade level standards. It is a bumpy ride at best, but it provides lots of opportunities for learning and growing for all of us. 

With that said, I want you to know it’s hard, really hard. When all the kindergarten teachers came together for our District CAMP, I found out this type of behavior was happening all over the district. I found myself wondering if this is not the new normal? I can do hard and I will do hard because my children are worth it but it may be easier if I only had one session of kindergarten students who came five days a week so I had consistency on my side and had more time to build meaningful relationships in a shorter amount of time. When my W/F kids leave on a Friday and I don’t see them again until the next Wednesday, I am constantly starting over. 

It may be easier if kindergarten was mandatory so there was some accountability for attendance. It may be easier and less stressful if I had a full year to address the standards rather than a half of year. 

This mission is not easy. Martin Sheen in his role as President Bartlet on the West Wing television series expressed it best when he said: 

“Every time we think we have measured our capacity to meet a challenge we need to look up and be reminded that our capacity may be limitless.
This is the time for us to do what is hard, achieve what is great, and reach for the stars.”


Our children are counting on us.

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