[Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and what Schools Can Do about it (2009) by Eric Jensen]
• February 18, 2014
For many educators from middle and upper middle class backgrounds (myself from Brighton), first exposures to urban school environments can be, in the words of Eric Jensen, author of Teaching with Poverty in mind (2009), “puzzling, frustrating or irritating.” I cannot say I was immune from such feelings.
In Teaching—widely read in professional development programs throughout the District including a Reading Group at Rochester Early College—Jenson claims the acute and chronic stress associated with poverty often leads to diminished cognitive control. Fundamentally, he argues that many impoverished children have neurologically adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine school behavior and academic performance. Jensen outlines several central manifestations: “acting-out” behaviors, impatience and impulsivity, gaps in politeness and social graces, a more limited range of behavioral responses, inappropriate emotional responses, and less empathy for other’s misfortunes.
Alas, such are the traits that allow the uninitiated newcomer to a city school to feel like it is indeed an urban jungle.
Within Jensen’s framework (albeit simplified here), I sought the perspective of a teacher from a different background than my own, one who, growing up, lived the experience of Rochester’s urban poverty.
About a year ago, I read Robert Snyder’s compelling essay on his own encounter with, and overcoming, urban deprivation. Living just across the street from East High School, he participated in East’s Teaching and Learning Institute. Since then he has received three degrees from the University of Rochester and the Warner School: BA-Political Science, M.S. Social Studies Ed. and M.S. Special E.D. and an Advanced Certificate – Urban Teaching and Leadership. I guess you could say Snyder has made it to the middle class.
(For more on TLI, see Inspiring aspiring teachers at East High )
Recently, coincidentally, I found myself in his Social Studies class where he had returned to his alma mater as a long-term substitute. The class went quite smoothly. We were studying ancient Rome and early Christianity. As I recall, one student made a perfectly valid case that the Roman gods may still play a role in our lives. Since then, Snyder has accepted a permanent position at the University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men as a Global History and US History teacher.Snyder vividly describes his own experience in which he freely calls himself—like many of his current students—as an “urban trauma victim.” As he says, “For a student being in poverty, small events have created a ball of trauma. This trauma results in a skewed view on the world that makes it difficult for that student to perform at a standardized level both in the classroom and outside of it.” In many ways, these difficulties borne of trauma become Jensen’s acting out behaviors that can frustrate middle class educators who sometimes interpret their students’ emotional and social deficits as simply rudeness or a lack of manners. Snyder adds that it can be difficult for middle class suburbanites to imagine how few positive influences many urban students have.
Nonetheless, Snyder—as does Jensen—thinks middle class teachers can understand the process. Ultimately, it is empathy that matters: “I believe the teacher does not simply need to look like students in poverty nor do they need to have been raised in poverty themselves. I believe teachers need to care.” In Snyder’s case, “the adults that have made the biggest difference in my life were not people who shared my background.” Rather they were those—like Laura and Dan Delehanty at East who Snyder says exposed him to the realities of poverty—who cared enough to take the necessary actions to assure he reached his potential. Ultimately, the Delehantys showed him he had to make a very conscious decision “between my future and living in the present.” A lesson he imparts to his students every day.Snyder says that his background is the reason he teaches. As he says, growing up was a “very rough time for me as I struggled to find a balance between my friends that were running in the streets and the students who were on track to attend college. I managed to partake in both social groups.” Incidentally, while he is white, he thinks his experiences are not very different from African-Americans. Describing how students might first see him, Snyder “definitely thinks there is an initial impression made by the students when they see me in the classroom and that is caused by skin color, but once I open my mouth and introduce myself as an RCSD graduate who shared many of the same experiences as my students that barrier is broken and a bond is immediately formed.” Ultimately, Snyder’s struggles mirror that of so many who feel the pull of the ‘hood and something different.
What strikes me about Snyder’s story is how in his classroom he integrates long-term vs. short-term goals. Short term goals mean understanding this chapter on Roman history and its vocabulary. From there, long term goals emerge. From there, college and opportunity. As he tells his students, running the streets short term got him nowhere.
We need more teachers like Snyder. Not just because students may relate. But because he can bring a broader understanding to help teachers, myself included, who might not have had to make his tough choices.