Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 02 2013

why are we afraid of poverty? or: people who make me angry

I’ve been trying to write this post for a while. I’ve been mulling over it since the last day of school, I guess. I wanted to have some breathtaking, sweeping, end-of-year proclamation, some culminating fantasy-ridden statement about my experience as a teacher in Oklahoma City.

Currently, the only word I can come up with is “painful.”

Everything about it hurt. I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true. These past two years broke me. They weigh so heavily on me that I have blocked out a majority of the days I spent in the building. My kids’ faces are the  background on my computer, and I still, daily, will test myself to see if I remember their names. I’m often surprised when I do.

I can’t even put into words how angry I am about everything. I think that’s the emotion I feel the most clearly. I am just so angry.

My anger is aimed in all the wrong directions, of course. I’m sure when I start grad school this fall, I’ll actually turn it into something useful. But right now I’m just so angry at people. Here are the people at whom my anger is directed:

1. People who don’t understand poverty and expect that high expectations will fix it:

First of all, I don’t understand poverty. I can read about it, and teach in it, and research it, but the fact remains that I will never feel it. I am from a wealthy family in a wealthy area of a relatively wealthy state, and at first I was afraid to admit it, because I didn’t want to feel disconnected from my students, which TFA subtly suggests will happen. I will NEVER know the daily ins and outs of navigating a social system that doesn’t favor me. I will NEVER understand what drives the motivations of my students’ parents and their peers. I can seek to understand, and I have, and I continue to do so. I can connect with the community, which I did in OKC and plan to do in Boston. I can bring an open mind to learning about their situations, which I did and will continue to do. But I can never truly understand poverty.

The problem is people who don’t understand poverty (which, let’s be honest, is ALL OF US WHO ARE NOT LIVING IN IT) who then go on to say that high expectations in the classroom will somehow stop it and/or “fix” it. This is an atrociously misguided and incredibly dangerous view. To see why, see:

2. People who shun neurobiological evidence of cognitive gaps because they are afraid it is insulting to kids and their parents.

We all understand that most kids in poverty have more cognitive gaps than their affluent peers, right? Or are we not allowed to talk about it, lest it make us sound classist, or as if we are blaming the parents, many of whom work 2-3 jobs to support their families?

There are certainly sociological explanations for the so-called “achievement gap,” starting with, for example, the social construct of “race” (I’m not talking about skin color) which essentially invented the concept of economic inequality in the first place. But when seeking to understand poverty (which we affluent people will never actually succeed in doing, but we can try), to discount science is to do a disservice to kids who experience this. It is to limit the search for solutions. It is to overlook the scientific explanation behind student behavior and–surprise!–achievement.

Many of my ninth-graders were labeled “emotionally disturbed.” Several were the children of mothers addicted to drugs (before you jump down my throat and call me out for insulting hardworking parents, please know that this is a fact, often directly communicated to me by these very students, and that to ignore this would actually hurt these kids. Addiction is a serious, shaky concept about which I know very little, and would love to learn more). At least two were born with fetal alchohol syndrome, which presented itself early and further perpetuated their gaps.

These neurobiological condtions, of course, link back to the home environment and decisions of the parents, BOTH OF WHICH CONNECT TO POVERTY.

In short: Academic performance is (in part, at least) based on neurobiological cognition, which is based on…wait for it…POVERTY.

(This is, I’m afraid, a terribly unpopular view among TFA higher-ups, many of whom decry this view as “classist” and as an “excuse” and walk around screaming that people like me clearly don’t think poor kids can learn, which is obviously untrue. ALL kids can learn. Not all kids can learn at the same pace. Not all kids can learn in the same environment. Not all kids can learn in the same classroom. Duh.)

So back to this “high expectations” concept. TFA deludes incoming corps members with hours of reading about high expectations. I literally remember thinking, after doing the pre-insitute reading, “Wait. This is it? This is the problem? This will be rather easy to fix.” (cue me, two years later, banging head against wall).

Here’s the deal:

High expectations will not change the fact that poverty exists. High expectations will not change my kids’ neurobiological challenges which result from poverty. High expectations MIGHT change my kids’ levels of motivation, goals for their future, views on education, and relationships with teachers, which MIGHT cause them to try harder in school, which MIGHT produce an increase in their test results, and this data WILL (guaranteed) be stolen, mutilated, and marketed by privately-funded companies who want proof that all kids can learn.

I am in favor of high expectations in the form of, “I know this book is a little challenging for you, but we’re going to read it together anyway, because I have high expectations for both the materials to which you are exposed AND the quality of work you do in school.”

But to say that high expectations will literally change an entrenched system is equally laughable and horrifying.

PS: If you try to argue that teaching kids in poverty is not more challenging than teaching affluent kids, you are, in my opinion, doing a disservice to…well…everyone. I know, I know, schools with rich kids (notice how I didn’t say rich schools, THAT’S another problem, I’ll get to that later) have unique problems that schools with poor kids don’t have. I get it. And, since I have never taught at a school with affluent students, I certainly cannot pretend that I know these challenegs. Plus, teaching anywhere is hard. TEACHING IS HARD. But what really grinds my gears is when teachers of poor students say, “Ya know, we have some challenges here, with the poverty and all,” and EVERYONE JUMPS DOWN THEIR THROATS AND TELLS THEM THEY ARE MAKING EXCUSES. To call this very obvious fact an “excuse” is a misnomer that hurts teachers who teach poor kids, and the kids that they teach. This does nothing to address problems in poverty, does NOT spur any movement to understand the challenges of kids in poverty, and certainly doesn’t lead to solutions. Instead, it pits people with the same goal (helping kids) against each other. (see: this incredibly upsetting blog post written by a fellow TFAer at a high-performing charter in Houston).

Teachers who claim that teaching kids in poverty comes with unique challenges are not lazy or horrible. They are right. They are noble.

3. People who confuse “poor schools” with “schools that serve poor children and families” as another attempt to prove that poverty doesn’t matter.

A few months ago I read a blog post  that made me hate the entire world for a few days. (Look, that’s how I deal with nonsense. I’m working on it.) It was written by a “proud 2010 CM” teaching at a charter in NYC. First of all, dude needs to work on being a little less dramatic. Now I know that’s unfair to say, because I am literally the most dramatic writer I know, but his claim that his “stomach churned, [his] insides burned, and [his] mouth whispered, ‘No,’” when he heard someone say it was harder to reach testing and evaluation goals at schools teaching poor kids (which I just spent a billion words trying to explain, above) is a little offputting.

He goes on to make the sweeping, horrifically erroneous statement that “we need to separate teaching poor students from the true issue – teaching in poor schools.” And then–”when teachers say poor students are difficult to teach, teachers actually mean that it is difficult to teach in poor schools.”

Again: Why are people so scared to say that poverty matters?

100% of students at my school were on free- or reduced-lunch. They lived below the poverty line. They were classified as “poor.” Because of this, my school  was the recipient of several public dollars and grants that were heaped upon it to, of course, fix poverty. (Because giving a lot of money to schools obviously fixes the community, duh.) (That last sentence was entirely sarcastic and is a major root of this problem, by the way.)

My school was not a poor school. It was an incredibly rich school that served poor students. The building itself was brand new as of 2006. We had free after-school programming for any and all interested students. The cheerleading advisor (NOT coach, just the teacher who advised the team) was making…wait for it…$10,000 in additional salary per year. We had several carts full of brand-new laptops. The last few weeks of my time at the school, it was discovered that locked in an inner room of the school were TEN BRAND-NEW DOCUMENT CAMERAS, for which public dollars had paid roughly $600 each. Literally, the building was so big that we didn’t even know what we had.

I would love to hear your thoughts, Jarrell, about why kids were still struggling (and they were struggling mightily, I might add) in such a rich school. Could it possibly be…oh, I don’t know…something outside the school…like…maybe…POVERTY?

4. People who whine and complain and then don’t offer solutions.

Look, I love complaining. In fact, I’m about to take a break from writing because the longer I think about this, the more snarky I become. Nothing delights me more than unpacking a weak argument and screaming about it for a while.

But I do not want to be a snark who doesn’t have solutions. A solution-less snark, if you will.

“So, you big, inexperienced snark,” say my forthcoming critics, “if we can’t say poverty doesn’t matter, and we can’t think high expectations will fix poverty, and we can’t pour a ton of money on schools that then allocate it poorly, what SHOULD we do?”

Here is what I think we should do:

First, we cannot be scared of poverty. We cannot be afraid to admit that poverty is damaging kids and families. We cannot be afraid to study its neurobiological effects. We can’t be afraid to talk about it.

Second, we need to focus on where we are putting our money. Let’s pretend for a moment that we took away the $10,000 the cheerleading advisor at my school received, gave back the $6,000 in unused document cameras and reallocated the funds. Let’s take this unneeded money and put it toward viable programs that ACTUALLY ALLEVIATE THE EFFECTS OF POVERTY. Just an idea.Let’s put it toward a program that unifies and bolsters the roughly 100 woefully underfunded but excellent community non-profits on Oklahoma City’s Northeast side and similar neighborhoods around the country. These are non-profits committed to counseling services, job training, drug rehabilitation, and early childhood intervention. THESE are the services that, when properly implemented, can begin to relieve, and in time, I believe, reduce, the effects of poverty.

Third, we need to change the widespread notion that good schools can create, out of thin air, good communities. Do not believe ANY charter school that tell you this. (Note: I like some charter  networks and believe they are serving a subset of kids that need them. I am not an across-the-board charter-hater, just to be clear.) The schools that are trying to say that are usually the ones manipulating student enrollment and sending the most challenging students (usually the victims of poverty-related neurobiological stress) straight back to failing public schools.

Thriving communities, with quality early-childhood, job-training, counseling, and social service programs will create well-adjusted, less-stressed kids and families. And these kids and families will change our schools, most of which are ALREADY staffed with passionate, caring administrators and educators, I might add. (That’s a whole other blog post.)

Finally, this is my first post in which I extensively take on the major problems I have with so-called education reform and try to offer solutions. Yeah, I taught for two years in a failing public school. Big deal. There is still so, so much I don’t know. I am excited to join the debate, hear opinions, and be disagreed with. I welcome any and all opinions.

PS: If you made it this far, I like you already, whether or not you agree with me.



18 Responses

  1. Well put.

  2. Shannon

    I agree with everything you’ve written. I come from a low-income background myself and I think we all need to stop pretending the problems of poverty are not impacting kids’ lives.

    Admitting this does not mean we are giving up on the kids, or lowering expectations. It simply means we understand and accept that these kids, like all people, are impacted by the things that go on in their everyday lives. Violence, addiction, hunger, insecurity about living situations, etc…of course kids come to school thinking about this stuff. Why can’t we talk about it!?!

    The only thing that I would add is to consider the effects of learned hopelessness and hopelessness. Many poor kids live in an environment of pervasive negativity, and of course this affects their attitudes about learning. They feel that nothing they do is going to change their lives, so why bother? How do you address this one? I honestly don’t know, on a mass scale. I suppose the best bet is to reach out to kids on a one to one basis. But…..

    …here comes the bad news: keeping with the “kids are people too” theme, some people aren’t interested in changing, no matter how convincing your arguement is. It won’t work for every kid, especially when you get into older grades and the kids have their own set of values and ideals. Things like the allure of a life of crime, or the feeling that nothing positive will ever happen to them, they are entrenched beliefs that the kid has been hearing and feeling for their entire lives. It’s almost going against a lifetime of strongly formed ideals…

    What differentiated me from most low SES kids was that my family valued education. When you are dealing with, in many cases, parents who are illiterate themselves, the kids aren’t developing in a home life enriched with learning. The thing many people are terrified to say: a lot of the parents don’t care very much, for whatever reason- immaturity, addiction, mired in personal problems, etc. So, you have kids who have no expectations of behavior, no prioritization of learning, no real guidance in life. And in poor districts, there are a lot of them. Teachers can only do so much to, for example, teach positive behavior or good reading skills, when the kid goes home for 16 hours to a chaotic environment where everyone disrespects each other and no one cares about homework.

    Sorry for writing a novel but it’s rare that I read something that I agree with so strongly.

    • jyarmosky11

      Thanks for your input! I really value it. I agree that learned hopelessness and hopelessness in general affect these kids, and certainly had a huge effect on my students. I’m not sure, but I think the key to addressing this is counseling, perhaps starting early and continuing throughout middle and high school.
      The counselor at my placement school was an amazing professional with a deep passion for helping students process the realities of their home lives. Unfortunately, she was so bogged down as the “testing coordinator” (scheduling tests, contacting parents, organizing files, etc.) that she rarely had time to do her actual job. This was devastating for our kids.

      I agree that people are terrified to talk about parents. I personally saw a range of parents in my two years. Some were invested in their children’s education, and some…just…were not. Speaking up about this, of course, would be labeled as “classist” or “racist,” even, within the TFA environment. Everything fell on the shoulders of the teachers, which is an enourmous problem. If you haven’t read this article I highly suggest it. http://theeducatorsroom.com/2012/09/the-exhaustion-of-the-american-teacher/

      Thanks again for your words.

  3. Loree

    Jess I am a social worker with more years of post grad school experience than you have on this earth . . . and what i just read is . . .well profound first. And also what i would say if i could have articulated it so well. Our high school has started a “success” program. Well funded – and i would suggest wrong for all the reasons you so eloquently state. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to explain to my board member friends why throwing the money where they’re throwing it is a mistake. Now i’ll just send along your blog post . . .think of all the hair you’ve save me! You’re a rock star and some future school is going to be the luckiest place on earth!

    • jyarmosky11

      Thanks, Loree! I always love talking about these topics with you. The kids that you serve are lucky to have you, and teaches are lucky to have you too!

  4. emily olds

    Jess: your anger and disappointment sre entirely justified. Read J. Kozol. Welcome to capitalism in America.

    • jyarmosky11

      On my list! Thanks for your inspiration all these years, by the way.

  5. Bea Mitchell

    Daaaaaaang Ms. Yarmasky! lol nice job!

  6. tlmerrie


  7. Zebra

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read on here. I love that you are welcome to opinions. I agree with everything you stated!

  8. Judith Miller

    Jess, I admire your ability to write, your courage to tell the truth, your anger at those of us who do not understand the concept of “the public good.”( Or maybe understand it, but don’t believe in it.) I am heartened to know you are going to pursue a career in education knowing the importance of the study of neurobiology and how it will contribute to our understanding of teaching and learning.

    Finally, though I also admire the mission of TFA, I applaud your willingness to critique its assumptions about the realities of bringing about changes in public schooling and from my vantage point as a teacher educator, its assumptions about how we
    prepare teachers for the classroom.

  9. LHP

    Great post.

    There was a blog post recently about Finnish schools, the modern darling of education, in which I commented on the likelihood that while there may be schools in Finland that serve poor children, there are not likely to be any poor schools.

    It is the fact that we tolerate poor schools at all that is at the heart of the reason why we tolerate poverty itself. We don’t want to spend our money on other people’s children. The prevailing paradigm is socialism is bad and everyone should look out for himself. If you can’t, well, that’s the luck of the draw. You should have had better parents. Hopefully you can work your way out of poverty on your own despite having substandard schooling.

    The United States will not be a leader in education until we are no longer a leader in childhood poverty. The reasons for this, as you so brilliantly point out, are that there are permanent neurobiological consequences of poverty. I believe that will take at least a generation to mitigate the adverse effects of substandard prenatal care, nourishment, and experience.

    If I could take the money from the cheerleader advisor and the document cameras, I would rather spend it on field trips for the pre-k and kindergarten children so that when they learn that Z is for Zebra, they will have a clear idea of what that means. As a child from an affluent family, I’m sure that you had a wide variety of experiences that enhanced your ability to make the most of your classroom instruction even before you began school. Providing such experiences would be my suggestion for countering the effects of poverty in public schooling.

    • jyarmosky11

      Thank you for your feedback! I agree wholeheartedly that these experiences are necessary for, yet often unavilable to, kids in poverty.

      We can only hope that it will take a generation to mitigate these effects. We need to turn away from the prevailing notion that “teachers are the problem,” and realize that many of our schools are already staffed with passionate, caring, high-quality educators. It’s poverty that is the problem here. If we act now, a generation might be doable. I’m afraid, though, that if we don’t, it could be much longer.
      Thanks again for your input.

  10. Karli

    YES! YES! YES! This is fantastic! I’m so thankful for your words! This is exactly what my capstone project for my Masters degree is on. Thank you for this!

  11. Emily

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. The whole “poverty doesn’t matter!” thing has always really bothered me.

    I’m a teacher-in-training — not in TFA, but I take a look at this blog from time to time. I’m definitely not a TFA supporter, but it makes me so happy that there’s a voice of reason within the organization. Please keep speaking up — more people need to hear this.

  12. Kathy Hillman

    Wow! Well said and I totally agree. I love that you have such a passion and voice for the kind of change that needs to happen.

  13. jyarmosky11

    Here is a link to a thoughtful article about a study recently concluded in Philadelphia. The study debunked the so-called “crack baby” myth and instead drew strong links between the stress and deprivation of poverty and achievement later in life. Thanks to my friend Jane for sharing.

  14. Emmanuel Parello

    It seems odd that in the face of so much thoughtful analysis on the topic from former corps members like you, the organization still trains its CMs in the simple algorithm that high expectations alone have transformative powers. Luckily there’s a lot of good discussion in this site with an alternate perspective.

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