My daughter teaches kindergarten in an all black, very poor neighborhood in North Memphis. It takes a special kind of person to work there, someone who understands and is somewhat fluent in the culture. I’ll give you an example. One of her students called another student the “N” word. She is white, so she asked her across the hall black colleague, Nikita Whitlock, to deal with the situation. Ms. Whitlock asked the child, “Where you hear that word?” (In ‘Hood vernacular verbs are omitted. Nouns and objects are verbalized and everyone knows they are connected by verbs, by action. immediacy. Urgency omits the non-essential.) It is one of the bridges between cultures. Teachers are fluent in both ‘Hood and educated speech. This situation needed everyday language.
“Where you hear that word?” Nikita asked the child.
“My momma call my daddy that.” the child said.
“Tell your momma to find another word to call your daddy. That is a hate word. We don’t use it.”
There are subtle and specific skills that are required of educators assigned to schools that serve the poor underclass children of our nation. The only professional development I know of that directly addresses the different values of upper, middle and lower class people is Ruby K. Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty. The most effective training is peer-to-peer, on-the-job, in the teachable moment, when it is needed. Competent co-workers and a team approach is essential in all schools.
Last week my daughter was transferred to another school, one that is more diverse and in a multi-cultural, multi-dimensional neighborhood. (See if you can pick out which photos come from which neighborhood.) I helped her move her teaching materials the short 5 miles between schools. I could feel the weight of the ‘Hood school/community lifting and it is a good school with a good principal and competent, devoted teachers. But there is a heaviness that lifted as we drove across town to the safer, more affluent neighborhood. The old neighborhood had people hanging out on the corner, at the store, in front of the apartment building. There was an old man pushing a grocery cart full of black plastic bags down the side of the street. On the way to the new school, the lawns, homes, and people became neater. There were no boarded up windows or houses.
I began to reflect on the children she was leaving behind, the ones she did not want to leave. These are the children who are at greatest risk of failure. I see our school district pulling resources from their neighborhoods, closing schools in places where the school is the only positive thing in the environment. So the schools that do exist do important work. New teachers learn as they go. And what they teach encourages students to want to learn more…hopefully enough to graduate from high school and go on to college. Education is a road out of poverty. A teacher can communicate and inspire, can connect children with the world outside of poverty. She starts where the kids live, the way the kids talk…and inspires them to create lives beyond what they know. To connect a child with his creativity, with the possibilities, to a love of learning…that is a goal of an enlightened educator.