Teaching Down: The Culture of Poverty and the Classroom

Last week Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot gave one of my favorite lectures so far for our class Ecology of Education. The course presents a sociological perspective on schooling, and in that way it is a nice complement and counterbalance to my other classes which are more "skills-based". In her lecture, Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot's lecture discussed the culture of poverty literature and the subsequent pushback in sociological research and literature.

Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot discussed the way sociologists "studied down" toward their subjects. Often times they took a pathological approach, looking to diagnose the social ills of their poorer (and often darker-skinned) subjects. This perspective is also known as a deficit model, looking at the flaws, failures and weaknesses of a group, rather than their strengths.

Not long ago, The New York Times discussed the return of the culture of poverty in social research. What struck me about Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot's lecture, however was the parallels I found in education and my own teaching.

It seems to me that the culture of poverty permeates a lot of education reform efforts beginning with the nomenclature of the major challenge in education today, the achievement gap. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot touched on this idea as well in a discussion with my section. As someone who has dedicated myself to closing the achievement gap, it was unsettling to make the connection between this phrase and the underlying implications about the children whom it addresses. I wonder how we might better discuss educational inequality in a way that doesn't stigmatize entire populations of children.

Beyond this somewhat abstract problem with semantics, there is a broader pattern in education reform that seems to follow a deficit model of thinking. Again and again we hear about what poor children lack. Again and again we hear about the way in which their families and communities fail them. Again and again we hear about what "we", the privileged few, can offer to these communities. However positive the intentions for these children, this approach seems fundamentally flawed in its failure to account for and engage the existing strengths of these communities.

Finally, I thought of my own experiences as a teacher. I remembered co-workers who made disparaging comments about parents and students. I also recognized my own culpability as a young teacher who bought into the 'hero myth' propagated by Hollywood and society at large. While I always attempted to show respect for the community around my schools, I still fell victim to culture of poverty thinking in my own way.

As a fresh faced college graduate I thought I was the sole key to my children's success. All they needed, in my naive and idealistic assessment, was a passionate, caring, intelligent young teacher who would help them overcome the obstacles of the "inner city". As Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot explained in a conversation with my section, this thinking may entail good intentions, but it is no less a manifestation of the culture of poverty. Like the sociologists who embedded themselves in the 'black ghetto' I was also adopting this perspective as a teacher. I was teaching down.

Thankfully I do not think that I held on to this superhero myth for long in my teaching. I think my first year of teaching gave me the maturity and humility to better understand what I could and could not do as a teacher. Throughout that first year and beyond I learned the immeasurable value of my students backgrounds, experiences and families as resources for our learning. This is a powerful shift that I don't think I felt or recognized explicitly until this recent lecture helped me to make the connection between the culture of poverty and my own false assumptions.

Moving forward, I think that education can make some important changes to better serve the children we all want to help. At the macro level there needs to be a shift in the way we look at poor communities. On a more practical level, I think that teaching programs, especially those that rely on high achieving college graduates like Teaching Fellows and TFA, need a stronger and more explicit emphasis on cultural awareness. These teachers have a lot to offer, but they should be taught to respect, appreciate and leverage the strengths of the communities they enter.

The culture of poverty can be subtle, but it is powerful. If we are serious about using education to change communities, we need to also change the way we view these communities.


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