Despite the best of intentions, educators do not always understand where students and their families are coming from. I learned of this troubling lack of enlightenment and compassion among some educators at an education studies graduate school function in 2012. As I sat with other students at a meet-and-greet luncheon, we shared stories of how we each became interested in our graduate programs. During my turn, I related my experiences as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington, DC and how working with adult students with low academic skills had inspired me to make a career of education reform.
I noted the woefully weak math, reading, and critical thinking skills of most of my students. Indeed, many of them struggled to read aloud in class or recall their times tables. Few had the skills necessary to pass the GED test for which they were preparing. There was little doubt in my mind that a weak education played a significant role in their life struggles.
Much to my surprise, others at the table challenged me on that argument. One asserted, “I really think this stems from the breakdown of the family,” as if there is an ideal, monolithic family unit that ensures student success. (And it’s worth noting that someone at the table had just shared that she was a single mother.) On the subject of students not knowing their times tables, another asked rhetorically, “Why didn’t they teach themselves?” suggesting that a child, not her educators, is culpable if she does not learn. It seemed they felt there is one clear path toward academic success and that the path was open to all who were willing to work for it. My experience, however, has shown me that there are forces at work that make some students’ journeys much more trying than others.
Perhaps my colleagues would have seen things differently if they had worked in the same underserved communities that I had. Many of my students were single parents who had made it through part of high school and had still received a paltry education. Most of them carried emotional scars from years of bad experiences in the education system, often being told that they were lazy or stupid because they did not achieve. If they had received the quality education they deserved as children, they would not have been in my GED class as adults. Their obstacles to success were many, but all of these people were doing their best to make up for lost time.
My students worked hard to learn and grow both in the classroom and beyond. They were working to acquire or keep good jobs, but they also expressed the simple desire to be able to help their children and grandchildren with their homework. They did not want younger generations to struggle as well. In essence, these people were doing whatever they could to break the cycle of poverty for their families.
Educators do students and parents a grave disservice when they dismiss these efforts and the barriers that keep the poor from accessing a great education. Such attitudes blind us to our own privileges, our own faults, and the hardships of others. Just as importantly, we fail to see the good that people do for themselves and their families through education.
Scholars are pushed to examine the biases that influence their research, and institutional review boards meticulously oversee ethics when researchers study students and educators. But how often are we pushed to reflect on how our biases impact our words, actions, and attitudes in education? That self-reflection matters. Even an offhand comment can show just how far we need to go in better understanding the lives of the students and families we serve. We need to work as hard as our students do to move toward improving lives.