Standing in the Gap

December 14, 2017


Schmidt: Simulation experience reveals real-life poverty situations families face eve…

KEARNEY — Frustrated, and angry

  • Hub Staff Writer
  •  Dec 14, 2017 Updated 10 hrs ago
  • KEARNEY — Little Johnny isn’t paying attention in class. He sleeps most of the time. When he’s awake, he’s disruptive.

Is he lazy or does he have behavioral issues, is he hungry or cold, or do his parents constantly fight while trying to make ends meet.

Those are issues teachers often see in the classroom with children of low-income families and part of a training exercise Wednesday for Kearney middle school teachers.

Nearly 100 Kearney Public Schools teachers and community members took part in the Community Action Poverty Simulation course at Sunrise Middle School. The training was to give teachers a taste of some of the challenges low-income students face.

“Unless you experience poverty, it’s hard to understand,” said Ruth Vonderohe, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator. “There are so many things we take for granted.

“I don’t think teachers really realize how tough it is for some people,” she added.

The program has been taught for at least 12 years, although this is the first year the training has been provided in Buffalo County.

Vonderohe taught the two-hour course and challenged teachers to get active in the lives of their low-income students and find organizations to help them and their families.

“I think that’s important that they take the next step,” she said. “Just knowing what is really in our community and be more empathetic with the kids when they don’t come to school for three or four days in a row because they can’t.”

During the training, teachers were put into 30 low-income families and role-played real-life scenarios of a month in poverty and in need of some type of the 17 services offered.

Dan Fong, an English teacher at Horizon Middle School played the role of a disabled father living with his daughter’s family. He knows all too well how a rough home life can affect children and that school may be the least of a child’s worries.

Early in his career, Fong had a student who was doing poorly in class. It wasn’t until he spoke to a school counselor that he learned the student was being abused at home.

“Sometimes, as a teacher, you’ve got to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Yes, we’ve got to hold them accountable, but you’ve got to balance it, too,” he said.

SMS physical education teacher Brian Hagan played a 9-year-old with behavioral issues during the training. He often baby-sat his 1-year-old sister. An older sister attended college, while their father spent time at social services trying to get food stamps.

“It really opened my eyes to what a lot of our kids go through. To live every day is really a huge struggle for some of our families,” he said.

After the exercise, teachers talked about their roles, the struggles they faced and how it made them feel. Kris Grassmeyer may have had one of the most challenging roles.

The HMS math teacher played an unemployed mother of two teenagers whose husband just left her with $10 and an empty bank account. Her son sold drugs and had recently gotten his girlfriend pregnant, while her daughter was having trouble at school.

By the second week of the exercise, Grassmeyer didn’t feel guilty her son was a drug dealer.

“I was so excited that he actually got money, and that we were all, hopefully, going to pay the rent or, hopefully, something else, I wasn’t even angry that he had sold drugs,” she said. “It was almost a relief that part of our responsibilities were going to be taken care of.”

The gap between the middle class and poverty is getting larger each year. Unless you experience truly being poor it is hard for many of us to begin to comprehend what our students go through on a daily basis.

In my 26 years as an educator I have worked with many children of poverty. At first glance, it is easy to say their parents squander what money they do have on items that they can do without. This may be true, however analyzing it through the eyes of those in that situation is not as clear cut as we may think.

Individuals in poverty look at life either day by day or in some cases hour by hour and possibly minute by minute. Many times when they are fortunate enough to come across money or resources, they spend it as quickly as they can. The motto “Here today, gone tomorrow” rings true for them.  Their lives could easily end in an instant or someone could break into their home and take their resources. It is a constant fear.

Children of poverty are mandated to attend school, it is the law. What many teachers do not understand or have difficulty comprehending is that a particular child may not be prepared to give their best effort each day. They may have went the night without heat. They may have not eaten anything substantial since the school provided lunch the day before. They may have not had a shower for days. They may not be wearing clean clothes. They may have had to walk long distances in single digit temperatures.

You need to ask the question of yourself, “Could I be at my best everyday if I had to live in those conditions?” I think the answer for all of us would be no. Abraham Maslow, the father of Humanistic Psychology states that human beings have to have their basic needs met in order to be productive. If students do not have their basic needs met basis then they will not demonstrate progress.

This article reminds me of a middle school boy who was always hungry, never clean, always tired, always angry.  One day he came to school in the morning and announced, “Last night was the best night.” When I asked him what made his evening so special thinking or hoping he had gotten a toy, he said, “My mom’s boyfriend let me eat the pizza crusts after he was done with his pizza.” I kept a straight face and played along, but inside I was devastated. No teacher is prepared to hear that.

Unfortunately, stories like this occur on a daily basis across Nebraska and the nation. Research indicates that the poverty gap will only get bigger over time. Educators are on the front line with students of poverty everyday. It is our job to teach students no matter what background they come from, rich or poor. We are charged with getting the best out of each kid every day regardless of where their day starts. Allowing children of poverty to take up space each day is not helping them. We have to identify what needs will get them ready to learn and then hold them accountable. When they leave Lexington High School with a diploma and are enrolled in an institution of higher learning have we given them the opportunity to break the cycle? What they do with it is up to them.