One of the greatest shames that I carry with me is the one year that I spent working outside of suburbia. Needing a professional change, I transferred from a school where less than 10% of my students were living in poverty to a school where just over 30% were living in poverty.
Now, I know what you're thinking: "This guy's lost his mind if he thinks that a school where 30% of the students living in poverty is a difficult place to work."
But even working in a school that many of my peers in more challenging buildings would describe as "easy," I knew that I'd made a mistake from the day that I walked in the front door. You see, we had a faculty meeting where the results of our state's testing program were announced and my new staff celebrated wildly over the fact that they'd met---rather than exceeded---the state's testing expectations for their students. That meant every teacher would earn a $750 bonus.
For me, though, that meant a $750 pay cut because the students in the affluent suburbs where I'd spent the previous 10 years of my career always exceeded the state's testing expectations, earning teachers a $1,500 yearly bonus.
It didn't take long for naive little me to figure out why meeting expectations was such a cause for celebration in my new school.
The work was HARD. My classes were full of small handfuls of students struggling through the social wreckage that poverty inevitably causes. I had kids who were homeless or whose parents were imprisoned. I had kids who'd never been to museums or to libraries. I had kids who came to school hungry on a regular basis.
Life was a fight for each of them---and that fight constantly spilled over into my classroom.
Having fallen behind their peers academically, an all-too-common pattern for students living in poverty, many of the kids in my classes struggled to draw from background knowledge to understand new topics, to apply basic skills to new situations, or to produce sophisticated final products.
While many had the potential to do well, it took high levels of commitment and determination to complete tasks that students living in middle or upper middle class neighborhoods worked through easily.
The result: Complete frustration.