As an educator who holds a teaching certificate, I have to keep updated on educational topics in order to maintain that certificate, because a certain number of classroom hours are required to remain current and in good standing. Classes are offered in many different places on many different topics.
Many years ago, I took a class on poverty, not because I was so interested in the topic, but because I needed the credit and it was the class that best fit my schedule. I had no idea what I would be learning, and honestly, I didn’t care as long as I got my hours in. It turned out to be one of the best classes I have ever taken. I learned more in that 10-hour class than all the others combined.
We started out with a short survey about the hidden rules of poverty. It was the beginning of the scales falling from my eyes regarding poverty and class structure. As I checked boxes on the survey, it became clear I only understood the information on the middle-class portion. I was at a loss on the other parts. From there, we delved into the culture of poverty and why it should matter to a group of educators.
When I learned to look at poverty like I would look at another culture, with different values, traditions, and behaviors, I found my middle-class solutions were not helpful. Telling someone to “just get a job” does not address the issues in the culture of poverty.
Getting a job requires having a way to get there, like a car, which has to be maintained, which requires a license to drive, all of which cost money. Getting a job also requires being able to fill out an application properly, which requires being able to read and write. Having a job requires having more than one outfit, daily having clean clothes to wear to work, which require laundering, which requires going to the laundromat which requires a car to get there, and money for the machines. In addition to these, there were a whole host of things I had never even considered, because I never had to.
Each week for 10 weeks, I learned how I had been trying to overlay my middle-class upbringing onto the culture of poverty and why it didn’t work. When the class was over, I found I had a new lens with which to do my job. Generational poverty in Appalachia was at my front door. In my Title 1 school, since I worked with kids who struggled the most academically, I saw the poverty gap in a pronounced way. All because I got some vital information.
I suddenly understood why some of my students didn’t bring their fieldtrip permission forms back. Not uncaring inattentive parents as I had imagined, but lack of funds to pay for the trip. In parent teacher conferences, I noticed parents placing paperwork in their bags without even looking at it. I realized it was not because they were being rude or didn’t care, but because they were illiterate. Summer clothes in the winter, wasn’t neglect, it was that they had no other options. On and on it went.
Day after day, year after year, the material I learned in that class was invaluable to me in helping me better understand those who were living a different reality than mine. The information made me a better teacher, but it also made me a better human. I came to the realization that life is a different kind of complicated for those who are different than me. It was life-changing. It gave me the tools I needed to be able to consider what it would be like to walk in their shoes and to treat others with dignity rather than judgement.
Now, here I am again. This time in a class on race, only I am creating my own curriculum. I am reading books, watching movies, listening to podcasts, having conversations, and learning. Oh, am I ever learning. More scales are falling from my eyes every single day. Already, I am recognizing how I have tried to overlay my white upbringing onto the black culture and why it doesn’t work. I am gaining new lenses with which to look at circumstances around me. It is humbling above all else. How could I have missed all of this information? It makes me angry and sad that I wasn’t taught these things before now. But now, I know. And when I know better, I can do better.
Let me encourage you to sign up for a class, or design your own. Digging your heels in so you can overlay your upbringing onto other cultures will only delay the inevitable humbling that is coming when the scales fall off your eyes. Open the books. Read. Watch. Listen. Get it over with. Procrastinating only makes things worse. Just do it. You will be glad you did. I promise it will change your life and make you a better human.