Poverty and Class: Stories about students, by their teachers

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By Robert Mann

Public school teachers know more about the struggles of poor families than most people ever will. Each day, they see the damage poverty does to children and how it inhibits their learning. They also see the ill effects of bad parenting, abusive parenting (or no parenting). And they often feel helpless, because there is really so little they can do about many of these situations. But they still try. And many of them make a profound difference in the lives of young children.

But it also frustrates teachers that public officials and education leaders put almost all the responsibility on teachers. When students succeed, it’s the brilliance of their policies and because they “got tough” on the “bad” teachers. When students fail, it’s always the fault of the teachers and the schools. It’s never because of the crippling poverty that dominates the lives of so many of these children.

If the so-called education reformers would listen to teachers (or if they had any real experience in those kinds of classrooms themselves), they’d know what teachers already now — all the standardized tests in the world won’t change the fact that children in poverty, on average, don’t succeed as well as more affluent children.

Put another way, how to teach a child with an empty stomach or who cannot see or hear? Such children can be taught, of course. But not before their critical needs have been addressed.

In my most-recent column in Sunday’s Times-Picayune | NOLA.com, I’ve shared some of the stories I gathered from teachers over the past several weeks. But I collected far too many stories to share in that brief column. But these stories must be told.

That’s the reason for this post – to allow these teachers to tell their stories, and their student’s stories, more fully.

In some cases, they’ve allowed me to use their names. In other case, they’ve asked for anonymity (it’s remarkable and sad how many teachers fear retribution for speaking out).

I don’t endorse every opinion expressed in these stories. Some of them are raw. The teachers’ anger at school leaders, politicians and parents is evident. But even though I don’t agree with all of the opinions here, I share them with you because they are voices of teachers that simply don’t get heard very often, if  all at.

 Donna Lormand

I teach at Evangeline Elementary in Lafayette Parish.  I’ve taught first, second and third grade classes there for over 25 years. I plan to teach ELA for first and second grade sections of French Immersion classes in the fall. I’ve seen the economical makeup of our school population change drastically from upper middle class to a mostly low-socioeconomic class

I have seen numerous changes in children’s abilities to learn.  I feel that many of these changes were definitely due to poverty-related issues. I believe that poor financial matters may cause stress-related problems for parents that affect the children, making it difficult for them to perform academically as compared to students that come from healthy family situations.  Some of the issues that I’ve dealt with as far as trying to teach these types of students are:

Single parents have so much stress because they are trying to work, get children fed and to school on time, purchase supplies, make sure someone is home when the child returns from school, help with homework,  spend quality time with their children, and deal with upkeep of their homes. They just can’t do it all.

Many parents are no longer in relationships with the child’s other parent.  Many of them argue over money, other relationships, the child’s upbringing, and other issues.  So many times the child is put in the middle or feels like they are to blame for problems.  These thoughts get into the way of daily learning.  I’ve had a child come to school and tell me about a dad who bashed her mom’s windshield with a bat, and another’s father and stepfather and mother and stepmother fought each other and how he begged the cops that responded to make them stop.  How can children think about academics with things like these on their minds?

Some of the parents are not well educated themselves and have difficulties helping their children at home.  Some do not want to help.  Some are obviously on drugs.  It puts a lot of pressure on children who do want to learn and I feel like it discourages those who are not very motivated.  Many parents do not attend important open house, parent-teacher, or retention meetings.

Many of these parents are not consistent when they discipline their children.  Some lack the skills to properly discuss behavior problems with their child. They may give in to their children or lose their temper, sometimes resulting in abuse.

Financially, these parents are unlikely to have the means to provide learning tools for their children.  Students lack school supplies at school and at home that are needed to complete homework, projects, or studying.  Most do not have access to computers or Internet.

I have also noticed that so many of these students have poor attendance or move from school to school.  I have had students who have been in 3-4 different schools in one year.  Some of these children have been having serious problems (academics or emotional issues) addressed by counselors or health and wellness committees, only to leave.  Then the process has to be repeated again by the next school district the child attends.


I have two stories that I’d like to share:

A few years ago, I taught a little boy that had come from another school district.  His parents were no longer together and his mom had custody of him and his sister.  He was a very friendly and cooperative student with great manners.  I noticed right away that he was far behind academically. He also fell asleep in class quite often.  I wrote notes to his mom and worked with him in a small group, hoping for improvement.

One day I questioned him because he could not read the story he had been assigned for homework.  I was very firm and told him he needed to do his homework if we were going to see good results.  He started crying and in our conversation, told me that they were staying with his aunt and cousins.  There were not enough beds so he slept on the sofa.  He told me that rats ran along the back of the couch at night and he could not sleep because he was so scared.

I scheduled a conference with his mom and she confirmed that she worked nights and they were going through bad times.  She cried and cried and felt so bad that she wasn’t helping her son. I sent him back to P.E. and talked to her.  From my experience of being a single mom, I told her that her little boy needed to see that she was in control and that when I cried, I cried in the shower or when my children were not around.  I also asked her if there was a pastor or priest or anyone she could talk to about improving her living arrangements.  Last, I wrote down the steps on how she could help her child at home.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to.  She didn’t know how.  Long story short, her pastor helped her to find a daytime job where she was available to her children at night and she finally got an apartment for herself.  She and her son worked so hard to get him caught up.  He passed second grade and went on to perform at average ability.

Several years ago, there was a family someone noticed that was living in a home with no electricity.  When the school board authorities visited the home, they found that a woman with fourteen children lived there.  None of the children were attending school.  The older children had been in school at one time but most never went.  When questioned, she said she tried to enroll them but didn’t know how to get social security numbers or birth certificates or fill out the enrollment papers.  She had been in special education when younger and could not do it.  After the Homeless Dept. got the children enrolled and paperwork done, one of the children was enrolled in my class.  I taught 7-8 year olds in second grade.  He was 10 years old and had never been in school.

This was quite a challenge for all the teachers who received these children.  With a lot of cooperation and hard work, these children learned a lot but did not catch up to their peers. They could not be tested for Special Education or placed in lower grades because it wasn’t their fault that this happened and it was not fair to label them so soon.  Unfortunately, they all moved before the school year ended.

I know these things do not happen to all poverty-stricken families.  But I do know that each faces obstacles that make their lives and the lives of their children most difficult.  Poverty needs to be addressed, maybe more so than standardized testing.  Even with Title I funds, free lunch and breakfast, and free school supplies, the needs of some of these children are not being met.

Maybe research can be done to study similar school districts around the country that have met success when dealing with these issues.  Maybe a family center can be established, not only providing parents with brochures but having actual classes (mandatory , when needed) to help parents deal with truancy, homework, neglect, drug abuse, etc.  Until these things are addressed, I am afraid that we will continue to struggle with the difficult task of educating poverty-stricken children.

Jeanne St. Martin Cline, M. Ed

I will use the name Katy as it has been many years ago and my memory is not that good with names anymore. I taught speech and drama, marching and concert band, and chorus. Eventually, the last six years, I was the television producer for the school system in coordination with the local TV. This was in Scott County, Virginia, in the Appalachian Mountains near the Tennessee border.

Anyway, I had a student Katy for four years in Chorus. She would come in early after lunch usually towards the end of the month when cash was running out with her mother. I was always prepared with an extra sandwich, beverage or chips. Sometimes, she would need shoes or jeans and shirt, and I would give her cash and see that she got new clothes. I made sure her chorus costume was made by someone in the homemaking department. We had very nice homemaking teachers.

She was a very intelligent girl. Her mother, she told me was divorced seven times! Her mother never came to her chorus concerts. She got rides with other students. She just knew she wasn’t going to college. I checked with guidance and she had great SAT scores. So, I called a buddy of mine at Hiwassee College, Tennessee, about her. This is a wonderful United Methodist College. He immediately went into action and got her into the school and the needed financial help. He and his wife even mentored her.

But, before, Katy left, that senior year of high school, all these teachers that had taught her, brought her clothes, bed sheets, blankets, a fan, vacuum cleaner, cleaning supplies for her dorm room. These teachers presented it to her in the school library the last official work day before school was let out for the summer. It gave all of us teachers a sense of great pride that this poor student could go off to higher learning despite the pitfalls of her lot in life.

I much later ran into her. She met a young man at the same college. They both graduated and are professionally employed and have one child of their own.

I didn’t go into teaching to become wealthy. I love teenagers. They are so open and honest. I can tell when a teenager has been neglected and verbally abused. It is sad to me that teachers are constantly blamed for the lack of good parenting. As far as I am concerned, no one deserves a child unless they pass a good parenting exam. And if they don’t then they should never, I mean never, be a parent.


I am a retired teacher from Orleans Parish Public Schools. . . . Many politicians don’t understand that everything stems from the home environment. I worked 32 years in the classroom and have seen many students arrive at school hungry and ill and depressed.

I have always felt that a large number of the support groups (counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, behavior modification experts) should be mainly focused at lower grade levels–pk-3rd grade. That way the problem could be identified earlier and corrected!!  At 4th grade and above, sometimes it’s too late.

Teachers can only deal with the clientele that’s sent to them. I taught for a long time and I enjoyed teaching and visited many homes of my students. That way I understood them better and their home environment. I have worn many hats in the classroom!


I’ve encountered many students from my last three years teaching in NOLA who seemingly live below the poverty line. Many of these students’ parents have constantly changing phone numbers (or no active phone at all), making it virtually impossible to contact a parent/guardian if academic or behavior intervention is needed. When a parent is absent, the student will claim he/she is staying with another extended family member, a brother or sister, or a friend’s family temporarily. When a student doesn’t have a permanent residence, it’s almost certain that the Internet and/or a computer is unavailable for he/she to do research or type a paper/project for display.

Students who come from more affluent families seem to have the resources to produce much more creative and visually appealing projects, as students with limited resources, more or less, use materials from around the house and lack a certain professionalism. One example if this is asking students to create a simple diorama depicting a scene from a book; students with resources produced intricate clay models and/or 3-D, colorful projects, as those known to come from limited resources produced pencil/paper drawings, and in one diorama, a scene using glued Q-tips and aspirin pills.

Field trips are also an issue for many students; we always try to minimize costs to encourage participation, but $20 is a lot of money to many, and it’s heartbreaking when a student comes in with $7 and claims it all he could gather.

The stories go on and on.


When I was teaching 3rd grade ( I’m in 1st now ) I had a student who was failing and never did homework.  I spoke to the mother several times and she always promised me that she would get her daughter to do it.  One day in January, I ran into her in school and brought up the homework problem again.  She finally admitted to me that she did not read above a third-grade level and could not help her daughter with homework.   Had I known that at the beginning of the year, I would have been able to do so much more for the child – like paying for her to go to the after school program where help is given for homework.

But I’m sure it was embarrassing for the mother to finally admit that her lack of education was affecting her child’s education.  The child did fail third grade but we were finally able to get her in Special Ed and although she’s still struggling, she is getting the help she needs.

Unfortunately, poverty in New Orleans is a multi-generational problem.  I have some parents who really push their children to do well and others who at the end of the year probably don’t know my name.  It’s a really sad situation and I’m happy you are finally addressing the biggest problem that public schools face.  Unfortunately, I work in a parish and a state where almost the entire blame is put on the teachers and none on the parents or the many extenuating circumstances the children we teach face each day.  It is also a parish where money is thrown at the magnet schools who teach children who would succeed no matter what school they are in and cut money for special education that so many of our students desperately need.


Before retiring, I taught special education at Marrero Middle School in Jefferson Parish and, over the years, a majority of my kids qualified for free or reduced meals. Whenever I had a conference with a parent I would ask them if they ever read to their child; they would usually look at me as though I had just stepped out of a flying saucer and said, “Take me to your leader.” In these families, education, discipline, and hard work are unimportant. If parents do not value these things what can we expect from their children?

A few years before Katrina, I was taking an education course at SLU. One of my classmates was teaching at Israel Augustine Middle School in New Orleans and told us that they had tested all their students to ascertain reading levels. Of 630+ kids, 13 were reading at the 3rd-grade level or higher.  The children’s social environment, not bad teaching in elementary school, is the causal factor here.

The following is a recipe for social disaster that I have seen over and over again: A teen-age girl following in her mother’s footsteps gets pregnant – abortion and adoption are not options. Her child has no positive male role model and is raised by a committee consisting of mama, grandmas, and maybe an aunt – none of whom have any parenting skills. The child gets nothing in terms of affection, knowledge, values or skills; instead it is smacked up-side the head, and gets screamed and cursed at.

Upon entering kindergarten, the child is disruptive and intellectually is light years behind middle class peers. After failing 2nd grade for the 2nd time, the child is placed in special ed and at age 16, in the 8th grade, has 2nd-grade math and reading skills. If this child is a boy, the odds are he will soon be in a prison or a cemetery; if a girl, she will follow in mama’s footsteps.

 Karen Richardson
(Kaplan, Elementary, Kaplan, LA; has been teaching for 23 years)

In the years I’ve been teaching I’ve worked in many different schools, some with more students at a low economic level and some with fewer. In all of these schools you could almost always tell the students at the lower level by their academic growth, especially as they progressed through the grades.

One student I had in 5th grade many years ago lived in a home worse than most people would treat their pets. No running water, no electricity, and a home that should have been condemned. This student was placed in resource as a learning disabled student. He was making almost no progress and was very disruptive in class.  Due to lack of daily hygiene most of the other students wouldn’t have anything to do with him. When he would get to school we would give him a basic hygiene kit with toothbrush, comb, soap, and deodorant. He would go in the bathroom and do what he could.

Over the next year it was learned that his mother was mentally disabled and a family member was taking most of their money. When an agency intervened and helped the family the student was able to live in better circumstances. Through the progress he got dental and health care and was better able to focus in class. His grades improved and he was eventually dropped from special education.

I have one student whose parents have little money and the mother is usually using some type of drug. When the child is sick at school or in need of something like clean clothing, most of the time you can’t reach the parent by phone. One day the student had to stay in my classroom throwing up for over 2 hours because the parent couldn’t be reached to pick up the child.

I also had a student who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. She was in very bad need of her medicine to be successful in school.  In the words of the child, her mother would “eat” her medicine.  When the child had her medicine she was successful in class, but without it she was failing. While we worked with her as much as possible, we unfortunately cannot go home with them. She had to repeat the fourth grade due to failing grades.

I get extremely frustrated when state officials refuse to look at other factors besides what happens in the classroom. Poverty is a huge problem for a student, particularly when the parents are unwilling to emphasize the importance of academics. Standardized tests are not a cure all for the problems we face. There are so many other things that impact a child’s life and their abilities. While schools are a powerful tool in that, there’s also need for programs that focus on helping students with their home and family situations. Social work agencies have also had budgets cut as well as the Office of Child Services. We need help in the community for all of the hours they are not at school. Working with other agencies, the schools would be more successful at helping students be successful.


I have been a teacher for 20 years, 17 of which have been in Lafayette Parish.  I teach French and English as a Second Language in high school.  Here is an amazing story that happened to me in 1999.

I chose to teach at a Title I predominantly African-American high school in Lafayette Parish.  I had taught French to students from many different socio-economic backgrounds but this school was urban and had a reputation for being a tough place to teach but I wanted to teach there as opposed to the middle class middle school I was teaching in.  It just so happened that at the same time I was teaching there, I was taking a multicultural education class at ULL for my ESL certification.  This is my story.

Every day I arrived at NHS and slugged through each day in an earnest effort to teach French.  There had been stories about the demise of the former French teacher who spent much time eating and cooking with the students as opposed to teaching and who eventually left after a problem with the principal.  I would enter class and try my best to actively engage the students in the listening and repeating drills, conversations and vocabulary lessons inherent in teaching a foreign language.

I was failing miserably as I could not keep students on task due to constant talking, constant interruptions and much misbehavior.  In one particular class, it was really tough.  I could not make any headway.  At the same time, in my course at night, we were studying how students in high poverty schools often lack the ability to engage in higher level thinking activities because behavior has been controlled from an early age through bombarding the students with worksheets to keep them busy.  I didn’t put too much thought into this piece of information until the day that my most difficult class was so out of control that in exasperation I yelled above the mayhem that I had had enough and every one should open their French books and copy page 36.

Amazingly, everyone stopped talking, took out their books and began copying the random page I had yelled out.  You could have heard a pin drop.  I was dumbfounded.  I had tears in my eyes.  It was a sad but true event.  My students didn’t hate me and I didn’t hate them.  They were a product of years of prior conditioning where worksheets had been the mainstay of their educational experience and where developing problem-solving skills and learning through active class discussions had not taken place.

A few years later, I left that school in September to take a job as an ESL teacher and learned that the school went through five French teachers after I left.  It was a difficult place to teach.  It was astounding to see how comfortable students were doing a mindless activity.

Donna H. Jackson
(A Master Teacher at St. Helena Central Elementary in Greensburg, LA in St. Helena Parish with 15 years experience in the classroom)

The disadvantages that a child of poverty may face have a huge impact on that child’s ability to learn.  He or she may face many challenges before attending school.  There are many dynamics of the family structure that have changed and the norm of the two-parent household is decreasing daily. Many households are supported by single mothers who work minimum wage jobs to provide for their families. Also, grandparents and other relatives have been thrust into positions of rearing children, most times on fixed incomes. There are also many other children of poverty who live in foster care or state custody. Unfortunately, some students even struggle with knowing where basic provisions such as food and personal needs will come from.

Data reflects that nearly one out of every five American children lives in poverty – one of the highest poverty rates in the developed world.

During my second year as a classroom teacher, I remember one of my students coming to school every day and placing her head on the desk as soon as she made it to class.  Because this was behavior that was not tolerated, I always instructed her to lift her head and begin working on her daily assignments.

After this behavior continued to occur from this student, I decided to research and inquire from school colleagues who could perhaps provide insight on this student that I may not have had.   I later discovered that this fourth grade student was two years behind academically, and she sleeps every morning in class because she had to take care of her 6 siblings at home.  Her mom was on drugs and away from home during the night.  This child being the oldest had to take care of the family.

She was later taken from the home along with her sisters and brothers and placed in foster care. I was shocked and amazed that this young child had been thrust into a role that she didn’t deserve to be in at such an early age.

As I reflected further, I was somewhat frustrated at myself because I was only concerned about what was happening in my class at that time, and not considering the overall needs of the students that I was afforded the opportunity to teach.  I was completely clueless about the daily challenges that this child had to face the night before walking into my class. From this experience, I learned that we as educators must be willing to look a little deeper into what is happening in the lives of children in today’s society.  We must provide an outlet of support and love that may not be given at home.

Living in a rural community, I witness parents everyday who are giving their best efforts to effectively support their families.  Parental support is major when considering the academic success of students.  Parents must work in order to provide for their children, so they may not be able to provide the parental support that is needed within the schools.  We as educators must be there to provide the support and the love for the students that parents may be struggling or lacking to provide.

State officials seem to be unaware of the challenges that students face on a daily basis.  Poverty reduces the student’s performance to the point that these students do not have the advantages nor the exposure to educational experiences as other students who are not in poverty.  There is little to no evidence of proactive measures to reduce the achievement gap of children of poverty compared to middle class children.  It seems as if we have failed to provide the support that so many at-risk students need.

3 thoughts on “Poverty and Class: Stories about students, by their teachers

  1. King Logan at 504-296-5111 August 3, 2013 — 1:58 pm

    For several years, I’ve been consulting with Entergy New Orleans on a remarkably effective poverty education program called “Pathways from Poverty.” This half-day training/simulation program for about 75 participants combines a two-hour, real-life family simulation experience with follow-up training based on Ruby Payne’s seminal work, “Bridges Out Of Poverty.” Lately, a number of area public school organizations (faculty and staff) have gone through the program. De-brief comments indicate how powerful an awakening it is for many teachers especially, many saying they now have to re-evaulate their assumptions about why many students are failing based on the simulation’s impact on their understanding about poverty. If you’d like to know more, contact me. Your nola.com story today about how teachers must look at a student’s life circumstances to comprehend behaviors is 100% aligned with this program’s goals, especially for educators.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love to know more about this. Can we discuss sometime? My email is bob.mann@outlook.com.


  2. it has nothing to do with poverty … it’s scum bag parents that don’t care about the kids


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