Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Poverty - an educational experience

These are challenging times when people want to work but cannot get a job. People want a higher education but financially they cannot afford it. There are not easy answers for how to get the economy moving again. Others have said that the best things in life are free. While I agree mostly, being poor is stressful and difficult for families.

There are many people that will tell you that you have to understand your students in order to make an impact on them. School districts that do this well have to have an understanding of the population that they serve. We have many families that are poor and struggling to make it where I teach.

A few years ago, our school district did an all staff training on poverty. It was just a small taste of what life is like for this group. I commend the non profit organization (sorry I have forgotten which one it was) that did this for us. 200 district employees were put in small groups in the middle of the gym. All different tables were set around the perimeter. At each of the tables were volunteers from the community to help with the simulation. They were given roles like unemployment office worker, doctors office, banker, car repair business, bus stop station, utility company, school... - just like in a real community. Just like in real life, the volunteers made things difficult for us. At one point a member of another group got extremely upset because they could not find a place to live because they did not have 2 months rent to give to the landlord.

A folder with information on our family situation was on a chair. Essentially each person was given a role in a family (sex, age and job). Each family unit was unique just like real life. You might be the high school dropout who reads at a 4th grade level, a single mother of 2 who works for $7/hr on the night shift and watches kids during the day, the father of 4 who just lost his job, the 6 year old who has asthma and a ADHD or the grandmother raising the grandkids. Our job was to make it through a month with the money that we had (wages, government assistance, help, ingenuity...)

Every 15 minutes in this simulation was a week. We had to do many real life things that all adults need to do in order to live in this world. Things like getting the car fixed, taking the child to the doctor, finding a place to live, shopping for food and clothes, finding a job...the list of things was very realistic and yet very stressful since money and time was limited. If you had children you needed to have them properly supervised- meaning you could not leave a young child home alone or sleep while it was daytime. You might go days without food or without transportation to get to work. Not one of the "families" was able to make it successfully having a dollar left at the end of the month.

A person that has things pretty good cannot imagine the stresses that are involved in living in poverty. We were all frustrated with the situations that we were given and they were just imagined and temporary. There was never enough money. The red tape involved in getting help was eye opening. At every turn it seemed like circumstances were working against us.

A pre-simulation talk was given by a community leader about understanding the poor. I am sure that many in the audience listened with intensity but could not really put themselves into the scenario. After the simulation, it was much easier to have empathy for what it might be like and to hopefully help a student and family in our schools. This professional development day was one of the best ever for the reason that it opened my eyes to what it might be like to live without.

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