Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Holidays & Students of Poverty: Tips for Today's Educators

This morning as I was eating breakfast and watching the news, I began thinking about the holidays. I thought about how much I am looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with my family. I cannot wait to eat some of my momma's classics: dressing (I'm from the South.), sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese and more. To top it off, my momma is a great cook. I'll be running extra miles for sure, but we will laugh, eat, and enjoy each other's company. As I reflected on this I began to flashback to the holidays as a child. One word came to mind: stressful. I began to think about the stress of the holidays and how they affect our children of poverty in our schools.

As educators, we need to be reminded that the holidays aren't happy for everyone. For some, it isone of the most stressful times of life. For our students, it can be a high stress time and as educators we need to approach our work with an additional awareness and sensitivity than we routinely use.

Without thinking, I fired off a series of tweets that captured my heartfelt thoughts. Follow my time line @latoyadixon5 and follow the #povertymatters hashtag to see more. For this blog post, I will share these important thoughts for educators to remember as we approach the holiday season, especially for those of you who work in schools with high concentrations of poverty. See below:

1. Just a little reminder to my PLN: The holidays can be an extremely stressful time for students of poverty.

2. Listening to your parent(s) talk about the struggle and stress of the holidays can be emotionally taxing. #povertymatters

3.Students of poverty are often burdened with adult worries. A parent's burden becomes the burden of all. #povertymatters

4. While meaning well, parents don't always understand the implications of burden sharing with kids.

5. Ss with a high stress response system are often most vulnerable near the holidays, which usually also happen to be near break.

This may have been the most important tweet of all because this is often what activates a fear or stress response:

6. The routine and predictability of a school day is absent during the break. No guaranteed food, heat, or safety.

7. Understanding poverty and its effects can be challenging if you've never experienced it. Experience is the best teacher. #povertymatters

8. While we can't all have the experience of being poor, we can educate ourselves to resist our unconscious insensitivity. #povertymatters

9. When we ask questions like, Are you excited for Thanksgiving?, we shouldn't be surprised if we get a no. Shame leads us to yes. #povertymatters
10. There's nothing worse than watching your classmates give presents to the teacher when you know you have nothing to give (personal experience)

11. Don't assume that the kids who don't bring you a gift don't love you as their teacher. I loved Mrs. West, but I never got to give her a gift. (Side note: Mrs. West was my beloved third grade teacher who turned me into the writer I am-she saw my gift first and pointed it out to me!)

12. I'd venture to say my gift to her was my life story of how she made a difference for me. Better than any trinket, card, etc.

13. As educators, we have to be sure our own experiences don't make us unconscious to the experiences of others. #povertymatters

14. Sometimes with the best intentions we demonstrate a lack of understanding of kids of poverty. #povertymatters

15. When thinking about Ss of poverty, don't rely on your experience to lead you if you've never been poor. Try to think from their perspective. (This is much harder than it seems.)

A holiday never goes by without me thinking of how it is affecting students of poverty. My passion for helping students of poverty comes from an authentic place. I've been poor and I've experienced that stress. Experiencing poverty, for me, is not different from any other traumatic experience. It never leaves you. You always have that thought in the back of your mind that you could be back where you started in an instant. You don't live a life of certainty, because you know from experience that nothing is certain, especially when it comes to money. As my older sister would say, it is just a tool for living.

Being a student of poverty comes with a tremendous amount of shame. While some are fooled or misguided by an occasional pair of nice sneakers, I am not. I know that often those were purchased in the barbershop, beauty salon, or flea market. If you can't relate to the aforementioned statement, then consider yourself misguided and find someone who can explain it to you so that you have a better understanding. It is so much easier to refuse than to try to explain to someone that your project is not done because of all the costly requirements. It is especially easier to just take the easy way out and refuse, if you are ashamed and don't think your teacher would understand anyway or chalk it up as an excuse. I'm always weary of those who say some students use poverty as an excuse-when you have nowhere to bathe, or live, or nothing to eat-how is that an excuse? Maybe I missed something, but I don't think so. Your school work becomes secondary when surviving is primary.

So as the holidays approach, I am asking that you approach your work with a level of consciousness required to help students of poverty survive the stress of the holidays. So to all the educators out there, remember the holidays aren't happy for everyone. Sympathy towards students of poverty doesn't help, but sensitivity does. Fight your unconscious intentions that lack understanding. Read between the lines because there are no students lining up to say, I'm extremely stressed out right now. My heart overflows at this time of the year. No matter what I accomplish in my life, I'll never forget the struggle that my sisters & I had to experience to get to where we are today.

Remember-our students need us to be sensitive to their needs during this time. Give the gift of compassion and understanding. It will last a lot longer than any material gift you receive.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Rethinking Success & Redefining Achievement

I've worked all of my life to meet or exceed the standard for academic success. My goal growing up was to earn a college degree. I've earned four of those. I wanted to be a teacher. I am National Board Certified although I'm no longer in the classroom. I wanted to do my work to the absolute best of my ability, because good has never been good enough. I credit and thank my mother for that all at the same time. And while that type of thinking has carried me and my career a long way, I find my paradigms shifting. I'm not sure if that's based on age or experience or realizing that academically there's nothing left for me to prove. I don't know much of anything for certain, but what I do know is that everyday I'm praying and hoping for some very basic things for my students.

I want them all to stay alive and graduate high school. I'd love for everyone of them to earn a college degree. I want them to not be victims of violence. I want them to avoid the criminal justice system at all costs because once you are on someone's court docket, another layer of challenge is added to your life forever. I want them to have hope for a better, brighter, and successful future. I want to help them help themselves because I know there are no heroes coming to save them. I always tell them- you must save yourself. Everything they need to succeed, they already have. I encourage them to be their own hero, because nobody came to save me.

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that my sisters and I saved ourselves. We had the blessing of a great mother who instilled the right values in us, but at the end of the day, (so cliche, I know) it was all up to us. My mother did not wake me up for class as a student at Clemson University. She didn't check my homework to be sure it was done. She wasn't there to force me to get the research and reading done for my dissertation. While she has been my biggest supporter and encourager, she always made one thing very clear:

"If you want success, it is yours for the taking. Education is out there for anyone who wants it. But no one can do it for you. You must do it for yourself."
-Latoya's Mom

That's the important lesson I'm trying to teach my students everyday. I'm trying to give them hope that they have a measure of control over their own destiny and that the root of that control is in how hard they are willing to work. It's in not giving up. I'm trying to help them understand that I've accomplished some things I did not think I could. Everyday is a test. I am still pushing myself. I am still persevering. I need them to do the same and they need to do it for themselves.

Because no one is coming to save them, but they can certainly save themselves. I am amazed at the resilience that my students demonstrate on a daily basis. In spite of all they are faced with, they come to school everyday and work. They are amazing people and there's no test that can measure that.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!
@ latoyadixon5

Friday, November 20, 2015

Stories From The Inside: Bridging the Gap Between Perception and Reality of Being a Principal

Isn't it interesting to think about how school is one experience everyone has in common? Unlike being an engineer or business leader, everyone has school experience. So when it comes to thinking or talking about what's right and what's wrong with school, everyone has an opinion and usually it's one they feel pretty good about because it's based on their experiences.

 Lately I've been working on telling the stories from the inside of our school. Moving the conversation beyond micro political leadership, partnerships, and general school information. Instead, I've been working to tell stories about my students and the challenges they and their teachers face. Like the students who have no home, and bounce from place to place on a daily basis often bargaining with others to allow them to stay the night, or just take a shower. I've shared the story of a student who is one of the kindest students I've known, who volunteered to take the trays of others to the trash can each day at lunch, but only so he could pick through and eat their leftovers because he was so hungry. I've told the story of students who have come to school and requested to use the phone because they were worried when their mother did not return home after a night out, but came to school anyway. I've told the story of teachers who are trying to teach these students and garner their attention, despite the aforementioned challenges they face. It is an incredibly difficult task. 

So now I ask all to think about your personal school experience. Ever had trouble focusing because you were so hungry that it made you feel ill? Ever had trouble finding a place to take a shower, but gone to work anyway? Ever had difficulty getting the domestic violence you witnessed out of your mind long enough to learn the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War? Ever had difficulty getting to school on time because you were up all night because the shooting you heard down the street scared you to death? 

Was that much like your school experience? As educators when people ask us how things are going, we feel compelled to tell them how hard we are working and that we are doing great things to move our schools forward. Sometimes our positivity, while much needed, does a communication disservice to those who are interested in how things are going. When we tell stories from the inside it's important to tell the whole story. The story that says here is what our kids are facing, but we are working hard and moving forward anyway. The story that says our teachers have an audacious task in front of them, but they give of themselves personally and professionally anyway. 

Make sure you are telling the stories from the inside to help bridge that perception of what school might be like and the reality our students and teachers are dealing with everyday. Our teachers and students are doing remarkable under extremely challenging circumstances and they deserve for people to know the whole story.

Until next time- be you, be true, be a hope builder!