The Community of Teaching
Teachers affect eternity
“Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops.”
Henry Brooks Adams
I drove to work today, a Sunday, to catch up on a little grading and clean my room. As I drove, I thought, “What can I do to be a better teacher?” It is a question I try to ask myself frequently, a type of habit. I learned it from a mentor of mine after he taught me to journal daily following class.
He specifically suggested a list of questions I should meditate on.
His list contained twenty questions followed by twenty blank lines. The first twenty questions were his gift to me. The other lines were for me to find my own questions.
That list is written in the front of my classroom journal and I have added questions. Currently, I am at number 31, and today I added a new one.
As I drove, I came upon a construction detour and turned onto a back street of the small town I teach in. The homes on the street were, speaking generously, run down. Many had doors hanging from their frames and cardboard nailed over broken windows.
Garbage lined the yards, with wrecks of autos in the drives. One house featured a brightly painted toilet with a lime green lid and an ashtray on the well.
The images of the homes were impoverished, barely habitable, and frightening. Then among the chaos of collected steel and trash, I saw two of my students hanging wet laundry on a line that ran from a window to a tree.
I had to take a second look at these kids in torn jeans, bare feet, bruises on her legs and matted hair. Was this the student I had just finished conferencing with.
The kid with the right answers, the kid with the perfect clothes in class every day. Whom I had just watched as she finished Papertowns by John Greene. I had spent the length of one of our conferences discussing how I would be the first in line to see it at the theatre when now I realized she would probably not be able to afford that opportunity.
My gut reaction was to disregard the notion these two students could suffer from poverty, hunger, or other low-income hurdles. This reaction would allow me to continue on to the school in the veiled world of my own ignorance. (A state I refuse to allow my students to live in.)
So at the next corner, I decided to drive down another street, then another, until I had traveled up and down most of the streets of our school district and town.
As a reflective teacher, I began to really take a look at our school district and the community it serves. It is located in the Delta region of Arkansas and is what clearly classifies as a rural school: Less than 350 student enrollment, servicing a population of less than 20,000, more than 60 percent free or reduced lunch.
According to the Rural Profile of Arkansas (2015), printed by the University of Arkansas System, my school should reflect many of the statewide statistics for Delta region schools. My community is part of a rural Arkansas that lost 300,000 manufacturing jobs between 2007 and 2012, losing 16 percent of its overall manufacturing employment.
Earnings in my community should reflect the paltry 84 percent of the equity in statewide earnings per household, a factor that continually lands Arkansas in the top ten states with the highest poverty rates.
Those rates were 19.6 percent in 2012 but in rural school districts like mine reached as high as 28.2 percent. 11 rural counties in Arkansas have child poverty rates of more than 49 percent, putting 1 in 3 children in rural communities living below the poverty line.
Poverty in our community and the district affects our children with more than 51.6 students receiving supplemental nutrition subsistence allowance, and 36 percent of people in rural Arkansas communities on Medicaid.
Couple the lack of income with the reality that more than 18.8 percent of our state lives outside of 10 miles to a store and the image of poverty in “Our Town” Arkansas becomes frighteningly bleak.
It is a practice that allows me to show up in the classroom pedagogically prepared day in and day out. I practice the planning that I have been taught.
I practice the approaches to the literature I have been taught. I practice the integration of standards, as I have been taught, but I cannot remember ever being told to practice being a member of the community.
Community is defined as, “A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.”
My community of students comes to me daily with desires and needs bearing out of the community they live in and, until today, I had very little understanding of the depths that community drug my students before they came to see me.
I am not condemning my students who live in poverty to inadequate expectations, because they come from a poor home, but instead, I am now conscious of the trials they face to come prepared.
It seems silly to stand in class and offer these same students computer-accessible help in the classroom when they can probably not afford the internet or a computer at home, a luxury that less than 28 percent of rural Arkansas homes can afford. Conversely, they might need some leniency in certain curricular areas.
An example, one of these very two students approached me in late November about not being able to complete an assignment over the three-day-weekend because her electricity went out.
I was not as understanding as I could have been, had I been more familiar with her circumstances.
In the community I have familiarized myself with today, I find elements of my childhood. I grew up in a home with an alcoholic. I have had that embarrassing weekend without electricity, water, or gas.
When I would go to school and try to pretend to have enough money for the next band trip or lunch.
So it is disheartening to imagine I might have lost touch with that element in me, as a teacher. I strive to be a very caring teacher, and never thought of these as elements I would overlook in my students.
Informing myself of the reality of teaching at a rural school in Arkansas has been a revelatory experience. So today I added a new question to ponder on my list.
Number 32, “Have you been into the community to see what your students are facing?
Grover Welch is an 8th grade ELA teacher in Gosnell, Ar. A graduate of Arkansas State University where he is completing a master's in Reading.
Grover Welch is a ninth grade English teacher at Newport, Arkansas. He has a MSE in Reading from Arkansas State University.