One size fits all is a familiar moniker for some clothing lines, ear phones, headsets, jewelry and the like. However, rarely is it an applicable title for educating students, particularly students in poverty. In a pivotal article by Sarah McKibben in “Push, Don’t Pity, Students in Poverty,” the author details the career of a pioneer educator who led “one of the most dangerous high schools in America.”
The article, published in January of 2018 by ASCD.org shares the journey of Linda Cliatt-Wayman, who reframed the educational approach and focus for an inner-city high school in Philadelphia which had been on the “persistently dangerous” list for five, consecutive years. She highlights how she was amazed at the disparate climate and culture of the school she was challenged to lead and repair. When she sat down with students in a round table discussion to better understand not only what was happening, but why it was happening, the students shared raw and detailed feedback. They lived in a culture of violence and aggression every day. What they did and said and demonstrated at school was low key compared to the environments they returned to each night. The educator soon began to realize that when these students attended school, they were transported into an alien environment with regimented rules and conditions which, in no way, translated to the dangerous world in which they had to survive outside.
Changing the way in which the faculty began to interact with the students, slowly began to change the culture. One teacher in her school said it was time to stop the pity party and build relationships with the children. The principal started and ended each day on the loudspeaker saying, “Look, guys, if nobody told you they loved you today, remember I do, and I always will.” Teachers began to address the students as scholars and future doctors and lawyers and teachers. By believing in the kids, they began to believe in themselves.
Cliatt-Wayman tells teachers to do their job and teach. She demands that they avoid the pitfalls of, “They’re poor and don’t have this or that at home…” Teaching is about adjusting to the needs of the kids and keeping the expectations high so that they will develop high expectations of themselves. Teaching every day to the very extent of their ability is what she sees as key to success. One particularly relevant comment she shares is “Teach to the very best of your ability, and don’t get consumed by their situation. Nurture them through the situation so they can see a better future.”
She details over and again the importance of developing relationships with the kids. By demonstrating that one sees each student as a valuable member of that community, the kids want to be a productive member.
In her final words of wisdom, Cliatt-Wayman shares how schools in high-poverty, high-crime areas have their own needs. “We cannot lead like everybody else. We have to be really personal with the kids … We have to say what we mean and do what we say … If we don’t believe it in our heart, that we can make a difference and change these kids’ lives, then we’re in the wrong seat.”
Perhaps it’s time to realize that the power to transform society, lies not in politics or policies, but in the hands of educators who elect to return each and every day, often amid challenging conditions, substandard pay, and a relentless emotional drain, to conduct the business of creating tomorrow’s leaders, one lesson at a time.