The Unique Challenges Facing Young Middle-Class Black Teachers in High-Poverty Schools

andrea lewis spelmanAndrea D. Lewis is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Education Department at Spelman College in Atlanta, Ga. In her latest book, Preservice Teachers, Social Class, and Race in Urban Schools published by Palgrave MacMillan, she explores her experiences growing up as a post-civil rights Black student in a middle-class, White community who went on to teach in a high-poverty school. She also examines how middle class teachers of color can balance economic and social class when working in low-income schools. NEA Today talked to Lewis about her book and her research findings.

What was different about your educational experience as a child and your experience as a new educator in a high-poverty community?

Lewis: The major difference was the lack of funding. As a child I attended schools brimming with supplies, the latest technology and bright and cheery, updated facilities. When I started teaching, I paid for everything to set up my classroom, from bulletin board paper to pencils. There were limited resources for basic school supplies and classroom necessities.  I had two or three outdated computers in my classroom that typically didn’t work, the halls and classrooms were dark and in need of paint, and the bathrooms needed renovating. While there was an obvious need to update the building, the budget was nonexistent to make it happen. It was disheartening.

What expectations did your students and their parents have of you based on your race and class? 

Lewis: My students and parents had high expectations of me as a young Black teacher, but in terms of social class, I think I was more nervous and fearful of my ability to connect with my students and parents. They saw me in the community making home visits and trying to make a difference in the classroom, which assisted in breaking down boundaries. I did have to learn to communicate with parents who insisted on being difficult. Although I was intimidated at first, I learned and grew to see through their frustration and pain. They were not mad at me, but at larger systems that had failed them.

What impact did poverty have on the students you taught in Atlanta that surprised you?

Lewis: One of the most profound was how insular a high-poverty community can be. For my students, Harris Homes, their public housing apartment complex, was their entire world. They were mostly unaware of their immediate surroundings with the exception of a neighboring mall and fast food restaurants because they had to focus on information they needed to survive. Though six colleges and universities were in a one mile radius of their apartments, they hadn’t been exposed to them.

It is vital for teachers to recognize that learning from any experience in any community is relevant. Also, for kids living in poverty, showing up each day can be a challenge. The fact that they come to school speaks to their strength and resiliency” – Andrea D. Lewis, Spelman College

Exposure is often the pivotal divide between the haves and have-nots, so educators should strive to increase exposure. I would draw on the experiences I had growing up when I was able to go to museums or summer camp. I funded five field trips a year to take them around the city – one trip was a simple city tour. The kids rarely got out of the projects, so it was the first time they saw a skyscraper and a real city park. I also found ways to increase exposure by going above and beyond the curriculum, like showing them the “Eyes on the Prize” documentary series. I brought in guest speakers, and I brought in materials for display, like a menorah for Hanukah. I grew up in a community with a large Jewish population, so I shared that with my students. We had lessons on different holidays because I wanted to teach them about diversity of cultures.

What assumptions about kids living in poverty does your research expose?

Lewis: There is an assumption that there are no educational experiences of value outside of school in high-crime, high-poverty communities, but my research participants learned to recognize that informal experiences that children from high poverty schools had were valuable. My first grade students had knowledge of currency, for example. When I started our section on money, they already knew about the values of different coins and how to make change because there was a “candy lady” who lived in the housing project and sold candy from her home. All the kids knew her and brought change to buy candy.

It is vital for teachers to recognize that learning from any experience in any community is relevant. Also, for kids living in poverty, showing up each day can be a challenge. The fact that they come to school speaks to their strength and resiliency.

When interviewing your subjects, what did you find was a common reason teachers of color were not teaching in high poverty schools?

Lewis: There are many Black preservice educators from middle and upper class communities who mostly want to teach in schools that are proximal to their own social and cultural position. They want to teach within their comfort zone. But my research demonstrates that when teachers open their eyes, minds, and hearts to teaching outside of their comfort zone, they learn, grow and become better teachers.

How does class separate people in the Black community?

Andrea D. Lewis

Lewis: In my book, I reference Dr. Karyn Lacy, author of Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, And Status in The New Black Middle Class who writes about how some middle class Blacks erect exclusionary boundaries around lower class Blacks by disassociating themselves from commonly held stereotypical Black behavior, emphasizing shared White experiences and highlighting educational and professional credentials.  She shares that middle and upper class Blacks reinforce their social status by shifting residential locations away from high poverty communities, ensuring school quality, providing luxuries for their children, encouraging their children to assume the financial burden of Black middle class life, and focusing on character building.  The experiences and reflections of my research participants speak to Lacy’s explorations and their overall feeling of unpreparedness to teach in an urban community.

How will resources like your book help attract and retain more educators of color to the profession?

Lewis: Preservice and inservice teachers need to realize that with practice and relationship building, which is the key to success, passion often follows. Despite my personal fears of teaching in a high poverty urban school during my first year of teaching, I learned that the first step to teaching in unfamiliar territory is to connect with students and show them you care.  The rest falls into place, provided a teacher’s pedagogical foundation is solid.

How do teacher prep programs need to change to meet the changing populations of public school students?

Lewis: Teacher preparation programs across the country need to hire diverse faculty with experiences in urban education, along with providing experiential learning to give teacher candidates inclusive and realistic opportunities to raise their awareness of and experiences in an unfamiliar culture. Examples of experiential learning may include cross-cultural experiences in the candidates’ local community, across the country, or around the globe.

Service learning that blends community service with academic learning is also helpful to preservice teachers. This experience could allow teacher educators to mentor students so that the mentor and mentee learn, grow, and interact beyond surface level conversation to form a greater appreciation of each other’s daily journey. By revealing the personal lives of students in a culture different from their own, teacher educators’ renewed perceptions positively affect their approaches to teaching and learning. This leads to insightful reflection and a deeper analysis of sociocontextual issues in the community through a social justice lens that promotes the value of collaboration and reciprocity.

How does boundary crossing enrich an educator and her practice?

Lewis: Any time someone opens their eyes, mind, and heart to a new experience, growth occurs. For teachers, this growth comes with a renewed sense of passion, strengthening of pedagogy, and the reassurance of walking in one’s purpose.  Crossing boundaries allows a teacher to acknowledge and confront biases, as well as learn about others through up close and personal encounters that break stereotypes and foster mutual respect for one another.

Photo: AP Photo/The Indianapolis Star, Adriane Jaeckle