Supporting Resilience in Students From Poverty
Katherine P. Manley is a retired teacher from West Virginia with 35 years of teaching experience in grades K-12 and 12 years of experience as an adjunct professor for remedial reading and writing classes at her local community college. Mrs. Manley’s life experience of growing up in significant poverty inspired her to write Don’t Tell ’em You’re Cold: A Memoir of Poverty and Resilience and informed her practice as a profoundly compassionate and engaging educator. [Podcast]
Y4Y: Kathy, our team was deeply touched by the story of your early life, as told in Don’t Tell ’em You’re Cold. Your family’s resourcefulness and your own focus on education were, no doubt, central to the resilience you developed. Can you please share a little with our listeners about those formative years?
KM: Yes! Don’t Tell ’em You’re Cold is my memoir of survival of abject poverty set in the hills and coal camps of southern West Virginia. Our family faced extreme challenges and struggles with ingenuity and traditional Appalachian stoicism.
For example, although my father had one leg and one hand, he always found a way for us to survive. When I was barely six years old, I climbed through a garbage dump to help find wood for him to make a wooden peg leg. Often, I helped him gather berries and lumps of coal to sell to help feed the family. I also stood alongside of him when he begged on the streets or sold pencils in front of the dime store. When he was desperate to keep my baby brother alive, he sold our two-room shack for 30 cans of evaporated milk and moved us to another county, where we continued to struggle with poverty.
Adding to the mountain of struggles, my mother decided she couldn’t handle poverty anymore and ran away, leaving me to care for my disabled father and my siblings.
Y4Y: So, as an educator with that sort of personal experience, can you share how educators can recognize those signs of poverty in the classroom and out-of-school time?
KM: Dr. Ruby Payne, a well-known expert about the culture of poverty, says it’s a lot to ask students living in poverty to focus on schoolwork when the fundamentals in their lives aren’t being addressed. Usually, these students come from noisy, chaotic environments with background noise blaring all the time. Often there’s no place to do homework or study, so they don’t get it done. Due to this home environment, a teacher may notice that these students are very disorganized, give many reasons as to why they don’t have their assignments, or only do part of the assignment. Sometimes, they practice what I refer to as “avoidance delay” in that they can’t seem to get started on the assignment due to behaviors like repeatedly sharpening their pencils or episodes of writing their names on their paper, saying they messed up and quickly tossing the paper in the garbage. Sometimes you may see them flipping through their books or folders. Also, they’re prone to engaging in inappropriate laughter. In poverty, students laugh when they are disciplined. They will often hide details about their family members or their living conditions. Shame creates disengagement, and we need to help them feel comfortable, confident, and engaged in and out of the classroom.
Y4Y: It seems like you learned so many lessons at a very young age, yet I know there’s one lesson in particular that stood out most of all in your practice as an educator and drives your personal philosophy. Could you please share with our listeners what that is?
KM: The most important thing I’ve learned is that these students need a strong support system in order to achieve and become successful adults. Often, home life is centered on daily survival issues such as food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and medicine, plus dealing with family relationships. Unfortunately, the caregivers often aren’t able to provide the necessary emotional support that children need to be successful in the classroom. That’s why I feel that human connection is so vital to the success of these students. Government programs alone can’t correct the emotional quality lacking in a student’s life, but a caring, compassionate adult can. Every student is one caring adult away from being a success story. It’s a win-win situation when a student makes it to graduation. Human connection can help prevent a child from becoming discouraged and giving up. We need to be their cheerleader.
My favorite quote is from Haim Ginott, author and educator:
“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”
Y4Y: Here at Y4Y, we agree wholeheartedly with the incredible importance of personal connections with students, especially those in 21st CCLC programs whose parents, like yours, may be working so hard to put food on the table that it leaves a bit of a gap in the children’s lives. I’m sure our listeners would love hearing about some of your favorite instances of filling that gap in your classroom.
KM: I’ve heard so many times the old cliché, “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you will keep on getting what you’ve always got.” I decided to change things up one time when I was assigned to watch 25 students who were not eligible to attend a reward trip to the movies for good behavior. These students had never gotten to go on any reward trip all through middle school, and this was their eighth-grade year. Usually, students who misbehave stay with a teacher and do seatwork for the entire day or half-day, as the case may be. When they entered my classroom, instead of handing them a packet of worksheets and pencils, I had a movie ready to play and a table filled with cupcakes, potato chips, and soft drinks. Their reaction was priceless. I’ll never forget their comments. “Where’s our seatwork? We’re supposed to be punished,” they said. “Not today,” I answered. “We’re having a party.” I happily served those 25 students and watched them enjoy their movie and snacks. That was the last day before Christmas break. Beginning in January and throughout the semester, these students really tried hard for me. Their behavior and grades improved, and they always made sure they spoke to me when they saw me in the hall, gym, or cafeteria. Who would have thought that a small kind deed like that would have turned them around? They needed to experience that human connection.
Another time, I took a bus filled with at-risk students on a field trip to Bridge Day in Fayetteville, West Virginia, where parachuters from all over the world come to jump from the New River Gorge Bridge. Two other teachers helped me raise money to pay for the bus driver, buy each student breakfast and lunch, and provide each student with $5 to spend at any booth on the bridge. Although a clearly written letter to their parents detailed what to bring, they came to school wearing thin T-shirts on that cold October morning. I scrambled back home and pulled long-sleeved shirts and sweatshirts from our closets. I could not let them go without proper clothing. On this special day, not only did they watch the jumpers, but my assignment was for them to interview at least three of the jumpers for later discussion.
“Savables” and “underdogs” need access to parties and field trips just like other students do. Often, funding is not available to allow for trips to museums, plays, and other venues, but these activities are necessary to help them mature and become well-rounded students. Being a significant other and providing that human connection I spoke about earlier is vital to the life of a student living in poverty.
Y4Y: Although you’re now retired, you’re still involved in education and recognize how fatigued educators are because of the pandemic and the tremendous pressure to help students with their academic (and emotional) recovery. What’s your advice for working smarter, not harder?
KM: One thing I learned from Dr. Ruby Payne is the importance of voice. Inside each of us are three voices that guide us: the child voice, the adult voice, and the parent voice. Some students who come from poverty operate in the parent voice because they must take care of others in the home. Therefore, they will have a parent voice and a child voice, but no adult voice. Teachers usually speak in a parent voice when disciplining, which students in poverty do not like. When the parent voice is used with a student who already uses the parent voice themselves, the student usually responds in anger. We need to speak in the adult voice when working with students and say things such as “I would like to recommend” or “What are the choices in this situation?” or perhaps even “In what ways can this be resolved?”
Another way to work smarter and not harder is to first get to know your students. Have them write you a letter at the beginning of the year and ask them to tell you anything they want to about themselves: their likes, dislikes, friends, pets, and relatives. The answers will help you in what they say AND what they don’t say. Someone might tell you that they are shy and not to call on them in class or that they hate group work or they need a partner. All of this is important for you to know in order to reach them. I always tried to reach their hearts before reaching their brains. Again, here is the human connection I keep referring to. I made note of some of their answers in my gradebook, which served as a daily reminder of who they were and what they needed from me. For example, if I knew “Mary” was shy, I would not let that be an excuse for her not to contribute to the classroom discussion, but as I walked around the room during seatwork and checked student work, I might bend over her and say, “Mary, I really like your answer. May I call on you in a minute?” This gave her the confidence she needed and didn’t embarrass her.
Y4Y: In addition to your many years in the classroom, you were also involved in an out-of-school time 21st CCLC program early on. What are some of your tips for success in that environment?
KM: I’m a firm believer that no matter what the setting, students need to be taught rules, policies, and procedures on the first day. This establishes limits and boundaries for all future activities for teachers and students. On the first day of our 21st CCLC program, students learned my one rule: RESPECT. Underneath that word was written self, others, and place. If you are respectful, you will not interrupt others, etc. You will be responsible for taking your tray back to the cafeteria and throwing away your own trash. I also explained the daily expectations of signing in and going through the snack line. I reviewed with them about special events and projects like using the home economics room for cooking and baking, and proper manners for listening to musicians who came to perform for us. We must never excuse them for their lack of manners or poor behavior, but we must model for them the proper way to behave.
In the classroom, I used the positive method of BANKING. Points were given to each class daily for entering the room quietly and getting prepared for the day. Points were deducted during class time for behaviors that were not conducive to learning or interrupted my instruction. When a class reached 100 points, we had a celebration reward of listening to music for 10 minutes, walking outside, or free time.
Y4Y: Can you share any last words of wisdom for our educators who work with students who come from poverty to help build the kind of resilience that can ensure success and, hopefully, social and emotional health?
KM: You can’t teach compassion, but educators can be trained on the impact they have and the role they play in the lives of students. Deepening staff’s understanding about building relationships with students is crucial in helping them to achieve socially, emotionally, and academically. According to Dr. Ruby Payne, each of our three classes — poverty, middle class, and wealthy — comes with its own set of hidden rules. When educators realize that businesses and schools operate on middle-class rules, hopefully they’ll see the need to teach students middle-class rules, since these are the rules by which our society operates. When educators and students operate on the same page, the outcome usually will be positive for both sides, and learning will occur. We don’t need to pity these students or excuse their behaviors. Love mediates aggression and thereby allows for a calmer environment that is conducive to learning. Students can tell when someone really cares for them and is interested in their well-being. This will make a difference. I believe children are saying, “Get to know me, and I’ll show you what I need and how you can help me.” They are messengers going to a future that we will never see. It is important for them to take the right message. Show up. Be accountable. Be responsible.
Katherine Manley, author of Don’t Tell ’em You’re Cold, grew up in abject poverty in southern West Virginia. She is a retired award-winning educator with over 30 years’ experience who now spends her time educating students and adults about the culture of poverty.
Resource: Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty