I can’t help but think of the kids that are going to school without—without their school supplies, without the right uniforms, without food.

-Roni Dean-Burren

by Roni Dean-Burren

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s back to school season and I’m ecstatic. My friends and family are posting photos of their kids in their full backpacks with new shoes and grinning faces as they head back to 187 days of learning bliss.

In the midst of all this joy, I can’t help but think of the kids that are going to school without—without their school supplies, without the right uniforms, without lunch or lunch money. These children, growing up poor, will often struggle more than their monied peers. However, so much of their struggle could be avoided if schools, as an institution, did not shame poor kids.

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I began my teaching career in a small, affluent district just outside of Houston, Texas. One of the things my boss told me was to make sure I created a supply list for my students. I remember she said, “This is an easy way to get a grade in the grade book. Have them bring their supplies and count it as a grade. If they bring extra, count it as extra credit.” Eager to take any and all advice, I created a school supply list for my English I students.

The first day of school came and I posted the list for my students. The second day of school came and the vast majority of my students brought their supplies and received a 100 in the grade book. Some brought supplies on the third day and I gave them a 95. But by the fourth or fifth day of school, I had some students who hadn’t brought supplies, nor had they spoken to me about not having their supplies. Being the super smart teacher I thought I was, I decided to conference with each student about why they didn’t bring in their supplies.

After my third conference, I realized I’d made a grave mistake. These students didn’t have supplies because they couldn’t afford them. And because they or their families couldn’t afford them, I’d caused their grade to suffer. More importantly, I’d shamed them. As other students brought in supplies and collected their A’s, these students sat in my classroom, a space I’d hoped to make safe, embarrassed that they couldn’t “afford” to be in my class.

I quickly rectified the situation by removing the grade for all students and making all supplies community property. This moment has been forever cemented in my mind and contributed to raising my awareness about the reality of how socioeconomic class impacts the experience of all students.

Over the last sixteen years, I’ve kept a list, in my head, of all the ways we as educators shame poor students. I’m here to finally put some of it in writing. Here are the three most common ways that schools shame students from impoverished and low-income homes.

School supplies: I understand that teachers need their students to have supplies. And we all know that teachers are not paid enough to supply their own classrooms; even though we often do. My point here is that supplies cost money and many families cannot afford this expense along with other back to school expenses. My solution has been to make sure all school supplies are shared by all students and to collect school supplies in such a way that won’t embarrass students who don’t have them. 

Homework/At-Home Reading: A longstanding debate in education is the validity of homework. There is one body of knowledge that suggests homework aides in academic achievement. The other body of knowledge suggests that homework lacks merit and should be eliminated altogether.

My contention is that the idea of homework, and I’m including projects (i.e. science projects etc.) makes too many assumptions about a child’s home and home life. When homework is assigned, a teacher is assuming that a child 1) has a home, 2) has a place in their home where they can complete homework, 3) has a literate adult available to support them with the homework, and 4) has the financial means to purchase homework/project materials.

These things are relatively easy to overcome for average income students, but for students living in poverty, these assumptions often result in failing homework grades; and often these failing homework grades lead to low and failing class averages.  

The solution here is beyond simple, in my mind. All teachers and all schools should structure all classrooms so that students can practice in class/at school, thus eliminating homework. I believe that teachers should be talking less and allowing more student inquiry-based methodologies so that all children have an opportunity to do “homework” at school with teacher assistance.

School Lunch: When children, and all people, are hungry their brains have a hard time functioning. Numerous studies have shown that student achievement is adversely effected due to hunger. Schools recognize this correlation, which is why the Truman administration established the free and reduced lunch program in 1946.

The National School Lunch Program is a federally assisted meal program operating in public, private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to children each school day.” The NSLP is based on income and does not inherently shame students. I actually believe it is, theoretically, a good program. However, the way the program is executed often either fails students all together or further shames students with the most need.

If a child is enrolled in the NSLP, they will receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school. In order to receive that free breakfast, students often need to arrive early to school and everybody knows that. Children are not too keen on sharing their financial situations with their classmates so they often don’t show up for a meal at all. Sometimes older students will purposely “forget” to give NSLP paperwork to their parent/guardian – the shame is that intense.

Lunch can be equally shameful. Free and reduced lunch pays for the most basic school lunches available. It doesn’t cover the nachos, the cookies, the Popsicles, or any “fun” foods that cafeterias offer. Thus, students who are enrolled in NSLP will forgo lunch altogether because their lunch plate, devoid of any “fun” foods, is a tell tale sign of their family’s financial constraints.

Here again, I think the solution is simple, and many schools are already implementing this. Some schools offer free meals to all students. These schools often qualify for federal programs that allow school food to be subsidized because there are a high number of students who qualify for NSLP. This levels the playing field in a way. Everyone getting free meals means no students are singled out for their socioeconomic status.

Recently Houston Independent School District announced that all students in all schools would receive lunch free of charge. While HISD faces many other challenges, school districts would be wise to take note of this sort of out of the box thinking. I wholeheartedly believe that this move by HISD will help to destigmatize poverty in their schools.

RELATED: Poor Kids Are Starving for Words

I believe myself to be a teacher’s teacher. I never want to blame teachers for the long held pervasive attitudes of schools, but I suspect a great many number of teachers are inadvertently shaming poor children.

I did it, more than once, and I’ll always have to check my privilege when it comes to this. I currently teach at the University of Houston and even though my students are “supposed” to have all that they need because its college, I still try to be mindful of the cost of learning. Socioeconomic status can be a barrier to learning, and we need to be more cognizant of that fact so that we can better support our students. 

Roni Dean-Burren, Ph.D. is a lecturer at the University of Houston. Her scholarly research and community activism center Black women and Black children. Support her work at paypal.me/RoniBurren.