Teacher Thoughts: Why Underclass Children No Longer Have Permission to Fail

Since the beginning of schooling, students have been classified and recognized by their social-class status. Children of underclass statuses, whether by region, race, dialect, or color, have been, and in some cases still are, allowed to fail school. There is a known pattern with children of poverty: they do not learn to read and write, just as their parents and grandparents before them failed to learn as well. Some would argue that this pattern, however, is not due to heredity, but instead to the lack of effort teachers are putting into educating these underclass students. Teachers have prejudices, and they typically teach at schools that are run with people of the same prejudice opinions. Professionals Purcell-Gates and Ladson-Billings have done several in-depth studies that have revealed the prejudices of school systems toward children of underclass statuses and the effects of those prejudices on the education those students receive. This behavior is unacceptable for today’s teachers. Today’s teachers are provided with endless research and resources that will equip them to teach underclass students; they simply have to localize the material to suit their particular classrooms. Teachers need to understand how much former knowledge their students have to be culturally relevant in their teaching and to allow students to be bicultural.

For Kindergarten teachers especially, understanding the former knowledge a student has in reading and writing is essential. This does not mean that secondary teachers should not take the time to be aware of this information as well though. Once a teacher has an understanding of the level a student is at in literacy and how much literacy is promoted in their home life, the teacher can better direct the student in furthering literacy skills. Secondary teachers must know their students’ literacy skills before assigning more difficult readings or papers. This knowledge did not really sink in for me as a secondary teacher until I decided to volunteer at an after-school literacy program for elementary students in my district. I worked with students from 1st-6th grade who were already significantly behind in their reading fluency. The need became clear to me when I worked with a fourth grade girl who could not spell the word “of.” She tried “av,” “ov,” and “af” before finally spelling the word “of.” Yes, she was an African-American student from a low-income household. Most students in my district were from similar backgrounds. Most of my work in the district was done as a college student, and I talked with so many peers who dreaded the idea of being placed in the school systems there. They preferred to teach in the white, upper-middle class schools in the area. They thought the students in my district were “difficult” or “undisciplined,” but it really came down to prejudice.

Culturally relevant teaching involves helping underclass students break the “victim mentality.” If my teachers had treated me as the typical nearly impoverished, child of a single-mom student that I “was,” I would not have been Salutatorian of my graduating high school class, nor would I have attended a private university. I am not a stereotype. I am not a victim. I need my students to understand these facts as well. Today, underclass students are only failing when they do not need to be. Failure is not hereditary.

When school systems allow students to be bicultural, they are giving students a chance to accept learning and to better understand how to read, write, and speak in different settings. Instead of forcing students to drop their dialects and speak in “standard English”, teachers need to allow students to express themselves in the way they would back home. Proper grammar can still be taught without forcing students to change their conversational habits. For instance, a friend of mine in high school had the most southern accent of anyone in the town. While everyone initially thought he was stupid, they didn’t think so after they heard him answer any history trivia imaginable or explain the complications of any agricultural process. My English teacher did not correct him when he said “ain’t” or used “don’t” inappropriately, so long as he was able to distinguish the conversational speaking with proper grammar used in formal writing. By allowing him to be bicultural, my English teacher was successfully able to provide him the first and only English class he enjoyed in his schooling career. I hope to be the same inspiration to underclass students like him.

There are certain ways to speak in church, in school, with friends, and at home. There are certain words that should be used in conversation but not in formal writing and vice versa. Politicians, along with other professional speakers, change their dialects, contexts, and vocabulary depending on the area they speak in. Children need to be taught these differences from the start of their reading, writing, and speaking processes. Teachers need to understand that different is not bad nor destined for failure. Underclass students have the same potential as other students as long as a teacher is willing to help them along the way. This is the twenty-first century, and, as teachers, we should know better than to give students permission to fail.


Author: Rachel

Welcome to Learn-Grow-Teach-Go! I’m Rachel. Join me as I explore what it means to be a life-long learner and begin to live out a more full, balanced, and simplistic lifestyle. I am currently a high school English teacher, and I enjoy traveling the world and adventuring in my spare time. Whether you’re looking for advice on living minimally and simplistically, teaching ideas and lessons, or travel tips and trips, you’ve found the right place. Glad to have you here!

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