Equity barriers in rural schools
Marcia Powell
May 10, 2017

When conversations about equity or trauma come up, people often assume teachers are referring to inner-city, urban environments, which they may associate with food deserts, undocumented students, or violence. But barriers to equity can be found in multiple regions across the country: dilapidated suburbs far removed from strip malls and shopping convenience, abandoned regions of the country that once boasted American jobs and industry lost to globalization, towns with no viable small businesses, and rural country houses with few nearby neighbors. Disparities in property taxes cause district-to-district inequality issues.

I teach in a rural Iowa school district, in an area with greater than 60 percent poverty. There are a few ELL students, but less than the nine percent national average. Parents often shop resale or depend on community clothing closets, and further stretch budgets at the local dented canned food stores that have flourished in the last five years. It’s common for people to move home to help aging parents or raise kids. For some, underemployment is a concern. Researchers have studied the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on students in urban environments, but rural students report similar levels of exposure to ACEs. This can transfer trauma and dysfunction to the next generation.

Students live in a difficult and complicated world, and many factors in their lives are out of our control as educators. There are challenges to fulfilling students’ material needs—but we can try to help by partnering with nonprofits to help procure food, including summer meals;  provide a washer and dryer at school; and furnish school supplies. Unfortunately, the emotional safety our students need is even tougher to provide. It’s hard work to shift our perspective from “students being non-compliant” to “students shutting down due to trauma,” but for me that mindset change has been revolutionary. By changing my perspective, I’ve rediscovered that a caring adult who builds appropriate relationships with students can become the key to their success.  This journey has led me to three basic realizations about individuals, gifts, and listening.

Focus on individuals, not labels. Teachers work with large numbers of students who regularly have been labeled in damaging ways. It’s easy for children and adults to fall into the trap of confirmation bias if they are surrounded by negative stimuli. A positive relationship between a caring adult and the child who struggles, research suggests, helps shift this narrative. Focus on students who cannot participate in extracurricular drama, sports, or musical venues due to lack of insurance coverage, equipment rental costs, or transportation. While teachers can be valuable mentors, opportunities abound for adults in the community to volunteer and help students find their worth.

Believe all students have gifts worth developing. Most states have definitions of gifted and talented students that are defined by legal code, and this article makes no claim to the numerous procedures necessary for identification. Having said that, I believe that all students have gifts worth developing, and teachers do no favors by assuming only some students are capable of learning. Students who initially appear unmotivated may develop a passion that ignites their learning. Consider Joseph Renzulli’s three-ring conception as a good conversation starting point. In Renzulli’s words, “Gifted behaviour occurs in certain people, at certain times, under certain circumstances.” If we adopt such a definition, today’s student struggling with trauma-based apathy may be tomorrow’s robotics savant.

Listen to understand, rather than to confirm. Building relationships makes both student and teacher vulnerable. In my own teaching, listening to students’ stories and struggles has challenged me to be more empathetic. In a morning study session, a young person confided to me that she believes she has a non-binary gender and her parent no longer speaks to her. A lunchtime break included listening to an angry student convinced that ICE will be coming to school to bust all the “illegals.” Another student struggled with an adult sibling who moved back home due to mental health and alcohol issues. Each conversation revolved around big issues, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. Nevertheless, by listening to my students’ experiences outside the classroom, I can serve as an advocate for them or point them towards solution partners such as guidance counselors or community health organizations.

Creating conditions where children are ready to learn requires more than content expertise. Listening is the first step to addressing the trauma and inequity in their lives, and can open options for further social-emotional learning. As Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and newer frameworks such as CaSEL and EQSchools assert, only after students’ basic needs are met can effective teaching and learning really help them soar.

Marcia Powell serves as a gifted facilitator at the Oelwein Community School District in Northeast Iowa. She can be contacted via Twitter at @marciarpowell or at LinkedIn.  She also writes and participates as a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.

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