Perceiving Poverty: How Counselors Can Read Between the Lines

povertyBy Sabrina Bartels –  As my students prepare for the end of the year, many of them are talking about the seventh grade incentive.

It is a day when the entire seventh grade can participate in a Cousins Subs lunch at school, and then spend the entire afternoon at the bowling alley. In order to qualify for this party, the students need to have all of their detention time served, as well as all of their course work completed. The past two weeks have been a whirlwind of reminding kids to serve their detention time and collecting permission slips.

Recently, one of the permission slips came across my desk. At first I was confused; all of the teachers have been gathering the permission slips and turning them in to our secretaries. Thinking that the slip had been turned into me “accidentally,” I decided to check the name on it and then hand it in to the main office.

When I picked up the slip, I realized there was a small piece of stationery taped to the back. It was a note that read in part:

Dear Teacher,

I need your help if possible, please. My son has been working very hard, finishing all of his work and serving all of his detention time. He has really been trying to be good. I want him to go on the incentive. However, my husband and I cannot afford to send him right now.

At first, I was surprised. This student had never made mention of any hardships, unlike some of my students who make their socioeconomic status well-known to me. I had no idea that his parents were struggling (later on in the note, mom mentioned medical bills and the family being down to only one paycheck.)

Then, my surprise turned to sadness. Here was a mom, doing her best to help her child seem “normal,” despite the obstacles they were trying to overcome. After speaking with the student’s teachers and the main secretary, we found a way to waive the cost (our secretary insisted that it would be taken care of because “no student should have to stay back because their parents can’t afford it.”).

This made me wonder: How many of my students experience this? How many of my students immediately feel sick when a field trip is announced, because they are not sure if they will be able to pay for it? Or, how many of my students purposely leave their detention time unserved and let the missing assignments pile up because they know they will not be able to go, despite their best efforts?

Which leads me to my major question: How can I as a counselor become more in-tune with my students’ needs? I know that there will always be students who are upfront and open about their socioeconomic status; these are the students who will always be on the list for the Giving Tree during Christmas, and will be the first people I watch in winter to make sure that they have a winter jacket. But how can I become more aware of my quieter, shyer students who may be experiencing the exact same struggles?

Perhaps this requires significant “reading between the lines.” I think about some of my students who frequently mention that they are not excited for Christmas, Easter, or summer break. While they could just be enthralled by school, there is also the possibility that their negative view on breaks is because of their home life. For some of my students, these week-long breaks mean that they are not guaranteed at least two meals a day. Some of my students know that they will not receive any presents for Christmas or an Easter basket with candy in it.

I can also look at motivation among my students; some students may not be motivated to do well because they may not receive the acknowledgement for their grades the way they wish to. Many of my students receive rewards for their excellent grades; what happens to the student who really wants a new bike because he has straight A’s, but mom or dad can’t afford it?

I can really listen to my students and what they do on their weekends: did they go to a park? Did they go to a zoo? Did they stay in their room and play video games the entire time? Even little details like this can provide major insight into a student’s life.

We can have such a major impact on our students this way. And while not every impact needs to be monetary, students will always remember the kindness they are shown by teachers who saw their need and addressed it. As I often tell my students, “Middle school is hard enough.” If I can help one student feel “normal” during this chaotic time, then I have done my job.

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