Experiencing Poverty: understanding the unique circumstances of my students

By Karmen Millsaps, pre-K teacher, Loudon County Schools

For three hours, elementary teachers from the Loudon County School District became citizens of poverty. We were placed in family units and given roles as children, parents, grandparents, and other adults living in poverty. Our task was to survive a “month” in poverty. We had to go to work, send our children to school, and interact with the vendors to earn enough money to pay our bills, feed our families, and keep a roof over our heads. What certainly began as a “game-like” activity in our minds quickly turned into a stressful situation.

So why was our district excited to bring the poverty simulation training (and stress) to Loudon County educators? Fifty-seven percent of students in our schools qualify for free or reduced meals, with individual school percentages ranging from 43-86%. District leaders wanted to equip teachers with an understanding of the effect poverty has on the mindset, priorities, and performance of our students.

I came away with an understanding of the many obstacles that must be overcome simply to maintain life in poverty. There are even more obstacles if you are trying to get out of it. This experience truly brought home why parents in poverty may not be as engaged in academic concerns and activities as other parents. Housing, job responsibilities, family situations, food, and transportation often take most of a parent’s mental and physical energy, with children often carrying these burdens as well. What these children need from the educational community is so much more than what is needed by children from average income homes. Though I knew this intellectually, I understood it more clearly after the simulation.

During the simulation I often felt like people were taking advantage of me, with little to no bargaining power. For example, while making a loan payment at the “Quick Cash”, I did not get a receipt. I had to pay double during my next visit because I had no proof of payment. Vendors often acted like I was not worth their time. I realized that families in poverty may think they have nothing to offer or that no one will listen to their concerns based on their experiences with the outside world. This insight left me with a greater desire to ensure that the families in my classroom feel respected and valued.

My experience was not unique. These are a few reflections of other teachers who participated:

“Being a child of poverty, I immediately felt that sense of worthlessness and failure when I couldn’t provide what my ‘family’ needed. The participants in this poverty simulation got to witness a small glimpse of how living in poverty can feel. I hope that everyone realizes that in actuality, it is even much worse than what the simulation was able to show us.”

-Derae Oody, first grade teacher

“I think the biggest concept I took away from the poverty simulation is that just because a parent doesn’t show up for a conference or information night, it does not mean they don’t care about what is happening at school. It was an eye opening and stressful experience, so I think I will be a little more understanding.”

-Rachel Reidy, second grade teacher

“I wish everyone could experience the Poverty Simulation. Unless you grew up in it like I did, it is difficult to understand how hard it is to break out of the poverty cycle.”

-Celina Davis, kindergarten teacher

For those who experienced the poverty simulation training, it was a few stressful hours but for our students who live in poverty it is their life. The poverty simulation was not an “enjoyable” experience but I am thankful for the insight I gained. As a result of our participation in the poverty simulation, I feel that I am better equipped to meet the needs of my students and their families. For that reason alone, it was three hours well spent.

If your school or district is interested in learning more conducting a poverty simulation, please contact Brinn Obermiller, family engagement director, at Brinn.Obermiller@tn.gov.