For 10 years, I was a math teacher at Uvalde High School in Texas. Like many rural towns the average household salary in Uvalde falls notably below national averages and the area has been historically underserved. Now as an assessment consultant at Pearson, I frequently hear about the disparities many school districts cope with and recognize their challenges from my own experience.
While there is no replacement for adequate funding, there are ways to help combat the lack of resources and mental health concerns that plague districts where students may live in a cycle of poverty.
Here are some observations from my time in the classroom and in working with schools today:
Teacher burnout and turnover leads to a host of unintended consequences
Significant challenges in the teaching profession can be taxing on an individual’s well-being and can lead to teacher burnout and high turnover, both of which are far too common in underserved districts.
Of course, educators know teacher turnover and frequent staff changes have negative effects, and these districts face a host of issues, from overcrowded classrooms and safety concerns to fewer opportunities to work with students on an individual basis.
Additionally, staff changes also have a secondary effect on processes and programs. I’ve seen that it can take time to fully grasp how to work with a new curriculum and implement it across multiple grade levels. When the proponent of a certain program leaves, enthusiasm can wane, leading to wasted investment.
School districts need to stem the turnover tide by addressing issues that lead to burnout. For example, investing in training when rolling out something new helps lesson educator stress and shortens the learning curve, which saves time. It can also guide educators to set higher expectations for student achievement.
Teachers also need to see themselves as an integral part of the school community. Creating growth or leadership paths along with professional development can help cement their longevity. Equally important, you can never say thank you too often. It’s vital to highlight teacher accomplishments and express appreciation.
Students’ unique circumstances are real
Students in low-income districts often have far more on their mind than the upcoming football game or math test. For high school students, family dynamics might mean that they work an afterschool job to help put food on the table or take care of siblings while parents are away. While admirable, this can add an extra layer of pressure and makes it more difficult for them to be actively involved or concentrated at school.
Students from low SES backgrounds typically also have less opportunity to travel or be exposed to different life experiences — including considering different career paths that might be available. This can impact their drive and interest in the world around them. Further, they might inadvertently receive less academic support at home, where a lack of quiet space and technology may be an issue.
We also know that family involvement can play a major role in student success. Students in underserved areas may have parents or guardians who perhaps didn’t graduate from high school themselves and may not feel comfortable in a formal school setting or in active participation. During my time in Uvalde, our school team helped combat this by asking families to help in some small way, whether it was bringing a light snack to meetings or assisting with setup, and this gave them an additional purpose. It’s a powerful way to be inclusive.
Educators can make a difference by engaging students to discover their interests and making a point to include them in daily activities. Be extra compassionate and flexible. Remember, we may not know what a student is going through because we haven’t walked in their shoes. Sometimes you must give students a second chance to be successful.
Finally it’s vital to acknowledge culture as it relates to mental health. Until very recently, there has been a stigma around seeking support for mental health or accessing resources, particularly in the Latinx community. I recently saw a commercial for a mental health service that was spot-on in its message. It depicted a weightlifter who was clearly struggling with too much weight, but he resisted help even when it was offered, citing that his family would not understand. That can be the case for your students who might benefit from mental health supports but fear their family and friends would think it represents weakness. They might be hesitant to come forward to seek help.
Improved screening can help with a multitude of issues
Educators are truly super heroes as they take on all these challenges and devote themselves to inspiring their students. But, with so much on their plate, it’s important to equip them with tools that can help identify student concerns or opportunities as soon as possible.
That’s where universal screening can be helpful to identify issues and give educators the chance to engage in early diagnosis and intervention. Universal screening can also help with proper placement into gifted and talented programs, which is an area that low income and minority students are substantially under-represented in.
Further, it not only helps the student at their moment of need, but represents a key way to prevent secondary issues such as behavior problems or apathy that can eventually tax resources even further. Additionally, by deploying digital tools, educators can efficiently and effectively get the input they need.
Among the screeners that might be particularly useful are:
- NNAT®3: This is a non-verbal, culturally neutral assessment of general ability that is ideal for use with a diverse student population. It offers a very fair way to evaluate students and could help identify those who would qualify for a gifted and talented program, for example.
- Resources that can help screen for dyslexia and ADHD. By identifying students affected by these conditions, educators can offer interventions that will address their challenges to put students on a path to academic success.
- Mental health screeners, such as the BASC-3 BESS: We know that mental health challenges can make it more difficult for students to learn, and universal screening can remove any existing stigmas to help better identify affected students. Universal screening can also inventory students’ adaptive skills and focus on strengths and resiliencies they have. Educators can use the results to triage students and put the appropriate supports in place.
From my experience, I know that working in an underserved district is an opportunity to truly make a difference. The possibilities to uncover and help students realize their potential is incomparable, and for all of you working in underserved areas, I encourage you to embrace the opportunity you have to touch lives, one student and family at a time.
But remember, burnout is real. Make time for yourself so you can be there for your students. For more tools, resources and other information to help you help your students perform at their best in the classroom and beyond, visit Pearson’s Mental Health And Anxiety Resource Center.