Havre Daily News
BOX ELDER - Teachers from Box Elder Public Schools changed their role from educator to student earlier this week, taking a seat in the classroom for a lesson on how to better educate students from different economic classes.
The workshop - "A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Social Class" - aimed to help teachers discover the "hidden rules" among different socioeconomic classes. The workshop used the training outlined by Ruby Payne of Texas - one of the country's leading forces in helping to facilitate understanding among economic classes. Payne, a longtime educator, has worked with judges, social workers, teachers, ministers and health professionals across the United States.
Box Elder teachers said the poverty training workshop is a proactive step to dealing with economic class issues they and schools around the country face, and will help put their school system ahead of the curve.
"Our training focused on how the invisibility of social class gets in the way of instruction," said Stacey Herries, a Box Elder teacher who helped facilitate Monday's workshop.
In June, Herries joined more than 700 teachers at a five-day training conference with Payne in Texas, which covered how understanding and communication can break down in schools when teachers - who hold positions of power and authority - come from an economic class with rules different from those of students they work with.
"Students from a poverty situation have obstacles they face that are different from other classes," Herries said. "We need to know what kind of obstacles those are and how we can help."
The "hidden class rules" apply to a range of issues, from how a class values possessions, money or education, to its views on destiny and love. For example, while those in poverty value "people" as their most important possession, the middle-class values "things," and the wealthy value "one-of-a-kind objects, legacies and pedigrees," according to Payne.
"Basically, what means something to one group may not mean the same thing to another," said Michael Topolosky, a high school math teacher at Box Elder. "The classes have different ideals, different ways of thinking and different value systems."
Herries said recognizing and understanding the different classes' value systems is instrumental in reaching students, both from a personal, as well as an educational, standpoint.
"Most schools operate on middle-class norms, but obviously not all students are middle class, so it's important for us to understand where our students are coming from, so we can be more sensitive to them and their needs," she said.
Sister Margaret Mary O'Doherty, who works with students at Box Elder schools, said the workshop emphasized the importance of building a strong teacher-student or mentor-student relationship with children from all classes.
"This is really a concept we all need to know, not just teachers," said Sister O'Doherty, who helped facilitate the one-day workshop. "But if we want to continue to teach with middle- class values in our schools, then we need to take heed and know where these kids are coming from. We need to find strengths in their values and honor that."
Sister O'Doherty said one of the key differences between poor and middle-class people is their views on education and planning for the future. Because students from a middle-class background believe education is crucial for making money and climbing the success ladder, Sister O'Doherty said, those students develop the ability to plan at an early age, making decisions that will posititively affect their future. Students in poverty live for the moment, and while they value education, they typically believe their future is already planned out, so choices they make in the present don't really have an impact on their lives.
Sister O'Doherty said helping children in poverty realize that they do have a big hand in their own fate may help them plan for the future and make good decisions that will benefit them later on in life.
"The two classes have very different views; neither one is right or wrong, just different," Sister O'Doherty said.
Herries said dealing with Box Elder students who come from a background of poverty has its challenges, but the workshop was aimed to help teachers and faculty deal with those children in a more sensitive manner.
"It's a tricky topic to address," she said. "But it really gives us an opportunity to think about how we perceive things as teachers, and how our students might perceive us and their education."
Darin Hannum, a junior high and high school math teacher in Box Elder, said the workshop gave him a new understanding of the hidden value systems in American society - a system his students have already picked up on.
"This new knowledge and understanding can really help in the classroom," Hannum said. "It gives us some tools so we can better understand where our kids are coming from."
The training was funded through a $40,000 dropout prevention grant Box Elder schools received from the U.S. Department of Education. The grant is administered by the Montana Office of Public Instruction as part of its Montana American Indian Dropout Prevention Project.