Pretend Poverty Teaches Teachers To Empathize

Feb 21, 2017

It's not uncommon for teachers to leave their classrooms for learning sessions of their own. An in-service day at Newport High School is focused not on how to teach, but how to empathize.

A poverty simulation exercise at Newport Independent Schools is showing teachers what some of their students may be facing outside of the classroom.

In the exercise, teachers are divided up into families. They are given a budget, and a list of expenses. The families are also presented with different challenges, like a language barrier, or a lack of child support payments.

Superintendent Kelly Middleton says for some families the simulation includes a disabled grandparent who needs transportation, or small children who need care.

"Almost every family is a little bit different to try to simulate our community," he says.

Middleton says while some teachers may have experienced poverty first hand, others have not.

"Let's see what it is, in a brief three hour period, what's it's like maybe to walk in the shoes of our students and parents," he says. "I think when teachers understand what our students have to go through every day, I think you'll see a little more engagement in their teaching. If a student maybe acts out, a lot of times, you didn't have a good place to sleep, maybe you didn't have maybe you didn't have breakfast, and you got to school late. I hope our staff will understand there's a reason they're acting out."

Teachers were divided into families facing different challenges, like unemployment, language barriers, and medical bills.
Credit Bill Rinehart / WVXU

Middleton says 30% of people in Newport are under the poverty level. Nearly half of those 18 years old and younger are also growing up in poverty. Most of the students in the Newport Independent School District qualify for free/reduced price lunches, and one in seven are homeless.

"What we see in Newport, you'll see our students maybe start acting out at the end of the day, because they don't know they're going home to," Middleton says. "You see a lot of students say 'Oh, I don't really like school,' but if you come to Newport Schools you'll find out we have a lot of students it's hard to get them out of school… because of what they have to go home to."

He says after the simulation, a teacher can't say they know everything about a student's home life, but it does help teachers connect. He says that can lead to fewer problems in the classroom and improved learning.

Middleton says the exercise isn't just for teachers. He says classified staff, including secretaries and bus drivers, will also go through the simulation.