Welcome to the Jungle: Jermaine, Fighting Poverty

  • The Motto: Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle”—The lyrics describe how sometimes you have to learn to live like an “animal” to survive in difficult situations that could remind you of a jungle. My first teaching job felt like it was in a jungle at times.
  • The Sidekick: Jermaine
  • The Archenemy: Poverty
  • The Kryptonite: Preconceived notions, limited vision, and lack of sensitivity and cultural awareness
  • The Super-HERO Lesson: Things aren’t always what they seem
  • Social Emotional Learning Competency: Social awareness

The first stop on my super-HERO mission was an inner-city elementary school in Opa-Locka, Florida. The statistics said that in 2004, Opa-Locka had the highest rate of violent crime for any city in the United States. The per capita income was approximately $15,000. A city today that is embroiled in corruption and scandals that permeate its structure and leaders. An Internet post from December 2011 described an apartment complex as follows:

“This is the worst place ever to live. To start, my neighbor is a stone cold drug addict and she prostitutes her two 13 year old daughters out to the entire complex to pay her rent. The management in the rent office sells bags of weed, cocaine, ex-pills and sex tapes. There is always gun shots like it’s the fourth of July everyday. The lady down the hall sells food from her house and it has been reported that she has AIDS and she always be cutting herself from stress problems and leaking blood all over the place!” (more...)

Many of our students were and still are living in these circumstances and even more treacherous ones. My hope in sharing this is to re-connect legislators and educators with the realities in our classrooms today in case they have forgotten or are unaware.

The students in the third-grade class had broken the teacher’s leg in October during a fight in the classroom. I arrived for my first full-time teaching job in February after a series of substitutes refused to stay and finish the year. I was bright-eyed and excited to have my own classroom. Batman was a popular movie in 1990, and I had a friend help me build a library case from a Batman movie display. I bought a carpet for our reading area along with a lot of stickers and charts to set up my room and provide the students with incentives. I felt like I was truly on my way to education super-HERO status.

However, when I tried to quiet the class down so that I could talk, they got up and started running around, jumping off desks, screaming at me about being a “cracker,” and asking one another, “Who does she think she is?” As I stood there feeling scared and helpless, the lyrics from the Guns N’ Roses song, “Welcome to the Jungle” were playing so loudly in my head that  all I could think to say to myself at the moment was, “I quit! In college, this is not what they told me teaching was about, and I don’t care about the $25,000 I just invested in a college degree. There is absolutely no way that I am dealing with this!”

Fortunately, I stuck around and learned so many things that year. I learned about the effects of crack cocaine on children’s physical, emotional, and intellectual development. The students struggled severely with impulse control and often burst out in fits of rage. I learned that teachers ate lunch in a lounge where cockroaches crawled across the table. The school was so old and dilapidated that there was no hope of containing outside influences. I learned that some students had homes with no floors when I did my home visits. I learned why kids wear coats in Florida— because the air-conditioning at school was something they didn’t have at home. In 1990, not many educators were out there like I was trying to track down the parents to make sure that we could work together to help their child. Most of the people I knew refused to even drive in the area, let alone to go to the homes to learn more about their students and their lives. I learned that when the principal throws kids up against the wall and gets in their faces, they seem to calm down and “behave.” The aggressive behavior management seemed to be the only thing that the kids knew and would respond to.

Shortly after my arrival, the school board and a team of auditors came out to visit and determine the reasons why the school performed so poorly on yearly reviews. When they were done, the bureaucrats called us into a faculty meeting and proceeded to tell us that the school was a mess. They promised they would be back in a couple of months to help. Talk about Waiting for Superman; they never came back.

I quickly abandoned my “Boys and girls, we need to sit down” phase and started to find strategies to provide some structure and some rules to work within that would help meet the needs of the students. As part of our routine, we started watching the show Reading Rainbow every day to enhance their reading skills and for enjoyment. The kids made up their own song/rap that went along with the program, and I was in awe of the cool way they came together like a team each day when the show would come on.

As an addition to the show, I started my chart system with happy-face stickers to encourage them to complete homework. If they got a sticker for homework that day, I would give them two cookies to eat during Reading Rainbow time. It worked really well, and I felt like a super-HERO because the kids were doing homework and watching an educational program and fighting had all but stopped in the classroom.

One kid, though, just wouldn’t respond to the great strategies and interventions I had been implementing. He made jokes, laughed, and generally took the team off track whenever he could. A classic class clown. Then one day, he came in and had his homework! I was so excited. However, when he brought it to me, I was so disappointed. He seemed to be mocking me again and had turned it in on cardboard instead of paper. I think I told him that I would give him his sticker but not the cookies since he was still being “disrespectful” and didn’t seem to value my system. He was upset but didn’t say much else.

Not long after, I had an epiphany. After a couple of hours or days, maybe, I realized what I couldn’t see before—the student, Jermaine, didn’t have any paper to do his homework, so he had cut up a cereal box to turn in the work and get cookies!

My own preconceived notions, limited vision, and lack of sensitivity and cultural awareness blinded me to the reality and gravity of the situation that this young boy was living in. His innovation, determination, and resiliency astounded and impressed me so much that I almost started shouting from the rooftops about how pushing through your circumstances, whatever they are, makes you a true hero!

Thank you, Jermaine! I have used your story so many times in my work to make a point to apathetic students and even to try to jolt a teacher or two to wake up and see things they are missing. You were a huge part of my initial learning process and I truly hope that you were able to move onward and upward in your journey.

Your Mission: Reflect on how students in poverty bring many gifts to your classroom and find ways to teach them how to celebrate their gifts while they learn to navigate the rules of the middle-class work and school environments they encounter.

Instructional Implications

  1. What—What do I want to do? Which students are fighting the same archenemy from this chapter? Describe your mission around this issue:

2. How—How will I get there and what do I need? Review the super-HERO solutions/resources provided:

  • A Framework for Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne
  • Star Teachers of Children in Poverty by Martin Haberman
  • Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do about It by Eric Jensen
  • Resilience and Vulnerability: Adaptation in the Context of Childhood Adversities, Chapter 11, “Poverty and Early Childhood Adjustment” by Suniya S. Luthar 3.

3. Examine—Evaluate your instructional and classroom management behaviors to determine if they fit in with education super-HERO qualities:

H: Do your actions/behaviors help, not hinder?
E: Do your actions/behaviors engage, not exclude?
R: Do your actions/behaviors resuscitate, not ruin?
O: Do your actions/behaviors overjoy, not obliterate?

4. Conclusion—How will I determine the results? Gather data and anecdotal records to measure possible impact or determine modifications to make on attendance rates, behavior referrals, academic progress, parent involvement, etc.:

5. Next Steps—What will I do if it doesn’t work? List other like-minded individuals to collaborate with who will encourage and support you on your journey:

6. Celebrate—What went right this time? Jot down your small successes here and document them in your own chapter at the back of the book.

We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000. A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance. Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives. … Teachers matter.—President Barack Obama, 2012 State of the Union Address


About our guest author:

Lori Bitar - Education Expert & Super-HERO

Lori Bitar

Lori Bitar is a visionary thought leader and award-winning Education Expert in supporting struggling students in academics and behavior. Her company, SOS! Education provides help for those seeking assistance in teaching, training, tutoring, and mentoring. She works with schools, districts, and in classroom settings to
support highly engaging, empowering, and effective instruction in best practices for teaching and learning.Lori is a former Disney American teacher nominee,Teacher of the Year, and the proud recipient of a Governor’s TOP 100 middle school award.Her newest book, SOS! Save Our Students: Solutions for Schools, Staff, Students, Stakeholders, & Society is a resource book that will help you fight the arch-enemies of education. (Poverty, Bureaucracy, Illiteracy, and Legislation and more…)

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