The poverty gap is a complex issue with far-reaching implications. The first step to closing the gap is understanding its impact on our students.

Though many educators recognize the differences between teaching in more affluent neighborhoods and lower-income towns, a more detailed analysis of the country’s poorest students is necessary to provide an equal educational playing field to every child. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) examines the economic and social climate of the global population. The group has defined the poverty gap as “…the ratio by which the mean income of the poor falls below the poverty line. The poverty line is defined as half the median household income of the total population.”

The first steps in reducing the poverty gap require an understanding of how it affects children during their developmental years at home and among peers. Use these five tactics to begin understanding and helping students who are affected by the poverty gap.

1. Recognize the Poverty Gap Is a Way of Life

poverty gapThough educators are able to go home each day after teaching children who are affected by the poverty gap, low-income students leave school, returning to a home of unpredictable financial circumstances, or a welcoming family of peers and respected elders on the streets. While the latter can increase risk factors, many students find resources on the street when their lives at home will not yield necessities such as food, camaraderie, and understanding. The poverty gap isn’t something that students can magically shed through the goodwill of their teachers — it is a way of life they must navigate day after day.

2. Ensure All Children Experience the Joy of Education

Among the poorest citizens, education isn’t always a priority. When families struggle against living below the poverty line, acquiring the goods and services others take for granted — such as food and clean water — takes priority, which means actively participating in school programs might be undervalued. Children in these families are often encouraged or feel obligated to contribute to the family’s household income. Find ways to make class time attractive to all students, which could deter children from cutting class. Make showing the benefits of how education can help them assist their families overcome the poverty gap a daily priority in your classroom.

3. Plan Activities that Can Be Enjoyed by All

poverty gapWhether in private or in the presence of the class, never point out a student’s inability to purchase supplies or afford activities such as class trips. Instead, reach out to parents or guardians to identify activities that will fit into the family budget and plan class projects and outings according to the collective abilities of the group. When possible, work with your school’s parent-teacher organization to find creative ways to finance activities without relying on cash contributions from families.

4. Be an Instrument of Change

In 2011, the Department of Education revealed inequitable distribution of federal funding for more than 40 percent of schools that were considered low income. While certain components of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) sought to improve this problem, the school-voucher mission of the current administration will reduce the ability of public schools to provide resources to students. Meet with school administrators and district leaders to generate a plan of action to provide students with quality resources.

5. Reflect on the Mission and Approach

poverty gapWithout looking within, no teacher can help close the poverty gap. Students living in low-income situations don’t need a savior, they require the attention of an understanding adult in a position of authority to recognize the legitimacy of their stories and experiences. Show students that their backgrounds aren’t aspects of life that they should fight against or be ashamed of, but fuel that empowers them. The struggles these students face should be acknowledged as catalysts that can drive them toward excellence.

During their careers, teachers encounter students from different backgrounds whose needs require specific solutions, whether academic, social, or financial. Successful teachers will remember that zero learning can take place until students’ basic needs are met. Teachers can’t “fix” students who are suffering from the poverty gap, but they can help close it one child at a time.

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