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Viewpoints: Teachers can help address poverty

April 30, 2019 Amelia Bird, Special to the ATA News

As teachers, I truly believe that we have our students’ best interests at heart. However, I’m not so sure that we necessarily understand some of the contexts that our students are facing outside of school, especially not to the extent that we need to.

Consider your responses to the following questions:

Does your income afford you enough money to live comfortably?

Do you have housing that you can afford?

Do you have or have you ever had access to affordable and quality child care?

Do you have a reliable means of transportation to travel where you need to go?

Do you have access to services to assist with your mental health?

Have you ever experienced racism?

These are some of the most prominent complexities that are linked to living in poverty. If any of these complexities were affecting you negatively every day, it would be difficult to focus on other parts of your life, namely school. Some of our students are living in situations where assignment completion is the least of their worries. What I have learned over the past week will forever be in my mind and has already changed the way I look at the world and the students entering our classrooms every day.

Did you know that one in six children currently lives in poverty in Alberta? This statistic alone is enough to make any teacher concerned. Poverty takes away choice. This became very clear to me on April 11 and 12, when I attended a joint conference presented by the Diversity, Equity and Human Rights and the Well-being of Children and Youth committees.

I, along with many colleagues from around the province, participated in a poverty simulation organized by the United Way. This was one of the most immersive and intimate learning experiences I have ever had. The simulation required each of the participants to play the role of a person experiencing poverty. The simulation represented four weeks in the life of a person who had to makes ends meet with rent, bills, groceries, children and work.

As teachers we need to be aware that some of our brightest students are likely using much of their brain power to problem solve for their families, to help organize and co-ordinate weekly schedules just to survive.

What struck me throughout the simulation was the number of barriers that poverty presents, from accessing supports, to being able to arrange stable banking, to having time to get everything done in a week before heading back to a job that did not pay enough to cover the bills for the next week. The amount of stress, anxiety, deep discouragement and hopelessness felt by the participants of the simulation is only a tiny fraction of what this would be like in real life, but I felt it and now understand the issue in a way that I cannot ignore.

What was also terribly disheartening was the amount of time and energy required to make ends meet, never mind considering education, saving money for emergencies or having the luxury to entertain hopes and dreams. I think as teachers we need to be aware that some of our brightest students are likely using much of their brain power to problem solve for their families, to help organize and co-ordinate weekly schedules just to survive.

As speaker Kevin Lamoureux pointed out in his session, when children look around and see everyone with more than they have, it doesn’t take long before they react to the unfairness or shut down. He also spoke of the importance of the social determinants of health and learning. Our environments/social circumstances very much affect our overall well-being.

On a note of hope, there are good people working to address poverty in Alberta, and we need to ensure that they are able to continue to do the work. Financial institutions are looking to address the barriers that keep people from setting up banking. Breakfast programs are running in numerous schools throughout the province, and many people are doing what they can on an individual level.

So perhaps you’re thinking, well, what can I really do about this anyway? Making this issue matter to local MLAs is always a good place to start. Sadly, although many provinces do have poverty reduction strategies in place, Alberta does not. Poverty is non-partisan and should be an issue no matter who is in charge of this province. We need to push to end poverty. Our students deserve it. To quote the wise and inspiring Kevin Lamoureux, “Even though we didn’t create the problem, do we want to be part of the solution?” ❚


Amelia Bird is the educational technology teacher for Grande Yellowhead Public School Division and is a member of the ATA’s Diversity, Equity and Human Rights Committee. 


Opinions expressed on this page represent the views of the individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.


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