“Teaching the Poor,” by Doug Johnson

Dedicated educator Doug Johnson inspires us with these thoughts. –JGR


The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference.The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference, and the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.Elie Wiesel

Teaching the poor, like any other human activity, has more to do with the internal barriers a person faces than the over-arching external barriers that people see displayed in the media everyday. How does a teacher see those barriers when facing poor students day after day?

As a teacher of the poor in the American Public School system, I have to address Western and Eastern religious cosmologies handed to me from my own education. I have to address the factory model of education that is maintained in the United States. I have to address the question of my own bias toward the poor as being fully human. Why go to the effort? In the end I have to offer a reason for deconstructing so many constructs.

With the United States having the power of ancient Rome, the religious cosmology that drives that level of political power becomes critical to deconstruct within myself if I am going to become a better teacher. There is no way to get around the fact that the central part of Western thought in relation to the helping industry is the Messianic figure of Christ coming to save sinners from hell. Regardless of the intent of the ancient texts, the outcome as it has filtered through the Enlightenment is that there are saviors or sinners or saints or sinners or straights or gays or male or female or black or whites or rich or poor.

The incessant need to define one’s self in terms of the converse of their definition, drives how I think about teaching the poor. Before I ever step into the classroom, I have to struggle through the question as to what extent I identify with my students. For most people, teaching the poor is a convenient adaptation of their faith, whether that cosmology includes more of Darwin than the prophet Daniel.

Dostoyevsky, in “Brother’s Karamazov” has one of the characters state, “Ratikin thinks that human kindness is possible without God and that’s a lie.” Since the character that said it is accused of murder, the reader doesn’t know what to think. We don’t know what to think. That is why for many teaching the poor is an equal statement to saving the whales. The politicized use of religion from either vantage point has simply reduced religion to a tool for political action having little to do with faith or the desire to educate another human being. The chief barrier I must mentally overcome in teaching the poor is the word ‘OR’, and how that sets me at a distance from the experience from my students.

The factory system of education as perfected by thinkers during the time of Dewey and Ford is another barrier that I overcome in the United States Education system. I report to a factory every morning –- to one small room where I have 30 widgets an hour. I have to successfully keep them in line until the widgets walk to the next classroom. My output is to organize 150 widgets a day. The ideal hope is that those widgets learn to read, at which my productivity supervisor will read a chart to me, telling me what a great job I am doing. Once he tells me that, he leaves. I don’t get paid for doing more. I get paid for making sure the widgets stay organized.

The dehumanization of the factory model has been overcome in the private sector when you look at organizational structures like MacIntosh or Pixar films where highly talented people have long learned to self regulate their work.

Public Education, however, is a place where facilities stay in disrepair. When the political machine is begged for more money, it is denied because buildings and levies are one of the few optional taxes voters have the right to turn down. All of that aside teaching the poor in the United States has more of a feel of regimental serving in the Army. You learn various routines to survive the system of adults and then have certain moments of crisis and excitement. The key barrier I have to overcome within myself is the sense that I am a drone, or Fred Flintstone character that makes no difference. My students are people and do the best they can. Many of my students are struggling as adults to make ends meet and the chronology of that struggle crashes into the American construct of ‘childhood’ invented at the beginning of the 1900’s with the Child Labor Act.

Today as I write this, one of my good students had her baby. She will be out. I can’t count how many strong, young, intelligent minds I say goodbye to, so that they can take care of their child. Yesterday, I talked with another teacher about what to do with a student that smokes weed during lunch. One source I read says that students don’t drop out with some kind of grand decision. Students melt away when they discover they the factory doesn’t need them as a widget anymore. Some of them take jobs. Some of them fall into substance issues. Some of them go to jail for either petty crimes or gang affiliation activities. The barrier I fight each day is to remember that I am not shuffling widgets.

Furthermore, because teaching is the second largest profession behind a retail sales clerk, there is a strange need to start figuring out how to maximize retirement plans. A great deal of time in my teaching day is spent in adult spending models to maximize our earnings. It’s in meetings. It’s in negotiations. It’s in declaring what is or isn’t fair. On a world scale, teachers make a great deal of money, in this system, as do any American wage earner. One barrier I fight in teaching is the constant nagging about maximizing earning potential. Again, the internal barrier I struggle against is to continue to view my students as humans.

That is a harsh sentence to write. It seems obvious they are humans. The reality, however, is whatever cosmology is chosen as a teaching model, the student as a human is the basic premise. The poor, in many viewpoints, have long been placed outside the group psyche of what is good, right and fair. Poverty is viewed as a moral issue. Once that statement is made it is a small step for a Western person to demonize the poor, or at least count them as some type of animal. Reference the arguments during W.E.B Dubois’ time in his work, “The Soul’s of Black Folk”. Reference the arguments by Sir Francis Galton, or even his modern counterpart Jensen.

My Western counterparts that teach world wide don’t fight with the factory mentality, but they do, as I do struggle with the fact that the poor they are touching are worth the effort. In the Hindu cosmology they are Untouchables, in the Islamic cosmology the Prophet is more severe than the Christian Right in declaring people Infidels. The deep internal barrier is that as a Western thinker, the poor are something to be tended, like a good work horse, or a deficient child. White skin sitting in contrast to dark skin where people put themselves in contrast.

Furthermore, people that adhere to the Messianic colonist model in their minds don’t see themselves as one with the environment they live in. They see themselves as distant saviors and conquerors. This construct drives constant discontent in the teachers of the poor. Unlike the native cultures they encounter, whether it is Africa, the Americas of the 1600’s or tribal cultures of mid Asia, the teacher of the poor has a deep struggle with the psyche accepting their environment as a unified element. Not something separated and apart.

This means in the end, teaching the poor, becomes an internal struggle of the Tao. The teacher must try to somehow see themselves as equal to the poor in their struggle, and in that equality seek to help them here, now and from day to day. Encouraging them to succeed in the system can be part of that education. They are people today that need help. I can choose my cosmology, but I can’t make the poor an excuse to make myself feel better- like donating to an AIDS benefit, or old clothes during Christmas.

“The Fisher King” with Robin Williams finds a radio personality trying to donate money to a homeless man. When the man throws the money on the street and runs away, the rest of movie is spent with the man trying to get over the insult of being rejected. Teachers of the poor that chase people down simply to soothe their conscience should eat chocolate chip cookies and drink egg nog. Find some other way to feel good. They are people that need people to live side by side with them and encourage them to read- if the lesson should something else that day, let it be something else that day. That’s my greatest barrier. I need to make sure I able to offer the poor something they need, instead of some biased cultural construct I’ve been handed.

All of this is to say that they aren’t poor, if I have to let go of precursory definitions. They are Jose, Rafik and Miroslavia. They are Jessica, Jenaro and Daramy. They are Jalina, Johnathan and Myles. Why go to such lengths to deconstruct the driving cosmologies in educating the poor? The chief reason is that my students struggle as students, and their internal barriers can be life long if they never attempt to reframe their context. They have to try and reframe how they see the world and see if it is even worth the effort. Teaching the poor is a matter of trying to allow them to believe the words, “I AM”. Success may be defined in terms of money, but like myself, they have to determine what success means. My success isn’t sitting in a reading score. That may or may not happen. My success is when they know they are human enough to say, I CAN, Teacher.

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