Supporting Teachers and Students — A Compare and Contrast


This fall has given me a wonderful opportunity to look at our educational system. I have had time to both reflect and experience the differences in our students across a large urban area. I have found it amazing, sometimes frustrating. And sometime I am just sad for students and teachers.

I have been in two elementary schools (in third grade classrooms) on and off all fall. One is a

  • high to medium income school
  • with ELL students from places like Somalia and Mexico—some newcomers with little English skill;
  • 67% of the students are white.

The other school is on the direct opposite side of town and

  • is a low income school
  • there are again ELL students from Somalia and Mexico; some are Hmong
  • 60% of the students are black.

Both schools have strong principals and good to great teachers.

Here is where things begin to break down. You can guess how it falls out. I am also guessing it is much the same across the United States.

The staff in our high-income school rallies around both new students and new teachers. Photos of new students are shared by e-mail to staff so they can be greeted in the hall and feel welcomed. New teachers are checked in on and supported with curriculum ideas and working as teams. Older teachers ask about behavior issues with students and generally newbie teachers feel like they can ask for help. Behavior support people spend a great deal of their time working to build positive relationships with students who are struggling. The world isn’t perfect—it never is in a school—but there is a sense of calm and care for students, staff and families.

Our low-income school tries hard to support students as they come in, but often times students arrive new to a room without much preparation for the teacher or student. ( There is lots of turn over of students.) The specialists are also out of the loop until the classroom teacher can find the time to fill them in. New teachers are working much more independently and must forge their own ties to who they might turn to for support. Curriculum is not as openly shared within the teams. The behavior support is in place but due to the larger student need across the building, time is spent putting out fires and dealing with suspensions instead of working to create a positive school climate.

Our low-income students have a 1/2 hour for lunch and recess but our high-income students have a 1/2 hour for each.  (I get it that our low-income students are academically behind and we are working to close the gap, but I then see teachers needing to create more breaks in the classroom since we know that elementary students just need to move.) Our high-income students have many more field trips available to them as well as supportive home experiences around the community.

In our low-income school, families are working hard to provide for their students, but ends do not meet. Food and clothing are sometimes hard to find, transportation is not available, and tension runs high due to the stressful living conditions of the families. This family stress follows students into the classroom each day, leaving everyone a bit on edge.

As a teacher you can provide calm for a few students every day. But when most of the class is struggling, it is hard for one teacher to reach that emotional need with out becoming exhausted. I felt that exhaustion the last few years when I taught in a high-poverty setting.

I could go on, but you as educators know these comparisons.

Does it need to be this way?

In schools where we know the stress levels are going to be high, why are we not providing the support that both new teachers and more experienced teachers and their students need?

Shouldn’t new teachers in high-stress school have a mentor teacher they can talk to and get support from daily if needed?

Shouldn’t class sizes be much smaller, allowing for more attention to our students who have not learned how to control their bodies and minds in a positive way for learning?

Are we providing emotional support to our teachers when they have struggled all day to help students who are dealing with one crisis after another each day?

Shouldn’t all students have at least 1/2 hour each day to go run, yell and express themselves in productive ways?  I know I still need to walk each day. (Our district office has exercise machines for staff breaks. Hmmmm.)

What are we really doing to support new teachers to work in low-income schools?  How can we look at this differently so that all students get a great education? Equity does not mean equal (meaning “the same”)!

Can we look at each school community and build plans for the needs of that community?  I know this is not efficient and sometimes we have a hard time understanding differences. But when we look at our future as a country, is it efficient and fair to have so many students falling behind due to environmental stress that we know and can support if we choose?

About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, care for my Grandson and write. Life is good!
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