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Classroom Capability

Catherine McColloch, W&L '12

Catherine McColloch, W&L ’12

Catherine McColloch is a 2012 graduate of Washington and Lee University.  She also served as  Elrod Fellow and teacher at KIPP Dream Prep in Houston.

My students spend 50 hours a week with me. That may sound like a lot of time to invest in their learning…until you consider that they are, for the entire 168 hours each week, children from low-income families. My students face chaotic living conditions in neighborhoods with high crime rates and in households with insufficient economic resources. Their parents have less access to be involved, as low-income parents are more likely to work multiple jobs, evenings, and suffer from poor physical and mental health.

In the classroom, the students and I work to overcome what makes learning so difficult for them; we battle the mental byproducts of poverty. As a teacher I rely heavily on what I know about these children. I respond to behavior that hinders learning by contemplating the potential causes of the problem. I consider their background and family circumstances first—before I act. The analytical skills and awareness I gained through poverty studies motivate me to teach my students in a manner that addresses their disadvantage.

I knelt beside Natalie, a petite Hispanic girl, as she furiously erased her calculations. Her paper was soggy from tears and it tore as she rubbed with the eraser. Natalie’s little hands moved to hide the mess and she whimpered, “I’m not smart enough.” She doesn’t perceive that her effort will matter and has learned to be helpless.

Derek, a lanky nine-year old boy, is another child who responds emotionally to threats of failure in the classroom. After hearing a boy nearby call him a name, Derek’s whole body began to tremble. He popped out of his seat and stomped across the room, clenching his

fists and wildly pumping his arms.  In his frenzy, he managed to knock over a lamp that was across the room.

Initially, I feel frustrated with these behaviors. What’s stopping me from yelling at the kids or sending them out the door? My education.

I learned to think critically about real world issues during my undergraduate years at Washington and Lee University. Because of rigorous instruction, lively debates, and service experience in economics and poverty-related courses, I now think critically on the job. Rather than reacting to their behaviors, I ask myself: how might poverty be affecting this child?

I suspected Natalie learned to give up when she felt out of control in the past. I imagined her mother working night shifts to afford food, leaving eight-year-old Natalie to care for a sick baby sibling. Chaotic home life induces low perception of control in humans.

In order to raise Natalie’s self-efficacy, I tutored her after school. Weeks later, I witnessed the once weak-willed Natalie not only complete a challenging assignment, but also courageously assist a boy next to her who has learning differences.

Recognizing that a comprehensive approach advances the strength of support I can provide students, I addressed Derek’s anger problems by calling home. Derek’s mother is now a regular face in the classroom. Together, we hold him to high expectations as he learns emotional regulation. I taught him how to adjust his own nervous system through deep breathing exercises. Derek recently has been calm and has raised his scores in both reading and math. For Natalie and Derek, I was able to foster their capability to learn.

Don’t get me wrong—my first year of teaching is a struggle.  But it’s all worth it, because when we uphold high expectations and do “whatever it takes” so that every child can learn, they do learn, and they often excel.

In our nation, children in poverty consistently underachieve, are more likely to drop out of high school and less likely to graduate from college, relative to children who are not growing up in poverty. As a teacher of poor, minority children, I guarantee that 100 percent of them desire to achieve, and that their parents both care deeply about and act to support the education of their children. Their devotion exists amidst a crushing lack of educational resources and opportunities.

Investment in providing them a fair chance and a better future for all of us must begin with addressing the burdens they face at birth, in schools and neighborhoods, and as members of society.

My time at W&L equipped me to pursue understanding about issues affecting many others. Thinking critically about social problems is gratifying. It is also critical for the security and prosperity of our nation.

Although I only get 50 hours of their week, 50 is enough to make a significant difference in my students’ lives. I currently contribute to the mission at KIPP Houston Public Schools (Knowledge is Power Program), from which 45 percent of students attend and graduate college. That’s five times the national average for the children we serve. I am grateful for the Poverty and Human Capability Program, which has made me a more capable and determined teacher.

Works Cited

Carter, Prudence L., Welner, Kevin G. 2013 “Closing the Opportunity Gap:

What American Must Do to Give Every Child an Even Chance”.

Oxford University Press.

Evans et GaryW. Evans, Gary W., C. Gonnella, L.Marcynyszyn, L. Gentile, and N.

Salpekaral. 2004 “The Role of Chaos in Poverty and Children’s Socioemotional Adjustment”. Psychological Science: Vol. 16, No. 7

Mickelson, R.A. 2005. “The incomplete desegregation of the Charlotte

Mecklenburg and its consequences, 1971-2004. In School

Resegregation: Must the South turn back? Ed. Jaohn Boger & Gary

Orfield, 87-110. Chapel hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Mickelson, R.A. 2012. “School Choice and segregation by race, class

And achievement.” In Exploring the school choice universe: Evidence

And recommendations, ed. G. Miron, K.G. Welner, P. Hinchey, &

W. Mathis, 167-192. Charlotte, N.C: Information Age Publishing.


1 Carter and Welner (2013)

2 Evans et al. (2004)

3 Children in low-income and minority families are born into disadvantages such as no access to or worse quality of early childhood education, less resources for learning at home, poor health, and disadvantageous school experiences such as tracking, disengaging instruction centered around test-taking, inadequately prepared teachers, and culturally incompetent curriculum (Mickelson (2005); Mickelson (2012); Carter and Welner (2013)).


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