Still Learning From Poverty 101 Sixteen Years Later

Claiborne Taylor works with Teach For America alumni in Philadelphia.  He taught 4th grade in Houston, Texas through Teach For America; was an instructor of teacher education at Washington and Lee; and received a Master’s in Education from Stanford. He is a 2002 graduate of Washington and Lee. The Poverty Program sparked his interest and passion for the intersection of poverty and education. 

In the spring of my first-year at Washington and Lee I began Interdisciplinary 101, known around campus as ‘the poverty course’. From its outset the course changed my outlook on government, economics, and what it meant to be poor. We started by reading Alex Kotlowitz’s book, There are no Children Here, a heart-wrenching portrayal of two boys growing up in Chicago public housing. I completed the book in less than a day and, while their tough living conditions and the daily dangers they faced appalled me, what struck me most was how resilient yet fragile these boys were. The class continued to challenge me – we read philosophers and economists, discussed issues from all political perspectives, and wrote papers on human capabilities and theories of justice. Over the course of the term, my work became less about the grade I hoped to get and more focused on life lessons. I learned: good people are left behind, everything that could be done to solve these problems was not, and my conscience would not allow me to sit idly by and let this continue. I distinctly remember the last night of my first-year, as my friends relentlessly called me to come out and celebrate the year’s end, I ignored their pleas as I fine-tuned my final paper reluctant to leave behind a term’s worth of insights and emotions that had resonated so deeply.

"I believe that to achieve anything together you must give openly and freely of yourself, but, more importantly, you must listen." Clairborne Taylor

“I believe that to achieve anything together you must give openly and freely of yourself, but, more importantly, you must listen.” Clairborne Taylor


These feelings and ever-present uneasiness with what my role was in all of this have taken me many places: To two run-down trailers in the foothills of the Appalachians to play with eight kids who had less than anyone I have ever known; to a courtroom in West Virginia watching a man fight for his family’s right to remain in Section 8 housing; and to the peak of a roof discussing HealthCare problems with a college dropout. I have learned more from these experiences than I may ever understand, but the subject that resonates most clearly and continues to teach and challenge me most is education.

The second bell always set off a ripple in my stomach. The kids were waiting in the courtyard whether I was ready for them or not. When I rounded the corner to greet them, I was excited, scared, and always a little too nervous to teach much of anything, so I tried to find a way to ease us into the day. Therefore it was three students’ job to come up with a word, quote, and question of the day. While the word and quote duties may have been more academically aligned, the question of the day always produced the best discussions. Any topic could be proposed, and I as well as three randomly drawn students, would answer. Plenty of questions were what anyone would expect of fourth graders: What’s your favorite video game system, or what do you like better: pizza or hamburgers? But some questions were not quite as simple: What’s the saddest you’ve ever been? What do you think you’ll do when you grow up? Who do you love most and why? While I thought it was important for me to answer so the students got a sense of who I was, I greatly preferred hearing the students’ responses. I believe that to achieve anything together you must give openly and freely of yourself, but, more importantly, you must listen. I will never experience what my students or co-workers have, but I will always try to understand.

“Tengo una más pregunta.”

“She has one more question,” said Maria.

I wondered what it could be. Maria was probably my best student, had great grades, and did everything I asked of her, so I could only guess as to why her mother looked so troubled. The Spanish rolled off her tongue as I regretted not having gone to the extra dialogue sessions my Spanish professor in college had offered.

“She wants you to tell me why my last name is different than hers,” said Maria.

“Oh…,” I said trying to act naturally. “Maria, tell your mom that our school social worker is very nice and helpful.”

Maria translated, and her mom shook her head no and pointed at me.

“She wants you to tell me,” said Jennifer.

“Now?” I asked.

“Yes, now,” answered Maria.

My explanation, punctuated with numerous ‘Uhms’ and pauses, did not satisfy me. At the end of it all, I asked Maria if she had any questions. She politely said no. I asked if she was OK, and she nodded yes. And Maria’s mother seemed to leave somewhat content. I spent the rest of the day talking to my girlfriend, fellow teachers, mom, and school social worker about the exchange. All gave advice and marveled at the oddness of the discussion. I gingerly broached the subject with Maria the rest of the year, asking her if she had more questions, and continually sought out the advice of others. Some might say what Maria’s mom said was inappropriate or that the task I was given is not part of a teacher’s job, but moments of such honesty, vulnerability, and unforeseen importance draw me back to being the best I could for my students as strongly as any.

Education 280: Poverty and Education was the honors thesis I never wrote. I created and designed the course for Washington and Lee in order to produce a learning experience that I would have wanted as a student and was excited to be a part of as a professor. Our areas of focus were varied and complex: Are teachers’ unions beneficial to our education system? Are charter schools good for a school district? And, what role should a school play with the students’ family and in the community? While we read and discussed everything from The Heritage Foundation to Alfie Kohn, we also addressed these issues with the local superintendent, a working mom and her teenage daughter, and the founder of the nation’s first public boarding school. The culmination of our time in the classroom came with two weeks on the road visiting schools in rural West Virginia and Washington, DC. In the evenings as we cooked communal dinners of spaghetti and frozen chicken stir fry, the conversation always came back to the schools we had seen that day: “How can those first graders concentrate when they ride on a bus for four hours a day?” asked Ron. “I think whatever those charter schools gain from its discipline systems and academic rigor, it loses in student individuality and student/teacher relationships.” said Kyana. “Maybe all schools should have a “lead teacher” position alongside the principal like George Washington,” said Sanjay. They and I both left the experience with more questions than answers. We also saw firsthand how many amazing schools, educators, and ideas exist, yet the needs of many students were not met. I left the class not only with a better understanding of the needs and problems, but more certain than ever that I was ready to be part of the solution.

And that’s what I’m still doing today – trying to be part of the solution. I work with over 1500 Teach For America alumni and teachers in Philadelphia to help them be better educators and leaders, learn from one another and other leaders in this work, and find common ground and solutions to a school system educating almost 60,000 students in deep poverty and with one of the lowest literacy rates of any major city in the US. The challenges are daunting, but this work is personal. It’s probably more personal than ever for me since I now have my own kids. They mean more than anything to me and I would do anything to make their lives better. I wonder if my daughter’s Pre-K teacher sees that she’s reluctant to share but not because she’s not smart, or if my 2 ½ year old daughter’s daycare teacher changes her diaper right away and pushes her on the swings as much as she likes. And while I can confidently answer ‘yes’ to those questions, I know that many of the parents and families in Philadelphia can’t. They care about their kids every bit as much as I do but don’t have the advantages I do to send their kids to special schools or fancy afterschool programs. So I know this work is far from done since every kid in Philadelphia has the same right to an excellent education as mine.

When I look back and think about the path my life has taken, my exposure to the Poverty Program was a seminal moment that has never really ended. It challenges and guides me still today to find my place and to help others find theirs. And I can’t think of a better education than that.

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