Poverty speaker taught educators something about class

Richard DuPertuis
While conducting a day-long workshop at Dunsmuir Elementary School Wednesday, Kathy Estes cautions teachers about judging their students solely on attendance and test scores. Speaking from experience, she listed stressors faced by children of generational poverty, such as neglect, abuse and/or malnourishment. She said educators, most of whom were raised in the middle class, need to teach differently to reach children from families where the prime driving motivation of daily life is survival.

Kathy Estes recalled for her audience the time she was glued to the television, right after Hurricane Katrina had wrecked New Orleans. As she watched news clips of looters carrying off giant TV sets, she sympathized.

“Those were my people,” she told the 40 south Siskiyou County teachers and administrators assembled at Dunsmuir Elementary School last Wednesday.

“They knew those TVs were going to be covered by insurance,” she said. “I will be the first one to put a brick through a window, steal a TV set, and sell it to feed my kids.”

Estes spoke from the perspective of what she called generational poverty. As coordinator for Coordinated Health Programs for San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools, she presented a day-long in-service titled, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” based on a book by Dr. Ruby K. Payne.

Estes’ mission, she said, was to convey the difficulty of reaching across the gulfs between the cultures of the lower class and the middle class, the class to which most teachers belong.

“I want us to understand it so we can mitigate it,” Estes said. “I want us to reframe how we look at poverty and see the opportunity to communicate.”

A certified trainer for Payne’s lecture series dealing with poverty, Estes said she was one of the few who spoke with the voice of experience declaring, “I come from generational poverty.”

She mixed stories of her upbringing with statistics and science speaking with humor, instructive authority, and often solicited input from audience members.

Estes said the root of the problems impoverished children brought to school ranged from an abusive environment in the home, a malnourished brain or from underdeveloped eyesight.

“Why do you think kids of poverty spend so much time in the dark?” she asked. Reasons included hiding to stay safe, lights off to save electricity or because it was shut off from non-payment, and the windows heavily covered so no one could tell if anyone was home.

She said behaviors from the culture of poverty make sense to those living in that world.

“We need to teach our kids to fight, when they’re left alone at home while we work three jobs,” she said. “In the middle class they’re taught to work things out.”

The solution, she said, is to recognize driving motivations. “In the culture of poverty, survival is more important than scholastic achievement,” said Estes. “Every decision made is based on relationships.”

She encouraged her audience to take the time to develop relationships with their so-called problem students and to listen to them.

Dunsmuir Elementary Superintendent/Principal Barbara Ulbrich said afterward that this was the third such training session she had attended. “The best thing I got out of this conference was understanding what a risk it is to get out of poverty,” she said.

Paying a price

to leave poverty

Estes said she began moving toward middle class values at age six. “This life was way too painful,” she said of her beginnings. She said she was inspired by a classmate, a boy named Stuart.

“I came to school dirty,” she said. “He saw past that and chose to be my friend.”

Smitten, she said she performed scholastically for him. She prepared her school lunches as Stuart’s mother prepared his – the sandwiches cut into fun shapes and always accompanied by a treat, such as candy. She told everyone her mother had fixed her lunches too.

“By mimicking Stuart, and by lying about it, I was taking baby steps out of the world of poverty,” she said. “I began moving toward the world he represented.”

Her break with home came years later, when her mother threw her out of the house for “arrogance.”

Why would a family of generational poverty feel threatened by the achievements of one family member, Estes queried her audience. She said she made her mother feel small by being a constant reminder mom never made it past 8th grade. She said she proved her mother wrong by her achievements in school, after mom told her she’d never make it.

Worst of all, she was embracing the values of the middle class, which looked down on the likes of her mother. This, she said, was the price she had to pay to leave poverty.

“When I left home, there was untold grief. I couldn’t bear the thoughts of my baby brother needing rocking and having no one to do it,” she said, near tears. She said that now her brother and sister want to have nothing to do with her.

Estes went on to earn a BS in Educational Library Media from Southern Arkansas University, pursued a Master’s degree in Educational Counseling at Florida State University, and received her certification in Educational Administration from CSU, San Bernardino.

“I ended up marrying a man who came from generational middle class,” she said.

Ulbrich said afterward that many audience members thanked her for bringing in such a powerful speaker.

New DES 7th grade teacher Spencer Adkisson said Estes made him aware of the change of perspective between classes.

“I’ve always had high expectations of my students because if I don’t, who will?” Adkisson said. “What I realize now is that everybody has high expectations. It’s just that they look different to different people.”

He shared a card he had received during his first job as teacher, four years ago. Beneath the title, “The Four Goals of Misbehavior,” it listed “Power, Attention, Revenge, Avoidance of Failure.”

“These aren’t necessarily the whole picture,” said Adkisson. “It’s deeper than this.”