Linda Cliatt-Wayman, who led one of the most dangerous high schools in America, says students in poverty don't need educators' excuses. They need a lot of love and unimaginably high expectations.
Wayman now runs a nonprofit to help the city's poorest students make it through high school. She is author of Lead Fearlessly, Love Hard: Finding Your Purpose and Putting It to Work, and her TED Talk on how to fix a broken school has been viewed nearly 2 million times. In the following interview, she shares what every teacher and school leader should know about educating children in poverty.
Speaking of love, you ended your morning and afternoon announcements by saying, "If nobody told you they loved you today, remember I do, and I always will." Why was that message so important to communicate?
The teachers brought a young girl to me one day who was being very, very rude in class. And the young girl just told me, "Stop talking to me, Ms. Wayman. Will you please stop talking to me because nobody loves me. Nobody on this earth loves me." And I just sat back in my chair, and I couldn't believe that she thought nobody on this earth cared about her. And so, I got on the loudspeaker and I told them, "Look, guys, if nobody says they love you, I love you." It started there.
When I got to Strawberry Mansion, it was something I always said to my students. Strawberry Mansion was 50 times worse than my previous school, and they needed to hear it even more. My kids—13, 15, 16, 17, 18 years old—would tell me, "Ms. Wayman, nobody has ever told me they loved me." And so, it was important for me to let those students know that you are not walking around this world unloved. I'm here for you every day, the staff is here for you every day, and we absolutely love you. And we're going to show you that we love you in these ways: we're going to have high expectations for you, we're going to make sure you have the best teacher in the classroom possible, and we're going to make sure school is fun. It was something that they latched on to. They needed to hear that they were loved.
What advice do you have for teaching students in poverty, especially for teachers who have never personally experienced poverty?
So my advice to inner-city teachers that have never dealt with this situation is to do your job and teach. Do not fall into this trap of, "But you know, they just can't do it. They're poor, they don't have this at home, they don't have that at home. I'm not going to give that assignment because many of them just can't do it." They can do everything everybody else can do if you expect it and teach it. So, I would always tell my teachers, "I need you to do one thing: teach." They said, "Ms. Wayman, why do you keep saying that?" "They need a teacher, babe. They're not worried about whether you were in poverty; they need a teacher."
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