How we pervert compassion in schools

Story highlights

  • Florina Rodov: The language we use to talk about poor students does costly damage in and beyond classroom
  • We need to find better ways to sidestep pity and offer true dignity to students facing adversity, she says

Florina Rodov is a former high school English teacher and the co-executive director of Authentic Manhattan, a nonprofit that supports low-income, gifted students via after-school programs. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)When my family and I were new immigrants who'd just moved into our first apartment in New York, a windowless studio in Queens, a distinguished doctor and his teenage daughter paid us a visit. The doctor was a volunteer with the Jewish nonprofit HIAS, which resettled Soviet refugees like us in the 1970s and 1980s. The second his daughter laid eyes on our donated, urine-stained couch, she exclaimed, "They're so poor!" I was only 3 at the time, but still I averted my eyes in shame and refused to interact with her for the duration of her visit.

Florina Rodov
Luckily, I never experienced such pity or judgment in school. The public schools I attended included students who were Russian, Israeli, Pakistani, Turkish and Egyptian immigrants, among students from an array of other backgrounds. Few of us had money and many of us had problems: parents who struggled to find work, missed the old country or suffered from depression. But our teachers never felt sorry for us. They expected us to succeed despite our adversities.
    Unfortunately, that isn't the case today — or at least it isn't among those in the worlds of education, politics, nonprofits and the media, who bombard us with images of low-income children as unteachable. Many of these people have a sick obsession with the word "poverty;" they shout it on Twitter, nod when they hear it from talking heads on TV, whisper it over lattes and trumpet it as an excuse for failure.
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    The problem isn't just that these people can't stop talking about poverty -- it's the language they use to conduct the conversation. In a recent Newsweek piece, for example, Ed Boland, author of "The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School," wrote, "We won't be able to effectively educate our most vulnerable students when they are crippled by poverty."
    Crippled? It's no longer socially acceptable to call a person with ALS or someone with schizophrenia or another physical or mental limitation crippled. But crippled — and the shame-inducing pity it arouses — is allowed, and even preferred, when it comes to language to describe low-income kids.
    While these poverty pornographers mean well, they seem not to understand that pity is the perversion of compassion. As philosopher Aaron Ben-Zeev has argued, compassion involves the ability to walk in someone else's shoes and offer strategic help. Pity, on the other hand, connotes superiority and allows the pitier to maintain a distance from the pitied. At best, pity's passive. At worst, it's dehumanizing.
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    I saw much compassion at the Washington Heights high school where I used to teach, which is 85% Hispanic, 15% African-American, and 90% free lunch. I remember when a teacher invited a handful of students to spend Thanksgiving with her family. I recall when another colleague sent a kid who'd joined a gang to a summer program at an idyllic college campus, trying to put distance between him and his posse. And I'll never forget when our librarian set aside books on depression for one of my students, and suggested I refer him to counseling, because she'd spotted his malaise before I had.
    Occasionally, though, I also witnessed the perversion of compassion into pity. At a Christmas party, a couple of colleagues zeroed in on a girl whose mother had recently died and a boy whose family was left homeless by a fire. One of the teachers whispered, "Our kids have the worst lives," while the other one shook his head and clucked his tongue. Having heard and witnessed this expression of pity directed toward them, the kids looked like they wanted to sink into the ground and disappear.
    Such moments struck me especially hard, not just as a former refugee but also as someone trained in education. My graduate school professors did not allow me or my fellow students near a classroom until we understood the importance of treating students with dignity. Similarly, advocates across the country are building a "dignity in schools" movement in response to the school push-out of low-income students of color. They offer guidelines for schools to implement positive discipline and interventions that can replace policing, suspension and other zero-tolerance policies that disproportionately affect those students.
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    But in the meantime, pity can crush the very dignity we're supposed to be cultivating. And it can kill a child's optimism and resilience, making them feel that they lack agency. Furthermore, when teachers expect students to fail, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, like it did in Boland's case.
    Or like it did for a teacher I know who sneered, "My students can take AP classes, but they can't pass the exams." Well, none of his students ever did pass.
    The opposite is also true. Real compassion, coupled with high expectations, can yield results. My colleagues and I propelled a couple of kids to the Ivy League, a few to private liberal arts colleges, and many to public universities where they thrived. Other students graduated from community college, an accomplishment in its own right, when you think about where they started.
    Other teachers agree with me, including Inna Kopelevich, an award-winning math teacher at Johnnie Cochran Middle School in South Los Angeles. She sends her students on to magnet and private high schools and some have attended universities like UCLA, Georgetown and MIT.
    "Talking incessantly about poverty abdicates everyone of personal responsibility," she told me. "I'd rather devote my time to improving my pedagogy, developing curriculum, trying to get parents onboard, and a myriad other things I know will actually move kids forward."
    It's not that the can-doers don't acknowledge that poverty hinders learning. It's not that they don't support policies to alleviate suffering. It's that they don't have the luxury of pity in the backbreaking, emotionally draining, and unbelievably rewarding job of fostering achievement in low-income kids. It's that they recognize that when you treat a kid as "crippled," even metaphorically, that child learns the toxic lesson of low expectations.
    Let's not use poverty as an excuse for not educating our most vulnerable—and promising—students. Instead of pitying or pushing them out, let's help them through their adversities and launch them on a path to success.