National Teacher of the Year Discusses Impact of Poverty, Stress on Students

By Joetta Sack-Min

As the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, Shanna Peeples wants to bring attention to the impact of poverty on students’ lives and education. She frequently works with students in crisis as part of her job as a high school English teacher and teacher mentor in Amarillo, Texas, a town that hosts refugees from all parts of the world. Many of her students arrive knowing little or no English and often have escaped extreme poverty and violence in their home countries, sometimes having left behind parents and family members.

As a teacher, Ms. Peeples is committed to helping all the students reach their potential and build a better life in the United States. But she notes that working with such vulnerable students can be a heartwrenching journey that may not lead to a happy outcome.

“My students, survivors of deep and debilitating trauma, have shaped the kind of teacher I am," she says. "They have taught me to never make a promise I can't keep because so many already have learned to see the world through suspicious eyes. To be the best teacher to them, I have to remember this and honor their background. I remember so I can gain their trust because I want them to read and write their way out of where they are."

Several hours a day Ms. Peeples also coaches other teachers to help improve their instructional skills. She began her career as a reporter covering local schools, and also has worked as a disc jockey, medical assistant, and pet sitter. But after realizing that teaching was her true calling, she has taught for the past 12 years. She is a graduate of Amarillo College, West Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Arlington.

Peeples recently spoke with LFA Communications Consultant Joetta Sack-Min as part of our ongoing series of Education Visionaries.

LFA: Congratulations on becoming the 2015 Teacher of the Year! Could you tell us a little bit about your background and what attracted you to the teaching profession? What are some of the greatest joys and challenges you see as a teacher?

Ms. Peeples: It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love, the ad said about the Peace Corps, but it’s a perfect way to describe my relationship with teaching and learning. Teaching chose me, but I tried everything I could think of to avoid its call: disc jockey, medical assistant, pet babysitter for the rich, journalist, and finally, finally: teacher.  

Down deep, I knew I would love teaching in a way that would break my heart, like all things that truly matter will do to us. And it has shattered in funeral homes as I’ve tucked letters from classmates into the coffins of their dead friends, as I’ve seen the once bright and shining boy scowling in an inky mugshot, as I’ve signed drop papers for children who found more hope on the killing floor at the slaughterhouse than in school.

And yet, sometimes my heart has swelled like an overfilled balloon to see these scenes: Tin, a Burmese refugee who’d shown me a picture of her as a toddler being handed over a razor wire fence into a UN refugee camp bound for America, crossing the stage to get a diploma; Viet, who remembers shivering under a makeshift jungle shower, wearing the T-shirt Harvard gave him with his admission package; and Kayla, who’d spent most of her childhood gingerly stepping past prostitutes and meth addicts outside her front door, now holding a Gates Millennial Scholarship letter that would take her through Oklahoma University and into a public health fellowship at the University of Kentucky.

Part of my fear of teaching was a fear of connecting to pain in my own life. Because I had teachers who gave me books and encouraged me to write, I learned that there was a world outside of alcoholism and domestic violence. Mrs. Belton, my only African-American teacher, taught me to write when I wanted to scream, when I wanted to hit back, and when I wanted to quit. She taught me that it was possible to read and write my way into another life. Becoming a teacher, I felt, would mean that I would have to take up her work and face the darkness in my students’ lives.

As Parker Palmer has written, “ by remembering ourselves, we remember our students.” To honor the work of my best teachers, I have to be a teacher who remembers, even when it hurts. I teach teenagers who remind me of what Lucille Clifton once described: “every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.” They are survivors of deep and debilitating trauma, and so they have learned to see the world through suspicious eyes. To be the best teacher to them, I have to remember this and honor their background to gain their trust because I want them to read and write their way out of where they are. I have to remember the words of Rubin Alves whose poem describes hope as “the hunch that the overwhelming brutality of facts that oppress and repress us is not the last word…that the frontiers of the possible are not determined by the limits of the actual.”

LFA: I understand poverty is a centerpiece of your advocacy for this year. How has poverty impacted your students learning? What can Washington lawmakers and policymakers do to alleviate these challenges?  

Ms. Peeples: Unfortunately, one of the things that impacts my classroom - and a growing number of classrooms across the country, is poverty and all of the challenges that come with poverty. Poverty, the word, is an abstraction, which keeps the conversation from real, concrete discussions about it. People feel that it’s such an overwhelming condition that they think, “There’s nothing I can do about it.”

But if we can focus on those concrete effects of poverty, the more we can discuss solutions. For example, it means that a child doesn’t have access to healthcare at an early age, and so an ear infection ruptured their ear drum, which prevents them from hearing well in class. It may also mean that students don’t get enough sleep because they’re having to leave in the middle of the night because their family can’t pay the rent.

More striking, children raised in poverty are at tremendous risk for mental illness. So much of it stems from the trauma of being exposed to violence, of seeing a parent arrested and then being moved among family members who can afford to take in another child, of being raised around addiction and family members with their own untreated depression or other mental illnesses.

A reporter recently asked me if I could make one change in schools, what would I change and I said: More mental health services for children K-12, and base those services in schools. It’s really hard to learn when you’re terrified or you’re suffering from depression. We have the professionals that can provide these services, but we need to put our political will behind making sure we connect these services to our most vulnerable children. Making mental healthcare as available to children as we make school lunches will, in my opinion, make a huge impact in deflecting the most pernicious damage from poverty.

LFA: Youve worked with many refugee families who have arrived in Amarillo. What are some of their greatest needs? What are your strategies for teaching students who may not speak English or may have seen significant traumas? How have these students impacted your teaching and your life? 

Ms. Peeples: The first year I taught refugee students, my co-teacher and I had almost no knowledge of how to work with students from countries other than Mexico. Their families were placed here because so many are able to process beef for wages unheard of in their home countries without the need for much language skill.

My students are the bravest people I’ve ever met. From their drawings, a few photos, and their writing, I know that they’ve come from the kind of trauma most of us will never experience. Children from Africa came from a camp where home was little more than a tarp and a butane burner. Rationed food often ran out before resupply trucks came. Basic survival took most of their energy and school was a dream for other children.

Hawa, a beautiful Bantu girl who came from the Kakuma camp in Kenya, had never sat in a school until she came to the U.S. Teaching her to write her name in English was a revelation to her and she wrote it everywhere. Her enthusiasm for Texas extended to wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey over her hijab.

Tin, whose family fled warfare in her native Burma, handed her over a razorwire fence into a camp in Bangkok, convinced that she would find a better life in the U.S. In my classes, she tutored other students, hugged those who cried, and was a founding member of her Buddhist youth group. Others from Burma: ethnic minorities from the Karen, Karenni, and Chin cultures, joined the class and offered to share lunches out of their tiffins with their teachers.

Their smiles gave no clue to what they left behind:  villages burned, family members murdered. Many were separated from parents, most from their best friends. They’ve had to quickly learn to speak and read English so they can translate for family and neighbors. One of our 14-year-olds was gone for a week because she had to translate the breast cancer treatment plan for an older relative.

When I’ve visited students and their families in what appears to be plain homes and apartments, I’ve left amazed at their creativity. The families have put up altars, rugs, tapestries, successfully grafting some of home into their new communities. Within their tightly knit neighborhoods they’ve built temples and mosques, joined churches, and celebrated weddings and funerals. But despite outward differences, these families want what we all want for our children: for the next generation to thrive and prosper.

Our refugee families help to make us a better school and our communities a better place to live because their belief in the American dream is a reminder of why our country is a beacon of hope to the world.

LFA: What advice do you have for teachers who are just entering the profession, or those who may be considering a career as a teacher?

Ms. Peeples: Teaching is a hard job. And that’s not just me saying that. You may know the HBO series “The Wire.” Season four of that show was based on the experiences of Ed Burns, a Baltimore middle school teacher. But before Burns was a teacher, he was an infantryman in Vietnam and a 20-year veteran of the Baltimore Police department. He thought teaching would be a nice retirement job, but wound up saying that it was the hardest thing he’d ever done, including Vietnam.

He said, and this is true of so many teachers, and will be of so many of you: “teachers give kids an example of an adult who’s consistent, who’s always there, who always comes through with what he said and that’s a new world for many kids.”

 It’s true. Many of you will be the only dependable adult that some children see in their daily lives. And for many kids, that is the difference between hope and despair. Just seeing you, talking to you, hearing you say good morning to them day after day gives them hope that things will get better. So, you don’t have to be the smartest or the most talented, you just have to be dedicated and consistent.

And finally, you’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them. Because nothing can prepare you for some of the stuff that you will run into. But I will guarantee that you will have the best “you’ll never believe what I saw…” stories when you get together with your family at holidays.

 I’ll also guarantee that you’ll be the most youthful of any person in a group of non-teachers. A couple of years ago, I had to come back to school after a formal event. I was dressed in heels and a suit, which my students had never seen me in. This was a revelation to my ESL students. One boy, from Somalia looked at me very seriously and said, “You were probably pretty when you were young.” And another girl, from Burma, said, “Oh, Ms. Peeples, you look 50% young.” And let’s face it, fifty percent is pretty good. So, I’ll tell you that you’ll be 50% young while you’re making about 50% mistakes. But’s that’s ok. That’s a good thing.

I often share a quote from one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, when I speak to new teachers. He said: “I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family, or life, Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.”

LFA: Is there anything else youd like to add that we may not have asked?

 Ms. Peeples: On the first day of school last year, I shared the following information with my AP English students:

  • The U.S. Dept. of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10 to 14 jobs by the time they’re 38;
  • The top 10 jobs in demand in 2013 didn’t exist in 2003;
  • We’re currently preparing you for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.

 And like any English teacher worth her salt, I asked them to reflect on this and write about it. As you might imagine, it’s a little scary. More than just a gimmicky and dramatic beginning to the year, this fact flood is a way for me to position their learning within a relevant frame. 

In 2015, public education is facing these same scary facts as we grapple with how to prepare our students for college and career readiness in a time when half, according to research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, will need remediation and only 32% will graduate prepared to succeed in college.

The need to create innovative learners who, to paraphrase Google’s hiring information, are team-oriented people who are great at lots of things, who can get things done by solving problems, comfortable with ambiguity, proactive, and collaborative, is critical. Unfortunately, by one estimate, 80% of classroom study revolves around low-level factual recall with little to no opportunities to apply and transfer skills.

Graduates will face complex problems like poverty and climate change that will require them to be skilled in analysis and collaborative problem solving. Deeper learning, a term coined by the Hewlett Foundation, focuses on the key competencies of critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and self-directed learning. As I tell my students: the best way to prepare for an uncertain future is to become good at learning how to learn.

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