My Past Is a Stepping Stone to My Teaching Future

This post was written by Michelle Curtis, she is a student pursuing her MAT-TESOL from USC Rossier Online. She is a member of the January 2012 cohort and currently lives in Granite Bay, CA.

Consider this scenario: A student is failing your class because he does not have the required supplies. These supplies include a three ring binder, a notepad and a sketchbook.

Now, answer the following questions:

  • What is your assumption of the student who, halfway through the term, still does not have the required supplies?
  • Why do you think the student does not have the supplies?
  • What resources are there to help the student obtain the materials?
  • Are those supplies really necessary to passing the class?  Is there an alternative that could be used?

Could you answer the questions? Do you need more information about the scenario to provide a helpful response? If you do need more information, then how would you go about this as a teacher? Would you dig deeper into this situation?

The above scenario is not uncommon. Many students come from families who cannot afford the required material, or their parents did not go through formal K–12 education in which things like a binder and notepad are considered to be basic supplies.

I have seen firsthand that not having the necessary school supplies can negatively affect a student’s grades. Working at a nonprofit organization that helps transition families to stable housing, my colleagues and I have dealt with high school students who are failing classes halfway through the term due to a of lack of materials (such as a sketchbook for art class). We are able to provide some of the supplies; however, some of the items, such as a three-ring binder or sketchbook, are not common donations and can be expensive (more than $10 for a three-ring binder). Even though the student will often finally obtain the supplies, the damage has been done: the student’s grade has been affected.

What sticks with me is the idea that a student could fail because he or she does not have the correctthree-ring binder or sketchbook.

Working at a nonprofit has taught me to understand the different situations students come from and identify the hurdles they may face as they earn their high school diploma and/or degree.

I remind myself of these four points so that I can make sure I can help  all students succeed:

  1. Learn about your students:
    Who are they outside of the classroom? What are their interests? What are their responsibilities outside of the classroom? Answering these questions can help you better understand a student’s reason for incomplete assignments,  recurring absences, and lack of materials.
  2. Understand the digital divide:
    Even though there are smartphones, tablets, computers and libraries, there is still a digital divide in America. The digital divide explains the lack of access to technology in different parts of society. (Maloy, Verock-O’Loughlin, Edwards, & Woolf, 2011) This can affect the students’ ability to easily do homework that requires a computer. This is especially pertinent to those teaching in areas with high rates of poverty. Even for adult students this can be detrimental to academic success because registering for classes is not easy without computer knowledge, computer access, and the ability to understand English. This is why it is important to show students where to find computers with Internet access and how to use the resources.
  3. Help students overcome embarrassment:
    The scenario I described earlier is common because of embarrassment. While I remind students to tell me if they need school supplies, they often only smile or say “I’m fine.” It is not until a few months into the term that I am informed of their need of a certain supply. Thus, it is essential that approaching a student regarding issues be done in a face-saving manner where the student will not be embarrassed to respond, “I do not have that item because I cannot afford it”, “I do not know where to get it”, or “My parents do not think I really need it.” Having perseverance as a teacher can help when trying to obtain this information.
  4. Maintain confidentiality:
    The student needs to know that he or she can approach you with an issue or concern. Thus, the student needs to understand that nobody else will discover the situation (unless there is an issue of abuse or other threatening issue facing the student or others). Perhaps if it’s an issue of school supplies and you are talking to an administrator then use a pseudonym. Finding a way to help the student without revealing the student’s secret is a way to save face and help him gain trust in teachers, adults and the school system.

Remember that there is no such thing as “common sense.” Students come from a wide array of backgrounds, so terms like normal and common are relative terms that only hinder our access to teaching and understanding students. When we think everyone knows how to do something or has something then we start excluding people from education.


Maloy, R. W., Verock-O’Loughlin, R., Edwards, S. A., & Woolf, B. P. (2011). Transforming learning with new technologies. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.