Educator’s View: When I Was in 5th Grade, I Couldn’t Go to My Class Pizza Party Because I Had Only 62 Cents. That Will Never Happen in My Classroom

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She comes from a low-income family full of love. Her dad works a 7-to-5 job, barely making ends meet. The class Christmas party is coming up. Her fifth-grade teacher has instructed every student to bring $1.25 to the party for pizza. She has searched the couch cushions, pockets, piggy banks and dryer for change. She’s afraid to ask her father for any money, knowing that last week they didn’t have enough for “extras” at the grocery store. As she scrambles to brush her hair before the bus arrives at the end of the driveway, she shoves the six dimes and two pennies that she has managed to find around the house down into the pocket of her jeans. On the way to school, she plays the conversation she will have with her teacher in her head, over and over again. Does she tell her teacher that her dad just forgot? Does she tell the truth? 

That girl was me. I went to school that day without sufficient funds to enjoy a slice or two of pizza at the party. After informing my teacher that I only had 62 cents in my pocket, she sent me to the cafeteria to eat lunch, since I was on the free and reduced-price lunch program. I ate in that lonely cafeteria by myself during our Christmas party that year. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t disappointed. I was a child, and I knew I didn’t have the money for the pizza party, but I was still getting fed. 

Fast-forward 16 years. I’m now a first-grade teacher, but that memory is still clear — as though it happened yesterday. When I walked into my first-grade classroom at a Title I school, I found my love for teaching. I related to my students. I understood their struggles. I loved them and set high expectations for their future. Just because they were low-socioeconomic kiddos with a mountain of struggles ahead of them, that didn’t mean that they couldn’t overcome them and bring themselves out of that financial status. 

And let me tell you — not one kiddo who ever came through my classroom has ever had to miss a party, whether they brought money or not. I wasn’t ever going to allow my students to lose out on an opportunity based on whether they had enough funds. Not one student has gone home without a coat. Not one student has gone without lunch or breakfast. 

I attended a professional development conference years ago led by educator Rita Pearson. She focused on students who are too often underserved. She said, “Kids are not going to learn for you if they don’t love you.” It’s probably one of the most honest statements I have ever heard. Students must have their basic needs met, a feeling of being loved and high expectations set for them. And that’s why I love teaching. I see myself in them, and once they trust me and love me, the light bulbs turn on and the magic happens.

A colleague of mine once said, “We teach in a Title I school. We will never outscore the other schools.” Teachers in Title I schools not only have to meet the educational needs of students, but their social, emotional and physical needs as well. They pack food bags for students, make sure they have proper clothing, provide internet services for at-home learning and research resources for parents, counsel families and so much more. Do teachers in Title I schools have to work harder? Yes. Do they have to love a bit harder? Yes. But you’ll find students just like me in all schools, no matter the socioeconomic status of the community. They may have to work harder than their more privileged peers, but it’s these students who come back year after year to thank a teacher who pushed them to be the better version of themselves.

No matter the home life that students come from, they can be high-performing. I’m here to tell you: Love them. I taught that student who didn’t have running water, lived in a single parent home, with no working vehicle. I made sure he had a shower at school in the morning, clean clothes, and was fed. At the end of the year, he was my highest-performing student.

Socioeconomic status doesn’t matter. Love does.

Kristina Eisenhower was born and raised in central Arkansas and calls Cabot, Arkansas, home. She is a 15-year veteran teacher, small business owner and mother of three. She has served her district as a classroom teacher, math interventionist and dyslexia interventionist and PreK-4 instructional coach. 

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