MUSCATINE — Living in poverty is like living in a war zone, says speaker Dr. Donna Beegle.
Because students may struggle to attend school, be there on time, focus and learn in the classroom because of the realities of their lives, Beegle said, educators and service providers need to understand those they are trying to teach and help.
Beegle, who was homeless but went on to earn a doctorate degree, spoke at Muscatine Community College Tuesday.
Speaking to more than 100 educators and service providers, Beegle said understanding those in poverty can help combat generational poverty.
"If you're judging, you can't connect; if you can't connect, you can't communicate; if you can't communicate, how are you going to do your job?" Beegle asked.
After growing up in poverty, Beegle said she a professor helped her learn a whole new language in order to communicate with the middle class.
Communicating across class barriers is necessary for providers and educators, Beegle said. For example, she said, if teachers are not aware of their students' background and experiences, she said, they may communicate in a way their students do not understand.
"My teachers would use examples from middle class experiences to explain the subject matter," she said. "And when I didn't understand the examples, they would explain it again, use the exact same example, talking louder."
Beegle has a masters in communication, and said lack of effective communication across the lines of class can cause students to score low on exams, because they are not measured by what they do know but what they do not.
"Most tests measure if you know middle class stuff," she said.
According to learning theory, Beegle said, students cannot know subject matter unless it is made relevant to their lives.
"What students know when you get them is not all they can know, that's only what they've been exposed to in a relevant, meaningful way," she said.
During her years in high school, and later college, Beegle said she was treated as if she had a low IQ because of the way she spoke. Students who may be regarded as less intelligent, she said, because they grew up hearing only a certain speech pattern and vocabulary.
Communication is even more difficult, Beegle said, because the U.S. is segregated by social class.
"Most middle class people, they don't know someone in poverty by first name," she said.
Responding to students in poverty
"I grew up believing people didn't care," Beegle said. "And what I learned was that it wasn't that people didn't care, they didn't know."
Understanding "the why" of students' behavior, Beegle said, can help educators respond in a way that helps the student.
One example, she said, is when a student was habitually late for class. The teacher, who sought Beegle's advice, said she had taken away recess and extra-curricular activities from the student and he was late every day and would not do his homework.
"When we finally found that kid, he was living in the back of a pickup truck with his grandpa," Beegle said.
To encourage children in poverty, Beegle said, one school changed its tardy slips to say "We're glad you're here."
Policy and poverty
The majority of people in poverty work more than one job, Beegle said. But the attitude of many policies in the U.S., she said, can make poor people feel like they are the cause of poverty.
That attitude, she said, is often "If we can make it tough enough on you, if we can make it hard enough on you, maybe you'll stop acting poor."
One example of a middle class perspective on poverty, she said, is when courts determine whether or not a child in foster care can return home based on whether or not the parents go to conferences at their child's school.
"We keep asking people in crisis to act middle class and they're not in a position to do so," Beegle said.
Understanding and knowing the facts about poverty can help, she said, so people can "fight poverty, not the people who live in it."
A community-wide effort
Organizers of the event said they hope the students, educators, service providers and community members who attended Beegle's presentation will begin a community-wide conversation on fighting poverty in Muscatine.
Kim Warren, of Aligned Impact Muscatine, said Beegle would also speak to 150 Muscatine High School students, and more educators and community members throughout Tuesday.
"Today is just the beginning of our community work to fight poverty," she said. "It will take all of us."