From Homelessness to the Classroom

From Homelessness to the Classroom

An attentive, compassionate, and understanding teacher can be a powerful advocate for homeless students. For a homeless student, school is a safe space, but beyond that, a caring teacher provides security, stability, and hope.  It may seem impossible to provide a homeless child with all they need; however a teacher’s support and guidance can positively impact the child’s future.

Identifying a homeless student may not always be simple. Homelessness can mean living on the streets, in a vehicle, abandoned building, in a shelter, a family member’s house, a friend’s house, motel, or hotel. A family that is homeless lacks permanent living conditions.  They could become displaced at any time due to different circumstances.  A homeless student may exhibit noteworthy characteristics such as absenteeism, tardiness, lack of hygiene, or lethargy.  Alternately, students that are homeless may show no signs at all.  Homelessness interventions are usually confidential, and unless the teacher or school is informed, the homeless child may not be easily identified.

Teachers can become a beacon of support for homeless students. Differentiation in the classroom means to integrate a variety of teaching strategies, learning styles, and groupings. For children that are homeless, differentiation and flexibility are vital to their success.  Homeless students may lack the space to complete homework assignments. Teachers that notice a child with difficulty returning assignments may choose to allow the student to complete tasks in class, section the work into smaller quantities, or provide alternative assignments.  Handwritten assignments need to be allowed unless the time is provided in class to research and type.  Referring students to centers that provide computer use and internet access are not always an option if the student’s family lacks transportation or the time to get to the centers.

A homeless family may not always inform the school about their situation; therefore by having a well structured classroom, students can feel a sense of stability and reassurance. This begins by creating a welcoming classroom atmosphere.  Create classroom norms that show respect and dignity for all. Allow students to be an essential part of classroom procedures.  Provide choice in assignments that allow students’ products to represent their academic understanding.  Integrate opportunities in instruction for students to present their aptitudes.  Spelling contests, literacy festivals, and art shows are great opportunities for students to become involved and feel accomplished.  Best teaching practices not only improve academic understanding, but may be an integral and life changing part of a homeless student’s future.

Homelessness is a topic I speak of from personal experience.  Throughout the initial years of elementary school, I found refuge in a family friend’s house, a family member’s house, a motel, and a family shelter. This was a blessing compared to staying at a stranger’s house or a park, which we had done as well.

Last year, I had the opportunity to share my story. My story was shared in response to the popular question, “What inspired you to become a teacher?” My journey through homelessness came about as it does for many families.  Due to lack of employment for my mother, we were forced to move from the city of El Paso, Texas. When I was five years old, we made our first move to Pueblo, Colorado, with the help of an acquaintance. Arriving to this new place provided little reassurance. It became dangerous, and soon we found ourselves in a public park with nowhere to go. My mother was afraid to ask for help, fearing we would be taken from her due to her immigration status. We spent the night at the park.

God-sent strangers provided us a place to stay, and after a few weeks, I was registered to attend school. Meeting my very first teacher had a profound impact on me. I still remember the respect she demonstrated toward my mother and me.  She was attentive and allowed me to speak Spanish in a class of predominately English speaking students. She also took the time to work with me individually.  This is when I decided I wanted to become a teacher.  I would have a job and place to live.  I thought teachers lived at school.

Unfortunately, employment for my mother continued to be a problem. My teacher was the one to give me the news that my mother had gone to the school to report we were moving. At the end of the school day, she personally walked me home. Our family was soon off to Dallas, Texas where one of my aunts lived and could help out. A couple of months went by and my mother was laid off from work, and once again, we were on our way back to El Paso, Texas.

Needless to say, the return was no comfort. We stayed at a family friend’s house, but the situation at that home was no place for children. Due to these circumstances we ended up living at the Salvation Army for three months. My childhood dream of becoming a teacher was solidified; I could not allow these short lived years to represent the rest of my life.

Throughout my elementary school years, we continued moving and finally arrived in the town of Anthony, New Mexico. This became a safe haven thanks to the innovative 6th grade teacher that I was lucky enough to have. This teacher was ahead of her time. She provided guided instruction, learning opportunities, considered students’ learning styles, and differentiated to meet student needs. Seeing her, and being in her class emphasized in me once again the need to become a teacher. She took notice, and would often ask me what I wanted to be in the future. I loved going into her class and having support, stability, and understanding. At the end of the school year she wrote her students a note.  I continue to hold on to mine as a reminder of what a difference one teacher can make.

One Reply to “From Homelessness to the Classroom”

  1. This is a powerful story. Thank you for sharing your experiences and what you have learned from them about how to help students needing stability and encouragement.

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