In a world of so many injustices and individuals with such deficits, whether economical, cognitive, or physical, is it worth our time and efforts to help the neediest? Such a question may seem harsh to ask, but it is in fact a question health care professionals have asked for decades. Is it cost-effective to treat diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS in the poorest of individuals, the individuals who will never be able to repay the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in their health? For Dr. Paul Farmer and his colleagues at Partners in Health (PIH) such a question is easily answered with their core values: providing a preferential option for the poor, solidarity, long term accompaniment, and building capacity in their health systems. For PIH the answer to the two above questions is a resounding, “Yes!”. PIH has helped countless individuals in Haiti, Russia, Rwanda, Liberia, Peru, and others beat ruthless and unforgiving illnesses, maintaining hope until the end, one patient at a time. (See some of the faces of those impacted by PIH in THIS TED Talk by Jim Yong Kim, former PIH partner with Farmer)
As I consider the values PIH has established for itself to guide their organization, I can’t help but relate the same values to education. We too face similar questions that we must answer. Do we have the time necessary to help those most in need? Should we put forth the effort to become experts in best practices? Obviously, we have answered this question in our hearts. I believe I can say with confidence that I’ve never met an educator that didn’t desire to reach every child that steps foot in their room, but as a profession have we embraced similar approaches to reaching the poor.
Preferential Option for the Poor: Those students most in need deserve the same opportunity for a happy and successful future as the student sitting in the adjacent desk that was lucky to be born into an educated and wealthy family. Children from poverty often require more support systems that will require more attention, more interventions, more money, and more time. Is this cost-effective? Whether we measure by the money or time spent, I don’t believe we can put a price on diverting drug addictions, early pregnancy, generational poverty, malnutrition, increased stress levels, and an oppressed life.
Solidarity: Charity implies transferring needed supplies, information or skills from the wealthy to the poor. The wealthy typically decide what is given to the poor, making an assumption as to what those in poverty need in order to be successful and happy. Such an assumption, whether right or wrong, fails to include the poor in their own efforts to improve their condition. I know of schools that have provided well intentioned parenting classes, literacy enrichment, and financial trainings for parents in poverty, but often with little effect. Imagine a school that asks its parents in poverty what they need, and then delivers on those requests. Asking such a question allows individuals to maintain their dignity and provides the motivation needed to follow through on the requested initiative. Working together, schools and parents in poverty can accomplish much.
Long Term Accompaniment: Change takes time. A school that provides a few trainings and then abandons support for its parents will likely experience little improvement in their economic condition. Accompaniment is walking along side someone, experiencing their struggles, knowing their sadnesses, learning their way of life. Accompaniment is more than providing a few parenting classes, or giving food and supplies to students. Accompaniment is attending sporting events, crying with a child when her pet dies, providing a hug (or sometimes even a home) for the child who has lost a mother to incarceration, celebrating with six-year-olds who have lost another tooth, doing the dishes or laundry for an overworked mother, and even showing up at a student’s house for a home visit and reminding him to clean his room. You may first step back at the intrusiveness of some of these behaviors, but I have experienced or known first hand educators who have done each of these, resulting in a child that arrives to school feeling a little happier, a little safer, a little more loved.
Building Capacity: As administrators we strive to create teacher leaders, but what is our responsibility to building capacity in our students and in our community. After all, the school exists for the students and the community, not for its employees. A school that empowers its students hands them the keys to enacting real change for themselves, their peers, and their community. Consider a campus culture that has cultivated empathy and an attentiveness to others’ needs in its students. Such a student body will be compelled to support itself from within, in effect abolishing bullying, fighting, gossiping, drama, and drug and alcohol use. In what ways can you empower your students? Can you give them responsibility for running the school social media page? Could older students mentor younger students? Could students form anti-bullying groups? Could students start doing today what they have always dreamed to do “one day when I’m an adult”?
PIH has over the last three decades saved countless lives, not only from death but from destitution, hopelessness, depression, and an overall loss of the quality of life. I commend the educators that do the same for their students. Keep providing equitable support for all your students and their families. Continue providing a voice to your community. Allow yourself to enter into the lives of your students, and lastly, keep providing for them the opportunities and encouragement to be the men and women they have always dreamed to be.
For more information about Paul Farmer and his journey to heal the world check out Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder.