Poverty Consciousness: Confronting Our Fear of Falling

Adversity takes us out of our comfort zone. It reminds us what it means to be vulnerable. Sometimes adversity is a surprise, like the sudden loss of a job. Other times, misfortune is endemic and indicative of inequalities. Regardless, any experience that produces human suffering has an influence over our thoughts and behavior more than any training or study. Educators in particular deal with adversity every day. For this reason, it is important they pay attention to the nature of their thoughts and feelings when confronted with adversity and learn how to channel their energy wisely in the pursuit of personal well-being and social responsibility.

Our society underestimates the turmoil and cognitive dissonance educators experience having to manage complex layers of adversity. Teachers who are in the service of other people’s children, many of whom are less fortunate, experience financial stress and anxiety themselves, especially those who live in expensive cities. Financial hardship and a prevailing feeling of status loss and social vulnerability can create a barrier to authentic teaching and agency for equity. The recent swell of teacher protests and the controversy inherent in their demands are a reflection of this rising tension. What injustice are teachers fighting exactly? By many measures and in many places, teaching is still perceived as a solidly middle class  profession that continues to be dominated by white, middle class females. Although leaders of teacher strikes have historically forged ties to broader social movements, we have witnessed that when Black and Latino activists push for more community and parent control over schools, which entails the right to remove teachers— the union will move to protect teachers’ tenure rights. It is important to examine the psychological impact of widening inequality on our thinking and the contradictions in our behavior. We also need to consider how we can support educators in ways that relieve stress and anxiety while simultaneously deepening their commitment to social equality.

Troubling Landscape
According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, 15 million children or 21% of all children live in poverty. As of 2013, nearly 20 million people lived in a state of destitution, an increase of about 8 million since 2000. Nearly 1 in 3 Native Americans, 1 in 4 African Americans, 1 in 4 Latinos, 1 in 10 Asians and 1 in 10 non- Hispanic whites and 1 in 7 women live below the poverty line. There is also a growing homelessness crisis. According to a recent article published in The Nation, nearly half of all renters can’t afford rent, and over half a million Americans are homeless on any given night. West Virginia, where the first teacher protest occurred, has the nation’s fourth-highest unemployment rate and an opioid overdose death rate that is more than three times the national average. Some teachers in Oklahoma (another strike state) live paycheck to paycheck and face eviction because they cannot keep up with the bills. In states like California, one of the richest states in the nation, teacher pay is higher but teachers still can’t keep up with the cost of housing. Plus, there is an enormous gap between rich and poor districts with widespread underfunding of public schools. Consequently, we see high rates of teacher turnover and an asymmetric reshuffling of significant numbers of employed teachers going from poor to not poor schools, from high minority to low minority, from urban to suburban schools (Ingersoll, 2011, Ingersoll & May, 2012).

A Teacher’s Silent Struggle
In my book, Teacher Agency for Equity, A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge, 2017), I discuss how teachers are bombarded with thoughts of anger, shame, embarrassment, fear and contempt in this context. These volatile thoughts and emotions are a result of the suffering and cognitive dissonance of having to ‘perform and comply’ in a high-stakes, evaluative system that many believe is implicated in perpetuating widespread inequality. Dominant narratives about the achievement gap linking performance to race and ethnicity, rhetoric in the media about social status and failure and evaluative measures tied to student test scores, have succeeded in distracting teachers from empathizing with those who experience chronic suffering in society. In their book, The Spirit Level (2010), Wilkinson and Pickett discuss the overwhelming psychological impact of having to function and survive in an inequitable society. Social evaluative threat, which is a threat to our self-esteem or social status, occurs in situations in which others could negatively judge performance. This threat is especially acute when the outcome of the performance feels uncontrollable. It is very likely that educators who work in schools with persisting failure are naturally driven to preserve the social self and are vigilant to threats that may jeopardize their social esteem or status.

What is Poverty Consciousness?
Poverty consciousness is a heightened awareness of the value we attach to a human being in relation to others within the socio-cultural and political dynamics of our world (Rios, 2017). Educators who work in high poverty settings are in the unique position to develop poverty consciousness and apply it to their practice for equity. Poverty consciousness, which emerges from sustained mindful inquiry and an analysis of systems of social injustice, can illuminate the root cause of suffering. Poverty consciousness frees oneself from social-psychological conditioning that deceives us into thinking that any experience in life, such as poverty or conversely, wealth or achievement—is entirely dependent on the individual. In other words, it is coming to terms with being a part of a whole, or part of a shared reality. This recognition of being “part of” a whole, is in fact a homecoming that offers relief from feelings of shame. embarrassment, contempt and guilt. Homecoming implies we recognize that we belong to humanity, which increases our capacity to empathize with others and feel compassion for our own human frailty.

In my work in education along with a personal commitment to mindfulness meditation and social justice, I have learned that to teach authentically, to be in the service of others with generosity and care, to promote and advocate for a system that is equitable for all—one must be “at home” with humanity as well as be able to situate oneself and one’s role within the socio-political context. This is the fundamental basis for agency, the knowing that regardless of outside circumstances, we have the inner strength, courage and capacity to act in accordance with our altruistic spirit.

According to Dr. Donald Pfaff, the author of The Altruistic Brain, we are all naturally good and biologically wired for altruism but for a person to act altruistically, they must picture the target of the altruistic act in such a way that the image of the person blurs with that of one’s self. Implicit bias, a symptom of functioning in an inequitable, racist, segregated system makes it difficult for educators to see themselves in the image of their students who increasingly do not look and sound like them. Implicit bias is the brain functioning on “automatic,” defaulting to divisive conditioning and dominant narratives that prevent us from responding to the full potential of a person. Unless we are vigilant and proactive by making a commitment to developing consciousness, our behaviors will always be suspect of what Freire calls false generosity or acts of self-preservation.

How Can We Develop Poverty Consciousness and Apply it to Our Work?
Practicing mindfulness helps quiet the onslaught of negative thoughts and feelings that inhabit our mind. For this reason, contemplative practices in secular education settings have become quite popular, making it a “quiet revolution.” However, there is growing critique that mindfulness is used as an instrument of neoliberalism to help people adjust to oppressive conditions and/or perpetuate hegemonic ideologies. It is important for us to pay attention to this criticism and move towards practices where the real work of mindfulness is channeled wisely and strategically, that is, to relieve suffering for oneself and to relieve the suffering of others. Using mindfulness to conduct a careful inquiry into the role of the self gives us a fulcrum, a turning point for taking mindfulness deeper. Calming the internal chatter, moving out of “automatic” to consciousness is critical. It is also important that practitioners build knowledge and skill that challenge structures, norms and practices that perpetuate systemic inequities through the process of education.

Towards this aim, I developed a professional learning framework called Conscientious Engagement (CE) that combines elements of Bentz & Shapiro’s approach to social work called Mindful Inquiry (which is a synthesis of Critical Theory, Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, and Buddhism) and Social Justice Pedagogy using Pantic’s model of teacher agency for social justice which includes 1. Sense of purpose (teachers’ beliefs about their role as agents and understanding of social justice) 2. Competence (teachers’ practices addressing the exclusion and underachievement of some students) 3. Autonomy (teachers’ perceptions of environments and context-embedded interactions with others 4. Reflexivity (teachers’ capacity to analyze and evaluate their practices and institutional settings). This framework also builds upon Palmer Parker’s “The Courage to Teach,” in which he posits that the ‘teaching self’ must activate three essential pathways: the intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

There are three pairs of interlocking principles included in the CE framework:

Domain 1: Personal Awareness

Spirit Consciousness: All human beings are made up of mind, body and spirit and therefore have access to a creative divine intelligence

Authentic Presence: Integrating one’s mind, body and spirit consciousness in order to inspire and communicate purpose

Domain 2: Social Awareness

Entanglement: We are entangled with some people more than others and these relationships impact how we behave in the world

Freedom: Choosing to engage or disengage with people or situations in order to move into alignment with one’s authentic self

Domain 3: Transpersonal Awareness

Meliorism: Through human effort we can imagine and build a better world

Emergence: Channeling human energy in ways that enable the integration of new ideas for equity

The goal of professional learning becomes about supporting educators to attend to their mindset (beliefs) and their practice as demonstrated by: 1) thoughts and use of language, 2) the nature of professional relationships and 3) how we channel our energy.

In my second book (Walking the Path: Conscientious Teaching and Learning, pending publication, 2019), I present the method of operation, in other words, specific practices, strategies and tools that support educators to develop and apply personal awareness, social awareness and transpersonal awareness to curriculum, instruction and whole school design. Some practices included in my method are a) sanctioned time for self-reflection and contemplation, b) intergroup dialogues on identity and class, c) analyzing human rights movements and d) imagery-based learning activities that strengthen the brain’s ability to see the world with novelty (Siegel, 2007). This effort is an important step to the realization of goals supported by thousands of people in North America who believe that education is essential in “preparing the people of the United States to live as environmentally and socially responsible citizens of the world, and to recognize that our own well-being as citizens of the United States depends upon the well-being of everyone else on Earth and the well-being of this planet itself.”

In conclusion, adversity and fear of poverty are part of our universal human experience. By raising consciousness, we learn how thoughts, feelings and contradictory behaviors are indicative of inequities and tensions that arise when we do not act in alignment with our altruistic spirit. By concentrating our efforts on education professionals, we can mediate a new standard for education and society. Integrative approaches that combine mindfulness, inquiry and social justice pedagogy can help adults cultivate empathy for themselves and others, strengthen bonds with those who are suffering the most in society and exert real action that can make a difference in schools and society.


Raquel Ríos, PhD is an educator, learning designer and author of the book Teacher Agency for Equity: A Framework for Conscientious Engagement (Routledge, 2017). She has over twenty years’ experience in the field of education. Learn more, visit her website: ConscientiousEngagement.com.


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