As the Illinois Teacher of the Year, I meet fellow educators at events all the time. We exchange funny anecdotes about education in our respective communities. We compare. We contrast. We laugh. We share our frustrations. Recently I attended a literacy event in a well-to-do suburb just outside of Chicago where I was seated next to a veteran teacher from a wealthy suburb. I expected to have the usual exchange of stories from the field. But this conversation came with some unexpected twists. Our obligatory conversation began per usual. “Where do you teach?” “What grade?” “How’s the parental support in your district?” “Administrative support?” “Yes, I also enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day… or two!” (Insert polite laughter here. Teachers are such rebels.) The conversation was going swimmingly. Then she said something that made my head spin. With pride, she quipped, “Well, the taxes in my district are extremely high. So we have incredible schools with incredible kids. The parents expect us to deliver results. We do or we’re fired. We have very high test scores and our kids do very well.”
It bothered me to hear her nonchalantly propagate the belief that wealthy schools are inherently “better” than impoverished schools. She said it with total acceptance of the status quo, insinuating that she had won some kind of educational lottery because she worked in such a well-to-do district. Naturally, I began to dissect her statements, engaging in a weird act of triage to rank the most offensive of her comments to least offensive.
Let’s Unpack the Assumption that Wealthy Communities Must Have Better Schools
To be clear, I don’t blame her for loving her job. Teachers in affluent districts aren’t the enemy. But both her actual words and the implications of her statements astounded me. Let’s unpack those implications for a minute. Here’s what I saw implied by what she said:
Wealthy parents have earned the privilege to harbor high expectations for their children’s schools.
Parents who can’t afford to live in Upper Class, Illinois, should inherently expect less from their children’s schools.
Children in affluent communities deserve high-quality education which yields measurable progress.
Children in impoverished communities are less deserving of high-quality education.
Teachers should be grateful to work in affluent communities because they have “incredible kids.”
Low-income schools are intrinsically predisposed to have kids that are…well, not “incredible.”
That last statement, especially, set off my alarm bells. Don’t get me started on the disparities in test scores between wealthy districts and low-income districts. I have no doubt that her test scores are “high,” considering the fact that most of her students’ basic needs are being met. Eventually, I gave up dissecting her comments and ordered a second glass of wine. But the effects of this seemingly insignificant exchange took up real estate in my head for days. Because after all, poor kids deserve kickass schools with kickass teachers, too. Regardless of where we teach—regardless of whose kids we teach—as educators, we can’t forget this. Furthermore, we can’t neglect our commitment to all students, rich or poor. I am grateful to work in a less-than-affluent district. We are not destitute, yet we have our struggles and so do our students. Nevertheless, together we cultivate an appreciation for important characteristics which are required for success, such as resilience. And make no mistake, my students are incredible.
Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach ...