Teachers participate in simulation to better understand families in poverty

Rutherford County Schools

SMYRNA — Stewartsboro second grade teacher Diane Smith has a new appreciation for the pressure some low-income parents feel on a daily basis. 

“It really makes you realize what people go through,” Smith said. “I didn’t know I would be so stressed.” (Photo Gallery)

Smith made her comments while participating in the “Poverty Simulation Experience,” an in-service training held for teachers at Stewartsboro. 

The simulation is designed to help participants begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family trying to survive from month to month, said Kim Snell, the ATLAS coordinator for Rutherford County Schools. The ATLAS program provides support services for students whose family is homeless or without a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence. 

Snell explained it was important that the simulation shouldn’t be viewed as a game.

“It’s real life for a lot of families who come to school here,” she said. “It’s reality.”

As part of the simulation, teachers were divided into “families” facing poverty or low-income lifestyles with various backstories. Some were single-parent households, some were grandparents raising their grandchildren, and even others were teenagers providing for their siblings.

The gym at Stewartsboro was turned into their community, complete with a school, a place of employment, bank, utility company, homeless shelter, faith-based agency, quick-cash business and yes, even a jail. The teachers had to survive for four “weeks,” which were actually four 15-minute cycles. Time was deducted for going to work and getting the kids to school, while businesses and government offices were only open during certain hours. 

A few parents were thrown curveballs during the simulation and lost their jobs or were evicted, for example, which meant they had to leave their homes and try to find space at the local homeless shelter.  

After the simulation concluded, the teachers were grouped to discuss the experience and share their reactions.

“I’ve been on hard times before but I’ve never been treated the way I was today,” said Beth Keesler, an art teacher at the school. “I felt frustrated.”

Principal Gary Seymore agreed to hold the training for his faculty after the urging of one of his counselors, Shannon Ritchie. Stewartsboro is a Title I school with more than 60% of its students classified as economically disadvantaged. Ritchie previously taught in New Orleans for five years where she had lots of experience working with intercity families and the affects of poverty. 

“I think when kids come into the classroom, we forget their background and where they’re coming from,” Ritchie said. “It’s good for teachers to experience it.”

Snell had previously participated in poverty simulations and decided to purchase the training materials and go through the training, which was held in Kansas City in June. Stewartsboro was the first training she facilitated but has discussed holding the training at other schools. 

“The purpose is to let teachers feel the experience of living in poverty,” Snell said, concluding, “The most important thing right now, is how will this affect the way you treat the parents who come into the school.”