The Payne of Confronting Stereotypes about Poverty as Educators

Several years ago, I invited Randy Bomer to speak at my university and then at the annual South Carolina Council of Teachers of English (SCCTE) convention about the flawed but widely used framework of poverty by Ruby Payne.

After Bomer’s presentation at SCCTE, a woman energetically confronted Bomer, offering an impassioned story of her being from poverty and arguing that Payne’s work resonated with her own lived experiences.

I stood there and watched as Bomer patiently walked her through how her own beliefs about poverty were stereotypes that matched the false narratives sold by Payne. This was an uncomfortable and difficult exchange. But necessary, especially for educators.

This experience was brought back to mind when Nancy Flanagan posted Do Teachers Read Professionally?, which included:

In an earlier incarnation of the course, almost half the teachers (from a single state) mentioned Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty, a book whose ideas and scholarship have been roundly criticized by academics. What to say about that? Payne’s training model had been presented across the state, at conferences and in large districts, and teachers were given a copy of the book. They read it and found it useful.

When I shared Flanagan’s post, she responded with this and then my follow up:

I then added a brief comment about my experience above with Bomer, and added an @ for Paul Gorski to offer some advice.

Gorski’s comments include the following:

The powerful stereotypes, negative and deficit-laden, about people trapped in poverty that pervade the U.S. also infect teachers and even people trapped in poverty themselves.

However, the derogatory claims about people in poverty are false narratives, deforming myths that must be confronted and rejected by educators—as well as anyone seeking social justice, anyone who honors the basic human dignity of all people.

I recommend, then, that educators read the following:

6 comments

  1. Nancy Flanagan

    The incident I describe happened about five years ago. Payne’s book and her trainings had been provided by school districts and professional organizations around the state–and there was less counter-information and opinion about her work available. And the exercise–sharing favorite books & articles–was designed to build trust and share evidence that teachers must learn, in order to lead.

    It really was a pivotal moment. We hear, constantly, about bringing teachers to the decision-making table with policy-makers, to use their hard-won expertise. But what happens when teacher beliefs collide with school leaders’ beliefs (because it was school leaders who paid for and required Payne’s workshops)? What happens when teacher beliefs collide with research? It was NOT the moment–as course facilitator, not self-proclaimed expert–to tell teachers “Hey, that book you loved? You’re flat-out wrong. And here’s why.”

    The woman who approached Randy Bomer was, presumably, looking for dialogue. And it happened. She challenged–and was challenged back. A win-win.

    My approach to hearing that 12 teachers thought Ruby Payne’s book was the best thing they’d read lately was : Think like a teacher. When your 7th grade star pupil tells you that the “Twilight” series are the best books she’s ever read, what does a sensitive teacher (who wants to encourage reading) do? You don’t start by telling her they’re junk.

    You start by trying to develop a critical focus on reading. It’s not the teacher’s opinion (or research) that will change a student’s mind about quality literature–it’s reading something better. Actually, it’s reading a lot of better stuff, before the gradual mental shift begins. Along the way, discretion around best sources of information is developed.

    You can ask: Were there things in the book/article/blog that bothered you, didn’t ring true? What was it about this particular book/article that made it challenge your thinking?

    It’s all about establishing a “critical focus” lens–keeping in mind that telling teachers they’re wrong (then loading them up with counter-information) is probably not the right way to nurture flexible thinking.

    This principle is not limited to Ruby Payne training, by the way–if we don’t honor what teachers’ own experience and personal research tells them about any number of issues, from standardized testing to the Common Core, then we become advocates instead of facilitators.

    That’s OK, sometimes. But what we were looking for here was non-judgmental. I agree with all that you (and Paul Gorski) are saying about Ruby Payne. The question is around how to build a critical focus around everything teachers read.

  2. ciedie aech

    I appreciate your understanding that those “trapped” by poverty are often trapped themselves. Any true social/ school reform requires a view into the ways that poverty perpetuates itself before true change might take place.

  3. JaDonnia B.

    Excellent points raised about the narratives associated with poverty. Race collides with the narrative and stereotypes emerge.We think risk,when we should highlight protective factors and unique strengths. Poverty is a socially defined construct,and educators must be mindful of its impact on learning in the classroom, without buying into myths. We ask a lot of teachers today, but they must challenge themselves to engage, connect and promote achievement of ALL children….the way it should be.

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