By Sarah Colson
South Side Elementary School teachers got an early taste of back-to-school enthusiasm Friday when educational consultant Larry Bell visited. Teachers all joined in, hands clapping and hips swinging, as they learned techniques aimed at shortening the gap between students from low-income backgrounds and students from middle class families.
“I’m passionate about this because I love kids,” Bell said, “and I believe that every child deserves the best chance in life we can give them. I know that these teachers care, all over America. But many teachers have not had the training to work with some of the kids from low-income backgrounds. I’m really trying to get the message across to them that they can reach all of the children.”
This was the second time fourth grade teacher Mallory Hoover heard Bell speak. She attended a conference of his in New Orleans last February. Hoover is headed into her second year of teaching math and sciences at South Side. Two years ago she was student teaching in Baltimore. Surprisingly, Hoover said, the demographics of that school and of South Side are similar.
“A lot of people, myself included, find that surprising,” Hoover said of the comparable demographics. “I was never really expecting to be in that low of an income school with higher diversity. I’ve experienced similar socioeconomic backgrounds, very similar diversity rates and so thinking about my student teaching class and thinking about the kids I have here, they really are extremely similar even though it’s two totally different parts of the country.”
Bell, who considers himself to have been an at-risk student due to his parents’ lack of education and low family income, said he is living proof that any child can achieve educational success. All six of the children in his family have college degrees, including one with a PhD.
Bell’s expertise in honing and refining strategies that can aid teachers in schools with high numbers of at-risk students helped influence South Side Principal Anne Littleford to bring him in. South Side’s percentage of low-income students has risen in recent years, and it has the third-most lower-income students of Johnson City’s eight elementary schools.
“My family’s success that tells me right there it’s possible to get it done,” said Bell, who’s been in the educational consulting for more than 20 years. “This training is good everywhere, but when you don’t have as much parental support at home, not because the parents don’t care, but because, like my parents, they may not have the academic background to help with this stuff, you have to have a lot of ways to help kids so they don’t need as much support when they go home. It’s not about the color of the skin; it’s not about the money in the home. If you expect success and love the kids, they’ll get it done.”
Hoover said that in her short teaching career, she is already seeing what a difference simple encouragement can make in the life and learning of at-risk students, or, as Bell calls them, “at-promise” students.
“There are so many kids who are told they’re not going to amount to much,” Hoover said. “And even if they’re not told that specifically, they’re told that through people’s body language, through people’s actions, or through neglect.
So being able to take one of his big things, which is words of encouragement, and know that’s the easiest thing I can do … If a kid is having a bad day I can tell them I love them; I can tell them that they’re amazing or fabulous, they’re going to do big things. … That automatically increases their confidence.”