Experiences and advice of a teacher who knows near-homelessness

Josh Hamilton with his wife, Sydney

Josh Hamilton knows what it means to be an "at-risk" child. Having lived in a "tried and true, run-down, dilapidated trailer park" in his youth, the UNT doctoral student experienced near-homelessness firsthand. However, Hamilton also knows what it means to break to cycle of poverty. A few semesters and a dissertation away from receiving his PhD, he uses himself as proof that there is a way out.

His mother's parenting strategy, his family often joked, was no strategy. Although she had three jobs, there was barely enough money to scrape out rent. It was his brother who taught him foundational skills such as reading and writing.

Despite that history, he says his mother is one of the driving forces that got him where he is.

"Even though she just had a GED, anyone that has held down more than one job at a time knows what hard work looks like, right?" said Hamilton, who will be teaching at Denton High School this fall. "She set the example and the tone that said: you're going to put every effort into whatever it is that you are doing, whether it is working at the gas station on the overnight shift or whether it is getting your diplomas."

The resulting juxtaposition of near-homelessness and a positive family influence showed itself in his high school years: He started drinking at 14, but eventually played varsity football. Though his grades were low overall, he was involved in the student council. He got into occasional fights, yet was part of the speech and debate club.

It was during undergraduate years at Texas A&M Commerce, after he became an officer in the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity, that he honed in on what it means to be a leader and educator. Since then, he has gained experience in teaching at schools both poor and affluent. He now acts as a keynote speaker on homelessness and provides advice for education students and new teachers.

For Hamilton, the foundation of a strong teacher starts with getting to know the kids.  "If you don't ever get to know them beyond what you're teaching them, or the content, or the TEKS, or STAR test or whatever, you'll never connect with your students," he said. "You'll never know that they're homeless, or what they're going through."

And what children experience can be substantial. Roughly 2.5 million kids in the U.S. were homeless for at least part of the year in 2013, according to data from the National Center on Family Homelessness. That number – one in every 30 American kids – represents a historic high.

Teachers, said Hamilton, can be an important buffer to those numbers and can connect children and families with the resources they need. But first, the child has to be comfortable enough with the teacher to share what is going on at home.

While Hamilton was working at Guyer High School in Denton, a couple came to him and said their son had noticed a boy living out of a truck behind the school. The family was willing to take the boy in, to give him food and a home, but they didn't know how to talk to him.

Hamilton acted as an intermediary, talking to the boy and acting as a mentor.

"It put everything back into perspective in terms of what life can throw at you," said Hamilton. "I am happy to say that he is doing fine, has a roof over his head, is headed off to college here in the fall, and looking like it's going to be good."

According to the National Network for Youth, many homeless and unaccompanied youth face problems completing high school or post-secondary education. Severe depression, poor health and nutrition, and a lack of necessary documents are common barriers that can disrupt education and affect their future.

Hamilton said he knows students are part of a high-stakes testing world, but defended that teachers should make sure they know their kids. "If you do that, the odds of them buying into you teaching them the testing game is a lot, a lot, more significant. You're going to get better buy-in if they know you."

Hamilton received his bachelor's in Communications and master's in Secondary Education from Texas A&M Commerce. He is currently working on his PhD in Literacy and Language at UNT. His research interest is in alternative literacies and student motivation, and how alternative literacies may aid at-risk students in their reading endeavors. 


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By Jessie Laljer, UNT's College of Education Development and External Relations Office
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