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June 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 9

Overcoming the Challenges of Poverty

Here are 15 things educators can do to make our schools and classrooms places where students thrive.

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Last year, when I was leading a staff development session with teachers at a high-poverty elementary school, a teacher described how one of her kindergarten students had drifted off to sleep at his seat—at 8:00 a.m. She had knelt down next to the child and began talking loudly in his ear, urging him to wake up. As if to ascertain that she'd done what was best for this boy, she turned to the rest of us and said, "We are a 'no excuses' school, right?"
A fellow teacher who also lived in the part of Minneapolis where this school was located and knew the students well, asked, "Did you know Samuel has been homeless for a while now? Last night, there was a party at the place where he stays. He couldn't go to bed until four in the morning."
I couldn't help but think that if the "no excuses" philosophy a school follows interferes with basic human compassion for high-needs kids, the staff needs to rethink how they are doing things. Maybe they could set up a couple of cots for homeless students in the office to give them an hour or two of sleep; this would yield more participation than shouting at children as they struggle to stay awake.
This isn't the first time I've heard of adults viewing low-income children as "the problem" rather than trying to understand their lives. In a radio interview I heard, a teenage girl in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina told her interviewer that she thought many people viewed poor families like hers as criminals. Crying, she described how it felt when city officials blamed her family for the lack of food and shelter they experienced after the hurricane.

A Forgotten Duty?

Sometimes it seems that we do not believe it's our duty to provide basic needs and an education for all children in the United States, no matter where they grow up. For instance, in some schools I know of, when a student cannot pay for a reduced-price meal, the lunch is dumped into the trash in front of the entire school, humiliating that child.
The attitudes of policymakers also reflect a shift toward teaching students in differing ways depending on their economic status. Teachers often hear that poor kids come from violent, chaotic homes and that only regimented curriculums will allow them to succeed. Although wealthier children are taught through a variety of approaches that emphasize developing the whole child, the emphasis for low-income children is often on developing obedience.
At the same time, many rural, urban, and suburban schools serving low-income students challenge such prescriptive teaching. They quietly provide, intellectually and materially, for high-poverty students. For instance, they create programs that arrange transportation for students to theaters, concerts, and museums. Because Saturday and Sunday are two days of the week many poor children go hungry, some schools send kids home for the weekend with backpacks of food. They create a welcoming environment where even the poorest parents feel comfortable.
Teachers and administrators at these schools offer challenging instruction while simultaneously addressing basic needs. This is a tricky balancing act that requires dedication, self-reflection, and reexamining what works—or doesn't. Here, gathered from schools that succeed with students living in poverty, are suggestions for how to manage that balancing act.

What Teachers Can Do

Make Time for Extras

Can you create times for students to make up schoolwork, work on a project for history class, or just enjoy music and art? It doesn't have to be every day. Teachers in a building might coordinate to set times before and after classes during which a child with an unstable home life can use a computer or read in silence—and when teachers can give guidance and build trust.
In one middle school where I worked, we let students spend their lunch hours with us, providing chess and checkers. It's amazing how much information young men and women will share over a game board, from tasks they're having trouble accomplishing to worries about food over the weekend. What we learned from these times helped us create programs that met students' greatest needs.

Tell Students to Ask for Help

Spell out that you expect learners to come talk with you about a low test score, a comment on a paper, or their needs for resources. Some students simply don't know the expectations regarding behavior, work, and interaction with their teacher. One teacher in a suburban high school assumed her students had access to the Internet and assigned work on the basis of that assumption. When she found out that many students had no Internet at home, she organized time after classes for students to work on school computers—and transportation home—giving careful instructions about what she wanted from their time online.
Cut deals with students who don't have essential supplies by providing those supplies while, at the same time, pushing these kids to work hard on their assignments. A homeless girl may have lost a pencil in the trudge around the city finding a place for the night or left her homework in the office of a shelter. A boy may not be able to get his work done by the due date because he has no quiet place to concentrate. By keeping a supply of pencils, paper, and notebooks handy and adjusting due dates for individual students, you can make sure students know you're willing to modify conditions but you expect work to be done.

Use Visuals to Help Organize Assignments

Students whose lives are chaotic need to be reminded of exactly what work is due and when. Calendars and charts are visual cues that help kids organize time and tasks together, especially if you refer to them often. Write different tasks and events connected to each assignment—outline due date, media center day, or first draft due—on the calendar squares. A calendar both reminds students of the day of the week and creates a visual map to future tasks.

Imagine Their Obstacles—and See Their Strengths

If you grew up with economic security, remind yourself that you might not understand the things adults and children in families with barely enough for the basics have to do just to survive—and the obstacles they face. Some schools expect parents to get to parent conferences in the evening, which can involve a bus ride, babysitting expense, or taking time off from the late shift. To illuminate what such expectations involve, one school's social worker surveyed parents and teachers to see how many owned cars. Every teacher and teacher's aide owned a car, but only 40 parents—in a school with 500 students—did.
Find ways to accommodate such realities. For instance, I worked as a visiting poet in a school where one-third of the students were homeless. We made sure each kid had two copies of the poems they wrote, one to leave at school and one to take to their parents, to keep their writing from getting lost in transit.
When high-poverty schools hire people from the surrounding neighborhood who are acquainted with the poverty there, these people can be experts regarding students' situations. Connect with these staff members; ask their advice on how to affirm and provide for particular children. Jared, a young adult hall monitor at a school where I taught writing, brought into my class a poetry book by rapper Tupac Shakur. I read some of those poems with my students. Soon Jared was visiting my poetry sessions during breaks from his work, helping students with their writing and homework.
Understanding students' obstacles should help you give them credit for their amazing resilience and delight in learning. Low-income children are often described in terms of what they don't have or cannot do. Reframe your thinking to recognize the strength it takes for a child who had to find a couch to sleep on last night to simply make it in the school door.


In our rush to create silent classrooms and push test preparation, we lose sight of the complexity of children's lives, and we lose our delight in knowing how they, feel, reason, joke, or concoct ideas. In just 10 minutes, you can encourage students to write from a prompt like "I am from ________" or "I used to______, but now I _____." Read their pieces to a small group or to the entire class. Elementary teachers often have a daily circle time and even in secondary school, you can pull the chairs into a circle at the end of class and ask students about their plans for the rest of the day or a neighborhood event.
This listening is an important part of your job. Listening means slowing down or stopping, even for a minute as a student lingers by your desk. It means having music playing as you work in your classroom in the morning and nodding to a student who comes in early. If you let that student relax there most mornings, he might make it a habit to talk with you before each day begins.

Don't Tolerate Teasing

By establishing clear classroom guidelines, including no teasing about clothes or possessions and talking with students about what these guidelines mean, you'll establish a climate of safety. Effective guidelines state positive behaviors, such as, Be Physically Considerate, Be Verbally Considerate, or Try New Things. Talk about what concepts like consideration mean; for instance, showing verbal consideration includes not taunting or hurting anyone's feelings. When you spend time up front working on behaviors, you save time the rest of the year. Classes become communities, and discipline problems diminish.

Connect Curriculum to Students' Interests

When possible, connect the content you're teaching to things students are fascinated with, like a song or video they keep talking about or the pollution in their neighborhood. By tapping into learners' concerns, you can develop bridges to literature, science, or math. You might engage students in projects connected to community issues or problems, like cleaning up a playground or advocating for a bus for summer programs. Students can write letters to the editor, ask scientists to come in and talk about pollution, or find journalists who will talk to the class about issues in their city. Such actions give low-income students a sense of agency and possibility. You might also infuse their families' traditions and talents into classwork. Financially poor students often come from families rich in culture.

Speak Out

Advocate for impoverished children by speaking up about which students are tracked into general courses versus gifted programs or advanced classes. Insist on the giftedness of some of your poorer students. Some schools have programs that parallel advanced classes yet don't require applicants to demonstrate academic skills that they may not have going in—but could develop. These demanding courses both challenge and support low-income students.
Other schools have opened up advanced placement or International Baccalaureate classes to anyone who wants to try them. Suggest similar programs and push for changes like providing bilingual conferences for parents who don't speak English. You may get push back from those who want no deviation from the status quo. Be willing to be unpopular for your advocacy.

Find Allies

It's hard to do this work in isolation. Forge a supportive network that keeps you going as you strive to make a difference for students and push for academic equity—through a book group, inquiry team, or lunchtime discussion on issues related to education and poverty. You'll have someone to call when you're trying to anticipate how your suggestions will go over at the next faculty meeting—and someone to talk with about how it went. There are more teachers willing to advocate for kids than is often apparent.

What Administrators Can Do

Principals and superintendents can do much to support both struggling students and committed teachers. Think in terms of getting resources to the neediest schools and students.

Develop a Trusting Relationship with Teachers

Can teachers talk with you about an idea or solution they have for addressing the needs of poorer students? One of the most successful urban principals I ever worked with asked teachers to come to him often with a problem combined with a suggested solution.
Standing up for overworked teachers builds trust. When the district tries to mandate more requirements or protocols in March or to add a new test, voice your concern for the load this might put on teachers, many of whom may be already providing for students materially. When you have a devoted staff, make sure they know you'll challenge those who would add more burdens.

Spend Time in Classrooms

Observe not to evaluate, but to see how teachers do what they do successfully. Administrators, counselors, social workers, and even superintendents can be remarkable supporters for teachers by coming to classrooms—to work with students on a project, play piano for them, or just talk to them. When done in cooperation with teachers, such encounters add a great deal to a school's collaborative climate.

Give Teachers a Picture of Students' Realities

Through tapping the insights of social workers and district demographic services, and through family surveys, find out what household income and resources are like in your area and what resources students probably do or don't have at home. Share with your faculty facts like the income ranges of your families or the absence of grocery stores or libraries in their neighborhoods—details that clarify what it means to be poor.
This information will help teachers avoid assumptions about what students have in their homes and appreciate the resilience of youth from high-poverty families who get to school each day filled with hope and energy.

Advocate for High-Quality Classes

Be aware of how tracking works in your school or district. Are poor students getting slotted into classes for low-skilled students early in their lives? Advocate for low-income kids to receive gifted education services.
Get more teachers into the neediest classrooms. A principal who states publicly that having five classes each containing 45 students is unacceptable—and that he or she will work to change these conditions—wins teachers' trust.

Offer After-school Programs and Services

Work with teachers to find groups like the YMCA to provide volunteers for your school, so students have supervision and stimulation—including physical activities, art, and academic activities—more hours in the day. Local groups, businesses, and cultural venues will often contribute if approached by the principal or superintendent (see ""). Consider providing wraparound services for your low-income students, such as access to medical and mental health professionals.

Communicate Commitment

Make clear that as an administrator, you're in this for the long haul and will work on long-term solutions to inequity for children in your district. It is important that your entire staff knows you will persist in getting the services and programs your building needs.

Toward Vibrant Classrooms

These are just a few ways educators can ensure students aren't —alized by poverty—without making students feel they are a "problem." Each school district will need to explore what might work in its unique situation. But my hope is that no school ever becomes a place where sleepy children are yelled at or where teachers lose our human compassion. Let's create vibrant classrooms that tap into the brilliance of each child.
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End Notes

1 Many documentaries and public television programs (such as A Place at the Table, Viva la Causa, and Why Poverty) show what life is like for families living in poverty—for example, the realities of doubling up with relatives or taking two bus rides to get groceries.

Julie Landsman has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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