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June 1, 2014
Vol. 71
No. 9

When Schooling Doesn't Matter at Home

By buying into the myth that "all parents encourage their children to succeed in school," we may be harming some of our most vulnerable students.

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I had parents who did not encourage my education.
In elementary school, I don't recall one instance of either of my parents reading with me, sitting down to look over math problems, or helping me hone a craft project. In middle school and high school, my parents often discouraged me from doing homework ("That's what school is for!"). Some of my friends and I routinely forged our parents' signatures on our report cards—my friends because they didn't want their parents to see their less-than-stellar grades, and I because I didn't want to broach the subject of education if I could avoid it, regardless of how many smiley faces, plus marks, and As I received.
Before you draw any conclusions, please note that, in many ways, my parents were very good parents. They loved my siblings and me, and they provided us with regular signs of affection and comforting companionship. They taught us to work hard, to be respectful of others, and to be kind.
But with the daily scramble of trying to make ends meet, school simply did not surface as a priority. Survival was a family affair, and when there was a job to be had or money to be made, that singular objective was king. Routine activities included foraging through dumpsters for food (mostly produce, which we turned into preserves for later use); stealing medicine and toiletries (and other items that were not covered by food stamps); and skipping school to pick crops, hunt, or tend to family needs. There was little energy left for such things as schoolwork. But we were still loved.
Advocates of higher education may find it hard to fathom that parents could be so unsupportive of schooling. And as a child, I, too, bought into the story that "good parents" always supported their children's education. Walking the tightrope between my teachers' assumptions, my desire to protect my family's image, and my private aspirations to go to college was both nerve-wracking and isolating.
At a young age, I learned the craft of dodging my teachers' questions associated with homework habits and parental supports. Each time I even hinted at my home situation to a teacher, I was informed that I must somehow be mistaken—that indeed my parents must support my education. It was disheartening to receive dismissive feedback from teachers that negated my reality.

Experiences of First-Generation College Students

Since then, I've learned that the lack of parental encouragement for education is not as rare as many educators would like to think. It's frankly a bit depressing to talk with current college students from low-income families and learn that many of their experiences are eerily similar to my own experiences decades ago.
I recently organized a series of interviews and administered surveys to more than 200 first-generation college students from both middle-income and low-income backgrounds. I was struck by the number of students who indicated that their parents were either indifferent or downright opposed to their education pursuits. The reasons for this lack of support varied. Some parents saw higher education as an elitist venture for rich people. Others expressed the opinion that higher education was just a bunch of hype.
These attitudes were particularly prevalent among low-income parents. Although all the students I talked with were the first in their families to go to college, the students from middle-income families and those from low-income families tended to have vastly different experiences. For example,
  • Only 17 percent of very low-income students—compared with 50 percent of middle-income students—strongly agreed that their families "placed a high value on education." Thirty-three percent of very low-income students and just 4 percent of middle-income students strongly disagreed with this statement.
  • Thirty-five percent of low-income students were dissatisfied with the nonmonetary support they had received from their parents to pursue college, compared with 20 percent of the middle-income students.
  • When asked about the support they had received from high school personnel to pursue college, 54 percent of low-income students were dissatisfied, compared with 39 percent of middle-income students.
Overall, low-income students felt less supported in their college aspirations by both their parents and school personnel. In addition, low-income students were less likely to possess some of the skills that lead to school success, such as asking a teacher for feedback on assignments or challenging a grade. A full 72 percent of very low-income students reported that they had never asked for comments about academic work or challenged a grade; in comparison, just 44 percent of middle-income students had never asked for comments, and 53 percent had never disputed a grade.
Yet, somehow, all of the students in the study had managed to get to college. How? When asked about their most important motivating factors, respondents consistently selected factors related to a sense of self-efficacy and personal drive, with the number-one response being "to fulfill a strong personal goal." More than having a mentor or role model or receiving support from home, students named themselves and their personal goals as the driving force behind their academic success (see fig. 1).

FIGURE 1. Motivating Factors for First-Generation College Goers

Percentage of Respondents Who Said the Factor Was "Very Important"

When Schooling Doesn't Matter at Home-table

Very Low-Income Respondents

Middle-Income Respondents

To fulfill a strong personal goal.75%76%
To improve my chance of getting a good job.67%58%
To increase my earnings.50%48%
To get away from home.25%11%
A mentor/role model encouraged me to go to college.8%18%
My family wanted me to go to college.0%28%
Note: Survey of approximately 200 first-generation college students.

The importance of self-efficacy for these first-generation college students points to an opportunity for educators. By helping students establish goals and conveying the belief that students are responsible for their own progress and accomplishments (as opposed to luck or someone else making it happen for them), teachers build students' sense of self-efficacy. And if we couple this positive sense of self with skills for navigating the education system (for example, by teaching students how to ask for feedback and encouraging them to talk with teachers about their grades), we can help more low-income students go on to college, regardless of whether they receive encouragement and support at home.

The Importance of Connections

Bolstering students' self-efficacy and self-advocacy skills, however, may not get at the root of the obstacles facing many low-income students. So I'd like to propose a more important challenge for teachers: Build connections with your students so that you can acknowledge and validate their experiences—including the experiences of students who are living in extreme poverty or whose families do not support their education aspirations.
I'm not suggesting that we should jump to conclusions about low-income parents, those without much formal schooling, or those who don't show up at back-to-school night. I believe that most parents at all socioeconomic levels do indeed want their children to succeed in school and to pursue their education dreams. But we need to be open to the possibility that any given student is receiving little parental support for education. Discounting this reality is naïve—and potentially harmful to some of our most vulnerable students.
For teachers who came from families that supported their education, the challenge is to be intentional about soliciting and building connections with students who may seem different from them. Just being generally warm and welcoming to all students is not sufficient. It's human nature to connect with people who are most like us, but adults are responsible for taking the lead in initiating and sustaining cross-class connections. Expecting a child to do so is both unrealistic and unfair. I encourage teachers to look around their classrooms to identify those students with whom they seem to have little in common and make deliberate (and sustained) attempts to reach out to them.
Note that when I refer to connections, I'm not necessarily talking about relationships. Relationships can take considerable time. (How often have you heard something along the lines of, "I don't have time to build relationships with all my students"?) Connections, in contrast, are built in those moments when the teacher and student click. They can happen any time—through eye contact, warm greetings, high fives, and honest, positive statements.
Of course, such moments happen spontaneously and naturally throughout the school day. But when we become more intentional about building connections with students who struggle under the obstacles of poverty and lack of parental involvement, these students may develop a heightened sense of trust, improved self-confidence, and increased comfort in school.
My own experiences in school illustrate how important it can be to build such bridges. Even at a young age, I understood that I was treated differently from many of the other students. I saw and felt the ways in which my teachers interacted more fluidly and naturally with some of my classmates. Chitchat about common interests, vacations, favorite restaurants, and television shows was common. Those of us who had never experienced a vacation, been to a restaurant, or owned a working TV were left out of significant informal conversations. I could sense how the students with means and those whose parents were well-educated and involved in their schooling benefited from their school-based social networks. In contrast, my low-income peers and I did not feel as though we fit in the academic setting.
Unfortunately, that sense of not belonging, which chips away at self-esteem and enjoyment of school, seems to increase as students move up through the grades. By the time the more than 200 first-generation college goers in my survey got to higher education, 60 percent of those from low-income families said they "frequently felt as though they did not fit in with their peers on campus" (compared with only 8 percent of the middle-income students). Even though the students surveyed were from a regional public university where nearly one-third of the overall student body is first-generation, a large proportion of the low-income students still felt that they did not belong.
Students frequently commented that there seemed to be a certain way of communicating and even behaving in college that they did not understand. Most expressed a sense of not having the finances available to them that other students seemed to have. Much of the discomfort felt by first-generation students was described in terms of class differences and a "hard to explain" sense of "otherness." In interviews, these students commonly said that this sense of being an outsider had hindered their education experience overall (causing many to withdraw from courses and consider leaving school altogether).

How to Create Belonging

What specific actions can teachers take, whatever their own backgrounds, to increase low-income students' feelings of belonging in school? Here are some suggestions.
  • Introduce diverse materials and experiences in the curriculum, including positive references to individuals of modest means and those who lacked formal education. Strive for diversity in the texts you assign, the video clips you show, and the instructional anecdotes and stories you choose to share with students.
  • Be intentional about connecting with students—both those for whom you don't have a natural affinity and those with whom you share similarities. Smiling, laughing, and engaging in non-academic banter and activities with students create space for them to see you as authentic and as a potential ally. You needn't be their buddy to share good times. Positive interaction is disarming and fosters belonging.
  • In the natural flow of informal conversation that takes place throughout the day, remember not to focus solely on topics that require money (for example, the latest HBO series or smartphone app).
  • Explicitly demonstrate respect for individuals at all socioeconomic levels, especially those within the school community. The custodian, kitchen assistant, playground aide, and bus driver ought to be given the same high level of respect as the principal. Take care not to appear dismissive of or condescending to any occupation; you may be referring to some of your students' family members.

A Special Responsibility

Educators like me—who come from childhood experiences of poverty, who know what it's like to receive little parental support for education, or who are first-generation college graduates—have a special responsibility. If we're willing to share this part of our past, some of our students may benefit from knowing that their teacher has faced hardships similar to theirs and has managed to succeed despite the odds.
I'm not minimizing the risks. Most of us have been trained to avoid personal disclosure to our students. Many of us have also gotten pretty good at avoiding the topic of our own adverse childhood experiences altogether. But like it or not, we have the power to serve as role models for our students, or at least to shed light on the reasons for hope.
I'm also not suggesting that we make these connections all about us. Clearly, the connections we establish in the classroom must be about doing what's best for our students. But without knowing anything about us, students have every reason to assume we are simply another college-educated professional peddling a stump speech about the importance of education. "Maybe for you," they may think, "but not for someone like me."
We can change this perception by sharing our stories. When we present our own histories of poverty and lack of parental support not as a blemish, but as a sign of strength, we might motivate students in similar circumstances. And that may provide exactly the support they need to pursue their most ambitious education dreams.

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