Children of Poverty: What Teachers CAN Do to Provide a Future of...

Children of Poverty: What Teachers CAN Do to Provide a Future of Hope


For the first time, low-income students have become a majority in the nation’s public schools, according to a 2013 report issued by the Southern Education Foundation. The report went on to state that childhood poverty has reached its highest level in 20 years.

Poverty can pose unique challenges to today’s educators. They may feel uncomfortable with the concept of poverty, unsure what they can really expect from children from low-income households, and unclear what they can really do to confront poverty. Many may believe that a low socioeconomic level equals low outcome. This is far from the truth. Even children who come from generations of poverty can still meet high expectations and standards.

We believe it is well within an effective and caring teacher’s power to shape the future of low-income students. In this article, we’ll explore several classroom practices any teacher can adopt today to start making a difference.

I’ve got your back.

Most schools across the nation are laser-focused on academics. There seems to be little time to really connect with children who live in poverty. But a lasting and meaningful relationship with a caring teacher can be life-changing for any child, impoverished or not.

Getting to know each student and their interests, identifying their learning style and building lessons accordingly, listening to the student verbally and nonverbally—simple actions like these demonstrate a teacher’s respect for a child. Practiced daily, they can go a long way in canceling out the uncertainty of their lives and minimize the impact of poverty as a risk factor.

Come on in to my room.

Teachers can’t control what happens in a low-income student’s life at home. But they can control what happens in their school life. They can start by creating a welcoming environment that provides the support these students may not be getting at home.

Estimates suggest 20-25% of students change schools each year, not just at the start of the school year but in the middle, as well. Many of these are low-income students whose mobility puts them at greater risk for academic and behavioral problems. The best teachers understand how important an accepting, safe, structured, and organized classroom is in the lives of children whose home life is anything but consistent.

You can do it.

There is incredible power in simply believing a child can succeed. In a school where high expectations are the norm, students will perform at higher levels. If expectations are “dumbed down,” it will be difficult if not impossible for students to rise above mediocrity.

As teachers, it is helpful to sit back and think critically about our expectations. Do I see the different backgrounds of low-income students as a barrier? Do I tend to relax expectations out of sympathy? Do I recognize the damage this can cause? This can be a painful exercise, but one that can uncover some deep-seated beliefs.

What do high expectations look and sound like in a classroom? Instructional decisions are based on high standards. Ambitious goals are set and teachers make sure every child achieves them. There are consequences and rewards, opportunities to get extra help, and regular communication with students and parents. When the message is loud and clear, children will understand nothing less than the best is acceptable and rise above expectations.

Understandably, teachers may feel a bit cynical when faced with the challenge of teaching students of poverty. The problem’s too big—there’s not much I can do to help. But the truth is, there are specific practices that can have a dramatic difference in the trajectory of a child’s life. Even better news is that what works for children of poverty works for every other child sitting in the room.

For a deeper look at how teachers can improve outcomes for children of poverty, check out SDE’s webinar Reach, Teach, Lead & Succeed with Underserved Students—An Introduction to Mama J’s 5 POWER Principles (Gr. K–12) by national authority on school achievement Cynthia “Mama J” Johnson, Ed.D.

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Dr. Cynthia "Mama J" Johnson is a national consultant acclaimed for her work with reaching and teaching today’s youth, instructing diverse student populations, and sharing strategies to close the achievement and relationship gap. She is a highly requested keynote speaker and professional development trainer with a proven track record of nearly three decades. “Mama J”, a name given to her by her students has served in the classroom teaching multiple abilities including special education, gifted, and high-risk students. She has also served as a principal at both the middle and high school levels, and as a district-wide administrative professional development trainer. Mama J” is living proof that nothing is impossible if you try. To others, her future appeared bleak; however, she prevailed and beat the odds, never allowing circumstances such as extreme poverty, stuttering, negative labels, and the inability to read to get in her way. Today, "Mama J" has turned her life story into her strength by being persistent and believing the words, "I Can!” She has applied the lessons learned while growing up to make a difference in the lives of all children, especially underserved students. “Mama J" speaks from the heart and shares this passion in a powerful “Message of Hope!”