6 Tips to Working with Students in Poverty: From a Former Student of Poverty


In the CNN documentary The Poor Kids of Silicon Valley, poverty is a reality many children and their families encounter.  From sharing a one bedroom apartment with eight other family members, to being homeless and living in a shelter.  The cost of living in Silicon Valley requires a family to gross at least 60,000 a year to just get by.  With the minimum wage in California set at $11.00 which equates to just over $22,000 annually (below the poverty line) it’s no wonder so many families work more than one job and continue to live in poverty. 

If you’re like me you most likely teach students who are living in poverty.  Here are my 5 top tips for supporting students:
Tip #1:
 Don’t pass judgment on kids who might appear lazy or uninterested in school.  They might be dealing with home issues that impact their ability to study and stay focused during class.  

As a child I lived in an urban housing project in a town called Charlestown in the city of Boston.  The idea of being poor and living in low-income housing seemed like the norm.  I didn’t know back then that my life was different from anyone else.  My classmates also lived in the projects with me.  We road our bikes around the neighborhood and played games after school, we would sneak into abandoned housing projects and play hide and seek.  When you are a kid you don’t think about how your home life or environment impacts your education, nor how education could be a vehicle for a better life.  

images-1078706However as an adult looking back on my school experience I know that school was never easy,  I was easily distracted and would often fall asleep in class.  I wonder how my experience might of been different if I did not grow up in poverty?               

My parents worked hard but very late, getting help with homework was not an option. They owned hotdog pushcarts in the city of Boston which I would often work at during the weekend.  It’s no wonder math was so easy for me as I was making change and calculating transactions in my head at a very young age.  But translating my ideas to paper was a different challenge and the teacher would often think I cheated because my math problems were solved mentally and all she would see was the solution.

Don’t assume your kids are not doing what you asked or are not capable of meeting your expectations.  Research has consistently found that teacher expectations of students become their outcomes.  

Tip #2: Know your students, their families and what “funds of knowledge” they bring into the classroom. 

 Use this information to make connections with your students, and design instruction around their interests and backgrounds.
download-3649113 I remember going to the library to ask for help and getting tutoring at the Boys and Girls club after school.  The teachers I had growing up were paramount, they inspired me to read, write and push myself.  They not only encouraged me to do my best, but their lives modeled strength and compassion that kept me afloat through hard time in my life.  They shared stories of difficult times in their life and how they got through.

Tip #3: Share with your students positive affirmations and stories of encouragement.  

Bring in guest speakers from the community and connected with people who can serve as positive role models.  Read stories with resilient characters who overcome adversity and share personal stories from your live where you made difficult choices and persevered. You can also play songs that are inspirational, read poetry and short stories that connect to your students culture.  

Tip #4: Give Students your most precious gift, your time...

Do your best to be present for your students each and every day.  Show you care by greeting them at the door and creating curriculum that connects to their lives and who they are.  Take them on field trips to places that can influences their career choices and inspire them to see the value of education. 

img_7770-7879530Tip #5: Be the teacher you wished you had as a child.  

It will show in your practice.  Work in communities where you can connect with the kids and their families.  Do what comes naturally and teach with your heart. 

As a teacher educator, In Silicon Valley,  I am faced with the challenge of preparing new teachers for a classroom much similar to the one I experienced in South Los Angeles.  

Tip #6: When it comes to managing a classroom new teachers need to be aware of not only the social context in which they work but the experiences of the students they teach as this will certainly influence their interactions and decisions in the classroom. 

Get to know your students and what their day-to-day life is like.  Drive around the community and visit with neighborhood people and meet the people in the community.  I’ll never forget when I went to visit my student who had broke her leg after school.  She was living in a studio with her three brothers and parents.  There was loud music playing outside and no place for her to study or have any privacy.  From this experience I decided to open my classroom doors early for help with homework or after school for a quiet place to study.  Just showing that I cared really improved my students’ performance in the classroom and kids showed up and collaborated.  A community of learners cannot be created without understanding the needs of your students and creating solutions to support them in achieving their best.   


       Dr. Dickenson first grade teacher Menlo Avenue Elementary school Los Angeles, California. 

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