By Chris Kieffer
Tupelo High School science teacher Teresa Ware has invested much time studying how to better reach students from low-income backgrounds.
The big thing for educators to remember, she said, is that many students who live in poverty come to school with a different set of experiences than those of their often middle-class teachers. Better understanding diverse mindsets can lead to a more cohesive classroom, she said.
“Schools work predominantly on a middle-class set of hidden rules, and they are hidden from kids in poverty,” said Ware, who has become a lifetime certified trainer for Ruby Payne’s Framework for Understanding Poverty. “So they come to school one day not knowing all these hidden rules that everyone else knows.”
For example, Ware said, the way people value food, clothing, time and education often varies by class.
Andy Mullins, a longtime educational advocate, said different strategies can help teachers have more success with students in poverty. Mullins co-founded the Mississippi Teacher Corps program, which recruits top-performing college students to teach in high-poverty schools in the state.
He said he would like to see greater emphasis in teacher training programs on helping those in generational poverty. Given a magic wand, he would create a special wing at schools of education to train those who want to work with such pupils. It would provide scholarships to those who take that route and pay them more once they become teachers.
“I think we have to always recognize that children from generational poverty have to be taught a different way from those who come from middle-class and upper-class families,” Mullins said. “They don’t get the support at home. They speak in some ways a different language, called the language of poverty. And there are just different nuances.”
In middle-class families, for instance, looking someone in the eye is a sign of respect, Mullins said. For those who come from poverty, he said, it can signal confrontation.
Verona Elementary teacher Shalon Clark-Ruth noted that many students from low-income households lack consistency in their lives. Sometimes, a student may be in her classroom for a couple of months, move to a neighboring town and then return to Verona before the school year ends.
Often, students at the high-poverty school don’t know how they will get home at the end of the day, as their transportation – from daycare van to school bus to car rider to walker – can change daily.
“Whether impoverished or not, students crave and need consistency in their lives,” she said. “They feel safe and secure when they know that things are always the same.
“As a teacher, it’s my job to create a consistent classroom. The students know that when they come to school, everything is the same. They don’t have to worry about things being out of order, and they come to rely on that consistency.”
Relationships tend to be more valued in lower-income communities, Ware said, and it is important for teachers to create relationships of mutual respect with their students. Small things – smiling at students, greeting them at the door and using courtesies – go a long way.
“Children have to know that I’ve ‘got their back’ when they feel that no one else does,” Verona fourth-grade language teacher Lauren Golding said. “Whether they are below grade level or above, they have to know that their teacher has faith that they can grow and learn regardless of what takes place at home.”
There are many vocabulary words that students know because of their every-day experiences, Ware said. Students from low-income families may not have had those same experiences and, therefore, the same vocabulary.
This can make reading and reading comprehension more difficult, Golding said.
“Students living in poverty have had fewer opportunities to experience culture in general,” she said. “I’m not talking about visiting the Mississippi Coast or Memphis Zoo. I’m talking about students who have never been to the Mall at Barnes Crossing or visited either of our movie theaters in Tupelo.”
Therefore, she said, teachers must provide them knowledge about these experiences. Teachers can not assume vocabulary, Ware said.
Ware said it is important for teachers to use real-world examples and create mental models for abstract ideas. Some students may be more familiar with abstract concepts, thanks to watching parents deal with banks and credit cards, but those from poverty may not have the same exposure.
Plus, she said, such tangible examples help all students. She helps her classes remember the elements on the periodic table by comparing them to fictional high school characters.
“What works for kids in poverty, works for everyone,” Ware said. “It is not like here are my kids in poverty, I’m going to teach them like this and here are my middle-class kids, and I’m going to teach them like this. It is not like that at all. All of these strategies that work for your under-resourced learners work for everyone.”
Ruby Payne’s training is based on studies Payne did of high-performing schools with high number of students from poverty. It is designed to help participants understand class differences and take actions to impact their classroom. Ware has attended three of Payne’s training session and said they had a profound impact on her teaching.
Teachers shouldn’t lower their standards, Ware said. But they may have to communicate those expectations rather than assume they are automatically known. Sometimes educators must say, it may be OK to act one way at home, but at school the rules are different.
Ron Nurnberg is the executive director of Teach For America-Mississippi. Like the MTC, TFA also recruits top college graduates to teach in low-income communities.
He said high and clearly-communicated expectations are important. So are strong relationships.
It also can be helpful for teachers – especially those at the elementary school level – to create ways for students to share their emotions. Perhaps they can do so with temperature gauges, in which children select a different color to reflect their mood. Such exercises can alert educators to challenges students take with them to school.
“That runs the gamut regardless of what income students are from, but if you don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it, it can be more difficult,” Nurnberg said.