The key to teaching students from poverty

Published 11:39 am Saturday, March 8, 2014

A recent Op/Ed column made a strong case for Virginia’s new governor to take a proactive approach to educating children who live in generational or situational poverty. But perhaps many of us don’t know how bad the problem really is. Recent studies have shown that:

• 40 percent of all American workers earn less than $20,000 per year;

• One in four earns less than $10 per hour;

• There are a record 49.7 million Americans living in poverty; and

• Nearly half of all public school students in the U.S. come from low-income homes.

As a retired school principal from Henrico schools, I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of poverty on children. What school staff too often see are students who do not have an emotional attachment to their school as the vehicle for a better future. These students don’t see school as relevant to their lives and worth the effort it takes to learn. The net effect is children with potential who are underachieving, failing standardized tests and dropping out of school.

What can be done to break this downward spiral? The classroom is where change can and must occur. There are four elements that research has shown can improve achievement in students from poverty.

The first has to do with making teachers aware of what students in poverty face as they come to the classroom. In other words, what do most teachers actually know about living in poverty? Not much. And since many don’t know anything about it, they teach with the same middle-class methods that they were brought up with. This does not work for students whose basic life needs are not being met. Dr. Ruby Payne is an expert on students living in poverty (her seminal book, “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” has sold 1.5 million copies). Payne addresses issues such as the use of language in poverty, which is severely limited — the average adult in generational poverty has a vocabulary of only 400 to 800 words, which doesn’t allow one to focus at the abstract level of middle class. In fact, Payne advocates teaching the “Hidden Rules” of being successful in the middle class. Other major issues in poverty are the lack of role models, how discipline is dispensed (penance and forgiveness, not learning from one’s mistakes) and, perhaps saddest of all, too many students in poverty have no one who can give unconditional love and support as they struggle to learn and escape poverty.

The second element to focus on is using teaching methods that lead to success. A model that is particularly effective is teaching for mastery — more of a coaching model. The goal is to master key skills and concepts through active (learn by doing) instruction that engages the learner. Since all the brain stores is patterns, for learning to be stored in long-term memory, it should be taught in a step-by-step manner that ensures success — mastery. This, of course, is the antithesis of lecturing.

A third element is engaging the learner. Research has shown that teachers who ask open, higher-order questions that challenge the learner; who provide meaningful feedback on student responses; who value reasoning and demand explanations can have a profound effect. Unfortunately, often underachievers and minorities do not receive such interactions because of low expectations.

Last, and perhaps most important, Payne says establishing relationships of mutual respect is critical to student motivation. One way to do this is to hold class meetings in which teachers teach active listening skills. Many schools employ these skills to teach anti-bullying behaviors. They work because a would-be bully may find it harder to bully someone seen as a person whose point of view you now understand, and vice versa.

Our teachers work very hard. But they are only half of the learning equation. Students from poverty must be motivated — must want to learn — because they are valued, expected to learn and experience success. The key that unlocks learning is motivation. But in order for these elements to take shape, schools and districts must focus on quality professional development so our teachers have the tools they need. One study showed forward-thinking businesses spend on average 92 hours of training on each employee every year. Education should be doing the same thing.

It’s not about blaming, it’s about changing. Creating different outcomes — different results — takes different approaches. The time for change is now. Children and their teachers do not have a moment to waste.

DAVID BURGESS is retired from Henrico County Public Schools, where he was a principal in a Title I school for 17 years. He has been an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Richmond for the past 10 years, and has taught a graduate course he created, called “Tools for Teaching,” to more than 400 teachers in the Richmond area. His new conception is a graduate course called “Understanding Poverty: Practical Classroom Strategies to Close the Achievement Gap.” Contact him at