5 Ways Teachers Can Address Socioeconomic Gaps in the Classroom

For my first permanent teaching position, I was lucky enough to fill a history position at a small K-8 school in a rural community. I say lucky for several reasons.

First of all, my principal was forward-thinking, supportive of his teachers, and tried to meet the needs of his school. The faculty and staff were helpful and friendly, and I became fast-friends with many of them. Plus, the school was pretty much secluded from the rest of the county schools, and because of this, the teachers were given more autonomy in the classroom. However, there was one challenge about this school that I had been warned about: it was a low-income school located in an impoverished area. After “getting my feet wet” the first year, and learning how things were done in the school, it became apparent that addressing the needs of these students would be different than what I had experienced in my past teaching experiences.

In the list below, I wanted to give some of the pointers I gleaned from my time at this school to help students who are living in poverty. These ideas are backed up from the book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind by Eric Jensen. I read this book as part of a book study I participated in through Active Classroom and it gave some great pointers to put into action, as well as, shed light onto the issues that my students were probably facing at home and how it affected their behavior at school. While there is no "one-solution" or "easy-fix" to help students from lower-income socioeconomic status, these techniques have proven effective in my own classroom.

 

1. Teach with their social needs in mind

Students from low-income families are more likely to develop social conduct problems. This isn't to say this is the case every time, but “behavioral research shows that children from impoverished homes develop … maladaptive social functioning at a greater rate than their affluent counterparts do” (Jensen 2009). Therefore, it is crucial to teach these students social skills at every grade level. Basic meet-and-greet and turn-taking skills should be ingrained into students from day one and continue development throughout the school year. One way our school sought to accomplish this was through an etiquette class during our study block. We also incorporated a girls’ book club so we could  provide a safe environment to read books together and discuss social, cultural, and gender issues that came up. We would have liked to form a boys’ book club, but our resources were stretched thin. I would recommend having both available if possible.

2. Address health concerns

Students who live in poverty are more subjected to health issues. They may be malnourished or lack adequate healthcare resources. To help with these discrepancies, schools can ask health care officials to visit the school to help meet student needs. A physician or additional school nurse coming into schools once a week for check-ups or arranging a dentist to routinely visit can physically and emotionally improve student health (Jensen 2009). Additionally, tutors or after-school teaching sessions can make great strides to help students who miss classes due to health issues.

3. Be creative

When a school has limited resources, teachers and administration need to think outside of the box when it comes to their time and money. This was one thing that I realized I would need to do to meet the needs of my students. After reading Teaching with Poverty in Mind, I was even more determined to get creative to help my lower-income students. 

When I wanted to implement a flipped classroom model in my history class, I realized that not all students would have internet access at home. I offered time blocks before and after school for students to work on their videos, as well as additional study blocks to complete the assignment. I also gave tips about where they could find free internet after school, such as the local library or McDonald’s. I found students were more likely to take me up on before school hours to complete their assignments. Being in a low-income school meant that sometimes I had to use my own personal money to buy things for my classroom or the clubs I sponsored, so I had to learn to be resourceful in that aspect. Plus, when it came to teacher money, the teachers in my building would team up to buy items our rooms could share. For example, I would buy a bulk box of crayons, another teacher would buy markers, etc.  Being creative, resourceful, and thinking outside the box can go a long way in helping your lower income students inside and outside the classroom.

 

4. Include

Students who live in poverty want to feel accepted by their peers, and feel included in something. They may not find inclusion or acceptance at home, so at school, we need to find ways for all students to feel included. Working at a small school, there were only so many staff members to sponsor clubs. Plus finding teachers who were willing to sponsor in their own time could be a struggle. In my experience, it was two or three teachers who would take on the bulk of the club sponsorships. For myself, I sponsored debate team, student council, and girls’ book club. I wanted to know that my students were given the same opportunities as students from other schools, and to make sure they have a chance to feel included in something.

5. Challenge them

According to Teaching with Poverty in Mind, teachers often “assume that low-SES students will have less access to resources, be more stressed, be sick more often, and have less emotional support and intellectual stimulation at home. However, the likely conclusion...that children of poverty will necessarily do poorly in school--should not be automatic. Although it has statistical support, it does not have to be true” (Jensen 2009). I know that was a long quote, but this is a crucial point to stress. Teachers assumptions and beliefs play a huge role in how we mold our lesson plans and classrooms. We need to be adaptable and plan for all students, so by setting high expectations and standards for every student individually will go a long way. Students who live in poverty need to know they can have a meaningful life, and they can succeed like their affluent counterparts. During each class, teachers can offer student affirmations or meet one-on-one or in groups to share specifically how students can succeed in every class. Teachers can “help set goals, offer hope and encouragement, teach life skills in daily chunks, and provide needed academic resources”  on a daily basis to support their students (Jensen 2009).

 

These are just a few of the things that I saw in my low-income school, however, as Jensen addresses in his book, there are so many more factors that affect students who live in poverty. These students can also be faced with emotional or behavioral issues and lack problem-solving skills, just to name a few. When teachers face an environment with many levels of students from different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, they need to be prepared to address possible gaps and student issues in full force. It can be challenging because teachers do have their work cut out for them; however, working with these students is absolutely worth it and completely rewarding.


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Jessica Hayes has been teaching for five years. She completed a bachelors’ degree in Social Science Education at Auburn University in 2009, and a master’s degree in English Education from Jacksonville State University in 2014. Recently, she has received her Instructional Leadership certificate. In her work as a certified trainer for Active Classroom, she builds curriculum maps and trains educators on using the program. In her spare time, she loves reading and learning new technology/productivity skills.

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