August 30, 2008

Understanding the Students We Teach: Poverty in the Classroom

By Bennett, Missy M

Abstract: Secondary preservice teachers at Georgia Southern University have little knowledge of poverty or the lives of students who live in poverty. Preservice teachers rarely interact with others who live outside their self-reported middle-class status. In this article, the author examines the effects a study of poverty has on the philosophy and practice of secondary education preservice teachers. Themes that emerged were development of awareness of socioeconomic differences, development of empathetic rapport and caring attitudes, and development of a commitment to culturally responsive teaching. The author also discusses the implication of this research on classroom practice and the broader scope of teacher education. Keywords: poverty, preservice teachers, secondary education, teacher education

As a new assistant professor in the College of Education, I was unprepared when preservice teachers returned from local public school field placements voicing concerns about not understanding their students. When questioned, they explained they had never been in classes with these types of students. Having attended public school as a student and then teaching public high school for many years, I was baffled by what the preservice teachers were experiencing. Surely this diverse group of young people was not uncomfortable in the multicultural environment of the local classrooms. What did they mean? After further discussion, I discovered that the racially diverse secondary curriculum class's concern was not with race but with low-income students.


According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2008), 20.2 percent of children in Georgia under age eighteen live below the poverty level; almost 2 percent higher than the national average. Although the poverty rate in the United States is estimated to be 12.7 percent, the poverty rates in the majority of counties surrounding Georgia Southern University-where I teach and coordinate the secondary education program-are higher than the national and state averages: Bulloch County is 19.9 percent; Screven County is 19.5 percent; and Candler, Burke, Evans, Jenkins, and Emanuel Counties are all more then 20 percent (U.S. Census Bureau).

In the school year 2005-6, approximately 12 percent of the school- aged population in Georgia received special education services (Georgia Department of Education [DOE] 2007). According to state law, all teacher certification programs are required to include a basic course in special education for preservice teachers. In the same school year, approximately 50 percent of the school-aged population in Georgia was eligible to receive free or reduced price lunches (Georgia DOE). If this single statistic is used as an indicator of poverty, it is interesting to note that unlike the identified special education population, there is little if any instruction provided to preservice teachers regarding working with low-income students.

Georgia is one of the worst performing states when comparing the percentage of nineteen-year-olds who have graduated from high school and been admitted to college, and it ranks among the top states with the highest transient population (Hodgkinson 2002). Both factors- high school dropouts and transient populations-often correlate to family income and have a direct impact on the classrooms of secondary preservice teachers. In the United States, there are large numbers of lowincome black and Hispanic children; however, the largest number of low-income children in the United States is white. At the same time, minorities make up the highest percentage of low- income children. These statistics are especially important when compared with the data from colleges that prepare teachers. Although enrollment in colleges of education is increasingly diverse, the teaching force is still mainly white and draws the majority of its students from middle-class households (Hodgkinson 2002). The problems associated with poverty are not limited to Georgia. In 2006, Pelletier, Wardrip, and Crowley calculated that there was not one county in the United States in which a full-time minimum wage worker could afford a onebedroom apartment at fair market rent, and according to the National Coalition for the Homeless (2007), 40 percent of households with worst-case housing needs have at least one working person. These households are either paying more than half their incomes for rent, living in severely substandard housing, or both. Declining wages and changes in welfare programs account for increased poverty among families. Additionally, a 2006 survey of twenty-three U.S. cities found that 37 percent of adults requesting food assistance were employed (U.S. Conference of Mayors). Extreme poverty is growing more common for children, especially those in female-headed households and working families. In 1999, 33 percent of births were to unmarried parents and about 12 percent of births were by teenage mothers, increasing their likelihood for poor living conditions and poverty (Hodgkinson 2003).

The Problem

The preservice teachers in the secondary education program at Georgia Southern University mirror the national statistics of the teaching force. Although some secondary education content fields attract higher numbers of male students than other programs, the majority are white, female, and self-report to be from middle-class backgrounds. These teachers are preparing for public school careers in Georgia counties with poverty rates that are often more than one and a half times higher than the national average. Middle-class preservice teachers' lives rarely intersect with lowincome students until they enter the classroom.

As a teacher, I witness preservice teachers struggling to understand and discuss a topic that is completely outside their frame of reference. Many college courses focus on multicultural education but lack a focus on this particular subgroup. To meet the particular needs of my preservice teachers, I added reference materials from Payne (2005), Delpit (2006), Kozol (2006), Ehrenreich (2001), and Tatum (2003) and devoted large segments of class time to understanding low-income students. In addition, I created a sociocultural driving tour of the local community (see appendix A), requiring students to travel to multiple neighborhoods to focus on community diversity. The culminating activity of the driving tour is a reflective paper (see appendix B) in which preservice teachers are required to reflect on four main areas: (a) their own backgrounds and childhoods (Schmidt 1999), (b) a demographic description of their current school placement, (c) the effect of the tour on their individual teaching philosophies, and (d) the implications of the tour for their classrooms. After the driving tour assignment has been completed, a full-class debriefing allows students to discuss their experiences in small groups and as a large group. I have also included a driving tour rubric (see appendix C) used to grade the reflective paper.


As class discussion and anecdotal reports from field placements gradually changed in tone from a lack of understanding the poverty issues to genuine care and concern, a more systematic approach to examining the issue emerged. I read a sample of driving tour papers from six semesters and analyzed them for emergent themes (N = 60). I used statistical data for race and gender to determine paper samples. In addition to reading and analyzing papers, I held two small focusgroup discussions and analyzed posters students created in the large class discussions to provide triangulation of data.


Analysis of the driving tour papers revealed three overarching themes preservice teachers expressed: (a) development of awareness of socioeconomic differences, (b) development of empathetic rapport and caring attitudes, and (c) development of a commitment to culturally responsive teaching.

Development of Awareness of Socioeconomic Differences

Preservice teachers in the secondary education program at Georgia Southern University report a lack of understanding of people who live in differing economic circumstances than themselves. In the portions of the driving tour that took them through the most economically deprived neighborhoods, students expressed opinions of disbelief that these housing areas existed. One student said, "I did not expect to see people living in situations like this-in homes that appeared to be unsafe to live in." Another expressed that "For someone like me who has led a sheltered life, taking this driving tour was very disturbing, shocking. . . . I always assumed everyone else lived just like I did."

Although college students often describe their current living situations as less than ideal, and some even describe themselves as living in poverty, after the driving tour most students realize that their ideas of life's basic necessities vary dramatically from many community members with whom they live and work; the idea of poverty takes on a different meaning. One student said, "I can't imagine not having the simple necessities of running water, my own bedroom and bathroom, lights, food, and clothes." Another confided, "My childhood home was in the $130,000-$150,000 range but most of the homes around mine were in the $500,000-$1 million range. I grew up thinking we were poor." A third speculated, "The college setting distorts our view of what poor really means." One student summarized the thoughts of many regarding the new understanding the driving tour created as he described his visit to a local mobile home park with deplorable living conditions that borders the university campus: Many times in our lives, we choose the realities we live in, even though deep down we know the real world does not go away. I was doing that on the tour up until the moment we turned my car into Lanier's Trailer Park. I have never seen a place like that in real life. A chill ran down my spine because I realized that the whole point of this task was for us to experience the diverse backgrounds of our students. This place was the hammer that drove that point home.

Development of Empathy and Caring Attitudes

The study of poverty in the university classroom focuses on national, state, and local data from schools in which preservice teachers currently teach. Often, the study's focus highlights general data on living in poverty and its effect on students' home and school lives. Preservice teachers seldom recognize that their students live in similar neighborhoods and could be affected in multiple ways by factors outside their control. Students had several comments on this lack of control, including: "[S]ome of these areas made me tragically depressed . . . and could make a child embarrassed about his or her living condition"; "My heart sank when we turned the corner"; "Life can be hard. I will never forget"; and "Not everyone's home life is pleasurable and school is sometimes an escape. Some students use it to rebel and express their pain."

Although the study of poverty in the university classroom exposes students to facts and figures, their experiences often leave them unable to empathize with students who live in poverty. The driving tour effects a personal meaning making and ownership as preservice teachers realize these conditions affect their students. One student confided, "I honestly did not feel comfortable riding through some of these neighborhoods and these are the places my students call home. My students are growing up here." Another reported, "As much as I wish I could give them all nice homes to live in with encouraging, motivating caregivers, I know that is not possible, but I can be here for them at school and provide encouragement to them in my classroom." A third said, "This made me realize that no student has a choice about the home he or she goes to."

Last, because students observed neighborhoods of all types, they came to realize that they must be careful about making assumptions. When asked to report on observed community activities, preservice teachers often found those conspicuously absent in more affluent communities but found many examples in the most economically deprived areas: "Even in the midst of deplorable surroundings, there were many signs of community. People were on porches, visiting each other, enjoying each other's company."

Development of Culturally Responsive Teaching

As a result of the driving tour and study, preservice teachers realized many students only have access to their course content during the school day; they have limited outside resources with which to learn about content. Outside school, the lives of many students and their parents take on myriad tasks and responsibilities:

I now understand why many of my students do not have computers, calculators, checkbooks, etc. in their homes. I understand the need for class time to complete research and projects.

This activity has served to strengthen my belief that every student is different and I must take that into consideration when designing my lessons and activities.

I now realize . . . that I must never attribute a student's low performance on homework and tests to ability alone.

Many preservice teachers voiced the need to work diligently to connect students' lives to content. This activity provided a backdrop for understanding the relevance of multiple strategies for classroom teaching. The personal nature of the task was obvious in many of their statements: "This made me realize that I need to use examples that my students can relate to"; "I believe that every student is capable of learning and that all it takes is time to find out how that student learns best"; "Engaging my students from poverty will take getting to know them on a more personal level"; and "I must try much harder to help my students learn."

In the university study and discussion of diversity, professors addressed the culture of poverty in a similar manner to other issues of diversity. Preservice teachers researched, read data and statistics, and learned about the concept. However, on the driving tour, preservice teachers voiced the realization that they need to see students as individuals, not as a collective, saying "When I am in the classroom, I will no longer view my class as a homogeneous group. They have complex realities which influence their performance in my class," and "Every student needs attention, but some will need it more than others."

Last, this group of preservice teachers identified many school reform topics that schools should address to help low-income students overcome the disadvantages of poverty: "It is obvious that many of my students will need time to eat breakfast at school before coming to my classroom"; "I need to open my classroom for extra study time and arrange parent conferences when they are available"; "Many parents will be unable to assist my students with their homework if they have not had the opportunity to complete or further their own education. After school programs are needed to give help to those students"; and "Because of transportation issues, many of these students won't be able to participate in after-school activities. Many clubs and school organizations need to meet during the school day instead."

Culminating Poster Activity

Analysis of the poster activity included in the class debriefing session showed ideas similar to the driving tour papers. When asked to describe the implications of the driving tour on their classrooms, students maintained that their roles as teachers may be more important to students who live in poverty, saying: "I must remember to encourage every student. My classroom might be the bright spot in a student's day"; "Lessons which include examples from my students' lives are essential. I will learn about my students so my class will be more relevant to them"; and "Students from different backgrounds interpret information differently. It will be important to incorporate cultural lessons that have students take on different perspectives of other cultures."

Focus Groups

Following the driving tour and poster sessions, small focus groups of preservice teachers commented on the overall learning they took away from this study. These small group discussions confirmed that the preservice teachers were developing an awareness of socioeconomic differences and empathetic and caring attitudes and were becoming culturally responsive teachers: "I'm not from a very privileged background, and I've never considered my socioeconomic status until this class. After focusing on this study of the community, however, I realize how fortunate my life has been and it was easier to discuss with classmates who were experiencing the same thing. We just never talk about this sort of thing"; "I'd say this was one of the most important things I've learned in college. I've always been taught not to judge people by outward appearance, but the way this was conducted, while I was teaching students from different backgrounds, helped me to realize how diverse my classroom is and how important it is to know about my students"; and "I am actually doing my practicum teaching at a high school from the driving tour zone. I realized that I could potentially have students from each of those neighborhoods seated next to each other in class. That was a "wow" for me. The need for varied teaching methods and differentiation makes a whole lot more sense to me now."


Most people have been taught from an early age that it is impolite to discuss socioeconomic issues. However, for preservice teachers, studying the culture of poverty provides another lens through which to view diversity. To provide the best education for all students, the study of poverty, combined with other activities, provides a broader perspective for many preservice teachers and can be extended to inservice teachers. Rather than avoiding a major social issue confronting teachers in public schools today, studing poverty and its implications for the school and community can change thinking and prompt teachers to action.


Delpit, L. 2006. Other people's children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.

Ehrenreich, B. 2001. Nickel and dimed: On (not) getting by in America. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Georgia Department of Education (DOE). 2007. http:// (accessed August 1, 2007).

Hodgkinson, H. L. 2002. Demography and democracy. Journal of Teacher Education 53 (2): 102-5.

_____. 2003. Leaving too many children behind: A demographer's view on the neglect of America's youngest children. Washington, DC: Institute for Educational Leadership.

Kozol, J. 2006. Rachel and her children. New York: Three Rivers.

National Coalition for the Homeless. 2007. Employment and homelessness: NCH fact sheet 4. publications/facts/employment.html (accessed August 15, 2007).

Payne, R. 2005. A framework for understanding poverty. 4th ed. Highlands, TX: aha! Process.

Pelletier, D., K. Wardrip, and S. Crowley. 2006. Out of reach 2006. Washington, DC: National Low Income Housing Coalition. http:// (accessed July 25, 2007). Schmidt, P. R. 1999. Know thyself and understand others. Language Arts 76 (4): 332- 40.

Tatum, B. D. 2003. Why are all the black kids sitting together in the lunchroom?: A psychologist explains the development of racial identity. 5th ed. New York: Basic Books.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2008. State and county quickfacts. http:// (accessed June 6, 2008).

U.S. Conference of Mayors. 2006. A status report on hunger and homelessness in America's cities: 2006. uscm/hungersurvey/2006/report06.pdf (accessed July 25, 2007).

Missy M. Bennett, EdD, is an assistant professor and program coordinator of the Secondary Education Master of Arts in Teaching program at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. Copyright (c) 2008 Heldref Publications


Driving Tour: Taking a Closer Look at Students' Homes and Lives

Considerations before you begin:

* Carry a map and cell phone in the event you have car problems or get lost.

* Do not take the driving tour at night; you will not be able to tell much about neighborhoods in the dark. Do not take it during inclement weather conditions. Drive safely.

* Remember that you are observing, not gawking. Never enter private property.

* Form small groups from class to travel together; have discussion as you go; share ideas; reflect on others' points of view.

Questions to consider as you travel through neighborhoods:

1. Were the homes in the neighborhood owned by the families who live there or are they rented? What clues help you determine your answer?

2. During what time of the day did you make your visit? Did you see evidence of people at home during this time of day? What did that tell you about the people who live there? What might it tell you about their employment?

3. What types of heating or cooling were present in the homes of the neighborhoods you visited? How could you tell?

4. What types of transportation did you see at the homes in the neighborhoods you visited? If no visible means of transportation were evident, what evidence of transportation did you notice?

5. What was your overall impression of each neighborhood? Were there signs of community in the neighborhood? What indications did you see?

6. Did you see any sign of problems in any of the neighborhoods? What were they and what were their indicators?

7. How comfortable did you feel in each neighborhood? Were you more comfortable in some than in others? Why or why not?

8. Compare this experience with your background. Did you find any commonalities among your experiences and any of these neighborhoods?

9. Was the neighborhood homogeneous or heterogeneous by race or culture?

10. What was the median age group of the members of each community? In other words, are the members of the community all approximately the same age (homogeneous), or are there elderly, middle aged, and young people present in the same neighborhood (heterogeneous)? What might this tell you about the neighborhood and the people who live there?

11. Were there any commonalities among the neighborhoods you visited? Describe them.


A Narrative Reflection of the Driving Tour Study

On the evening after your driving tour, write out your impressions, reactions, and reflections while they are fresh in your mind. Remember that ideas not immediately recorded usually enjoy the shelf life of unrefrigerated food. Close your driving tour study with the following narrative reflection of the experience:

Include the following at the beginning of your report:


Day and date of tour:

Weather conditions at time of tour:

Beginning time:

Ending time:

Other class members in your driving group:

Narrative Reflection (4-6 page minimum)

Please begin with a brief description of your childhood neighborhood(s). Would any of the neighborhoods on the driving tour be comparable to your childhood neighborhood? Draw comparisons as they apply.

Next, describe the context of the school in which you teach. Visit the Georgia Department of Education Web site to describe the demographics of your school. Help the reader understand the makeup of your school population.

The next two sections of your report are critical. They should provide the reader with a reflective analysis of the experience of investigating some of the neighborhoods similar to those in which your students live. Reflecting on your reactions to the experience is important to better understand the myriad realities of teaching in public schools. Thus, a major part of this narrative ought to address what the experience means for you as a teacher and what it may mean to your professional future. How does this information shed light on the lived realities of the students you teach? What implications will the living conditions of your students have on their performance in your classroom? Or on your performance? Be specific. In light of our study of socioeconomic differences, what evidence have you seen to reinforce or challenge your ideas about student performance in the classroom based on these differences? How will this impact your teaching and your teaching philosophy?

Finally, in your narrative, you should not simply rehash the notes you made on the driving tour. You should articulate the conclusions you drew from those notes and the impact this information will have on the decisions you make as a teacher.

Copyright Heldref Publications Jul/Aug 2008

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