Transformative Teaching – Supporting Our Students in Poverty


Transformative Teaching – Supporting Our Students from Poverty
Co-authored by: Michelle Leip and Kathleen Kryza

Supporting students who live in poverty is close to the hearts of those us at Infinite Horizons.  Michelle has taught in Title I schools throughout her teaching career and just completed 16 months of service as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Costa Rica.  Kathleen has worked for many years at impoverished schools in Belize and around America. We have been blessed to work with some of the most amazing teachers and children in these places and have come away wiser about the challenges they face each day and the hunger they have to create a better future for their children.

In this newsletter, we continue to study how to transform our classrooms by looking at ways to honor and support teachers on their heroes’ journey of teaching to the “whole learner”  - considering students’ cultural, emotional, and academic needs in the school setting along the content they need to teach.  This month we will highlight some of the strategies that help support students who come to us from poverty. We will also dispel some common misconceptions about these students.

Misconception # 1: These kids are so unstable, why bother? They’ll be leaving my classroom anyway.
Often children who live in poverty move frequently and live in unstable environments. All the more reason we should bother!  For these students, school may be the only safe haven and the most stable aspect of their lives. We owe it to them to create a safe space for them to settle into as long as they are with us.

One way to create this safe space is to cultivate a meaningful, respectful relationship with our students. Numerous studies cite the direct correlation of the teacher-student interaction to students’ academic growth (Kuh, 2001). Put simply – students work best for teachers they like. Teachers can get to know their students by having them fill out interest and learning style surveys. (Click here for links to these surveys.)  You can then use this personal/learning style information to engage in short conversations about the students’ topic of choice.  For example, have mini lunch or breakfast dates with students to get to know them a little bit outside of the classroom.  For middle and high school students, even a one minute connect in the hallway or after class (“Hey, Tulio, I see you are really into soccer.  What did you think about…”) can have a powerful impact on students. The more we truly know and see our students from poverty, the better able we are to support them, the more they feel part of a learning community.

Equally important is to create a classroom environment that is inclusive and supportive. Students need to feel comfortable taking risks in order to learn and grow. Teachers should begin this process on day one of the school year. (Click here for a free “This is a risk-taking, mistake-making classroom” poster.) Students need to value one another’s contributions and see their diversity as a strength.  We can cultivate this kind of environment by creating cooperative rather than competitive work groups. (See this information from Concept to Classroom for support on how to create cooperative learning groups.) When students have a “home team” or school family that works together to learn together, they are better prepared to achieve their best.
Misconception #2:  Their parents don’t care about education.
Many families who live in poverty have parents who are working multiple jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over the family’s head. Their potential absence from a back-to-school night or parent-teacher meeting is not necessarily indicative of a lack of import placed on education but rather evidence of obstacles due to schedule (or other) conflicts.

Some families do not speak the same language as our general instruction. That can be another huge hurdle for these parents to understand what is happening during their child’s school day. There are several things that teachers can do to minimize these barriers to communication.

  • Consider offering flexible scheduling for meetings or having phone conferences to make it possible to include these students’ parents in the classroom community.
  • Consider translating notes into the student’s primary languages. You may not speak the student’s home language, but he or she can help with this task as well.  A simple trick is to copy and paste the note into an online translation site like Google Translate, and then ask the student to proofread it for translation errors. It takes less time to proofread for errors than translating from scratch.
  • If the family is not originally from your country, learn about their cultural norms. Different cultures have varying expectations for interaction with teachers. If we have a clear understanding of the family’s culture we will know best how to include them in our classroom community.
  • This article from ASCS offers great tried and true ideas for engaging parents - Three Ways to Engage Parents in High Poverty Settings.  

Misconception #3: These kids can’t learn.
Students rise or fall to the expectations that are implicitly or explicitly set for them. Numerous schools test results show that with increased effort, adequate resources, and high expectations, students in poverty can perform as well as their peers in wealthier areas (Bennett, et al., 2004).

Carol Dweck’s research on growth vs. fixed mindsets purports that when students are taught to develop growth mindsets they are more successful in school and in life (Dweck, 2006). We need to intentionally and transparently teach our students about growth mindsets and keep it alive in our classes throughout the year.  All students benefit from this instruction, but it is especially important for students who live in poverty. To help students flex their growth mindset muscles, teachers should also be sure to give kids specific and real praise based on students’ effort. (Ex: “Wow! This report is compelling and detailed! I can tell you must have worked really hard on it.”  – instead of -  “Wow! What a great report! You’re so smart.”)   You can get more ideas for teaching about Growth Mindsets from our recently updated version of “Developing Growth Mindsets in the Inspiring Classroom.”

Whenever possible offer students choice for projects and processing. (Know your students, know the target, vary the pathways!) When students have a choice in how to show what they know, they are more likely to take ownership of the material. This also offers a chance for students from poverty to link their learning to experiences in their life.

This newsletter just scrapes the surface of some ways to support our learners who come from low socio-economic households. For more information and great ideas that support all learners culturally, emotionally, and academically, check out our latest book – Transformative Teaching. 

Some Activities/Resources to help bring the info to your classroom.

 Some meaningful, related web content.



  • Kryza, K, Brittingham, M andDuncan, Transformative Teaching: Changing Today’s Classrooms Culturally, Emotionally and Academically. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree. 2015. Print.
  • Kuh, G. D., & Hu, S. (2001). The Effects of Student-Faculty Interaction In the 1990s. The Review of Higher Education, 24(3), 309-332. Retrieved February 4, 2016.
  • Trial Urban District Assessment. (n.d.). Retrieved February 04, 2016, from 






Copyright © 2016 Kathleen Kryza's Infinite Horizons, All rights reserved.