Don't Lose Your Working-Class Students

In the halls of the teacher education department at our small liberal arts university, the three of us often talk about the same issues concerning students in our program who worry us. The issues seem to grow out of a common characteristic some struggling students share: a working-class background. Two of the three of us are from working-class families, and financing college was a problem for all three of us, so we understand the challenges facing working-class students.

After much reading and consultation, we identified some strategies that we’d like to share. Since developing them, we’ve deliberately tried to apply the strategies in our classes and our department. We want to show solidarity with our students from working-class homes who may feel isolated among peers from middle- and upper-middle-class families. Working-class students need to know that their perspectives are valued in courses throughout the curriculum, and we are finding that our students benefit from the consistent and predictable approaches we have introduced in our courses in English as a second language, literacy, and special education. To illustrate what we’re doing, we present a case study of the progress of one working-class student in our department, Wesley (a pseudonym).

Wesley’s Story

Wesley enrolled in our university on a sports scholarship. He attended several other institutions beforehand and was the first in his family to go to college. Wesley remembered times in his childhood when his family did not have enough money for necessities, especially during periods when his father was unemployed. When he enrolled in his first upper-level education class in our department, he had a very low grade point average and a reputation for not taking classes or coursework seriously. From the start, Wesley resisted course requirements that were not immediately relevant or important to him. He needed help connecting the material discussed in class with his work in his teaching internships.

Wesley was placed at Oakton Elementary School in Ms. Nemise’s class. Most of the school’s students were from low-income families. Many of them were second language learners, and the teacher was from Mexico. This context presented challenges for Wesley, because the school was underfunded and Ms. Nemise (a pseudonym), although fluent in Spanish and Mexican culture, was not fluent in academic English. Ms. Nemise desperately wanted the children in the class to have access to the cultural and linguistic knowledge and skills that could promote their success in the United States. Her concern for their welfare led her to create a partnership with Wesley. Ms. Nemise taught Wesley about linguistic and cultural expectations for children coming from Mexico, and Wesley explained to the class the cultural and linguistic components of academic success in the United States. Ms. Nemise called on Wesley to teach the students regularly even though he was a student in an educational methods course rather than a student teacher.

Wesley was forced to broaden his cultural knowledge in order to teach effectively. For example, when Ms. Nemise asked Wesley to teach the class mathematical concepts, he quickly discovered that the traditional approach he had used in other placements did not work well in this classroom. He turned to Ms. Nemise and the students to find out how mathematical concepts are approached in their country of origin. Once he understood the perspective of the students, he was able to use their background knowledge as a launching pad for lessons and successfully complete the math curriculum.

When school personnel discovered that Wesley was a basketball player, they asked him to start an after-school program. He developed a basketball club with children of all ages. When he noticed some mothers standing out in the hallway waiting, he invited them in and expanded the club to include parents as well.

This placement was a turning point for Wesley. He started coming to class regularly, completing assignments, and actively contributing to class discussions. His professors highlighted Wesley’s experience in the classroom, and gave him the space to tell his classmates not only about the successful lessons or programs he conducted in his school placements, but also about his background and its contribution to his successful teaching practices.

Wesley also started visiting our offices regularly, spending time talking about his placements and how much he enjoyed working with children. He was pleased about the positive impact he was having on them and their families. We exchanged our stories with Wesley, discovering that we shared common elements in our histories. In short, Wesley became an engaged, motivated education student and received job offers in every placement thereafter.


One component of Wesley’s success was his perception that his elementary school placement was relevant to his college coursework. Other working-class students in our program also talk to us periodically about their perceived need for their courses to have real-world application. Richard A. Greenwald and Elizabeth Grant write in “Border Crossings,” published in the 1999 book Teaching Working Class, about the importance of engaging working-class students in meaningful activities that offer them concrete outcomes. Placing Wesley in a low-income school with “at risk” children prompted him to use instructional strategies from his coursework to communicate effectively with non-English-speaking students. He saw the results of his actions immediately, which motivated him to become a better teacher. Wesley consulted his professors about how to make lessons more comprehensible to non-English-speaking students, asking the Spanish speakers among them for translations of English phrases so that children could better understand him.

For working-class students, the ability to draw connections between their lives, courses of study, and future jobs is essential. Wesley’s school placement, in conjunction with course discussions, readings, and presentations, helped him to see the connections between his background and his chosen profession. Education researchers stress that working-class students should be allowed to make connections in class between their observations and personal histories and classroom material.

Drawing on students’ experiences in class discussions is an effective way to tackle issues of social class. When Wesley began working with children from economic backgrounds that mirrored his own, he reflected on his memories from childhood of living with scarce resources to help him to understand the children’s situation. Doing so enabled him to make deep connections with the children and their parents as well as his own past. In Oakton classrooms, Wesley was able to build on his strong belief in the educational system as a tool for moving up the economic ladder. The connections he made between his experience and that of his students surfaced not only in the energy and commitment Wesley brought to the school, but also in the rapport he built with families. Mothers regularly brought him gifts of food before school. When we visited him at Oakton, every child in the school seemed to know him.

A Matter of Trust

Trust between working-class students and their professors and teachers in school placements appears to be essential to the students’ success. We find that working-class students, even more so than students from other class backgrounds, respond well to being trusted with responsibility. Many have taken on significant responsibilities in the home earlier than their middle- or upper-class peers.

Wesley developed trust in educational institutions as he immersed himself in his school placement, which provided opportunities for him to demonstrate his strengths. He was desperately needed by the school, the teacher, the children, and their families. His strengths—compassion for children in need and a passion for working with children from low-income homes—were highly valued at Oakton. When Ms. Nemise relied on Wesley to teach lessons and other school personnel asked him to organize after-school activities, Wesley took these responsibilities seriously and asked us, his professors, to help him translate and create lessons. When he visited our offices, we worked with him to make further connections between his coursework, his upbringing, and his practical experience.

Some research has found that working-class students have a sink-or-swim philosophy and maintain an emotional toughness that prevents them from reaching out to faculty when they are failing or need help (see the article by Janet Galligani Casey in the July–August 2005 issue of Academe). By placing Wesley in a situation that allowed him to make his strengths apparent, we opened the door to his having conversations with professors—conversations based on his successes rather than his failures. To include working-class students in higher education, we have to first make them comfortable. We did so with Wesley by sharing our own stories with him and encouraging him to share his stories from a platform of strength. We built trust, and over the course of two years, he opened up about his academic difficulties. We responded by working with him at a departmental level to address gaps in his writing and other academic skills and pointed him toward financial resources and emotional support to help him graduate and complete his teacher licensure.

Although Wesley is highly marketable in any school district, he chose to work at one of the poorest schools in the area. His positive impact on the students, school, and community continues. We now know, after working with Wesley and others like him, that we can take positive action to support our students through the college and teacher licensure experience. Although not all working-class students aspire to teach children in low-income schools, we now intervene much more directly to encourage the sometimes latent talents of our working-class students and the passionate commitment many of them have to children in low-income areas. We coach them on how to handle college and point out its relevancy to the practical world. We explicitly make connections between coursework and practice in a way that coincides with the students’ working-class histories and their desire to help others improve their lives through education. We build trust by carefully selecting school placements where our students will be entrusted with significant responsibilities that highlight their strengths and create safe spaces for them to reveal and confront challenges, whether personal or academic.

Several of the working-class students in our department are dealing with financial burdens, domestic conflicts, caretaking responsibilities, or the inability to attend class and complete assignments consistently. We meet regularly as a department to brainstorm about how best to work with each student. Drawing from our list of strategies, we tailor our responses to the particular student. Our approaches typically involve mentoring students in academic or other skills (such as interviewing), checking in with them regularly about their overall well-being, or visiting them in school placements to let them know that we have a personal investment in their success.

The challenge for us, of course, is finding the time for such extra efforts. And sometimes we fail, even after we’ve tried strategies such as creating an individual goal-setting plan with a student. If we find that a student is not capable of or committed to becoming a teacher who can make a positive difference for children, we work with our campus career services department to counsel the student out of teacher education and into another field.

Our first goal in spending extra time and effort to support our working-class students is, however, to prevent them from dropping out of teacher education. Our task is collaborative: the students must adapt to the requirements of our college and our state’s teacher-licensure program, and we must adapt the program to our students and their distinctive needs and talents. We see the potential of diamonds in the rough, and if we make initial efforts to get to know working-class students and support them, and if the students respond, we can usually guide them to success. A good number of them have in fact graduated from the program and are employed in local school districts where their mentors in the field speak highly of them.

Our next goal is to collect longitudinal data on teacher and student performance and teacher retention so that we can answer more questions about our students and our strategies, such as:

  • Did we help our working-class students find their calling in life? If so, what strategies helped us accomplish this?
  • Do we approach male students differently from female students and, if so, how?
  • What more might we learn about what students’ working-class backgrounds bring to their teaching experiences?
  • Does a working-class background help students become more successful than more privileged students in the field? If so, in what contexts?

As more students from low-income homes attend school, teachers from low-income, working-class backgrounds are needed more than ever to understand, nurture, and teach students what they need to do to reach their own potential. Human talent is precious, and we cannot afford to ignore the passion, expertise, and energy of our Wesleys—qualities that many children in our nation’s schools are waiting for and deserve.


Casey, J. G. 2005. Diversity, discourse, and the working-class student. Academe 91 (4).

Greenwald, R. A., and E. GRANT. 1999. Border crossings: Working-class encounters in higher education. In Teaching working class, ed. S. L. Linkon, 28-38. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September–October 2006 issue of Academe and is reprinted by permission of the American Association of University Professors, which holds the copyright.

Elizabeth Grassi, Joan Armon, and Heidi Bulmahn Barker are all assistant professors in the department of education at Regis University.

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