Don’t Lose Your Working-Class
By Elizabeth Grassi, Joan Armon, and Heidi
Bulmahn Barker, all assistant professors in the department
of education at Regis University
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 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
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
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
- 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
- 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.