• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., and Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • February 2015 •

Dr Nilka Aviles, Ed.D.The culture of poverty theory postulates that those who are poor gain a poverty-perpetuating value system. It is prevalent in the mindsets of many educators and has thereby often contributed to schools’ dysfunctional behaviors and practices that undermine the academic success of many students, particularly poor and minority students. Tensions exist in the minds of many educators who know about the myths associated with a culture of poverty and, without realizing, yield to well-ingrained prejudices that are used subconsciously to justify any shortcomings in working with some students.

Recently, a group of educators was attending a workshop on how to be successful with every student. When asked about their philosophy of education, all agreed with the axiom that all students can learn and that the teacher can play a positive role in ensuring that all students are successful. Good intentions appear to be less evident, however, when asked about the barriers that students face. The majority started by listing assumptions and forces outside the school, such as “parents don’t care” or “students are not motivated to learn.”

Many of us don’t realize we have subconscious biases or make personal judgments that affect what we are communicating and how we are interacting with people who are not like us. As educators, we need to acknowledge and have a clear understanding of how the interaction between our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors filters into what happens in the classroom. If we are aware of our hidden biases, we can monitor and adjust our thought processes before they are expressed through dysfunctional actions and behaviors.

Thus, we challenge each educator to subscribe to a culture of promise. As difficult as it may appear, we must move from using a poverty lens to a possibility lens. We need to uphold the understanding that educators and all stakeholders will make a real difference in the lives of all students, including the ones who continuously face many life challenges and adversities.

Nurturing, caring, being empathetic and compassionate and sustaining a positive attitude accompanied by giving hope, increases the opportunities of all students to be more in tune with learning, being equipped to reach standards of excellence regardless of the color of their skin, ethnicity, language they speak or socioeconomic status.

As educators, we must debunk Ruby Payne’s oppressive framework of poverty that results in supporting the status quo allowing injustices to blatantly go unopposed (Gorski, 2005). Earnestly, we need to join efforts to eliminate what oppresses students in our schools and address inequities that exist by empowering and advancing the culture of promise and possibility.

The research literature reveals that education is seen as a great equalizer. But many dysfunctional, pervasive practices based on the myths of a culture of poverty perpetuate inequalities in the school system.

Gorski (2013) lists myths that are responsible for the most pervasive practices. These myths include: poor people are unmotivated and have a weak work ethic; poor parents are uninvolved in their children’s learning, largely because they do not value education; poor people are linguistically deficient; and poor people tend to abuse drugs and alcohol.

What we need to realize is that educational systems often deny many students access to equitable resources in intellectual enrichment, validating assets, support services, affirming surroundings, high expectations, rigorous curriculum and pedagogies, high quality teaching, and high quality resources, including technology, to which all students are entitled.

Systems also perpetuate classism by falling into the deficit theory construct, which focuses on established stereotypes and ignores the inequitable access to a quality education that continuously supports the cycle of poverty (Gorski, 2013; Kozol, 1992).

On the other hand, we know that many teachers and school leaders who do not make excuses for poor performance of schools and their students, regardless of socioeconomic status, lead with an asset-based lens that focuses on strengths, converting identified weaknesses into powerful competencies.

As Jensen (2013) indicates, the classroom teacher is, by far, the most significant contributor as he or she interacts with students on a daily basis for several hours a day. This interaction can be positive by engaging the student in a learner-centered classroom free of stereotypes and teacher biases, or it can be a negative experience that disengages students in a more hostile environment that leads to poor performance.

How do we help educators deal with the ingrained biases that may be hindering students’ academic performance? If we as educators want students to excel in learning, we in turn must be willing to excel in our job ensuring that all students do well. It’s about changing the way we think and act; it’s about being more aware of our own attitudes, hidden rules and beliefs systems as we interact with our students.

This requires that we work with students in new and different ways. We need to adapt our teaching so that we interact with students to reach them in more insightful and meaningful ways. We cannot assume that what worked for us or what worked with others in the past is going to work now. And it didn’t necessarily really work back then either.

Jensen (2013) discusses powerful engagement strategies that uplift the mindset of possibility and promise, that raise achievement and increase access in an effort to eradicate opportunity gaps as we strive to change systems to empower the people who govern them.

These powerful strategies include: (1) explore the seven factors that correlate with engagement, (2) learn the rules for engagement, (3) engage for positive climate, (4) engage to build cognitive capacity, (5) engage to support motivation and effort, (6) engage for deep understanding, (7) engage for energy and focus and learn how to automate engagement.

Students require you to believe in them so that they can prosper and reach their fullest potential. Build their confidence as you interact with them, use meaningful affirmations, and show them that you care about them.

Educators can promote a classroom environment in which students are affirmed and where possibilities and promise are central to what happens inside the classroom. A positive and constructive, emotional state of mind for a student is critical to learning. Remember, students excel with teachers who like, who respect and who value them. Plan your lessons with a purpose of promise and possibility, show your passion and ensure students know what you want them to accomplish each day.

When you instill hope and arm students with the capacity to unleash their potential, you make a difference in their life becoming their champion, and that will be treasured forever.


Bomer, R., & J.E. Dworin, L. May, P. Semingson. “Miseducating Teachers about the Poor: A Critical Analysis of Ruby Payne’s Claims about Poverty,” Teachers College Record (2008) Volume 110 Number 12, 2008, p. 2497-2531.

Gorski, P.C. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap (Multicultural Education) (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press, 2013).

Gorski, P.C. Savage Unrealities: Uncovering Classism in Ruby Payne’s Framework (EdChange, 2005).

Jensen, E. Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind: Practical Strategies for Raising Achievement (Alexandria, Va.: ASCD, 2013).

Kozol, J. Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: Harper-Collins, 1992).

Montemayor, A.M. “Gauging Grit – Gouging the Poor,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Intercultural Development Research Association, January 2015).

Robledo Montecel, M., & Goodman, C. (eds). Courage to Connect: A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Rodriguez, R.G., & A. Villarreal. “Development Through Engagement – Valuing the ‘At Promise’ Community,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Intercultural Development Research Association, August 2000).

Scott, B., & A.M. Montemayor. Busting Myths About Children of Poverty – Classnotes Podcast 50 (San Antonio, Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2009).

Villareal, A. “Achieving a World-Class Education Requires Commitment to Protecting Education as a Civil Right,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2010).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is a senior education associate in IDRA Department of Student Access and Success. Abelardo Villarreal, Ph.D., is chief of operations at IDRA. Comments and questions may be directed to them via email at nilka.aviles@idra.org and abelardo.villarreal@idra.org.

[©2015, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2015 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]