students may develop a heightened sense of trust,
improved self-confidence, and increased comfort in
My own experiences in school illustrate how
important it can be to build such bridges. Even at a
young age, I understood that I was treated differently
from many of the other students. I saw and felt the
ways in which my teachers interacted more fluidly
and naturally with some of my classmates. Chitchat
about common interests, vacations, favorite restaurants, and television shows was common. Those of
us who had never experienced a vacation, been to a
restaurant, or owned a working TV were left out of
significant informal conversations. I could sense how
the students with means and those whose parents
were well-educated and involved in their schooling
benefited from their school-based social networks.
In contrast, my low-income peers and I did not feel
as though we fit in the academic setting.
Unfortunately, that sense of not belonging, which
chips away at self-esteem and enjoyment of school,
seems to increase as students move up through
the grades. By the time the more than 200 first-generation college goers in my survey got to higher
education, 60 percent of those from low-income
families said they “frequently felt as though they did
not fit in with their peers on campus” (compared
with only 8 percent of the middle-income students).
Even though the students surveyed were from a
regional public university where nearly one-third of
the overall student body is first-generation, a large
proportion of the low-income students still felt that
they did not belong.
Students frequently commented that there seemed
to be a certain way of communicating and even
behaving in college that they did not understand.
Most expressed a sense of not having the finances
available to them that other students seemed to have.
Much of the discomfort felt by first-generation students was described in terms of class differences and
a “hard to explain” sense of “otherness.” In interviews, these students commonly said that this sense
of being an outsider had hindered their education
experience overall (causing many to withdraw from
courses and consider leaving school altogether).
How to Create Belonging
What specific actions can teachers take, whatever
their own backgrounds, to increase low-income
students’ feelings of belonging in school? Here are
n Introduce diverse materials and experiences
in the curriculum, including positive references
to individuals of modest means and those who
lacked formal education. Strive for diversity in the
texts you assign, the video clips you show, and the
There are lots of times for every teacher when you know you’ve
made a difference in the life of a child. I don’t mean in a big life-changing kind of a way, but rather when you see that spark of
recognition, that understanding that comes over their face, when
you recognize that they got it, and you have that secret pride of
being able to say, “I taught you that!” It’s
an amazing experience. I think it’s those
little moments in the classroom that end
up accumulating over time and making a
difference on a larger scale.
One of those memorable times when
I knew I made a difference was in my first
year of teaching. I was teaching 1st grade,
and I had a student—his name was Michael—who struggled with
reading. I felt pretty ill-equipped to help him. I felt out of my depth
as a new teacher working with a student who was struggling to
But Michael stayed with me. Michael was persistent. He was
confident in me when I wasn’t confident in my own skills. The
day he came to me and read aloud a page from a book we’d been
working on, then looked up at me with his huge eyes—to this day
I can burst into tears just thinking about it because I recognized
that as much as anything, it was Michael’s belief that I could
teach him how to read that made a difference. I may have made a
difference for Michael, but Michael also made a difference for me.
Nancy Frey is a professor of educational leadership at San Diego State
University. Her latest book, coauthored with Doug Fisher and Alex
Gonzalez, is Teaching with Tablets: How Do I Integrate Tablets with
Effective Instruction? (ASCD, 2013).
Making a Difference
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