instructional anecdotes and stories you choose to
share with students.
n Be intentional about connecting with students—
both those for whom you don’t have a natural
affinity and those with whom you share similarities.
Smiling, laughing, and engaging in non-academic
banter and activities with students create space for
them to see you as authentic and as a potential ally.
You needn’t be their buddy to share good times. Positive interaction is disarming and fosters belonging.
n In the natural flow of informal conversation
that takes place throughout the day, remember not
to focus solely on topics that require money (for
example, the latest HBO series or smartphone app).
n Explicitly demonstrate respect for individuals at
all socioeconomic levels, especially those within the
school community. The custodian, kitchen assistant,
playground aide, and bus driver ought to be given
the same high level of respect as the principal. Take
care not to appear dismissive of or condescending
to any occupation; you may be referring to some of
your students’ family members.
A Special Responsibility
Educators like me—who come from
childhood experiences of poverty, who know
what it’s like to receive little parental support
for education, or who are first-generation
college graduates—have a special responsibility. If we’re willing to share this part of
our past, some of our students may benefit
from knowing that their teacher has faced
hardships similar to theirs and has managed
to succeed despite the odds.
I’m not minimizing the risks. Most of
us have been trained to avoid personal
disclosure to our students. Many of us have
also gotten pretty good at avoiding the
topic of our own adverse childhood experi-
ences altogether. But like it or not, we have
the power to serve as role models for our
students, or at least to shed light on the
reasons for hope.
I’m also not suggesting that we make these con-
nections all about us. Clearly, the connections we
establish in the classroom must be about doing
what’s best for our students. But without knowing
anything about us, students have every reason to
assume we are simply another college-educated
professional peddling a stump speech about the
importance of education. “Maybe for you,” they may
think, “but not for someone like me.”
We can change this perception by sharing our
stories. When we present our own histories of
poverty and lack of parental support not as a
blemish, but as a sign of strength, we might motivate
students in similar circumstances. And that may
provide exactly the support they need to pursue
their most ambitious education dreams. EL
John Korsmo is associate professor and director of the
Human Services Program at Western Washington University, Bellingham.
Percentage of Respondents Who Said the Factor Was “Very Important”
Very Low-Income Middle-Income
To fulfill a strong personal goal. 75% 76%
To improve my chance of getting
a good job. 67% 58%
To increase my earnings. 50% 48%
To get away from home. 25% 11%
A mentor/role model encouraged
me to go to college. 8% 18%
My family wanted me to go to college. 0% 28%
Note: Survey of approximately 200 first-generation college students.
““We need to be open to the possibility that any given student is receiving little parental support for his or her education.