Teaching in Rough Neighborhoods

Many complications surround teaching students in rougher neighborhoods. Poverty, violence, inadequate school funding, teenage pregnancy, and student dropout negatively impact the educational opportunities of these students.

While these factors have the potential of derailing many students’ educations, strong and effective teachers act like barriers preventing failure. Using teaching practices that help them maintain authority and push their students to the best of their abilities, these teachers are integral to the success of their students.

At-risk students

Teaching at a school in a rougher neighborhood is unique from other learning environments largely due to the individuals who make up the classroom. Typically, students in these schools are more ethnically and culturally diverse, and may come from different economic backgrounds.

Characteristics of at-risk students

  • Low socioeconomic status families
  • Minority ethnic groups
  • Linguistic minority background
  • History of academic failure
  • Older in age than other classmates
  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • Lack of psychological connection with the school

At-risk students are often placed at a disadvantage compared to students in other schools. Many times, issues with school funding or teacher quality prevent these students from obtaining the same level of instruction as students in more wealthy school districts.

For example, class sizes may be larger in rougher neighborhoods, meaning less one-on-one time between teachers and students. This in turn may lead to less-challenging curriculum for these students, diminishing the quality of education these students receive.

Cultural and ethnic diversity also poses a challenge for many teachers looking to connect with students in rougher neighborhoods. These students may not view the teacher as part of the community, and do not show this teacher the same level of respect they give other authority figures in their lives.

Students might see a teacher as an outside member of the community attempting to connect with them, but not trust him or her. This sometimes leads to more frequent classroom disruptions, disrespect, or other problem behaviors that impede education.

Despite these challenges, teachers must understand and believe that these students can reach the same levels of achievement as other students. By implementing culturally sensitive teaching practices, and maintaining a positive, caring attitude, teachers can break through this barrier and connect with their students.

Characteristics of effective teachers

In order to meet the various needs of their students, teachers in rough neighborhoods need to work especially hard to develop relationships with their students. To establish these relationships, teachers must show that they truly care for their students.

According to “Star Teachers of Children in Poverty,” by Martin Haberman, the most important characteristics of effective teachers of at-risk students is persistence and a caring attitude. Teachers must have a personal orientation toward their students, treating each student as an individual with high potential.

Unfortunately, some schools in rough neighborhoods have reputations for high turnover rates of teachers, meaning that many students are accustomed to new teachers entering their classrooms, only to leave shortly after.

This sometimes leads to a deficiency in trust, and overall lowered respect for many in the teaching profession.

Teachers should approach the classroom with a “we WILL learn” attitude, and never accept anything less. By making sure their students know how much they care, these teachers mentally establish a relationship where students know the teacher is on their “side,” and not out to get them.

However, while these teachers must develop positive attitudes to teach their students, they must also understand that the classroom environment may be very different from what they’ve prepared for. This means that teachers must also be flexible and prepared to change and evolve their teaching strategies.

According to “Research for High-Quality Urban Teaching: Defining It, Developing It, Assessing It,” published in The Journal of Teacher Education, teachers in rougher neighborhoods need more than the general teaching competencies established by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

In the article, author Megan L. Franke and others state that teachers must understand local urban cultures, economies, and the bureaucratic structures of urban schools in order to provide an effective learning environment for students.

Unfortunately, Franke notes that current teacher preparation programs don’t do enough to help new teachers looking to help out in rougher neighborhoods. Effective teaching in rougher neighborhoods involves understanding the community as a whole, and figuring out where the school fits in.

If teachers can bring other community members into the education setting, they can show students how important the school is in the big picture of the community. This means involving parents in the educational experience to a greater degree. These kinds of interactions lead to scenarios where teachers aren’t threatening, but motivating and pushing their students to succeed.

Creating an effective learning environment

Psychological safety is one of the hallmarks of an effective classroom. Students may come from hostile families or homes, and need to feel comfortable and supported in school. If they then enter a classroom environment where hostility continues, how can teachers expect them to learn?

According to “Urban Teacher’s Professed Classroom Management Strategies: Reflections of Culturally Responsive Teachers,” published in Urban Education, teachers must establish a classroom atmosphere where students’ different cultural, social, emotional, ethnic, and cognitive needs are met.

The article, by Dave F. Brown, examines 13 teachers considered “successful” teachers in rougher neighborhoods, and how their teaching and management strategies have led to their success.

The primary practice teachers described was the development of personal relationships with students. A student may appear unruly, disruptive, or disrespectful before a teacher takes the time to develop a relationship with him or her.

By taking time out of each day to communicate with students, teachers learn about their lives, families, and interests. One teacher described it as “being friendly, but not their friend.”

Teachers should also take into account the cultural differences in the processes of communication. For example, Brown notes that children from urban environments tend to expect more direct verbal commands.

Sometimes, these children have difficulty understanding less direct instructions, and teachers may perceive them as disruptive when they actually did not understand the command.

This leads to establishing a business-like atmosphere in the classroom, where students know their opinions and ideas are valued. Students desire to be treated with respect, and want to be provided with opportunities for growth.

In a business-like atmosphere, teachers must also demand effort and results from their students.

One student in the article noted that he or she knew a teacher cared when the teacher pressured students in an assertive manner to complete assignments, pay attention, and perform better academically. Teachers should clearly state classroom expectations, and not permit excuses. This “assertive” attitude will establish a “tough love” attitude, where students know exactly what they need to know to succeed.

Meeting every student’s needs

While teaching in a rough neighborhood isn’t easy, teachers who approach these classrooms with open minds set themselves on the path to success.

Teaching students in rougher neighborhoods has it’s own set of challenges and problems that teachers must always be prepared to meet. While these challenges are serious, teachers who meet them are rewarded by the fact that they’ve pushed students to succeed when others have given up.

Earning a master’s degree in education will help prepare you to meet these challenges by giving you advanced knowledge of teaching practices and management techniques. If you’re interested in performing to the best of your abilities, request information from schools offering master’s degrees in education.


Teaching and Learning