Growing Up Poor

The following article was written for the Research Further initiative; a collaboration between the Association of Colleges and NCFE to support, drive and encourage college-centred research that can help influence policy and practice. You can find more about the initiative here.

I have always placed a great deal of importance on reflection in my teaching practice. This has manifested as regular reflection on outcomes, consistent gathering of and listening to student feedback, and the pouring over and trialling of research-informed teaching, learning and assessment strategies.

Throughout my teaching career this cyclical action of reflection and adaptation has felt fundamental to the very drive that brought me back to teaching; to create spaces and opportunities for every student who enters my classroom. You can imagine my surprise then, when faced with the task at hand, to realise that my reflections had been entirely insular. They had existed only within the bubble of tangible practice and measurable outcomes. My need for quantifiable reflection removed me and the influence of my experiences from the equation; placing me as an observer rather than a creator.

As my doctoral studies guided me into discourse surrounding life narratives as an ethnographic tool in education I was struck by its significance. Eisner (1981) speaks of the depth of vision enhanced by the harmonious entwining of human experience and scientific analysis of valuable but faceless data. And so this is what I embarked to do through a written piece of intense positional reflection. I attempted to delve into the depths of experience that subconsciously shape my actions and priorities. To ‘step back into myself’ without the rigid intention of a set destination, but with curiosity (Tremmel, 1993).

I’ve always been driven by an inherent desire to do better by my students and the preliminary research task of dismantling what that meant, and my motivation for doing so, was daunting. Were my reflections intent on employing better exam preparation strategies to improve quantitative outcomes? Was I striving to support the development of a rich hidden curriculum of skills and knowledge that will allow the young people in my classrooms to transgress the boundaries of economic, social and cultural capital? Was I unwittingly preparing them to face assumed replicas of my own personal barriers, entirely ignorant of the challenges that lurk both behind and ahead of each individual, crafted by an infinite diversity of experience?

As a child, I experienced the possibilities of education in igniting social mobility. I was raised in a Glasgow council flat by a young, single mother. I attended a small primary school situated at the epicentre of our monochrome estate and my peers lived in the uniformed flats and houses that surrounded my own. We were a close-knit and diverse community with one commonality: we were poor. Once a week, my school janitor would walk me beyond the estate boundary to the Catholic school at the bottom of the hill for my free violin lesson, and forty-five minutes later their janitor would return me safely. Unbeknownst to those kindly caretakers, their weekly commitment has shaped my entire academic and professional career. The five minute round trip they volunteered embodied a cross-agency collaboration that supported the enhancement of my social and cultural capital through shared resources. Such acts are sadly now often impeded by the ongoing marketisation of, and driving competition between, schools (Keddie, 2015).

Amidst these temporary opportunities afforded to me, my mum was also taking advantage of current policy that offered her the financial freedom to enter higher education. The NHS bursary steered her into a nursing degree, which sparked a striking journey of upward social mobility for both of us. Shortly after graduating, my mum utilised the Right to Buy scheme and found herself on the property ladder astride our cherished council flat; our home. A few years later she purchased a larger house in a leafier suburb that teetered on the border of a sought-after catchment area for a secondary school that consistently boasted high league table rankings. I spent a year in a local primary school to secure my place and shortly before my transition I was invited in to meet my new peers. For the first time, I encountered the “othering” potential of education that would initiate a pattern of disengagement throughout the remainder of my compulsory schooling. Othering is a process of segregation, not necessarily physically, but of highlighting one as different and creating unseen boundaries between social groups (Schwalbe et al, 2000). The tumultuous rising of boundaries between myself and my new classmates was palpable as I stood before thirty of them; ten years old, suddenly surrounded and entirely alone. They rushed to me, words and limbs spilling over each other as they reached for me, introducing boyfriends and recounting sleepovers and cinema trips. My friends were the children of our estate. They were boys but certainly not boyfriends. Our trips were to the woods behind our flats where we played every day in all weather. Our interests lay in the bed of the burn that separated our flats from our school; mud soaked plastic treasures and conkers. If nature could not provide it, we could not afford it.

My mum’s careful construction of the inflation of our economic capital had gained me access to a new environment, but I seemed to be an ill fit. In my first term I can remember vividly two occasions when I found myself on the receiving end of disciplinary measures with very little understanding of why, and without the language to ask. Yet I remain unconvinced now that an agreed collection of core cultural literacies is an accurate measurement of capital, nor a particularly valuable tool in supporting it’s growth (Abrams, F. 2012).

In fact, I cannot help but feel that the embedding of an agreed set of names, events and locations is in direct contradiction to the existence of a community of knowledge, or certainly seems to seek to undermine it. My pockets were lined with conkers and my heart full of ancient Scots’ verse, but they seemed to be unwanted gifts in this new environment. Shiv Visvanathan pioneered the term “cultural justice” to assert the need for a cultural equity; for a plurality of knowledge shaped by diverse cultures and traditions to be valued equally (Hoppers, C.O. 2021). This, I believe, would have been a far more valuable tool in my educational experience than a standardised test on the works of Henry Moore (Abrams, F. 2012). Prescribed criteria created by a hegemonic class will always place the other in a position of perceived deficit. I never felt lacking. I felt misunderstood.

The idyllic community of childhood that I conjure in memory returns to comfort me even now in my dreams during times of high stress. Similarly, my mum, who bore the brunt of the situational poverty that shaped our conjoined experience often speaks about a longing to return to our home and the community that surrounded it. I am not naive enough to consider the stories we have crafted for ourselves authentic retellings of the decade we spent here, and therefore the working class identity that has informed my experience since (Smith, S and Watson, J. 2010). Yet there is undoubtedly truths to the stories and identities we have woven. As an adult I continue to seek the woods and the burns. Only the outsiders’ perception has altered; from toe-rag to ambler with every salary increment.

As a researcher, this shift in economic standing and the fluid perceptions it conjures of my identity bring me deep discomfort in my positionality. I do not wish to perpetuate the problematic patterns of creating research for and about poverty-experienced individuals when my social trajectory has placed me firmly in our socially dominant class (Traustadóttir, D. 2001). I recognise that the economic privilege that has been constructed for and by me since these early years has placed me in a position of power in a middle class normative society that “others” external groups (Beckman, L.J. 2014). Feminist research methodologies seek to cast light onto power imbalances within qualitative research, and I find myself deeply drawn to them. They strive to recognise the ability of power to shape every element of the research conducted, from groups and individuals selected to participate to the questions asked and methods of dissemination (Fischer, A.R. and DeBord. K.A. 2012). This strikes a chord as I begin to meet with members of senior and executive leadership about conducting my proposed research within my current professional role.

I begin to recognise the power imbalance in my developing research design as my data is shaped by granted access to the student body and data (Ackerley, B. True, J. 2008). Already, I see contributions and outcomes being shaped around participants. I also recognise myself amidst this power imbalance, and the contrasting internal identities that make up my whole (Kezar, A. 2002).

As a teacher, I recognise the roots of many values I carry professionally entwined in the stories and memories above. I also acknowledge the superficial nature of my reflections that ignore the reach of those roots. I am placing a great amount of importance onto nurturing spaces of equity and cognitive justice that embrace the diversity of experiences, cultures and values of my learners. I am unravelling years of conditioned behaviours that impress hegemonic social and cultural expectations on those around me. But crucially, I recognise my intense privilege in a working environment that allows and supports me to do so safely.


Abrams, F. (The G. (2012). US idea of “cultural literacy” and key facts a child should know arrives in UK | Education | The Guardian. The Guardian. (Accessed 24.01.22)

Ackerly, B., & True, J. (2010). Doing Feminist Research in Political and Social Science. In Doing Feminist Research in Political and Social Science.

Beckman, L. J. (2014). Training in Feminist Research Methodology: Doing Research on the Margins. Women and Therapy, 37(1–2).

Eisner, E. W. (1981). On the Differences Between Scientific and Artistic Approaches to Qualitative Research. Educational Researcher, 10(4).

Fischer, A. R., & DeBord, K. A. (2013). Critical questioning of social and feminist identity development literature: Themes, principles, and tools. In The Oxford handbook of feminist multicultural counseling psychology. (Issue November).

Kezar, A. (2002). Expanding notions of leadership to capture pluralistic voices: Positionality theory in practice. Journal of College Student Development, 43(4).

Odora Hoppers, C. (2021). Research on Indigenous knowledge systems: the search for cognitive justice. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 40(4).

Scott, P., & Hirsch, E. D. (1988). A Few Words More about E. D. Hirsch and Cultural Literacy. College English, 50(3).

Smith, S., & Watson, J. (2015). Autobiographical Subjects. In Reading Autobiography.

Traustadóttir, R. (2001). Research with others: Reflections on representation, difference and othering. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 3(2).

Tremmel, R. (1993). Zen and the Art of Reflective Practice in Teacher Education. Harvard Educational Review, 63(4).

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.