Growin 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've aye placed a muckle importance on reflection in ma teachin practice. This has manifestit as regular reflection on outcomes, steady gatherin o an listenin tae student feedback, an the careful study an testin o research-informed teachin, learnin, an assessment strategies.

Throu ma teachin career this cyclical action o reflection an adaptation has felt fundemental tae the very drive that brocht me back tae teachin; tae mak spaces an opportunities for ilka student wha comes intae ma classroom. Ye can imagine ma surprise then, whan faced wi the task at haun, tae realise that ma reflections haed been entirely insular. They haed existit only within the bubble o tangible practice an measurable outcomes. Ma need for quantifiable reflection took me an the influence o ma experiences fae the equation; placin me as an observer rather than a creator.

As ma doctoral studies led me intae discourse aboot life narratives as an ethnographic tool in education, I wis struck by its significance. Eisner (1981) speaks o the depth o vision enhanced by the harmonious entwining o human experience an scientific analysis o valuable but faceless data. An sae this is whit I set oot tae dae throu a written piece o intense positional reflection. I tried tae delve intae the depths o experience that subconsciously shape ma actions an priorities. Tae ‘step back intae masel’ withoot the rigid intention o a set destination, but wi curiosity (Tremmel, 1993).

I've aye been driven by an inherent desire tae dae better by ma students an the preliminary research task o dismantlin whit that meant, an ma motivation for daein sae, wis daunting. Were ma reflections intent on employin better exam preparation strategies tae improve quantitative outcomes? Was I strivin tae support the development o a rich hidden curriculum o skills an knowledge that will allow the young fowk in ma classrooms tae transgress the boundaries o economic, social an cultural capital? Was I unwittingly preparin them tae face assumed replicas o ma ain personal barriers, entirely ignorant o the challenges that lurk baith ahint an ahead o ilka individual, crafted by an infinite diversity o experience?

As a wean, I experienced the possibilities o education in ignitin social mobility. I wis raised in a Glesgae council flat by a young, single mother. I attended a sma primary school sittit at the epicentre o oor monochrome cooncil scheme an ma peers bided in the uniformed flats an hooses that surroondit ma ain. We were a close-knit an diverse community wi ane commonality: we were poor. Aince a week, ma school janitor wad walk me ayont the scheme boundary tae the Catholic school at the bottom o the hill for ma free fiddle lesson, an forty-five minutes later their janitor wad tak me safely back. Unbeknownst tae thae kindly caretakers, their weekly commitment has shaped ma entire academic an professional career. The five minute roond trip they volunteered embodit a cross-agency collaboration that supported the enhancement o ma social an cultural capital throu shared resources. Sic acts are sadly noo aften impedit by the ongaein marketisation o, an drivin competition atween, schools (Keddie, 2015).

Amidst thae temporary opportunities affordit tae me, ma maw wis also takkin advantage o current policy that offerit her the financial freedom tae enter higher education. The NHS bursary steerit her intae a nursin degree, which sparked a strikin journey o upward social mobility for baith o us. Shortly efter graduatin, ma maw utilised the Right tae Buy scheme an fund hersel on the property ladder astride oor cherished cooncil flat; oor hame. A few years later she purchased a mair substantial hoose in a leafier suburb that teetered on the border o a sought-after catchment area for a secondary school that consistently boastit high league table rankings. I spent a year in a local primary school tae secure ma place an shortly afore ma transition I wis invitit in tae meet ma new peers. For the first time, I encountered the “othering” potential o education that wad initiate a pattern o disengagement throu the remainder o ma compulsory schoolin. Othering is a process o segregation, no necessarily physically, but o highlightin ane as different an creatin unseen boundaries atween social groups (Schwalbe et al, 2000). The tumultuous risin o boundaries atween masel an ma new classmates wis palpable as I stood afore thirty o them; ten year auld, suddenly surroondit an entirely alane. They rushed tae me, words an limbs spillin ower each ither as they reached for me, introducin boyfriends an recountin sleepovers an cinema trips. Ma friends were the bairns o oor scheme. They were laddies but certainly no boyfriends. Oor trips were tae the woods ahint oor flats whaur we played ilka day in a weather. Oor interests lay in the bed o the burn that separit oor flats fae oor school; muck-soakit plastic treasures an conkers. If nature couldnae provide it, we couldnae afford it.

Ma maw’s careful construction o the inflation o oor economic capital haed gained me access tae a new environment, but I seemed tae be an ill fit. In ma first term I can mind vividly twa occasions whan I foond masel on the receivin end o disciplinary measures wi very little understandin o why, an withoot the language tae ask. Yet I remain unconvinced noo that an agreed collection o core cultural literacies is an accurate measurement o capital, nor a particularly valuable tool in supportin its growth (Abrams, F. 2012). In fact, I cannae help but feel that the embeddin o an agreed set o names, events, an locations is in direct contradiction tae the existence o a community o knowledge, or certainly seems tae seek tae undermine it. Ma pooches were lined wi conkers an ma hert fu o auld Scots’ verse, but they seemed tae be unwantit gifts in this new environment. Shiv Visvanathan pioneert the term “cognitive justice” tae assert the need for a cultural equity; for a plurality o knowledge shaped by diverse cultures an traditions tae be valued equally (Hoppers, C.O. 2021). This, I believe, would hae been a far mair valuable tool in ma eddication experience than a standardised test on the works o Henry Moore (Abrams, F. 2012). Prescribed criteria creatit by a hegemonic class will aye place the ither in a position o perceived deficit. I never felt lackin. I felt misunderstood.

The idyllic community o childhood that I conjure in memory returns tae comfort me even noo in ma dreams durin times o high stress. Similarly, ma maw, wha bore the brunt o the situational poverty that shaped oor conjoined experience aften speaks aboot a langin tae return tae oor hame an the community that surroondit it. I am no naive enough tae consider the stories we hae craftit for oorsels authentic retellins o the decade we spent here, an therefore the workin class identity that has informed ma experience since (Smith, S and Watson, J. 2010). Yet there is undoubtedly truths tae the stories an identities we hae woven. As an adult I continue tae seek the woods an the burns. Only the outsiders’ perception has altert; fae toe-rag tae ambler wi ilka salary increment.

As a researcher, this shift in economic standin an the fluid perceptions it conjures o ma identity bring me deep discomfort in ma positionality. I daena wish tae perpetuate the problematic patterns o creatin research for an aboot poverty-experienced individuals when ma social trajectory has placed me firmly in oor socially dominant class (Traustadóttir, D. 2001). I recognise that the economic privilege that haes been constructit for an by me since these early years haes placed me in a position o power in a middle class normative society that “others” external groups (Beckman, L.J. 2014). Feminist research methodologies seek tae cast licht onto power imbalances within qualitative research, an I find masel deeply drawn tae them. They strive tae recognise the ability o power tae shape ilka element o the research conductit, fae groups an individuals selected tae participate tae the questions speired an methods o dissemination (Fischer, A.R. an DeBord. K.A. 2012). This strikes a chord as I begin tae meet wi members o senior an executive leadership aboot conductin ma proposed research within ma current professional role. I begin tae recognise the power imbalance in ma developin research design as ma data is shaped by grantit access tae the student body an data (Ackerley, B. True, J. 2008). Already, I see contributions an ootcomes bein shaped aroond participants. I also recognise masel amidst this power imbalance, an the contrastin internal identities that mak up ma hale (Kezar, A. 2002).

As a teacher, I recognise the roots o mony values I carry professionally entwined in the stories an memories abuin. I also acknowledge the superficial nature o ma reflections that ignore the reach o thae roots. I am placin a great amount o importance onto nurturin spaces o equity an cognitive justice that embrace the diversity o experiences, cultures an values o ma learners. I am unravellin years o conditioned behaviours that impress hegemonic social an cultural expectations on thae aroond me. But crucially, I recognise ma intense privilege in a workin environment that allows an supports me tae dae sae 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.