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Multicultural educators contend that any attempt to construct a knowledge base for classroom teachers should recognize the important role that race, culture, language, gender, and class currently play in the United States (Banks & Banks, 2004; Gay, 2000; T. C. Howard, 2001a; Lee, 2007; Milner, 2003; Nieto, 2003). Embedded in cultural responsive contexts is an empathetic teaching approach, a deep-seated concern and care for students. Gay (2000) states that caring teachers practice respect, provide choices for students, make information comprehensible, validate students’ efforts, and empower them in their quest to be academically successful. Other scholars similarly discuss caring as a concept that directly impacts student learning (Noddings, 2005; Valenzuela, 1999).

However, research has also uncovered that teachers often lower expectations for students from low-income backgrounds because they feel sorry for the students and their circumstances, and thus become sympathetic teachers. Sympathetic teachers do not challenge students because these teachers have accepted the idea low-income students are somehow cognitively challenged (Terrel & Marck, 2000). Haberman (1991) refers to this as a pedagogy of poverty delivered to many low-income students across the country. In a pedagogy of poverty teachers water down curricula, lower standards, and perceive students as a series of shortcomings.

Conversely, teachers who play a role in transforming the academic plight of low-income students are not sympathetic in their orientation, but are instead empathetic. Empathetic teachers understand the challenges poverty poses for many students, but they do not become paralyzed by this understanding. An empathetic teacher communicates a firm belief in the ability of every student to be successful. An empathetic teacher listens to and learns from their students’ experiences and the obstacles that they may encounter while holding them  accountable for academic rigor. An empathetic teacher still expects and demands excellence, and finds creative ways to help students attain success despite circumstances which appear insurmountable. In addressing some of the challenges students from impoverished backgrounds face, it is crucial for teachers to develop a realistic, positive vision of where and how they believe students can grow academically and socially.


Banks, J.A., & Banks, C. A. M. (2004). Handbook of research on multicultural education. (2nd. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gay, G . (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Haberman, M. (1991). The pedagogy for poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(4), 290-294.

Howard, T. C. (2001a). Power pedagogy of African American students: Concepts of culturally relevant pedagogy. Journal of Urban Education, 36(2), 179-202.

Lee, C. D. (2007). Cultural, literacy, and learning: Blooming in the midst of the whirlwind. New York: Teachers Colleges Press.

Milner, H. R. (2003). Reflective, racial competence, and critical pedagogy: How do we prepare pre-service teachers to pose tough questions: Race Ethnicity and Education, 6(2), 193-208.

Nieto, S. (2003). What keeps teachers going? New York: Teachers College Press.

Noddings, N. (2005). The challenge to care in schools: An alternate approach to education. (2nd. ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

Terrel, M., & Marck, D. L. H. (2000). Prospective teachers expectations for schools with children of color and second-language learners. Journal of Teacher Education, 51(2), 149-155.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. New York: State University New York Press.