by Lee-Ann Stephens

I wonder if black and brown students living in poverty woke up one day and said, “Hey, I am “at risk!”

I don’t think so.

As an educator, I find the term “at risk” truly frustrating. That label is a form of shortsightedness that leads quickly to a deficit model of thinking. If we love the children in question, then we should check our language about them.

If the students labeled as “at risk” are indeed the most underserved, then why don’t we refer to them as “most promising?”

Instead of focusing on what they are at risk of not doing (i.e. succeeding on some metric), educators should focus on what students show the most promise of doing. The most promising label removes responsibility from children and places it where it should be: squarely on adults who systematically put promising, but marginalized, students in a box where they are deemed to be in need of fixing.

This is not simply about language or a term. Research consistently supports the need for teachers to view their students as capable. It also speaks to the importance of strong teacher-student relationships, positive teacher attitudes about marginalized students, and high teacher expectations for their students.

Summing up a student’s existence in the words at risk says to me a teacher views students as a collection of deficits, ignoring the fact that all students come with enormous assets, if you care to look for them.

If anything, students become “at risk” for failure too often due to the low expectations held by their teachers and other educational stakeholders.

When will we look at black and brown children, and children who live in poverty, as resilient human beings who are dealing with life on a level that many adults couldn’t handle?

When will we see the promise in them?

When will we stop placing our white middle class perceptions on what we believe are good for them?

When will we stop secretly asking all the wrong questions: Shouldn’t those students live like I do? Shouldn’t they talk like I do? Shouldn’t they behave like I do? Shouldn’t they just be like white middle class people?

I saw a documentary once where a white host asked a black boy if he wished he lived in a house like the ones seen on television. Did he wish he had a bedroom like more affluent families had on television shows?

That question disgusted me. Why did she ask that question? Why was she imposing her role of white privilege on this child? Because his living conditions weren’t up to her standards, this black boy was “at-risk” and needed to be pitied for not having his own room or living in a spacious house.

It appeared as though this black boy hadn’t thought about it until she posed the question.

Let’s challenge ourselves to reconsider what we project onto children. Let’s make the connection between our deficit-based thinking and their vulnerability to it.

Our most underserved students are our “most promising” students.

They are the most promising to graduate, the most promising to be leaders in our society, the most promising to innovate, the most promising to challenge negative stereotypes, the most promising to show the strengths that black and brown students possess, and the most promising to change the dominant narrative that exists about them.



Lee-Ann Stephens is an educator with 25 years experience, and a former Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year (2006).

Follow her at @MNTOY2006


  1. You make some good points and ask some salient questions.

    That said, there are questions you didn’t ask which are still very important:

    When will we fund schools in lower-income neighborhoods to give children a level playing field like those in wealthier neighborhoods?

    When will we fund small classes and wraparound services like health and vision and dental care and English classes and child care to families for whom such services could make the difference between success and failure in school and afterward?

    When will well-meaning but clueless billionaires ask EDUCATORS what they need to help poor kids (not just black and brown kids – there are desperately poor white and Asian kids too!) succeed in school?

    When will we have the wherewithal to offer QUALITY preschool/child care – not basic lowest-bidder child care contractors but qualified caregivers/teachers; not just pre-academic but the kind of quality that wealthy parents seek out on purpose! – for poor families?

    Until we Walk the Talk, until we put our money where our mouth (keyboard?) is, all we are doing is writing platitudes but mostly perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

  2. Crunchy Mama, why do we always change the subject when talking about teacher attitudes and they way teachers work with students? Why all the questions that amount to red herrings meant to take us off track when addressing the serious issue of bias in the classroom?

    • Citizen Stewart: How is it a “red herring” to insist that children/youth of color & low-income students deserve the SAME resources that majority-white wealthy students get? Do you really think that CROWDED classrooms make no difference? If so, then, why do wealthy parents insist on small class sizes for their kids? No doubt there’s some bias by some teachers but, there a lot of other factors inside & outside schools that are impacting students. Ignoring them in favor of the ususal teacher-bashing doesn’t make those factors disappear.


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