Motivating Students in Inner City Schools



Motivating Students in Inner City Schools


We decided to focus on motivating students in inner city schools. Both of us have experiences in districts that qualify as low-income or inner city, and had trouble with motivating students, so we wanted to find some answers to a few questions that we had. The following are six questions that we thought anyone entering into a low-income or inner city school would ask, and the answers that we found for them. We hope that our audience is able to gain insight from this information and can apply it to their classrooms if needed.

-Heather Baker and Alec Fultz 


1. What classifies a low income/inner city school?

Dictionary Definition

Inner City – general term for impoverished areas of large cities. Minimal education opportunities, high unemployment, high crime rates, broken families, and inadequate housing characterize the inner city.

The definition to the left is from It is a common misconception to limit “inner city” schools to big cities like New York and Chicago, but these districts are more common than most people would think.

(Source: This is a website about a Teacher Loan Forgiveness program and qualifications for that program. This website provides a list of elementary and secondary schools that qualify as low-income schools.)


Each year, the U.S. Department of Education publishes a list of low income elementary and secondary schools. Here is a list of schools classified as a low-income school. TCLI DIRECTORY


Low-Income School Legal Definition
Low-income school means “an elementary or secondary school that: 1) Is in the school district of an Local Education Agency (LEA) that is eligible for assistance pursuant to title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); 2) Has been determined by the Secretary to be a school in which more than 30 percent of the school's total enrollment is made up of children who qualify for services provided under title I of the ESEA; and 3) Is listed in the Department's Annual Directory of Designated Low-Income Schools for Teacher Cancellation Benefits.” (Source, website: )

Ths is a link to Title of I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This act is about improving academic achievement for disadvantaged students.


2. What are these school environments like?

“A Day in the Life of an Inner City School Teacher”

This article gives a play-by-play of a typical day in the life of a Language Arts teacher in New York City. It’s really insightful to see what inner city environments are like from the perspective of a teacher, and to show what teachers have to manage on a day-to-day basis within their classroom. This article shows the struggles that a teacher has in an inner city school in regards to limited resources, the challenge of getting students to cooperate in class, harassment from students, lack of parental support, and the stress that these things put on a teacher’s home life.


“Education in the Inner City”

In this article, the life of living in the inner city as a child is highlighted, as well as the poor education that students in these settings are receiving. The author is involved with a summer education program titled Summerbridge, which allows students to continue their schooling in the summers after each year in junior high. In this program, students are the teachers. While this is not something that is in every inner city school environment, it is something that works in keeping students motivated to learn.


Some schools in ohio that could be classified as "inner city" schools are:

Cincinnati Public Schools

Dayton Public Schools

Columbus Public Schools


3. Why aren't students in these schools motivated to learn?


Students aren’t motivated in these schools for a variety of reasons. They are as follows:


They don’t care when you give them ultimatums. Students have developed a psychological immune system that allows them to not care about the threats that teachers give them in the classroom. The idea of telling a student, “If you don’t do this assignment, then you won’t get to do _______ or pass the class” seems like something that would work on most students, but in inner-city schools, students have been threatened so many times that the threats that teachers give them are rendered useless and don’t work in motivating students.


Motivation is being generalized in the classroom. When a teacher uses a one-size-fits-all motivation approach, students who aren’t motivated in ways that others are missing the opportunity. They don’t want to learn because they don’t feel the want to learn, which comes from motivating students well. Motivating students and keeping them engaged in the classroom based on their learning style is important. Motivational strategies work best when they are individualized.


Students have other priorities than to do their work in the classroom. Students in inner-city schools have hard home lives. They sometimes are responsible for taking care of their siblings, earning money to support their family, or they live in such hard conditions that they can’t focus on their work. (Story of Ike from link above). Some students leave school and go straight to work. By the time they get home, they are too tired to complete homework and come to class the next day without their work.


Racism. Minority students tend to receive more punishment than their majority peers, and therefore isolate students from their academic instruction and causes them to fall behind. When they fall so far behind, they lose hope and don’t believe that they can catch up with their peers.


Language barriers. Some students aren’t motivated because they don’t understand what it is they are expected to do. With ELL students becoming more prominent in schools, it is important that we incorporate instruction and services that benefit these students so that they are able to learn.

Even among English speaking students, there are barriers due to vocabulary usage across different students and different backgrounds of those students.


Gangs and Violence. Gangs not only increase fear among students, but also increase the violence that occurs in school. Gangs are something that can be seen as glamorous in schools, and students see them as a source of power and something that provides more protection and support than these students are receiving at home. While gangs can be connected to violence, violence is a whole other beast within itself. There are many forms of violence, and it can affect the culture and atmosphere of the school.


Lack of Family Structure and Stability. When students are raised in stable home environments where they are well supported, they are more motivated to learn. This is not the case in inner city schools. Most of the time, it is the exact opposite. When students aren’t encouraged at home, that translates into the school environment and these students aren’t motivated to do well.


More can be read about these topics at this website:


High school students also have many fears in school that could keep them from being motivated to learn. These include fears of embarrassment, failure, being isolated or rejected, and safety. It is our job as teachers to lessen those fears so that students are more motivated to learn instead of focusing on those fears.


​4. How can we, as future educators, motivate students to learn in these settings?


The Total Quality Learning Management Model is something that allows a teacher to improve learner performance in the classroom. When this model isn’t used to it’s full potential and isn’t balanced, then students aren’t motivated. It takes effort from the parents, teacher, and student for the student to be successful and motivated. When classroom management, interpersonal behavior, and instructional behavior is being shown to both the learner and the caregiver, their perceptions of quality service are increased and there is a greater influence coming from the professional educator. This leads to increased learner cooperation, learner engagement, and learner performance.



To motivate students in these settings, it is important that we take this model into consideration to increase learner performance on proficiency tests. Curriculum, learners, and adult learners (professional development for teachers) need to work together towards this goal. The curriculum should include explicit information, which in turn should be told to teaching teams and parents, which will increase the quality service knowing to help increase learner performance. In the learning track, learner style and strategies relate to the integrated learning systems, which increase learner engagement. With professional development, adult learner styles are taken into account and entrepreneurship and peer coaching are put into place. This turns into lifelong professional development, which helps increase learner performance gains on proficiency tests. We need to take these things into account when trying to motivate students. If students are highly motivated, then their test scores will increase.



The Integrated Learning Model for Knowing starts in the middle circle with the question mark. The question mark represents a student’s “point of wondering.” The “point of wondering” is when a student is curious about the curriculum and asks a question. This question should be followed by engaging the student’s preferred learning styles and cognitive styles, as seen in the next ring labeled “1. Multiple Intelligences.” The next ring labeled “2. Cognitive Styles”, represents the teacher using instructional methods and technology tools that compliment the students preferred learning styles and cognitive styles. The exclamation point located in the outer ring, represents the student’s “point of knowledge.” The “point of knowledge” is when the student understands the answer to their question. The optimal integration of learner systems increases the efficiency of learning (learning path). The point of wonder motivates the student, and the efficiency toward the Point of Knowing reinforces the motivation by a creating a sense of capacity in the learner. The motivation leads the student to another point of wonder and the process starts all over again. This is the best learning process for students. Teachers should teach students which questions to ask, and keep them motivated to ask questions.



It is also important to note how a typical class session is run when motivating students in these settings. It is important to have a strong opening, which will optimize student engagement and motivation, which will in turn lead to a good closing. In the opening, the teacher should capture learner attention through a review, and tell them the learning outcomes for the day. Reviewing the behavior expectations is important at this point because it lets students know what you are expecting of them. Teachers should also check that students have the tools and materials needed for each day’s lesson, and also ask review questions. To optimize engagement, teachers need to be aware of what students are lookers, doers, listeners, and sitters. The teacher can then motivate the students that aren’t paying attention and keep them engaged in the lesson. In closing the lesson, the teacher should review what the students learned, reinforce it, and then preview the next lesson.


5. ​What are some practical ways to motivate students?

We have compiled a Pinterest board of various activities, tips, etc. to motivate students. It can be accessed here:


The list below gives practical ways to motivate students by building connections through relationships, professionalism, and instruction.

Sources of Positive Classroom Self-Concept and Content Area Motivation




Shared non-instructional interests

Clear expectations with activities

First activities designed for success

In school/non-instructional access

Learned Routines within sessions and activities

Explicit instructional goals

Participation in school activities and events

Explicit cues to signal activity changes

Limited number of instructional goals

Awareness of immediate and emerging concerns

Rehearsal of critical behaviors within activities

Short teach/test spans of time


Reinforcement in closings and openings

Widen grade brackets


Immediate and appropriate responses to threats to cooperation/reteach expectations

Lower point values for errors/increase scores for corrections


Another way to motivate students is to teach to their learning style. To find out a student’s learning style, a teacher can simply give them a learning styles questionnaire on the first day of school and can tailor their lesson plans to the top two or three learning styles that their learners have.


Learning Style


core components





sensitivity to and capacity to discern logical or numerical patterns ability to handle long charts or reasoning




Sensitivity to the sounds, rhythms, and meanings of words; sensitivity to the different functions of language.




abilities to produce and appreciate rhythm, pitch, and timbre; appreciation of the forms of musical expressiveness




capacities to perceive the visual-spatial worlds accurately and to perform transformations on one’s initial perceptions





abilities to control one’s body movements and to handle objects skillfully




capacities to discern and respond appropriately to the moods, temperaments, motivations, and desire of other people


person with detailed, accurate self- knowledge

access to one’s own feelings and the ability to discriminate among them and draw upon them to guide behavior; knowledge of one’s own strengths, weaknesses, desires, and intelligence


6. What do some educators in these settings have to say?

The above link shows a profile that a freelance photographer created about an inner city school in a city outside of Brooklyn, NY. Through this profile, we learn about the school setting, the students, and what the teachers are doing to motivate their students. The goal of this profile was to raise $100,000 so that the principal could send incoming 6th grade students to Harvard University to show them that there is more out there in the world for them than what they are living in now. The profile gained media attention, and Motts Hall Bridges Academy recieved over $1 million that is being used to begin a scholarship fund for future students, as well as to send students on a field trip to Harvard for years to come.