This study explored how and why teachers self-organize to help students living in poverty. Schools have characteristics of complex adaptive systems, the primary one being a capacity to change and adapt to its environment through self-organizing. The main focus of the study was how teachers in urban elementary schools create and utilize self-organizing to meet the needs of their students. The research investigated the experiences of teachers who help students living in poverty. This study highlighted committed, caring teachers breaking rules and taking a stand for children caught up economic injustice. The teachers in this study are participants in a moral underground (Dodson, 2009), professionals who are taking extraordinary steps to help children challenged by poverty. A Delphi process involving 9 teachers residing in either Long Beach, California or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was used to identify the individual, relational, and environmental factors that support self-organizing. Through 3 rounds of virtual correspondence during the first quarter of 2011, these self-organizing experts clarified the dynamics involved in trying to meet the needs of children. The participants acknowledged that at the individual level, teachers self-organize to help the child for one or both of the following reasons: they have a strong sense that they can and or that they should help the child. At the social level, 3 factors significantly impacted participants' willingness to self-organize with others: a shared goal; relational trust; and a sense of urgency. Four types of environmental factors affected participants' self-organizing: societal; structural; administrative; and working conditions. The individual and relational factors have a greater affect on participants' decisions to self-organize than any of the environmental factors. The findings from this study highlight steps teachers can take to ensure the well-being of children, especially those living in poverty. Publicizing this work could sway public perception of the U.S. education system. The findings from this study provide information to instructors in teacher preparation programs about the behaviors needed by teachers who work in high-needs schools. Self-organizing can help children meet their basic needs and this research has shown that it is within our power to do so.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Dissertations (EdD) -- Organization change; Elementary school teachers; School children -- Economic conditions

Date of Award


School Affiliation

Graduate School of Education and Psychology



Degree Type


Degree Name


Faculty Advisor

Davis, Kay D.;