The Eighth in a Series: Why Alternative Teacher Certification Programs and Research-Based Teacher Selection Together are Uniquely Designed to Meet the Needs of at-Risk Students

“Coal Miners”: How Persistence and Creative Problem Solving in “Star” Teachers Build Resilience in Kids at Risk or in Poverty
by Vicky S. Dill, Ph.D. and Delia Stafford-Johnson

When successful teachers of at-risk youth stay on the job and teach all children-what do we see? That was the question of a lifetime for Dr. Martin Haberman, now Distinguished Professor of Education at The University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. As early as 1958, Dr. Haberman set about answering the question, “What’s the difference between teachers who are unqualifiedly successful - those who the principal, the other teachers, the students, the parents all identify as “stars”-and those who quit or fail to teach multicultural, poor, urban, or children at risk?” Haberman spent the next forty some years refining and replicating the answers to this question. He did so by observing successful multicultural teaching, by repeatedly interviewing “stars” to confirm what he was finding, and by ongoing longitudinal research. What emerged from stars’ thinking was a set of beliefs about what stars think they’re doing when they teach and from these beliefs spring consequential actions. Only three strikes? The teacher’s out. When teachers see teaching primarily as dispensing information in the presence of compliant students, we see scenarios like this:

Ms. Matthews: “Peter, please sit down; you have your assignment.”

Peter: “Yeah.” [after five minutes, he’s up wandering around again]

Ms. Matthews: “Peter, didn’t I tell you to sit down? Why are you up walking around?”

Peter: “I’m bored, miss.”

Ms. Matthews: “Peter, look at Classroom Rule #3. What does it say? Read what it says.”

Peter: “Students should comply with all the rules.” Ms.

Matthews: “Do you know the rules, Peter?” Peter: “Yes, miss.”

Ms. Matthews: “So why are you wandering around?”

Peter: “It feels good. May I sharpen my pencil?”

Ms. Matthews: “No!!!!!!!! You may not? Look at rule #5. When are we supposed to sharpen our pencils?”

Peter: “At the beginning or end of class.” [Gets up and throws a wad of paper away]

Ms. Matthews: “Now what?” (she’s shouting)

Peter: “I’m a bad aim, really miss; and it was a lay-up shot.” [His voice is surly; he looks around at his friends who are now laughing and cutting up]

Ms. Matthews: “That’s it,

Peter! I told you three times to sit down. You’re in SAC until Friday!”

Peter’s bored; Ms. Matthews sees teaching as telling kids what she knows about a subject and requiring compliance with the rules. Ms. Matthews was a perfect pawn; Peter agitated, she complied with his ruse by escalating threats until he triumphantly gets to leave class and be with his friends in detention. Many teachers think compliance is the same as class management; they think reading rules is order. But clearly, Peter is the winner here. He’s not only with his friends, he probably won’t have to learn much in SAC; he certainly won’t have to be motivated. On the other hand, a successful teacher would continue to work with Peter until he not only obeyed, but also was doing his work, actually learning. Haberman calls the predisposition of successful teachers of at risk youth to see it as their job to keep trying until students are both motivated and learning, “persistence” or “creative problem-solving.” This is the first of the “midrange functions” or non-negotiable characteristics and beliefs all “star” teachers share. What observers realized was that successful teachers were not only continually generating options to the present course of action, but were defining and evaluating these options relentlessly. If they did not, students stopped learning. So, in sum, teachers see it as their work to endlessly generate ways to get Peter to sit down and to avoid sending him to the principal. They also see the process as something about which they must be intensely persistent. This orientation towards endless problem-solving and the commitment it reflects to do whatever it takes to ensure that each child learns something every day is an approach to life; it’s not something successful teachers pick up in a course in college (see Haberman, M. Star Teachers of Children in Poverty. West Lafayette, IN: KDP 1995). Hence, the primary role of selection to ensure that powerful beliefs are present upon which staff development can be build.

Persistence is one of the most pivotal life skills students need to support their own resilience and star teachers need to model this. Children at risk often live moment-to-moment; their home lives are fraught with chaos and they must ask themselves continually, “What will I do next? Next?” They seldom have daily models of behavior proffered and the natural consequences returned; for example, if I choose to wander around the class all afternoon, I will have to do today’s assignment at the zero hour tomorrow. No punishment, just consequences. For an at-risk student, such actions and their natural consequences are a vital part of breaking the “invincible” syndrome. If I speed, I may get a ticket; if I sell drugs, I may actually get jailed; if I have sex, I may get pregnant or sick. Teen invincibility can only be challenged if the teen sees hundred of successful decisions made and the hundreds of natural consequences experienced. In sum, successful teachers model persistence not only to demonstrate how individuals at risk overcome hurdles, but also to display the evidence of decisions made and their implications. Forget the Coal: Who Am I There For? As we noted in earlier columns, teaching successfully requires great maturity. When teachers demonstrate persistence, the belief that they should persist emerges from their commitment to engage students in meaningful instruction and decent human relationships. The commitment is NOT to change the child’s home life, to rid the neighborhood of violence, or to raise the student out of poverty. The commitment is to make the classroom an enticing place to visit, to have learning activities that will at one time or another, engage all children, and to leave no student behind-no matter if s/he is handicapped, language different, gifted, or medically fragile. Persistent teachers are there for the students, and not to ensure that they themselves have a trouble-free day. They understand that problems will arise continually; their expectations are that not only will problems arise, but that these problems will need to be solved immediately, astutely, and while doing something(s) else, often including turning the mistake into a lesson. Star teachers work at solving dilemmas unceasingly, eventually, even occasionally, coming close to a real resolution. While rare, it does happen that a student has an “Aha!” moment the teacher gets to see and enjoy; more often, the teacher’s persistent vision modifies the student’s life and helps them want to stay in school and succeed. For the teacher, inching along is victory. She has forgotten the coal! She’s onto diamond. As Thomas Jefferson said, “The difference between coal and diamonds is that diamonds stayed on the job longer.” Next week: Learn How Star Teachers “Protect Learners.”

For further information about how your school or university can develop Alternative Teacher Certification programs, please contact The National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information at or call 713-667-6185.

For many years Dr. Dill worked at The Texas Education Agency reviewing traditional teacher education programs and building alternative program and has many years of experience in teacher education in colleges and university. Dr. Dill authored A Peaceable School: Creating a Culture of Non-Violence published by Phi Delta Kappa (1999). Dr. Dill is currently Associate Director of Special Programs for Round Rock ISD (Round Rock, TX) and Senior Researcher for The Haberman Foundation/NCATCI. Delia Stafford-Johnson is President and CEO of The Haberman Educational Foundation/National Center for Alternative Teacher Certification Information (NCATCI). For ten years, she was Director of the first alternative teacher certification program in Texas started in the Houston Independent School District and has twice been honored by President Bush at the White House for her work in teacher education.

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