The Sixth 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

Uncross Those Fingers!
How To Ensure That Teachers Who Teach Students At Risk Will Know, Understand, and Be Able to Model Resilience
by Vicky S. Dill, Ph.D. Delia Stafford-Johnson

Sixth in a series. Knowledge and consistent use of a research-based interview such as The Haberman Star Teacher Interview discussed in the Fifth in the Series will help principals and hiring teams avoid fatal hiring decisions. Getting rid of poor teachers, often called “de-selection,” is a very expensive and time-consuming process. In sum, one principal’s words about research-based hiring sound typical: “I made all kinds of faculty selections for 28 years not knowing what I was doing. . . I’d make the selections and then sit back with my fingers crossed. With this process, however, you pretty well weed out the failures” (New York Times, “Spotting Teachers Who’ll Fail.” Education Life. 4.5.92, p. 10).

Weeding Out and Screening In. While it’s fiscally smart and supports student achievement for principals and school districts to do whatever they can to reduce teacher turnover, their ability to weed out failures and quitters is not alone good enough. Every hiring official must do whatever s/he can to ensure that every new hire can work with at-risk students. Novices and less experienced teachers overwhelmingly have greater proportions of their students fall into the category of “at risk” because teachers, in a career with few or no perks, tend to desire the “better” classes as they gain experience. This is usually translated, “The classes with fewer students who are failing or at risk.” This may mean the “career ladder” leads them to teaching the gifted (although these students are often equally, if not more subtly, at risk), the Advanced Placement courses, or electives. The lower level classes, those with many students at risk of school failure, tend to be overwhelmingly taught by teachers with less experience or by novices. Turnover among teachers of the most vulnerable is legendary throughout this nation.

For this reason, special attention must be paid to finding teachers who can support that special feature of successful students at risk, “resilience.” Much has been written about student resilience in recent years. Understanding that some students are “at risk” has led to development of a deficit model in which expectations are reduced, youth are stereotyped or caricatured because of race, language, or socioeconomic status differences, and educators focus only on what students, apparently, don’t know instead of any strengths or funds of knowledge they may have. But no student knows nothing! Every student comes to school, even at age 18 months, with knowledge upon which to build.

My Own Glass - Half Full? Half Empty? In order to build up the resilience in their students, educators need to be able to reflect on how they succeeded, the meaning of their own success, and strategies to translate it into classroom practice. This ability, tapped by The Haberman Interview in an item called “Generalizations: Putting Ideas into Practice,” means that teachers who work with at-risk youth must be able to reflect on their own lives and practice and model resilient behaviors, monitor and adjust their own practice to reflect what could be working better in the classroom, and then make some type of statement about the exchange (Haberman, M. Star Teachers of Children in Poverty. Kappa Delta Pi, 1996). For example, a teacher who believes all students have strengths in some area if s/he just looks hard enough, will say to herself, “When I was 13 and I was practically living on the corner, hanging all day-what did I learn? What could I access from that lifestyle that would be motivating to these students who just hang around after school? I remember how I succeeded - I ended up not just hanging out around the store; I started working there! Maybe something like that would work for this kid!” Another teacher might recall how he almost dropped out in ninth grade except that one of his teachers always stayed after school a bit to listen to him talk about his day. It was less than five minutes of listening, but that teacher’s persistent attentiveness to this student in whom no other teacher saw any particular promise really paid off. “I didn’t drop out; I went on to college. I became a teacher. Maybe I’ll stay around a few minutes tonight and see if Jose drops by.” Or listen to the words of teacher Lynnea Nolen who wrote about a student named “Amor:”

When Amor first came to our unit, some of her maturity came from being a new mother, but she still had bouts of depression, rebellion, and frustration. Between separation anxiety from being away from her family and teenage angst, she had some trouble finding her balance. Through it all, though, she had always managed to try her best in school. She found it to be an escape from her thoughts and a way to better herself. She has never lost sight of her goals and finds new ways to generate hope” (The Journal of Court, Community, and Alternative Schools. Fall, 2000. Vol 13, p. 53).

Amor will make an excellent teacher. She understands struggle; yet she doesn’t allow blind authority to move her away from her goals and she always maintains hope. These are two of the key items screened in by The Haberman Interview for star teachers of children at risk and two characteristics of a resilient adult Amor could model for her students. These are the ruminations of teachers who, because of their ideology, do whatever it takes to serve the needs of their “less-than-perfect” students. Other characteristics of resilient youth include the presence of insight, independence, ability to build relationships, demonstrations of initiative and creativity, humor, and morality. Together, these characteristics also describe someone who would do well in a research-based interview for star teacher ideology and someone who would thrive in an alternative teacher certification program.

Sure Shot Beliefs. Teachers who recognize the power of caring relationships, high expectations, and hope in the life of a child who has many strikes against her have the power to build that child’s resilience. This recognition is not a casual aspect of the successful teacher of at-risk youth; rather, it is based on an ideology, a belief system, in which teachers see it as absolutely their job to be there unconditionally for the good of the students. Researchers note, “”A key finding from resilience research is that successful development and transformative power exist not in programmatic approaches per se but at the deeper level of relationships, beliefs, and expectations, and the willingness to share power” ( <>). This is why belief-based screening is so important. Unless teachers see it as their jobs to motivate students, to provide a community of learners, or to build-as one at-risk youth described it - a “sanctuary,” school will be yet one more boring encounter that further places youth at risk. When teachers sort instead of support, when they categorize kids by deficits (language different, possibly hyperactive, poor, minority, broken home, etc.) instead of identifying and building on their knowledge, school is but one more stop along a crash course from poverty to prison.

Finding and Supporting Maturity. Maturity and age are not the same thing. Sure enough, individuals tend to mature as they age. But while many of us know someone who is young who is quite mature and many of us also know someone elderly who is quite immature, these exceptions do not negate the rule. Given any sizeable population, an increase in the age of the population will concomitantly increase the general level of maturity. For this reason, identifying mature individuals who can support the resilience in at-risk youth requires either 1) use of a screening instrument like The Haberman Interview which identifies the ideology of mature individuals who will be there “for others” or 2) assurance of a population of older and generally more mature individuals from which to choose those who will be certified to teach. That is why alternative teacher certification programs better serve children and youth at risk. It takes a certain level of maturity, often exhibited by mid-career or older individuals, to model resilience. Individuals who are younger may indeed model resilience, particularly if they themselves overcame many hurdles as a child and have the ability to move from the knowledge of their own resilience to the practice of building resilience in the classroom. The least likely population to possess the ability to understand and model resilience would be broadly advantaged individuals who have known little struggle - advantaged, sheltered, or underexposed novices. This is, demographically, more likely to happen in the traditional teacher cohorts that graduate from colleges of teacher education nationwide. The superior solution is to do both - to screen using a research-based instrument which tests for ideology and to certify in such a way that screened individuals may include mid-career switchers. This system will maximize the likelihood of finding good teachers able and willing to identify assets in and model resilience for their at-risk youth.

NEXT WEEK--LIKE TEACHER, LIKE STUDENT - How the ideology of star teachers of resilient youth is reflected in seven basic beliefs.

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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