other excerpts from our conversations about this issue
Teaching Quality in
High Poverty, Low Performing, and Hard to Staff Schools
Teacher Attributes Are Necessary
to Succeed in High-Poverty Schools?
began this TLN discussion by sharing the research of Martin
Haberman, an education researcher who contends that some
teachers are better suited for work in high poverty schools
recent conversations about whether teachers should be asked
or "assigned" to teach in high-poverty (or hard to staff)
schools has gotten me thinking. Should we all be ready and
willing to offer our services? More important, do all teachers
— experienced/exemplary or not — have the services
or skill sets that these schools need?
reading some of the work of Martin Haberman, Distinguished
Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee,
I have some doubts whether I do.
uses his research to make some valid points about those who
are successful in teaching in these schools — both the
skills they need and the teacher preparation we offer to teaching
focuses on teacher preparation in an article called "Can
Teacher Education Close the Achievement Gap?"
the article, Haberman outlines some basic facts surrounding
the development of teacher training in America and explains
why current teacher education programs are "not relevant to
diverse children in urban poverty, or why teacher education
does not provide more teachers who will be effective in teaching
all children, or why teachers who complete traditional programs
of teacher education do not seem to be able to relate to all
Haberman's strong statement concerning the preparation for
teaching diverse children in poverty caught my attention.
He stated that "selection" is more important than "training."
While "selecting" teacher recruits seems somewhat out of touch
in a time when teacher shortages are looming everywhere, that's
exactly what Haberman suggests.
description of one group of teachers as "quitter/failers,"
which at first sounds rather offensive (but stay with him),
forms the basis of his argument that careful, thorough selection
of teachers for high poverty areas is imperative.
to Haberman, "quitter/failers" can be quite articulate in
explaining "why they cannot continue to work with children
who are physically and emotionally not ready to learn, in
unsafe and nonconducive school climates, required to teach
irrelevant curriculum unaligned to achievements tests, supervised
by irrational principals, burdened by large classes, with
inadequate materials and equipment, and buried in paper-work
from chaotic central offices."
he says, "effective teachers working in the same district,
in the same building and with the very same children, are
willing to assume responsibility and be accountable for their
children's learning even though they have no control over
their working conditions, or the parents, or the students'
out-of-school lives. Effective teachers see ensuring success
in school as a matter of life and death for children who may
well be unaware and unappreciative of their services. Such
teachers are internally motivated and persist in spite of
few external rewards. These belief systems and the perceptions
they shape cannot be taught in programs of teacher preparation.
They represent a realm of cognitive and affective knowledge
that already exists in many mature adults and must be selected
for rather than trained."
puts a high emphasis on the ability of teachers in hard
to staff schools to establish connectedness and maintain
relationships with the students there. These teachers "assume
and cope with the fact that they and the children will have
to operate in bureaucracies with irrational policies and
insensitive people. They act as grease between the machinery
of a mindless system and the needs of their children."
love this last sentence — it articulates what I wish
I could be for my students. Apparently I need more than
wishing to make this happen, though. He goes on to says
that teachers who are successful in high-poverty schools:
Haberman sums it all up by saying that taken together, these
perceptions and the behaviors of teachers who are successful
in teaching in hard to staff schools, represent what he has
"come to see is a body of knowledge prerequisite to learning
the content and methods for teaching effectively in diverse
As I said at the beginning of this post, even if I have the
desire to teach in this type of learning environment, do I
have the internal skills, those skills that Haberman says
are not necessarily teachable? And are they really unteachable?
article, Brenda. I was really struck by this quote from the
full text of Haberman's piece:
Warmly accept inclusion students with disabilities as
a reasonable expectation of their job
Believe parents/caregivers are resources not merely homework
Work with health and human service workers involved with
their children and families
Understand student development in terms of cultural and
Know how to prevent and de-escalate violence
Demonstrate respect and caring for students who may commit
And last and probably most important: They demonstrate
behaviors that are "not" part of teacher preparation programs
because they cannot be transmitted as subject matter in
a college class or workshop.
my experience with student teachers, or in watching my former
students who have gone on to become teachers, I've seen many
young people who were very successful in high school (valedictorian,
high-achiever types) bomb out of teaching careers, when their
expectation that their students will be just like them —
motivated by grades, part of the in-crowd — collides
like getting student teachers who are a bit left of center,
especially the ones who didn't plan to go into teaching, but
got bit by the bug somehow.
flies in the face of the conservative education pundits and
their claim that teaching effectiveness is correlated with
high SAT scores.
totally agree, Nancy. Being a poor math student was the best
training I could have had for becoming a Grade 6 math teacher.
The kids always looked at me funny when I told them I failed
12th grade math. One of my biggest goals as a math teacher
was to address math anxiety in my students. I could totally
understand their fears, and I could tell that it gave them
encouragement to know that I was a living example that there
was life after math.
mathematical past did prevent me from teaching beyond Grade
6 math — I don't have rocks in my head!
who teaches in a high poverty school in a large midwestern
Brenda, I completely agree with Nancy. The only motivation
I had to do well was my parents, and so I went through the
motions to do just as much as I had to do to keep them happy.
There were only a couple of teachers who inspired me to challenge
myself, and for them I did more than what was required.
think being largely disinterested in school and learning what
they wanted me to learn helped prepare me to teach
the kids I teach in my inner-city school. They are children
who are largely unmotivated, with little support from home,
etc. I know what it's like to feel like I'm jumping through
hoops, and so I work really hard to challenge each one of
them in the way they need me to.
a related note, I have always been an excellent reader, and
yet it took me several years to figure out even the beginnings
of how to help my kids who struggle with reading. I am "highly
qualified," but it's harder for me to teach reading to students
who don't share my enthusiasm for books. Hmmm. Does this suggest
that "content knowledge" may not be the be-all and end-all
teach in a high school program for students at risk of not
graduating. We have around 400 students. We do not have difficulty
staffing with excellent teachers. After reading all the commentary,
I began to wonder why my school is not difficult to staff
and so many are. This is the only "at risk" school I've ever
taught in. Maybe it's related to our school's particular culture
and working conditions.
are some things we do that are successful and that we've continued
from year to year.
most efficient ways of recruiting and selecting the wrong
people at the initial teacher preparation level (i.e.,
those who will never take positions teaching diverse children
in poverty, or who will quit or fail if they deign to
try) are the criteria most commonly used [by schools of
education]: a composition on 'Why I want to teach,' G.P.A.,
letters of reference, a basic skills test, etc. These
irrelevant criteria are frequently used in traditional
and as well as in alternative certification programs.
Actually, undergraduate GPA does predict. If it is extremely
high in courses outside of education, it predicts failing
Our Student Assistance Team meets regularly (once a week)
with administration, guidance, the nurse, dean, resource
officer, and social worker to discuss students. The team
consists of 1/2 the teaching staff and these teachers
switch around mid-year. Some choose to stay on year-round.
Students who are having difficulty with one teacher may,
at the teacher's request, be moved to another class. This
doesn't happen a lot, but it's nice for student and teacher
to know this is available. Teachers always cooperate in
an effort to give stuggling students a second chance in
a different class.
Teachers are supportive of each other, share ideas for
working with students, and project a calm, relaxed atmosphere
to students. We laugh a lot too.
Most of the teachers are experienced and empathatic (I
believe this is a very important quality). Those that
are not are given additional support by practically everyone.
I've only seen one give up and this was her first teaching
job. It made her a nervous wreck and no amount of support
could change that. I totally agree that being an National
Board Certified Teacher is not necessarily a predictor
of success in an at-risk school, although I am an NBCT
and we have a larger percentage than most schools.
Discipline is important to us. Students are expected to
be respectful and to complete assigned work. Teachers
are given 100% support in this.
can be good in some areas (computers) and slim in other
areas (science materials). We deal with the lack it as best
Do you think your administration at your school plays a big
role in your school's success and low teacher turnover rate?
Do you have strong teacher leaders? When a new teacher joins
your staff, how is s/he inducted? Any hints for us? Please
tell us more.
the administration/leadership question is an interesting one.
I've been thinking about this question and how to answer it
for a bit. We changed administrators three years ago and the
transition was difficult as the previous administrator was
one in a million and we all adored her. It made the year very
hard for most of us. Under the new leadership things got pretty
difficult as our new administrator tried to make a place for
herself and find her own way as a leader.
think the biggest key for us is that our faculty includes
an exceptionally strong group of teacher-leaders. The sheer
determination to make the school work comes from within the
teachers at my school are totally client-centered. Student
needs are put first, regardless of whether the need is academic,
social or financial. Anything else is looked on as "small
stuff" (to be complained about and then worked around). New
teachers are literally dragged into the mindset. There is
no formal induction, they're just welcomed into the group
and shown by example what is needed to succeed.
teachers are placed on the Student Assistance Team just like
everyone else and I think that helps them a lot, as they see
what each person in the school does and how they handle things.
All our teachers work as a team to provide whatever we feel
our students need. Even during that "transition" year with
a new principal, the "client-centered" attitude never changed.
a general rule, too, each teacher is responsible for some
"aspect" of the school. This isn't necessarily assigned, it's
just taken over by a teacher who sees a need.
example, two teachers decided they were going to start working
individually with students who didn't get their work done
and were failing one or more classes. They called themselves
the "Grad Team." The Grad Team might walk into your class
one day and check to see if a student was getting their work
done and ask you how that student was progressing. Sometimes
the student would be pulled out for a few minutes and talked
to then returned to the class.
guess that we're a "village" in the truest sense. The teachers
AND students feel a strong sense of belonging. Keep in mind,
though, we're a SMALL school (400 students). I doubt this
would be possible in a larger high school unless it was broken
up into smaller communities. I feel pretty lucky to be working
in my school.
hear about schools that were taken over and run by teachers.
They seem to be pretty successful. Should we start a movement?
an elementary teacher-coach in California who is National
Board Certified, wrote:
work in a challenging school — 90% English language learners,
100% free lunch, inner city, etc., etc. I wouldn't work anywhere
else and I have strong feelings, very strong feelings, about
why I work where I do and why I wouldn't work anywhere else.
my take: You need a different skill set to be a successful
teacher in a challenging, hard to staff school and that skill
set doesn't match exactly with the skill set you need to be
a NBCT. As much as we hear about the difference a highly qualified
teacher can make for kids, I think that there is a unique
skill set needed to be a successful teacher in a challenging
- You need to be a risk taker and be willing to stand
up for what you know is right for kids.
- You need to know what you are teaching inside, upside
down, and backwards so you can deliver it to your audience.
- You need to know your audience, the kids you teach,
and be willing to adapt your instruction to their needs.
- You need to understand Ruby Payne's ideas about poverty.
- You need to understand cultural relevancy and incorporate
it into your teaching.
- You need to be able to collaborate and work comfortably
in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual work environment.
- It really helps if you speak another language in addition
- You need to be able to work collaboratively with families
that come from different cultural traditions than your
- You need to be able to think "outside the box" and not
be threatened by change.
- You need to believe that every child can learn and hold
high standards for all children.
You need to be an expert at a variety of assessment methods,
looking at student work, and planning instructional next
you need to love what you do and not see it as a stepping
stone but rather a safe landing spot.
posed a question about preparing new teachers for hard to
shared her view that "you need a different skill set
to be a successful teacher in a challenging, hard to staff
working in challenging teaching situations requires a developed
set of skills, should we place our student interns in challenging
schools while they have the benefit of support and modeling
of experienced cooperating teachers?
this better prepare beginning teachers for their first job
in a challenging school, where so many find their first
teaching assignment because the experienced teachers have
often fled to the less challenging teaching situations?
Wouldn't this more effectively prepare our new teachers
and put more adults in the classrooms of these schools to
work with the students who need it most?
wrote: "If working in challenging teaching situations
requires a developed set of skills, should we place our student
interns in challenging schools while they have the benefit
of support and modeling of experienced cooperating teachers?"
this seems like an ideal answer, and I like it for the most
part,I think it would be helpful if student interns were able
to have experiences in other kinds of classrooms as well.
We have discussed that not all teachers are well-suited for
challenging schools and I do think it is great to give them
a well-supported chance to find out if they are. However,
if they are not, it would be good for them to have an opportunity
for a different experience that might prove more successful
for them. Would practicums in different types of schools be
a partial answer?
think it is critical that new teachers get the opportunity
to see a wide variety of situations. Once they are in a school
it is very difficult to move around and see other teachers
in other disciplines let alone other school environments.
a degreed person who went back to school to become certified
to teach, the chance to see different school settings that
is the one thing I valued most from my MAT program. I spent
time in an elementary school, middle school, high school,
and alternative school. I really had the chance to see both
the positives and negatives and make a decision about where
a "best fit" for me would be.
asked whether practicums in different types of schools might
be a partial answer.
the university where I am a teacher in residence, we make
sure that our interns have a range of placements during their
many field experiences. Our philosophy is that they do need
to have support during the exceptionally trying times in order
to be prepared for the reality of their own classroom. They
also need to see the multiple realities of the classrooms
they might serve.
think the opportunity for pre-service teachers to experience
different school situations would be a great IF the right
teachers were available to mentor them — teachers who
were not just surviving in that environment, but turning it
around. Pre-service teaching is "tough enough," and the role
models need to be top notch in a challenging environment.
asked if colleges should make sure student interns spend
time in challenging schools while they have the benefit
of support and modeling of experienced cooperating teachers.
guess I'd like to take this one step further. What about those
low-performing schools where there may be an existing faculty
of well meaning, but less skilled teachers? Isn't this where
higher education could really make a difference? Why not send
teacher prep staff into these schools with their pre-service
teachers to work with both their students and the school faculty.
we send pre-service teachers into schools where teacher practice
is below par, and then those new teachers go into those schools
to teach, they have an uphill battle as novices to indentify
and implement more effective practice. Wouldn't they be better
prepared if we make sure they have both the experience AND
support to try new approaches?
wrote of Carolann's proposal:
think interning in a high poverty school would prepare SOME
to take over the reins, but not all. It might induce some
people who would never have considered teaching in a challenging
school to actively seek such a position, but not everyone.
The thing is, I think teaching in a high poverty school requires
more than a particular skill set; it's that skill set PLUS
me. I would not be quite as good in a gifted, high income
private school because of my mindset. I can rationalize that
those kids are just as needy and deserving, but in my heart
I know I harbor a prejudice towards them. I'd be less empathetic
than I am with my students in my inner-city school. Other
people, however, would be fabulous with that group but horrible
with mine — imagine someone who had a "pull yourself
by your bootstraps" mentality in a high poverty school. It's
just not that simple.
don't think where you teach is an indicator of being a better
teacher or even a better human being. Sometimes teachers who
teach in schools like mine are praised and treated like heroes,
when we're just doing our job like everyone else in the profession.
think we have to do a better job of introducing preservice
teachers to these situations AND giving them the background
knowledge about the indications of poverty so they can discover
whether teaching in a high poverty school is for them or not.
In the end, however, we all have a preference and a particular
calling, and it's important to know where we fit in the process.
teaches in a high-performing, high poverty school.
wrote: "If working in challenging teaching situations
requires a developed set of skills, should we place our student
interns in challenging schools while they have the benefit
of support and modeling of experienced cooperating teachers?
Wouldn't this more effectively prepare our new teachers and
put more adults in the classrooms of these schools to work
with the students who need it most?"
responded: "I think it would prepare SOME to take
over the reigns, but not all. It might induce some people
who would never have considered teaching in a challenging
school to actively seek such a position, but not everyone."
school is working with the University of South Florida to
implement the model Carolann suggests, with two important
features: placing the student interns in SUCCESSFUL/HIGH PERFORMING
high-challenge schools, and only in the classrooms considered
models at those schools.
yes, Ellen, we're reaping the benefit of the best of those
interns actively seeking positions in our "challenging" schools.
"The thing is, I think teaching in a high poverty school
requires more than a particular skill set; it's that skill
set PLUS a mindset."
agree that the mindset Ellen speaks of is required in a high-poverty
school. But I also believe that mindset is essential for ALL
teachers if they are to reach ALL the students in their classrooms.
some teachers refer to as "those kids" exist in virtually
every classroom, even in schools with high socioeconomic status.
The difference is, in a high SES school, they are so outnumbered
that they can be ignored or shuffled aside without much notice
— they're statistically insignificant. Often, they become
academic scapegoats. Behavior deteriorates, so they are the
ones most often seen in the office.
when "those kids" fail in the high SES school, their "failure"
serves to reinforce the mistaken belief of teachers, administrators,
peers, and community that "those kids" can't learn; i.e.,
the achievement gap is somehow the kids' fault. Talk about
perpetuating the myth. And what a disaster for "those kids"
the teacher in a high SES school who does not have the mindset
Ellen refers to is still deemed "successful" — there
are not enough of "those kids" present to make a blip on her/his
performance screen. The teacher in a low SES school who lacks
that mindset is virtually unable to teach the children. Faced
with a roomful of "those kids," shuffling them aside is not
an option. They make a BIG blip on that teacher's performance
some number of "those kids" are in virtually every classroom,
it seems to me we need to assure that ALL classroom teachers
are prepared to reach "those kids."
experienced teachers also openly state they would never consider
working at schools like the school where I teach. In all fairness,
their refusal may stem from knowing that teaching at a challenging
school is simply more work. But, I think their refusal is
also rooted in their self-awareness that they do not have
the mindset and/or skills to do the job. They know from their
lack of success with the sprinkling of "those kids" in their
current classes that they wouldn't be successful with even
more such kids. The fruit of their lack of success is their
deeply held belief that "those kids" can't learn — it's
much more comfortable to settle on that than to struggle with
"what do I need to do to reach them?" every day.
I were in charge of the world, I'd be very concerned about
a student teacher who simply refused to set foot in a challenging
is an opportunity to change all of this in our teacher preparation
programs. Actions speak loudest — don't just TELL student
teachers that all kids can learn, but SHOW them. The mindset
can be built.
shared a story:
wrote that "sometimes teachers who teach in schools like
mine are praised and treated like heroes, when we're just
doing our job like everyone else in the profession."
comments reminded me of a couple I knew years ago in Dallas.
He was a surgeon and she was a pediatric nurse. They had two
pre-school aged children when they decided to go as medical
missionaries to Africa. Everyone kept telling them what a
wonderful thing they were doing and what an amazing sacrifice
they were making. I will never forget what they said (I paraphrase):
we saw going to Africa as a sacrifice then we shouldn't go.
For us it is an opportunity to use our skills without worrying
about litigation or hospital red-tape or the societial expectations
of the medical profession that constrain us here. We can be
healers where healing is needed. As for our children, they
will have the advantage of a broader life experience, less
influence from a culture based on acquisition, and a chance
to be educated by deeply committed teachers who share our
value system. For someone else this might be sacrifice, for
us it's opportunity."
should all be free to determine where we can be most effective.