What Teacher Attributes Are Necessary to Succeed in High-Poverty Schools?

Aug 5, 2014 by


Brenda 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 than others.


Our 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?

After 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.

Haberman 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 candidates. He focuses on teacher preparation in an article called “Can Teacher Education Close the Achievement Gap?”


In 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 children.”


Dr. 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.


His 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.


According 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.”


However, 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.”


Haberman 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.”


I 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:


Warmly accept inclusion students with disabilities as a reasonable expectation of their job


Believe parents/caregivers are resources not merely homework helpers


Work with health and human service workers involved with their children and families


Understand student development in terms of cultural and ethnic knowledge


Know how to prevent and de-escalate violence


Demonstrate respect and caring for students who may commit despicable acts


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.


Dr. 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 poverty schools.”


Wow. 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?


Nancy responded:


Great article, Brenda. I was really struck by this quote from the full text of Haberman’s piece:


The 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 and quitting.


In 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 with reality.


I 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.


This flies in the face of the conservative education pundits and their claim that teaching effectiveness is correlated with high SAT scores.


Brenda replied:


I 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.


My mathematical past did prevent me from teaching beyond Grade 6 math — I don’t have rocks in my head!


Ellen, who teaches in a high poverty school in a large midwestern city, wrote:


Like 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.


I 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.


On 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 of teaching?


Pamela wrote:


I 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.


Here are some things we do that are successful and that we’ve continued from year to year.


1. 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.


2. 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.


3. 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.


4. 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.


5. Discipline is important to us. Students are expected to be respectful and to complete assigned work. Teachers are given 100% support in this.


Resources can be good in some areas (computers) and slim in other areas (science materials). We deal with the lack it as best we can.


Carolann asked:


Pamela, 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.


Pamela replied:


Carolann, 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.


I 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 group itself.


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.


New 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.


As 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.


For 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.


I 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.


You hear about schools that were taken over and run by teachers. They seem to be pretty successful. Should we start a movement?


Juli, an elementary teacher-coach in California who is National Board Certified, wrote:


I 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.


Here’s 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 school.


#1 – You need to be a risk taker and be willing to stand up for what you know is right for kids.


#2 – You need to know what you are teaching inside, upside down, and backwards so you can deliver it to your audience.


#3 – You need to know your audience, the kids you teach, and be willing to adapt your instruction to their needs.


#4 – You need to understand Ruby Payne’s ideas about poverty.


#5 – You need to understand cultural relevancy and incorporate it into your teaching.


#6 – You need to be able to collaborate and work comfortably in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual work environment.


#7 – It really helps if you speak another language in addition to English.


#8 – You need to be able to work collaboratively with families that come from different cultural traditions than your own.


#9 – You need to be able to think “outside the box” and not be threatened by change.


#10 – You need to believe that every child can learn and hold high standards for all children.


#11- You need to be an expert at a variety of assessment methods, looking at student work, and planning instructional next steps.


Finally, you need to love what you do and not see it as a stepping stone but rather a safe landing spot.


Carolann posed a question about preparing new teachers for hard to staff schools:


Juli shared her view that “you need a different skill set to be a successful teacher in a challenging, hard to staff school….”


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?


Would 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?


Cathy replied:


Carolann 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?”


While 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?


Dawn added:


I 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.


As 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.


Carol wrote:


Cathy asked whether practicums in different types of schools might be a partial answer.


At 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.


Sheryl added:


I 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.


Susan responded:


Carolann 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.


I 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.


If 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?


Ellen wrote of Carolann’s proposal:


I 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 a mindset.


Consider 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.


I 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.


I 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.


Susan teaches in a high-performing, high poverty school.


Carolann 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?”


Ellen 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.”


Our 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.


And, yes, Ellen, we’re reaping the benefit of the best of those interns actively seeking positions in our “challenging” schools.


Ellen added: “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.”


I 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.


What 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.


Furthermore, 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” trapped there.


Yet, 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 screen.


Since 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.”


Many 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.


If 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 school.


There 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.


Susan shared a story:


Ellen 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.”


Ellen’s 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):


“If 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.”


We should all be free to determine where we can be most effective.




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