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Developing, Retaining
Strong Teachers in
Schools That Need Them Most

Too often, beginning teachers in urban schools or teachers new to urban settings become frustrated when their students dont respond to them. Its not that they are bad teachers -- they just may need different strategies to reach out to students and their parents. Included: Tips for reaching out to students and parents in high-needs schools.

After several years of teaching, district administrators asked Dr. Kimberly Higdon to transfer from her suburban, middle-class elementary school to an urban, high-poverty school. Higdon knew she was tapped for the move in part because of her success at her prior school, and she looked forward to another year of earning high marks for her teaching.

But the first year in the new school was so frustrating that Higdon considered leaving teaching. She could not seem to establish relationships with the students or their parents. The principal was largely absent from hallways and classrooms, and she received no suggestions from other faculty members about how to connect with her class.

Then, toward the end of the year, Higdon realized that rather than wait for students to respond to her, she needed to do more to build relationships with them. I was expecting students and families to act the way I was used to, said Higdon, now an assistant professor of education at St. Leo University. My job was to adapt to them and not have them adapt to me. I had to be proactive in establishing relationships -- it was not just going to happen on its own.

After having what I called an aha! moment and putting more effort the next year into learning about students and parents, teaching went much better.

That epiphany helped convince her of the importance of mentoring and administrative support for teachers who are new or new to a school. Now Im trying to apply that information to teacher preparation, said Higdon. I want to help beginning teachers understand what they need to do to be successful in urban schools -- or any schools.


Higdon talked to fellow educators about the importance of mentor and administrator support for new teachers in her presentation, Valuing the Whole Teacher: Supporting Teachers in High-Turnover Schools, at the 2007 Association for School Curriculum Development (ASCD) conference.

Quality, long-term mentoring and involved, supportive principals with realistic expectations for beginning teachers are critical in helping new teachers stay in the profession, particularly in urban schools, she said. Encouraging teachers in high-turnover schools to invest time building relationships with students, parents, and their communities can lead to more success in the classroom, Higdon added.

She considered one of her strongest assets as a teacher her ability to connect with students and parents. When she started at the new school, she relied on many of the strategies that she had used previously to get to know children and parents, only to find that find that they were not working.

Parents Do Care

Dr. Kimberly Higdon, assistant professor of education at St. Leo University, said she tries to impress upon her teachers-in-training that they could be teaching students whose lives are much different from their own.

I am trying to prepare students to understand that their students are not coming from same perspective that they are -- not necessarily, Dr. Higdon said. Their job is to find their perspectives. That doesnt mean the students perspectives are wrong.

One phrase she strives to eliminate from her undergraduates discussions about struggling students in their classes is the parents dont care.

Thats a cop-out, Dr. Higdon told Education World. Parents of their students might not show caring the way their own parents showed caring. I have yet to meet parents who dont care.

I said to myself, Did I forget how to teach over the summer? Higdon told Education World. I was raised with a color blindness; the idea that everyone is the same, that you treat everyone the same, but I didnt get the same responses as I did in the past. The kids didnt really connect with me; I didnt feel like they knew me very well, or trusted me very well. They had no interest in the curriculum at all. They just didnt seem to care. In the past, because I knew my students so well, I was able to find ways to connect them to the curriculum.

A number of the students in her third-grade class were struggling with poverty and other issues, and were behind academically. Many were reading on a first grade level or lower.

She found communicating with parents equally difficult. In my previous jobs, I didnt have to try to get parents to come in to volunteer or for conferences or even to return phone calls. I had much more of a collaboration.

First Higdon blamed herself. Then she blamed the students.

After realizing toward the end of the first year that she needed to be more proactive, Higdon spent time at the beginning of the next school year on community-building activities in the classroom. I never had to actively take time to do that before, she said. I spent about five or ten minutes a day on activities to get to know each other and we talked about their values. I had them make bumper stickers about what was important to them and they did more writing about themselves.

She also scheduled student-centered events for parents, such as a student poetry reading with snacks, to introduce parents to her and the school. I found that more informal gatherings drew more parents in, Higdon explained. I tried to bring families in more for things that were fun, not just to tell them about their children. Once I built that relationship with parents, I had no problems getting them in.


After her own problems in a high-needs school, Higdon went on to mentor first-year teachers in other Texas schools. She noticed that certain schools regularly lost new teachers after one year, so she decided to study the experiences of novice teachers in an urban school district for her doctoral dissertation. She worked with six teachers, two in each of three different schools; and the three principals, in the Austin, Texas, district.

What she learned was that they often felt discouraged and abandoned, matching the feelings of some of the novice teachers at the urban school where she had taught.

Higdon said she was able to overcome her discouragement in her new assignment largely because she had prior positive teaching experiences -- something new teachers cant fall back on.

After having what I called an aha! moment and putting more effort the next year into learning about students and parents, teaching went much better, Higdon told Education World. I had a whole different experience teaching. I was connecting with kids and families better.

Needing Help
Is Not a Weakness

Higdon urges her college-level students to act professional at a new school and not be afraid to seek advice when they need it. I tell them they will get better support from administrators if they make a good professional impression right at the beginning of school year, Dr. Higdon continued. Its also part of their responsibility to look for help when they need it. Its not a sign of weakness; its the sign of a budding professional.

If necessary, new teachers also should seek out the type of mentors they need. I tell students to be proactive in mentor relationships -- if one is not working, they should try to find another mentor who is effective. They should look for teachers they want to emulate.

Other factors hindering retention in urban districts are their size and large numbers of novice teachers. Urban districts often complete their hiring closer to the start of school than other districts, and so have a higher percentage of new or inexperienced teachers, Higdon noted. New teachers also can fall through the cracks more easily in a city setting.

Urban districts are generally huge -- and maybe not as welcoming, she continued. You are not getting a lot of support from other teachers and administrators -- and certainly none from central office. So new teachers see they are not successful, and leave.


Lack of communication and misperceptions on the part of administrators also can contribute to new teachers frustration, Higdon noted.

There are a lot of misconceptions between what the principals want and what the teachers think the principals want, she said.

Often principals think that visiting new teachers classrooms will be stressful for the teachers -- but many new teachers want the principals to come in. They [teachers] want principals feedback. They want them to be present. Show up. Walk through, said Higdon. Teachers who dont see their principals get frustrated. They say, I know Im not making my principal happy, but I dont know what he or she wants.

Shirley Schwartz, director of special projects for the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy group for the largest urban districts in the country, echoed the importance of principals in teacher retention.

Principals need to build a culture of collaboration among all the staff members, Schwartz told Education World. A strong principal supports teachers and communicates with them. Its important for principals to give regular feedback.

The fact that new teachers in Texas are required to have mentors often leads principals to assume the mentors are providing the teachers all the support they need, Higdon said. Sometimes the principals didnt learn until the end of the year that a particular mentor was not that helpful.

Some principals also have unrealistic expectations for new teachers, assuming they can function as well as a veteran educator. This is a huge transition [from student teacher to classroom teacher], said Higdon. It [experience] doesnt just happen because someone has a contract and signed it.

She added she was surprised to find that some principals in the schools where she worked and did her research were quick to judge new teachers and distance themselves from ones they dont think have promise.

One of the recommendations we make when we talk to districts about recruiting and retaining effective teachers is the need to increase the intensity, breadth, and quality of induction programs for new teachers.

[Some] administrators make decisions about teachers in the first few weeks of school -- they seem to make a decision by October as to whether they think a teacher will make it, said Higdon. If they think a teacher is going to make it, he or she supports them. And then the teacher usually does make it. If the principal doesnt think the teacher will make it, those teachers usually sink. And the principals behaviors reflect that.

What if a teacher said that about a student? Higdon wondered aloud.


Among Higdons recommendations for improving the experience of new teachers in urban districts -- and hanging on to them -- are implementing well-crafted mentoring programs; encouraging principals to communicate with first-year teachers and those new to the school; and reminding principals to have high expectations for all teachers.

Schwartz of the Council of the Great City Schools agreed. We encourage quality mentoring programs, she told Education World. One of the recommendations we make when we talk to districts about recruiting and retaining effective teachers is the need to increase the intensity, breadth, and quality of induction programs for new teachers.

Otherwise, urban districts could continue to lose young talented educators.

I saw the new teachers going through the same [frustrating] process I did without the aha! moment, Higdon said. I stuck it out because I had seen success before. But first-year teachers got more discouraged and didnt know what to do about it -- so they begin to think it is the parents or the kids. Or they turn on themselves and think, I just cant teach.

Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 03/10/2008
Last update 02/25/2009