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Do You Have What It Takes to Teach in a High-Poverty School?

Voice of ExperienceIf better teaching causes more learning, and experienced teachers are usually better than inexperienced teachers, is it ethical for teachers to refuse to teach in high-poverty schools? Brenda Dyck ponders this sticky question. Included: Take a "test" to learn if you have what it takes to teach in a high-poverty setting.

When I began my teaching career, I taught second grade in a high-needs school. The students in my classroom lived in trailer parks and run-down duplexes. Their achievement test scores were known to be among the lowest in the city. But I didn't care. I was glad to have a job. It was well known, and I was comforted by the fact, that my school served as a kind of halfway house for teachers. Teachers didn't stay in the school for long. They usually moved on to a better teaching situation -- a school on the "right side of the tracks."

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If better teaching causes more learning, and experienced teachers are usually better than inexperienced teachers, is it ethical for excellent teachers to refuse to teach in high-poverty schools? What do you think? Click here to weigh in on this sticky question.

I was reminded of that school this week as I read the Betsy Rogers' blog. Rogers, a 20-year teaching veteran from Alabama, was named National Teacher of the Year in 2003. Rogers spent her year as national teacher traveling around the country. In countless cities and towns, she shared her belief that the best way to close the equity gap is to put the strongest teachers in the weakest schools.

When her year as national teacher was over, Betsy returned to teaching; she took a new job at the neediest school in Jefferson County, Alabama.

Betsy's story made me wonder What kind of teacher would sign up to teach in the trenches when they could teach on the mountaintop?

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I felt pangs of guilt as I pondered that question. Like so many other teachers I taught with that first year, I moved long ago to a school where I teach middle- and upper-class kids. Did I shirk my moral responsibility by leaving behind that little school by the trailer park?

To help me ponder that question, I turned to my friends and colleagues of the Teacher Leaders Network. Soon we were knee-deep in a listserv discussion of the question Is it ethical for teachers to refuse to teach in high-poverty schools?

Fellow listers were quick to chime in. One of them, Juli Kendall, was among the first to respond. The large urban school in which Juli teaches -- in Long Beach, California -- is home to families that speak more than 50 languages. Every student in the school is eligible for free lunch, and 90 percent of the students are English language learners. Juli suggested that teachers in hard-to-staff schools need an entirely different set of skills to be successful with students.

Juli's comments challenged me to reframe my question. The question became Who is best able to teach at-risk students? or, even more personally, Do I have what it takes to teach students from challenging schools?

Haberman's Characteristics of
Successful Teachers in
High-Poverty Schools

Haberman spelled out some of the tools of an effective teacher in a hard-to-staff school. Those unique educators distinguish themselves by their
--- persistence.
--- physical and emotional stamina.
--- caring relationships with students.
--- commitment to acknowledging and appreciating student effort.
--- willingness to admit mistakes.
--- focus on in-depth learning.
--- commitment to inclusion.
--- organizational skills.

In addition, successful teachers in high-poverty schools
--- protect student learning.
--- translate theory and research into practice.
--- cope with the bureaucracy.
--- create student ownership.
--- engage parents and caregivers as partners in student learning.
--- support accountability for at-risk students' learning.


As I cast about on the Net for help in answering those questions, I came across information about a man who has devoted his life to trying to figure out if there is a way to predict which teachers will be successful in challenging schools. Dr. Martin Haberman, creator of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Teacher Education Program, has spent years researching teachers who teach in, and remain in, schools of poverty. His research reveals that not just anyone can or should teach in high-poverty schools. Selection of the right teacher is more important -- and a bigger predictor of success -- than training is, Haberman says. Hiring the right people is essential, he adds, because "for children and youth in poverty from diverse cultural backgrounds who attend urban schools, having effective teachers is a matter of life and death."

As Haberman explored the differences between teachers who stuck with it in and were successful at teaching every child to his or her potential and those who quit prematurely or failed to teach, he saw some patterns began to emerge. He saw patterns related to what those teachers did in the classroom and why they did it. Soon he had a list of characteristics of an effective teacher.

Once Haberman had his list of core beliefs/characteristics, he translated those beliefs into interview questions that might be used to predict a teacher's success in a school of high poverty. According to Haberman, the interview has just a 3 percent error rate in identifying teachers who will succeed with challenging children.

As I read through Haberman's rigorous characteristics of an effective teacher, I had to catch my breath! How would I fare if measured on those attributes?

See how she did!


Is It Ethical for Teachers to Refuse to Teach in High-Poverty Schools?
This article is sure to elicit an enthusiastic discussion.

Can Star Teachers Create Learning Communities?
What is a star teacher? How do star teachers affect the learning communities in which they work?

Can Teachers Be Found and Certified to Teach Students At Risk?
This article focuses on why traditional teacher certification programs are designed to fail children at risk and in poverty.

What It Means to Be a "Highly Qualified" Teacher
The Southeast Center for Teaching Quality identifies the discrepancy between NCLB's definition of a highly qualified teacher and the skills and knowledge teachers need to teach diverse groups of children.

Brenda Dyck teaches at Master's Academy and College in Calgary, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching sixth grade math, Brenda works with her staff in the area of technology integration. Her "Electronic Thread" column is a regular feature in the National Middle School Association's Journal, Middle Ground. Brenda is a teacher-editor for Midlink magazine.

Article by Brenda Dyck
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Updated 04/04/2012