Preparing Teachers for Children in Poverty

by Camille B. Holt and Pedro Garcia

Several years ago Gray Davis, former governor of California, asked young people to consider teaching in the same vein they would view the Peace Corps: They could teach for a couple of years, then go get a “real job.”

Although Davis was heavily criticized for his statement, this scenario plays out in the nation’s schools every day, especially in high-poverty urban school districts, where beginning teachers typically lack the experience to understand the socioeconomic culture of families in poverty. Frustrated and disillusioned, they either leave teaching or transfer to a higher socioeconomic school or district. Many teachers who remain in the urban schools become calloused or apathetic, thinking they do not make a difference in these young students’ lives.

The U.S. Department of Education’s “1999–2000 Schools and Staffing Survey” indicated that teacher shortages are 50 percent higher in urban schools than in suburban schools. Almost a third of the teachers leave the profession during the first three years and nearly half leave after five years. In schools serving low-income communities, the rate is higher. Teacher retention, rather than teacher recruitment, is a never-ending mission to counteract the revolving-door phenomenon.

Falling Short
How did this become one of the biggest issues our nation’s schools face today? For districts such as Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, where last year 71 of 126 schools were classified as impoverished, the result of poverty’s intersection with education is multidimensional. More than half of the students in the Nashville, Tenn., system qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. These children are more likely than their peers to face barriers to school success: poor nutrition, parents with low educational attainment and underemployment, repressive neighborhoods, broken families, child abuse and neglect, drug abuse, teen-age pregnancies and dropping out.

Applicants for teaching positions in the Metro Nashville Public Schools have been educated in a wide range of teacher education programs. They are graduates of large and small, public and private, obscure and renowned institutions. But few traditional teacher preparation programs yield teachers who are equipped for success in our complex school environments.

Ruby Payne in A Framework for Understanding Poverty and Martin Haberman, author of Star Teachers of Children in Poverty, have described the need for a specific profile of knowledge, skills and dispositions required in teachers who work with children in poverty. In their numerous interviews with novice teachers, they found many do not possess the knowledge and experiences required for success in these more challenging schools.

After several months of teaching in a high-needs school during her first year, Carolyn Nelson lamented in the Spring 2004 issue of Education: “This was not how I envisioned the teaching experience during my teacher education program. This was not how my professors told me it would be. Why weren’t any of the methods I had learned working? After all, according to my verbal feedback and evaluations during student teaching, I should have been very successful my first year. Why, as a first-year teacher, did I feel so ineffective, not to mention totally exhausted? I, of course, played the ‘blame game.’

“I blamed my difficult year on the fact that the students just didn’t care about school nor did their parents seem to care how their children performed in school. … I blamed administrators in my school who showed so little support for teachers and students. … I briefly contemplated looking for other kinds of work, but deep down in my soul, I knew that teaching had to be better than what I had just experienced as a first-year teacher.”

How can district administrators help shape teacher preparation and skills development so those who teach in high-needs schools are not only prepared for but also enriched by the experience? Payne believes district administrators need to understand the broad and complex nature of the culture of communities in poverty (see related story at right). Only then can they begin to cultivate teacher skills and dispositions that are successful in the schools that serve their children. With a clearer understanding of the context of poverty, teachers stop blaming and begin to develop an increased capacity to approach classroom issues that had seemed exasperating and hopeless.

Key Dispositions
In addition to understanding the challenges of children in poverty, education leaders must also be aware of and cultivate the instructional skills, behaviors and dispositions that have proven effective in high-needs schools. As a part of his work surrounding what makes some teachers successful with children in poverty, Haberman interviewed more than 1,000 teachers about their effective strategies. His findings can serve as a guide for administrators as they help prepare new and veteran teachers to work in high-poverty schools.

Teachers whom Haberman interviewed identified specific behaviors indicative of an ideology that differs from that of teachers who fail or quit. These behaviors reflect a commitment to children in high-needs schools and a unique purpose of schooling for children of poverty.

Successful teachers of children in poverty are persistent, stubborn in their belief that their students have potential to learn. They consistently try to generate and maintain student engagement and to organize the learning environment to ensure learning occurs. Successful teachers learn about each student, establish relationships with the students and their families and respect the students and their communities.

They actively look for ways to capitalize on opportunities for learning. By going beyond the traditional textbook, these teachers are able to connect the curriculum with students’ daily lives and problems. They are good managers and often oversee numerous learning activities and projects. They convince students they are needed, creating an environment in which students believe the project, team or class needs are not complete or successful without them.

Effective teachers of students in poverty are willing to persevere even in the face of disappointments and major emotional investments. They do not wear down easily nor do they blame the students and their inadequacies. Rather, they assume responsibility for doing more. They believe that success is a result of persistence and effort and that students have great potential if given ample motivation and opportunity. Successful teachers always are seeking more effective teaching approaches regardless of the students’ backgrounds or obstacles.

Summarizing the essential nature of the unique dispositions found among successful teachers of impoverished children, Jonathan Erwin said in Classroom of Choice: “The intrinsic need to love and belong drives us to form connections of our lives. Once students form connections in a classroom, they are ready to learn. Some teachers let these connections happen by chance; effective teachers create connections by design. When this occurs, they feel better about themselves and school; consequently they work harder, learn more.”

Even if they have experience with student teaching in high-needs schools, beginning teachers are rarely fully prepared to deal with the learning and behavior needs of all our students. That’s where the district must step in.

Supporting Novices
The Metro Nashville Public Schools have picked up the responsibility for helping teachers in high-needs schools succeed by providing a variety of induction, orientation and professional development opportunities.

Our induction program examines the realities of teaching in urban schools and specifically addresses the culture of impoverished families and communities. Those serving high-poverty populations receive professional development through the Ruby Payne Framework for Understanding Poverty workshop, training in differentiated instruction, and Curwin and Mendler’s Discipline with Dignity program. The Title I office also provides weekly sessions during which teachers and administrators share ideas and concerns about working with the district’s children and their families.

Such professional development opportunities help transform beginning teachers’ knowledge, understanding and skills. While in the early stages of their careers, they are supported by fellow teachers and have opportunities to examine their personal commitments and purpose, especially as they bear on student learning.

All Nashville teachers also have opportunities to participate in training activities around such topics as conflict resolution, behavior management, cultural differences in the classroom and strengthening families. They may also receive life skills training provided by the district’s Division of Safety and Security. Content-area classes on teaching students with varying learning styles are offered in classroom settings and online.

Nationally recognized programs such as Classroom Organization and Management Program and Peaceable Schools provide teachers with strategies to effectively manage student behavior. Teachers with several years of experience in a high-needs school environment can begin to improve critical areas of their teaching and promote student learning in urban settings.

We use new images and designs of professional development that emphasize the value of sustained learning opportunities rather than one-shot seminars and events. We have seen that teacher groups that form around problems, issues and concerns provoke conversations within education communities. These conversations about teaching and learning refine the ways in which our teachers and administrators understand, embrace and teach children from impoverished communities.

Seeds of Success
Kim Fowler, principal at Kirkpatrick Elementary School, which has a 98 percent economically disadvantaged population, has seen remarkable gains in student learning as a result of the numerous professional development programs and federally funded initiatives offered by the school district. In three years, reading achievement scores on the state-mandated assessments have risen from 64 percent to 79 percent proficient/advanced. Similarly, mathematics scores have improved in the proficient/advanced category from 61 percent to 79 percent.

“Our teachers needed to better understand the culture of poverty and the children in our high-needs school, but we don’t make excuses for them,” Fowler says. “We know they are just as smart as other students. We hold high expectations and are very explicit and deliberate with them. We make sure they have a framework in order to understand and learn.”

The Nashville leadership is helping teachers increase their levels of knowledge, understanding and expertise in teaching children of poverty, and they are succeeding. With continuing district support, students are reaping the benefits that can enable them to break the poverty/failure cycle.

Camille Holt is a senior lecturer at the Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, 230 Appleton Place, Nashville, TN 37203. E-mail: camille.b.holt@vanderbilt.edu. Pedro Garcia is superintendent of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.