In a previous post I listed 14 “Charcteristics of Effective Teachers” found to be especially important as we seek to improve achievement among challenging student populations. Most of the research dealt with teaching students with challenging special needs (including those living in high poverty areas, and/or dealing with learning or emotional disabilities). At the urging of a few of my blogging colleagues, I now expand on these listed items, one at a time, to be completed over the next few weeks. I’ll start with number one:
1. I build positive (trusting) relationships with students due to my consistency and attention to their needs.
Let’s face it, talking about relationship building isn’t exactly popular in this, the era of testing/accountability/NCLB. The search for specific (scripted?) teaching strategies that directly and swiftly affect test scores takes center stage. As the stakes get higher, (NCLB deadline year 2007 looms large on the horizon), it’s unlikely school systems will be spending money on helping their teachers understand the value of being “trust-inspiring”.
Still, my 20 years teaching special needs students leaves me with this strong contention: despite the many and various obstacles of teaching challenging student populations, effective teaching is contingent on a teacher’s ability to present him/herself as predictable, consistent, and attentive to student needs.
I’m not alone in believing successful teaching of challenging populations requires a particular set of “teacher behaviors”. According to recent research
these behaviors include:
1. an “ability to establish connectedness and maintain relationships”; the authors call this the “third realm of knowledge” critical to teacher success.
2. an ability to “assume and cope with the fact that they and the children will have to operate in bureaucracies with irrational policies and insensitive people”. This means working through every obstacle to do what is necessary to meet children’s needs. Need 2 recesses a day because three quarters of the students are ADHD? Fight for it. We nagged and begged and cojoled higher ups for over 10 years to get a full time reading support teacher for our ED kids. We never gave up,and it finally came to fruition. It’s a matter of attitude and perspective.
3. a willingness to learn “how to prevent and de-escalate violence”. Again, it is a matter of meeting kids’ particular needs. Instead of spending a lot of time lamenting our culture of violence, and tsk-tsking the parenting or societal ills of our community, we invest in professional development that supports where our students are now.
Day to day, I show attention to my students’ needs by planning our daily schedule with great care: we have to be very, very predictable. As much as possible, we keep to the same activity rotations; reinforcing activities always follow hard work; we go outside if we say we’ll go outside; we have a detailed behavior plan and we stick to it. No surprises. No impulsive changes, no sudden shifts in priorities.
To this same end, I take great pains to manage how I interact and react to my students. My ability to manage myself—and it does take self discipline to be so darn consistent—directly affects my students’ “availability for learning”. My predictable, even-tempered approach to every aspect of our classroom life increases the likelihood of student achievement. After all, teachers who work with challenging populations know there is little chance that kids will learn when they are anxious or unsettled.
Teachers who are unable to manage themselves, who cannot call up the best of themselves in support of the best in their students, will not succeed. According to Martin Haberman, the author of the above referenced article (emphasis mine):
“Without this ability to connect with children, how much the teacher knows about math or the seven parts of direct instruction becomes moot. Quitters and failers [teachers who leave the profession or do it poorly] do not leave teaching in poverty schools because they can’t divide fractions or do not know the characteristics of 13-year-olds. They leave because they don’t want to be with those children in those schools and the children make it equally clear they don’t want them to be their teachers.”
This is heady stuff. As Parker Palmer writes in To Know As We Are Known (1999),
“as a teacher I can no long take the easy way out, insisting that I am only responsible for conveying the facts of…. whatever the subject may be. Instead, I must take responsibilty for my mediator role, for the way my mode of teaching exerts a slow but steady formulative pressure on my students’ sense of self and world. I teach more than a body of knowledge or a set of skills. I teach a mode of relationship between the knower and the known, a way of being in the world. “
If Palmer’s ideas are just too soft and fuzzy for you, keep this in mind: relationship building does not preclude high standards and excellent teaching!
More about effective teaching strategies in later posts. For now, I offer up this from a paper I wrote in 1999: “With trust, antsy children often find a bit of quiet; angry children often find validation, sad children can find hope, and worried children see that grown-ups can be relied on. Trust is the cornerstone of teaching and learning success in our (emotional disabilities) special needs classrooms.”