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Books in Translation

Working with Challenging Students
October 25, 2012 | Volume 8 | Issue 2
Table of Contents 

What Really Matters

Six Characteristics of Outstanding Teachers in Challenging Schools

Gail L. Thompson and Cynthia Thrasher Shamberger

Countless homeless, foster, low-income, and abused students are enrolled in K–12 schools nationwide. When students with special needs, English language learners (ELLs), and students who've been suspended from school are added in, it's apparent that being a teacher isn't easy, especially now when teachers are expected to raise test scores at all costs. In fact, today teacher morale—particularly in high-needs schools—is at a 20-year low (MetLife, 2012).

Nevertheless, it's still possible for teachers to work effectively with "challenging" students (Thompson, 2010). During my travels throughout the United States to conduct professional development workshops, I've been thrilled to meet outstanding teachers who've earned this reputation.

For example, in Mobile, Ala., I met Ms. Samuels, who teaches at a predominantly black, low-income elementary school. When introducing me to Ms. Samuels, the principal announced, "Ms. Samuels can teach a tree to read!" Later, during lunch at a restaurant, a parent rushed over and bragged that, thanks to Ms. Samuels, her son was now college-bound.

In Fayetteville, N.C., I was mesmerized watching Ms. McKoy teach a math lesson in a high-needs school. As she modeled on the whiteboard how to solve a math problem, her class of black 3rd graders listened intently. Then, when she asked them to solve additional problems independently on their mini-whiteboards, the children eagerly complied. I was especially impressed at how excited the six boys who were sitting in front of the class were as they waved their hands in the air, hoping to share their answers with their classmates.

Several months later, I was able to work directly with students in a low-income, predominantly black 6th grade school in North Carolina. In addition to giving two motivational speeches on "How You Can Have a Great Future," I sponsored a related essay contest for which students could earn extra credit.

While measuring the essays against the rubric I'd created, I noticed that many contestants mentioned two teachers—Mrs. Gause, a language arts teacher, and Mr. Shiver, a math teacher—as reasons why they knew they'd have a great future. They cited several examples of how these teachers had helped them.

What Sets Strong Teachers Apart

Regardless of their backgrounds, these teachers and other great teachers in challenging schools whom I've read about—including Esme Codell (2009), Salome Thomas-El (2003), Erin Gruell (1999), and celebrated author and former teacher Frank McCourt (2006)—all have a lot in common.

1. They have the correct mind-set.

They believe their students can learn; have high expectations; are willing to give extra help; find ways to make schoolwork interesting, relevant, and comprehensible; and use diverse instructional strategies (Codell, 2009). They believe it's their job to provide students with high-quality instruction (Kafele, 2009).

2. They have good classroom-management skills.

At the beginning of the school year, they make their expectations clear. Instead of pushing students into the "prison pipeline," they enforce rules fairly, don't show favoritism, don't overreact to minor situations, and don't allow any student to prevent others from learning (Thompson, 2010). Ms. Samuels had such strong classroom-management skills that less effective teachers often sent their "problematic" students to her.

3. They create a classroom environment that is based on mutual respect and make their classrooms a safe learning community so that students can concentrate on schoolwork.

Ms. McKoy's students admired her so much that they wanted to behave in her classroom. Both her principal and other teachers told me that she has a special gift for nurturing students, especially black boys. "I love all of my students," Ms. McKoy told me, "but there's just something special about the boys. I want to reach them to the same extent that the teacher who went out of her way to help me when I was a child did."

4. They strive to form positive relationships with their students by making it clear that they have students' best interests at heart.

Gruell (1999) and McCourt (2006) convinced students that developing good writing skills would benefit them. Codell (2009) began and ended each day with activities that showed students she cared about their overall welfare.

5. They use assessment data to improve their teaching.

For example, after doing a beginning-of the-school-year assessment, Codell (2009) realized that students lacked basic decoding skills, so she created phonics-based lessons. Because of her willingness to give students what they needed, her students' standardized test scores improved dramatically.

6. They are realistic.

They understand that even when they do their best, some students will misbehave; reject their efforts to form positive relationships; and complain of boredom and act apathetic, no matter how interesting, comprehensible, and relevant they try to make the curriculum. Nonetheless, effective teachers continue to focus on what they can do, instead of on what they can't control, and they keep doing their very best (Thompson, 2010).

All Teachers Can Reach Challenging Students

In an ideal situation, all teachers—especially those in challenging schools—would have supportive school leaders who would offer mentoring services, ongoing professional development, and other types of support.

School principals, such as Alisha Coleman Kiner in Memphis, Tenn., who dramatically raised her school's graduation rate; Baruti Kafele in East Orange, N.J., who views himself as a surrogate father to students; Mary Hales of Fayetteville, N.C., who greets students and parents in the parking lot each morning; and Marva Carter of Mobile, Ala., who invests every penny she can into professional development for teachers, are leaders who attempt to groom teachers in challenging schools for greatness.

Some of the excellent teachers I've met and read about had great leaders, but others didn't. Regardless of where they work or the type of principal they have, effective teachers remain true to their overall goal: to offer an outstanding education to all students whom they have the privilege of teaching (Benard, 2004; Thompson, 2010).


Benard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What we have learned. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Codell, E. R. (2009). Educating Esme: Diary of a teacher's first year (expanded edition). New York, NY: Algonquin.

Gruell, E. (1999). The freedom writer's diary: How a teacher and 150 teens used writing to change themselves and the world around them. New York, NY: Broadway.

Kafele, B. (2009). Motivating black males to achieve in school and in life. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

McCourt, F. (2006). Teacher man: A memoir. New York, NY: Scribner.

MetLife. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Teachers, parents, and the economy. New York, NY: Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

Thomas-El, S. (2003). I choose to stay: A black teacher refuses to desert the inner city. New York, NY: Kensington.

Thompson, G. (2010). The power of one: How you can help or harm African American students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Gail L. Thompson is a Wells Fargo Endowed Professor of Education at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. Cynthia Thrasher Shamberger is an assistant professor of special education at Fayetteville State University.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 2. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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