In fact, given that five of the above six strategies are directly related to the quality of teaching, it should come as no surprise that quality teaching was identified in a recent analysis of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Wenglinsky, 2000) as the most powerful influence on academic achievement. “After all,” states yet another study, “the only path to greater academic achievement that is open to all students is the one they and teachers travel daily together” (Wilson & Corbett, 2001, p. 119).
While quality teaching might mean many things, when students, the ultimate consumers of quality teaching, are asked what this means to them, they are unequivocal in their answer: a caring teacher who accepts “no excuses” and who refuses to let them fail (Wasley, Hampel, & Clark, 1997; Wilson & Corbett, 2001).
These students are also saying what long-term research into human resilience has found. Lifespan developmental studies of how young people successfully overcome risks and challenges—such as troubled families, poverty, and disadvantages—to become “competent, confidant, and caring” (Werner & Smith, 1992) individuals, as well as successful students, clearly document the power of caring teachers and schools that convey high expectations and provide opportunities for their active participation in the learning process (Higgins, 1994; Masten & Coatsworth, 1998; Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, Ouston, & Smith, 1979; Werner & Smith, 1989, 1992, 2001).
Resilience studies provide critical information to closing the achievement gap, because they give educators clear evidence that all children and youth have the capacity to be educated, and that teachers and schools do have the power to educate them successfully. According to Lisa Delpit (1996), “When teachers are committed to teaching all students, and when they understand that through their teaching change CAN occur, then the chance for transformation is great” (p. 208).
Resilience research identifies the specific practices and beliefs of “turnaround” teachers and schools. Moreover, these studies are corroborated by research into the characteristics of teachers and schools that successfully motivate and engage youth, including those now labeled “high performing, high poverty schools” (Baldwin, 2001; Comer, Haynes, Joyner, & BenAvie, 1996; Diero, 1996; James, Jurich, & Estes, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Meier, 1995; Resnick et al., 1997; Rutter et al., 1979; Sergiovanni, 1996, 2000). Perhaps most importantly, anyone who has had a personal experience of transformative teachers and schools would probably find that experience validated by both resilience research and the successful school studies.
This chapter will examine the transformative power of teachers and schools and describe the practices of these turnaround people and places, providing some case studies as well as self-assessment tools for moving transformation forward in teaching and school dynamics.
The Power of a Teacher
Can you identify a special teacher or mentor in your life? What impact did that person have on your life? What was it about that person that influenced you?
A common finding in resilience research is the power of a teacher—often without realizing it—to tip the scale from risk to resilience. Werner and Smith (1989) found that, “Among the most frequently encountered positive role models in the lives of the children . . . outside of the family circle, was a favorite teacher. For the resilient youngster, a special teacher was not just an instructor for academic skills but also a confidant and positive model for personal identification” (p. 162). The following story provides an example of this long-term influence through short-term involvement.
Becky was a senior taking a class on study methods. Her teacher, Bruce Wilkinson, described Becky's story in the following manner:
“When grading my first set of papers, I came to one that was one page long, looked as if it had been wadded into a ball and then smoothed out and had ketchup smeared on the bottom right corner. Immediately I put an F at the top of the paper.
“The next time the class met, I made an effort to find out more about this student. Becky sat in the back of the room. Her hair was a mess, her clothes looked like her paper, and she was not in good shape. When I collected papers, I looked for Becky's. Trying to maintain an optimistic outlook, I thought to myself, ‘Maybe Becky is supposed to be my pet project this semester.’
“At the top of Becky's paper I wrote, ‘Dear Becky: I believe that this paper does not truly reflect your true talents and abilities. I can't wait to see what you can really do.’ I didn't place a grade on the paper. What good would another F do?
“Her next paper improved to a D-. This time I wrote another note. ‘Dear Becky: Thanks for cracking the door just a bit. I didn't think I was wrong about you. How about the privilege of seeing what you can really do when you apply yourself? I'm on your team.’ Each paper that came in that semester improved over the last one.
“Finally, Becky received an A+. On that paper I wrote, ‘Dear Becky: Your improvement is nothing less than astonishing. I always knew you had it in you. It has been a pleasure to watch you grow in my class.’”
Several years later, Wilkinson received a letter. He didn't recognize the name on the return address. The letter went something like this: “Dear Dr. Wilkinson: I just had to write you a letter after all these years. You don't recognize my name because I am now married. I don't know how to thank you. You are the first person in my entire life to help me believe there was anything good about me. Your class changed my life. I am happily married and the mother of two sons.” (Cash, 1997)
Practices of Turnaround Teachers
Students desire authentic relationships in which they are trusted, given responsibility, spoken to honestly and warmly, and treated with dignity and respect. They feel adults inside schools are too busy, don't understand, or just don't care about them. (Poplin & Weeres, 1992)
In story after story, turnaround teachers like Bruce Wilkinson are described as providing, in their own personal styles and ways, three supports and opportunities (also called protective factors) critical to healthy development and school success: caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation/contribution (Benard, 1991, 1996). Closing the achievement gap depends on teachers providing these protective factors, no matter what subject, grade, or students they teach.
“What is the difference between scribble and a letter of the alphabet to a child? The only reason the letter is meaningful and worth learning and remembering is because a meaningful other wants him or her to learn and remember it” (Comer, cited in Steele, 1992).
Turnaround teachers are, first and foremost, caring. They convey loving support—the message of being there for a youth, of trust, of unconditional love. Resilient survivors talk about such teachers' “quiet availability,” “fundamental positive regard,” and “simple sustained kindness” (Higgins, 1994, pp. 324–25). This can be—and often is—a brief one-to-one connection: words of encouragement written on a paper as Wilkinson's were in the above vignette, a touch on the shoulder, a smile, a greeting. Respect, the giving of acknowledgement, seeing students for who they are, as equals “in value and importance,” figures high in turnaround relationships and schools, according to renowned urban educator Deborah Meier (1995, p. 120). Clearly, Becky felt this respect from her teacher.
Wilkinson also conveys a sense of compassion—nonjudgmental love that looks beneath a student's negative behavior and sees the pain and suffering. Turnaround teachers do not take their students' behavior personally. They understand that no matter how negative behavior is, that student is doing the best thing possible given present circumstances. Sandy McBrayer, founder of an alternative school for homeless youth and 1994 National Teacher of the Year, declares, “People ask me what my ‘methods’ are. I don't have a method. But I believe one of the things that makes me an adequate or proficient teacher is that I never judge and I tell my kids I love them every day” (Bacon, 1995, p. 44).
Finally, being interested in, actively listening to, and getting to know the gifts of students conveys the message, “You are important in this world; you matter.” Wilkinson takes the time, “makes an effort” to find out more about Becky's life, even makes her his “pet project” for the semester. Knowing the stories of their students' lives is an absolute must if teachers are to have the empathy necessary to establish caring relationships.
Turnaround teachers not only establish caring relationships between themselves and students, they consciously promote these between students, between themselves and family/community members, and between students and family/community members. Inviting family and community members into the classroom to mentor and work with students, either one on one or in small groups, is a win-win way to increase caring in the classroom exponentially and to promote caring family-school-community partnerships. Some strategies for increasing these caring relationships are listed below (Figure 6.1) and can be used as a self-assessment checklist.
Figure 6.1. Caring and Support
Place a check mark by the items already being implemented. Place a plus sign by items you would like to improve or strengthen.
_____ Creates and sustains a caring climate
_____ Aims to meet developmental needs for belonging and respect
_____ Is available/responsive
_____ Offers extra individualized help
_____ Has long-term commitment
_____ Creates one-to-one time
_____ Actively listens/gives voice
_____ Shows common courtesy
_____ Respects others
_____ Uses appropriate self-disclosure
_____ Pays personalized attention
_____ Shows interest
_____ Checks in
_____ Gets to know hopes and dreams
_____ Gets to know life context
_____ Gets to know interests
_____ Shows respect
_____ Fundamental positive regard
_____ Is nonjudgmental
_____ Looks beneath “problem” behavior
_____ Reaches beyond the resistance
_____ Uses humor/smiles
_____ Is flexible
_____ Shows patience
_____ Uses community-building process
_____ Creates small, personalized groups
_____ Creates opportunities for peer-helping
_____ Uses cross-age mentors (older students, family/community members)
Creates connections to resources
_____ Health, counseling, and social services
Regardless of the specific elements of a “no-excuses” strategy, wherever the term is used, it conveys the integral role that educators who do not give up on any students can play in the educational lives of children and youth who have traditionally not performed well. (Wilson & Corbett, 2001, p. 121)
At the core of caring relationships are high expectations that reflect the teacher's deep belief in the student's innate resilience and capacity to learn. Werner (1996) states, “One of the wonderful things we see now in adulthood is that these children really remember one or two teachers who made the difference . . . who looked beyond outward experience, their behavior, their unkempt—oftentimes—appearance and saw the promise” (p. 24). She could have been describing Bruce Wilkinson. A consistent description of turnaround teachers is their seeing the possibility: “They held visions of us that we could not imagine for ourselves” (Delpit, 1996, p. 199).
As Wilkinson demonstrates, these teachers not only see the possibility, they recognize existing strengths, mirror them back, and help students see where they are strong. They assist youth, especially those who have been labeled or oppressed, in understanding their personal power to reframe their life narratives from damaged victim or school failure to resilient survivor and successful learner. Turnaround teachers help youth see the power they have to think differently about their lives and construct alternative meanings for them. They help them
- To not take personally the adversity in their lives (“You aren't the cause—nor can you control—your father's drinking or your friend's racist remarks”),
- To not see adversity as permanent (“This too shall pass”), and
- To not see setbacks as pervasive (“You can rise above this”; “This is only one part of your life experience”). (Adapted from Seligman, 1995)
Inherent in high expectations is the “no-excuses” message. In Wilson and Corbett's (2001) study of Philadelphia schools, “Teachers' refusal to accept any excuses for failure separated the classrooms in which students succeeded from those in which they did not. . . . The teacher, according to students, acted out of a determination to promote success. . . . [Teachers] ‘stayed on students’ until they got it” (pp. 120–121).
As Warren Bennis (1994) related in his classic examination of leadership, “In a study of school teachers, it turned out that when they held high expectations for their students, that alone was sufficient to cause an increase of 25 points in the students' I.Q. scores.” Of course, high expectations must be accompanied by the supports necessary to achieve them. High standards without concomitant supports would not only be ludicrous but cruel and frustrating, robbing students of their intrinsic motivation for learning.
High-expectation messages from turnaround teachers are student-centered. These teachers understand that successful learning means engaging the whole child, not just the cognitive but the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual parts. They also understand that student motivation is driven by needs for love and belonging, respect, autonomy/power, mastery, challenge, fun, and meaning, and that successful learning experiences are designed to meet as many of these needs as possible (for example, cooperative learning or arts-based games and projects can actually meet all of these).
Being student-centered also means connecting learning to students' lives, using the student's own culture, strengths (or intelligences), interests, goals, and dreams as the beginning point for learning. Wilkinson showed how starting with students' strengths, instead of their problems and deficiencies, can enlist students' intrinsic motivation, keeping them in a hopeful frame of mind to learn and work on any concerns. Multiple intelligence research studies provide support for this approach (Gardner, 2000).
Some strategies for conveying high expectations to students—and many apply to working with family and community members as well—are listed in Figure 6.2 and can be used as a self-assessment checklist.
Figure 6.2. High Expectations
Place a check mark by the items already being implemented. Place a plus sign by items you would like to improve or strengthen.
_____ Sustains a high-expectation climate
_____ “No-excuses/Never-give-up” philosophy
_____ Aims to meet developmental needs for mastery and challenge
_____ Believes in innate capacity of all to learn
_____ Focuses on whole child (social, emotional, cognitive, physical, spiritual)
_____ Understands the needs motivating student behavior and learning
_____ Sees culture as an asset
_____ Challenges and supports (“You can do it; I'll be there to help.”)
_____ Connects learning to students' interests, strengths, experiences, dreams, goals
_____ Encourages creativity and imagination
_____ Conveys optimism and hope
_____ Affirms/encourages the best in others
_____ Attributes the best possible motive to behavior
_____ Articulates clear expectations/boundaries/structure
_____ Disciplines strictly and fairly
_____ Provides clear explanations
_____ Holds students accountable
_____ Models boundary-setting/adaptive distancing
_____ Uses rituals and traditions
_____ Recognizes strengths and interests
_____ Mirrors strengths and interests
_____ Uses strengths and interests to address concerns/problems
_____ Uses a variety of instructional strategies to tap multiple intelligences
_____ Employs authentic assessment
_____ Groups students heterogeneously
_____ Continuously challenges racism, sexism, ageism, classism, homophobia
_____ Helps to reframe self-image from at-risk to at-promise
_____ Helps to reframe problems to opportunities
_____ Conveys message to students that they are resilient
_____ Sees students as constructors of their own knowledge and meaning
_____ Teaches critical analysis
_____ Encourages self-awareness of moods and thinking
_____ Relates to family and community members with high expectations
_____ Calls home to report students' good behavior and achievements
_____ Helps family members see students' strengths, interests, goals
Opportunities for Student Participation and Contribution
When one has no stake in the way things are, when one's needs or opinions are provided no forum, when one sees oneself as the object of unilateral actions, it takes no particular wisdom to suggest that one would rather be elsewhere. (Sarason, 1990, p. 83)
Creating opportunities for active student participation and contribution is a natural outgrowth of working from this strengths-based perspective. If teachers care for their students and believe in them, they must give them a “voice,” the chance to be heard. This means they must listen deeply. As one successful teacher of culturally diverse students puts it, “You have to know the kids; they may be from all kinds of backgrounds and cultures, but if you really listen to them, they'll tell you how to teach them.” Moreover, you will be supporting their autonomy and initiative, two personal strengths associated with healthy development and lifelong learning (Deci, 1995; Werner & Smith, 1989).
Turnaround teachers give students lots of opportunities to make choices, including creating the governing rules of the classroom. They involve students in curriculum planning, hold regular class meetings, give them choices in their learning experiences, and use participatory evaluation strategies such as portfolios and other forms of authentic assessment. They engage students in active problem solving by asking questions that encourage self-reflection, critical thinking, consciousness, and dialogue (especially around salient social and personal issues).
Even with respect to classroom discipline, Kohn's (1993, 1996) main advice is, “Bring the kids in on it! . . . Instead of reaching for coercion, engage children and youth in a conversation about the underlying causes of what is happening and work together to negotiate a solution. . . . It is in classrooms and families where participation is valued above adult control that students have the chance to learn self-control” (1993, pp. 14, 18).
Rutter and colleagues (1979) did seminal research on effective urban schools in poor communities—that is, schools in which the rates of delinquency and dropping out actually declined the longer students were in them. Rutter found them to be schools in which students “were given a lot of responsibility. They participated very actively in all sorts of things that went on in the school; they were treated as responsible people and they reacted accordingly” (Pines, 1984, p. 65).
These schools provide lots of opportunities for experiential learning in which students do hands-on work and engage with materials, people, projects, and experiences. One student explains why she likes her science class: “We have lots of fun. All we do is projects where we try and understand how variables affect each other. Everyone understands what we are doing 'cause we do lots of hands-on stuff. We also sing and dance in there. The teacher comes up with songs for things that help everyone remember stuff” (Wilson & Corbett, 2001, p. 99).
Evaluations of adventure/outdoor experiential learning (ropes/challenge courses, wilderness adventures) have found, once again, positive social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive (academic) outcomes in students involved in these programs (Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997). Furthermore, their grades in school actually increased the further away they were in time from the experience. Arts-based learning, having the opportunities for creative expression, including poetry, creative writing, and all other forms of the arts, is a highly successful research-proven strategy for improving school success in all students (Catterall, 1997). The creative arts also serve as a critical tool for teachers to learn about students' lives.
Another powerful approach for promoting school and life success lies in giving students the opportunity to work with and help others through research-proven strategies such as cooperative learning, reciprocal peer tutoring, peer-helping, project-based learning, and service-learning. Service-learning evaluations, both national and at the state level, have consistently found this strategy to promote holistic positive outcomes in students, including their core subject grade point averages and standardized test scores (Melchior, 1996, 1998; RPP International, 1998). When students have teachers who encourage them to work with and help others, and to give their gifts back to the community, youth develop the attitudes and competencies characteristic of healthy development and successful learning, such as social competence, problem solving, and a sense of self and future.
Some strategies for increasing student participation and contribution—many of which apply to working with family and community members as well—are listed below (Figure 6.3) and can be used as a self-assessment checklist.
Figure 6.3. Participation/Contribution
Place a check mark by the items already being implemented. Place a plus sign by items you would like to improve or strengthen.
_____ Builds a democratic, inclusive community
_____ Practices equity and inclusion
_____ Aims to meet developmental needs for power/autonomy and meaning
_____ Provides opportunities for planning
_____ Provides opportunities for decision making
_____ Provides opportunities for problem solving
_____ Empowers students to create classroom rules
_____ Holds regular and as-needed class meetings
Infuses communication skills into all learning experiences
Creates opportunities for creative expression
Provides opportunities for students to use/contribute their
_____ Strengths and interests
_____ Goals and dreams
_____ Gives meaningful responsibilities
Includes and engages marginalized groups
_____ Students of color
_____ Students with special needs
_____ Infuses service/active learning
_____ Uses adventure/outdoor, experience-based learning
_____ Offers community service
_____ Offers peer-helping
_____ Offers cross-age helping
_____ Offers peer support groups
_____ Uses cooperative learning
_____ Provides ongoing opportunities for personal reflection
_____ Provides ongoing opportunities for dialogue/discussion
_____ Uses small interest-based groups
_____ Uses group process/cooperative learning
_____ Uses restorative justice circles in place of punitive discipline
_____ Engages students—especially those on the margin—in a school climate improvement task force
_____ Invites the participation and contribution of family and community members in meaningful classroom activities—not just cookie-baking!
The following story told by a continuation high school teacher captures the turnaround process that can happen when teachers provide the three critical protective factors for students—when they care enough to find out a student's story, start with the student's strengths, and give the student an opportunity to give back a “gift” to the community:
One student who'd been in a bad car accident was really depressed. He didn't want to be here. . . . He would come into the class and put his head down on the desk. . . . The only thing that captured any of his interest was reptiles. We got him involved in a service-learning project at a local botanical garden. He became a docent and a virtual expert on reptiles. One Saturday a USDA forester and I were scheduled to give a talk at the botanical gardens. I had to leave early, so I asked this student if he'd come and fill in after I left. He agreed to come and speak about reptiles. His presentation especially impressed a woman in the audience, a director at a local museum. She asked the student if he'd come to take care of reptiles at the museum. Now this student is the director of the children's discovery section at the museum. (RPP International, 1998, p. 55)
These three protective factors are so powerful because they are how students—and everyone else—meet the basic human needs for love and belonging; for respect, power, accomplishment, and learning; and ultimately for meaning. No matter what subject matter teachers teach, they can do it in the same caring and empowering way as the turnaround teachers—and at no extra cost.
It is what teachers model that makes the final difference. Social learning theorists say that most of learning comes from the models around the learner. If teachers are caring and respectful, if they never give up on their students, if they help them discover and use their strengths, if they give them ongoing responsibilities as active decision makers—the students will learn empathy, respect, the wise use of power, self-control, responsibility, persistence, and hope. Moreover, when teachers model this invitational behavior, they create a classroom climate in which caring, respect, and responsibility are the behavioral norms.
The Power of Schools
“A school can create a coherent environment,” a climate more potent than any single influence—teachers, class, family, neighborhood—“so potent that for at least six hours a day it can override almost everything else in the lives of children” (Edmonds, 1986).
Young people continually describe schools and classrooms that have been turnaround experiences as being like “a family,” “a home,” “a community”—even “a sanctuary.” One young woman writes, “School was my church, my religion. It was constant, the only thing that I could count on every day. . . . I would not be here if it was not for school” (Children's Express, 1993). What turnaround schools do is illustrated by the following story of one school:
Emiliano Zapata Street Academy
Oakland, California, has a high school where there are no fights, no security guards, no metal detectors, no guns, and the police department visits to ticket meter violators rather than to arrest students. California and several other states that earned an F in “Student Climate” on Education Week's latest state-by-state report card (Quality Counts '98, Special Issue, Jan. 8, 1998) would do well to examine this school's innovations.
It is not a private school. It has low-income students and little technology, but it earned California's Distinguished School Award in 1990, and many students say it is the best school they have ever attended. A teacher who has been there for 25 years says she wouldn't teach anywhere else.
Asked to explain the difference in atmosphere at the Oakland Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, one student says this: “There was a fight a day at my old school. Here we are a family. Students will stop each other from fighting, because we don't want anyone to mess up the good thing we have here.”
When teachers are pressed to explain how fights are avoided, several core ideals stand out. First, the Street Academy is an institution of tight relationships. Every staff member, for example, is the “consulting teacher” for 15 or 20 students. The teacher meets with those students twice a day and reviews a sheet on which other teachers have recorded information on that day's academic performance and behavior. The consulting teacher responds immediately to any problems—calling a parent, conferring with another student if there are conflicts. Problems are not allowed to fester and grow. Even verbal altercations are taken seriously, and students are not sent back to class until they have worked out a solution.
When I asked one student his response to all this scrutiny, he has a ready answer: “I like it. I don't have to watch my back all the time, and I'm going to graduate.”
A second factor in play at the Street Academy is that, while many schools espouse multiculturalism, this school practices it in earnest. The staff's ethnic composition mirrors that of the students—mostly African American and Latino—and many staff members live in the community. Cultural content is not a tack-on item, but at the deep essence of the school. Racism is explicitly discussed; staff members embrace and respect each other across racial lines; and there is a stern response to cross-racial disrespect among students.
A third factor is that the Street Academy is small and its campus closed. Those who think that the 3,000-student American high school is the only possibility should look at the private schools where the wealthy send their children. They are small places where teachers are required to watch closely over the academic and personal development of their charges. Public high schools in other industrialized countries are also much smaller—averaging around 400 students in some European countries, for example.
Because the Street Academy is small and treats its students as whole human beings, youngsters tell the teachers what is actually happening in their lives. The English teacher might take a kid to McDonald's when his family is short on cash. The social studies teacher will find another youngster a shelter or a bus ticket. Every year, thousands of American candidates for teaching credentials are taught Maslow's hierarchy of needs as part of their educational psychology courses. And each year, those thousands of new teachers go to work in high schools that don't even acknowledge, let alone resolve, the most basic of those needs: food, shelter, safety, and a sense of belonging. Urban high schools cannot solve the array of problems confronting poor people in America, but no school can earn the respect of its students if it makes those problems and their victims invisible.
Finally, the Street Academy is self-renewing, creating teachers who get better every year instead of burning out. The principal has led the school for 21 years with a magical mix of democracy and toughness. Teachers have enormous latitude in creating new teaching methods and procedures, but the school's leader is demanding of everyone, including herself, when it comes to meeting student needs.
Many schools have a poor climate, because American adolescents have huge, unmet needs in the typical high school. Some parents have said that the Street Academy is like a “private school for poor kids.” And that is what poor kids need—schools with the same atmosphere of discipline, hopeful expectation, and a camaraderie that wealthy parents provide for their children.
—Kitty Kelly Epstein, “An Urban High School with No Violence,” Education Week, March 4, 1998.
Practices of Turnaround Schools
Can you remember going to a school that felt like “family” or had a sense of community? What did this look like? What was going on?
The practices of turnaround schools like the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy provide the three protective factors: caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation and contribution. These exist through schoolwide structures, supports, and opportunities, not only for students, but for teachers, families, and the community. They create an “atmosphere of camaraderie, discipline, and hopeful expectation.” These characteristics map closely to studies of schools that are successfully closing the achievement gap (James et al., 2001; MacBeath, Boyd, Rand, & Bell, 1995). The following strategies describe schools that have a vision and mission based on caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation. The list can be used as a school self-assessment tool.
- Quality of relationships between teachers and students is the primary focus of turnaround schools, according to Wilson and Corbett's study of Philadelphia schools (2001). Leaders of successful schools understand everything this chapter has discussed to this point. None of the other reforms that follow will be transformative unless the teacher-student relationship is caring, has high expectations, and is reciprocal. “Small classrooms [or any other reform] were not necessarily better if the teachers in them still accepted failure. It was the quality of the relationships in the classrooms that determined the educational value of the setting” (Wilson & Corbett, 2001, p. 122). This clearly seems to be the case in the Street Academy example, as it is “an institution of tight relationships,” according to the writer.
- Supporting teachers is sine qua non, given they are the critical factor in turnaround schools. As one wise school administrator has remarked, “If you don't feed the teachers, they'll eat the students!” In other words, it's hard to give what you don't get. This means teachers need resources, time, professional development opportunities, and materials, as well as the three protective factors themselves. In order to develop a “self-renewing” school like Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, they need caring relationships with their colleagues, mentors, and school leaders, high expectations on the part of school leaders, and opportunities and time for collegial decision making and planning themselves. Most of the strategies on the checklists for teacher-student relationships apply also to the administrator-teacher relationship. Staff retreats, shared rituals, and team teaching also support turnaround teachers (Diero, 1996), as do teacher support and reflection groups (Palmer, 1998). Some schools even have “resiliency coordinators,” volunteer therapists who mentor teachers in the three protective factors.
- Consistency across the school in discipline, pedagogy, and content creates clear, high expectations for all students. They know where they stand academically and behaviorally—and they all know they stand together. This is clear from the way all the students and teachers deal with conflict at Emiliano Zapata Street Academy. This consistency creates an orderly, safe school—the number one prerequisite for learning to take place, according to brain science (Diamond & Hopson, 1998).
- A shared mission based on meeting the needs of the whole student—the physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and spiritual dimensions—describes turnaround schools (Baldwin, 2001; Diero, 1996). Attending to the students' needs for food, safety, belonging, respect, power, challenge, and meaning was the bottom line for the principal of the Emiliano Zapata Street Academy. She understood that real learning could not take place without this holistic focus.
- Small learning communities are an absolute must for lowering the achievement gap. Study after study has borne out the positive academic and other developmental outcomes of this strategy (Finn, Gerber, Achilles, & Boyd-Zaharias, 2001; Wasley et al., 2000). Smaller classes and smaller schools are two of the most powerful structural facilitators of relationships between teachers and students, teachers and parents, and students and students.
- School-based mentoring during and after school is now the most prevalent form of mentoring (Herrera, Sipe, & McClanahan, 2000). Rigorous documentation shows that mentoring produces positive health as well as positive social and academic outcomes in students (Tierney, Grossman, & Resch, 1995). Moreover, it is a primary approach in breaking down the walls between a school and the community. Hundreds of schools have created mentoring programs, linking community volunteers to students in after-school programs. In Street Academy's case, the teachers each served as mentors for small groups of their students. Other forms of mentoring include cross-age peer-helping/tutoring in which older students help younger ones. Research has documented that the tutor receives the most academic, social, and emotional benefits (Bearman, Bruckner, Brown, Theobald, & Philliber, 1999).
- Career exploration, and for older students, high school transition programs, are a high priority for keeping learning meaningful and connected to students' lives. Effective examples of the latter in closing the achievement gap are tech prep, AVID, I-Have-A-Dream, Sponsor-A-Scholar, and Upward Bound (James et al., 2001). Having a sense of purpose, goals, and a future is a primary characteristic of resilient survivors and learners (Benard, 1991, 1996), and is both a motivator and an outcome of academic success. Many of the programs and schools identified as closing the achievement gap have a school-to-career focus.
- Early intervention services in the form of counseling, support groups, and student assistance programs provide learning supports that are often critical to helping students stay in school and achieve academically. These services are inherently collaborative, with the school interfacing with student services professionals, social services providers, community-based organizations, law enforcement officials, and business and community leaders.
- Diversity of all sorts is seen as a strength and an attribute to celebrate. With this value, successful schools serving students of color, like Emiliano Zapata Street Academy, have a diverse teaching staff that reflects their student body, and staff that are able to form positive relationships with students' families and communities. These schools see family members as cultural resources, inviting them into the classroom to serve as resources in educating their children. Comer's work in this arena is a classic example of the positive academic and social outcomes for students and their families in using this approach (Comer et al., 1996).
- After-school programs are becoming a critical link in promoting school-community partnerships, as well as a vital support to students in promoting academic success and providing a safe haven in the after-school hours (U.S. Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services, 1998). A recent survey by the National Association of Elementary School Principals (2001) found that these programs have more than doubled during the 1990s. Beacon schools in New York City, San Francisco, and several other cities are a wonderful model of after-school programs based on providing the three protective factors. They consistently find positive youth development outcomes, including that of the academic dimension (Walker & Arbreton, 2002; Warren, Brown, & Freudenberg, 1999).
- Ongoing assessment of students for quality improvement is the bottom line for educational reform to close the achievement gap. This means schools need a structure for hearing the student perspective, especially in terms of how well the school is providing the three protective factors. Assessment can include regular breakfast meetings with the principal, as some schools have established. Several other schools (Laboratory Network Project, 2001) use student focus groups as an ongoing way to monitor the school climate or aid in schoolwide decision making. Fullan, considered an educational change guru, states, “Educational change, above all, is a people-related phenomenon for each and every individual. Students, even little ones, are people, too. Unless they have some meaningful (to them) role in the enterprise, most educational change, indeed most education, will fail. I ask the reader not to think of students as running the school, but to entertain the following question: What would happen if we treated the student as someone whose opinion mattered in the introduction and implementation of reform in schools?” (1991, p. 170).
- Family-school-community partnerships are valued and recognized as essential in closing the achievement gap. Turnaround schools know they can't bring about the change alone and welcome the contribution of families, community-based organizations, and community volunteers. They also recognize that families and community members—especially in resource-challenged communities—need supports and opportunities themselves in order to be contributing partners. Therefore, turnaround schools work together with community-based organizations to provide not only after-school and mentoring programs for students, but family math, writing, and mediation programs, as well as family resource centers, full-service schools, early childhood programs, school-community gardens, and even community schools that serve students, their families, and their communities (Dryfoos, 1998; Schor, 1997). Just as supporting teachers is critical to student achievement, so is supporting families and community members who, in turn, serve youth.
- Students are out in the community doing service-learning. Just as mentoring gets community adults into the lives of students, community service-learning gets students into the lives of adults. A schoolwide oral history project of the community can not only help engage students in their schooling, but build a real sense of community among all the partners. It is hard to imagine a strategy more research-based, more grounded in the three protective factors, and more motivating to students, for the underlying message of community service-learning is, “You are a valued member of our community; we need you to help us make our community a better place for everyone.” Nothing is more transformative for a struggling or challenged student than to be seen as a community resource—instead of a school problem.
It All Starts with Our Beliefs
We contend that something else is missing in recipes for urban reform: an underlying belief that all children can succeed and that it is the schools' responsibility to ensure that this happens. . . . Some educators say “all children can succeed—if they make an effort”; others say “all children can succeed—if only the parents would help”; and still others, fewer in number, assert “all children can succeed—and it's my job to make sure they do. . . .” This [last] philosophy must infuse all efforts to improve urban education. (Wilson & Corbett, 2001, pp. 117–118)
The bottom line and starting point for creating turnaround classrooms and schools that provide caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation is the deep belief on the part of teachers and school staff that every child and youth has innate resilience, the capacity for healthy development and successful learning (see Figure 6.4). What this implies, then, is that, “Professional development [must be] focused on adults' underlying beliefs about a school's role in supporting student learning rather than discrete ‘best practices’. . . . Even if a teacher tried to adhere to current thinking about best instructional practices, students in these schools would still fall through the cracks unless teachers believe it is his or her responsibility to construct a supportive net to catch them” (Wilson & Corbett, 2001, pp. 120–121).
Figure 6.4. Teacher Resilience in Action
So how do we change beliefs? A few simple strategies follow:
- Provide for teachers what students need. As discussed earlier, and as seen in Figure 6.4, caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation promote teacher self-efficacy, “a belief that students can learn if taught and a belief in one's own ability to successfully teach them” (Sergiovanni, 2000, p. 131).
- Reflect personally and dialogue as a staff on beliefs about innate resilience. This means every adult in the school must personally grapple with questions like: “What does it mean in my classroom and school if ALL kids have the capacity for healthy development and successful learning?” “What tapped my resilience?” “What occurred in my life that brought out my strength and capacity?” “How am I connecting this knowledge to what I do in the classroom?”
- Form a resiliency study group. Read the research on resiliency, including the studies of successful city schools. Share stories—both personal and literary—of successfully overcoming the odds. “It is important to read about struggles that lead to empowerment and to successful advocacy, for resilient voices are critical to hear within the at-risk wasteland” (Polakow, 1993, p. 269). It is through hearing others' stories and telling one's own that it becomes clear all stories, including those of students and their families, are really the human story. As Remen (1996) reminds us, “Stories that touch us in this place of common humanness awaken us and weave us together as a family once again” (p. xxvii). We develop the empathy that undergirds the belief in ourselves and others.
- Try an initial experiment using the resiliency approach. A teacher who finds this approach appealing can choose the most challenging student. Look for and identify all the student's strengths and mirror them back to her. Teach her she has innate resilience and the power to create her own reality. Create opportunities to have her participate and contribute her strengths. Be patient. A focus on small victories (which often grow into major transformations) helps dispel doubts about the approach.
- Relax, have fun, and trust the process! Working from one's own innate resilience and well-being engages the innate resilience and well-being of one's students, creating a positive self-fulfilling prophecy. Teaching becomes much more effortless, enjoyable, and self-renewing. Moreover, resiliency research, as well as research on nurturing teachers and successful schools, gives all the proof needed for teachers to lighten up, let go of their tight control, be patient, and trust the process.
When teachers care, believe in, and invite back “city kids,” and when schools support teachers, students, and families and work in partnership with them, the achievement gap narrows and even closes. Both the “good” and “bad” news of closing the achievement gap is contained in Edmonds' nearly 20-year-old prophetic statement: “We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. . . . Whether or not we will ever effectively teach the children of the poor is probably far more a matter of politics than of social science” (Edmonds, 1986).
The bad news, according to even our most current reports (James et al., 2001), is that the national and state political will to provide a long-term commitment to policies supporting the needs of teachers and students on a large scale appears as much of a challenge today as it ever was. The good news is that social science validates a fairly simple recipe that each teacher has the power to accomplish, teacher by teacher, classroom by classroom, and school by school. And if educational change experts like Fullan are right, this is, indeed, the only way educational change to close the achievement gap can happen.
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