For as long as he could remember, Jimmy had a hard time in school. For him, school was one disappointment after another. Although initial standardized test scores showed Jimmy had an aptitude for learning, his daily performance indicated otherwise. At school, Jimmy felt a whittling down and chipping away at his identity and self-esteem. He attended school, but he had given up.
At-risk students like Jimmy come in all shapes and forms. They tend not to fit in at school. Some are withdrawn and quiet, and others are disruptive or rebellious. Academically, they often perform below their expected grade level (National Mentoring Partnership, 2007). Many are truant and come from homes with high mobility rates and lower socioeconomic status; some must work more than 20 hours each week to support their families (Hammond, Linton, Smink, & Drew, 2007).
How can teachers support students like Jimmy? One clue is to examine the practices of teachers who are effective with such students. One of the authors, James Riegert (2009), interviewed, observed, and conducted a focus group with six high school teachers who were nominated by multiple colleagues and peers across 26 school districts in a midwestern U.S. city for their success in working with at-risk students. The teaching experience of these six teachers ranged from 10 to 35 years. Although these six teachers worked exclusively with at-risk students, mostly in alternative settings, they had much to say that could apply in a regular classroom.
To create classrooms that engage all learners, these six teachers focused on five interrelated practices.
1. Create Bonds
A major part of teaching is building relationships. Teachers must intentionally establish and maintain bonds with students as students progress through their coursework. But at-risk students often are not easy to bond with. Many withdraw from their teachers or challenge teacher rules and expectations.
How do these six exemplary teachers create bonds with their at-risk students? One strategy is to consciously maintain close proximity to them. Mike said that "the safest place to be with these kids is in real close." This proximity conveys to students that you are strong and unafraid and that you are there for them.
Another strategy is making time to talk with students. As Donna noted, "These kids have experienced a great deal of failure and maybe get screamed at or yelled at a lot; I like to be a person who accepts them for who they are and as they are." Some conversation starters will go nowhere, but each attempt at conversation is an opportunity to build that crucial bond.
These teachers also draw families into the relationship. Donna said, "I call home a lot. I am a firm believer that you don't just call home with the negatives, but with the positives, too, because it has such a big impact on the kids."
2. Persevere Through Difficulties
When creating relationships with students, these teachers don't take no for an answer. They repeatedly and persistently exert the energy and strength necessary to create and sustain challenging relationships. They are determined, and they persevere. As Becky explained, "I do everything in my power to stay patient and hang on to kids."
When students aren't meeting their expectations, these teachers are honest about what they're seeing. Amy said, "They know that I care, but they also know that I'm going to tell them straight up that they're messing up." But even as students struggle, the teachers do not lower their expectations. Amy said of one student, "He knows that I'll go to bat for him, but he also knows that I expect something from him as well. He knows that I expect him to do the very best he can."
Because many of their students have known only failure in school, these teachers have learned to appreciate small successes as they come rather than setting large expectations and only celebrating when those successes are achieved. As Beth stated, "success is really, really important to find, even on the microscopic level. These kids need to feel they are good at something—that they are valued and that somebody cares about their success."
3. Differentiate and Be Flexible
As educators, we chose teaching because of our passion for students and our subject area. The challenge is to connect the curriculum with students' interests and passions. One way to begin is by selecting instructional strategies that respond to students' needs rather than beginning with strategies that are tied to curriculum (Tomlinson & Javius, 2012).
The six exemplary teachers supplemented their lessons with outside materials suited to their students' needs and interests. Charged with teaching government and law, Amy adapted her instruction. Instead of using the textbook, "we went online and everyone found an island for sale." The class then created the government and economy for the island. As students worked on how they wanted to run the island, they began to discuss the need for rules and laws, and Amy was able to guide them to the understanding that even though they thought they wouldn't want rules, they need rules for society to function smoothly.
Knowing that students are often able to communicate their knowledge in ways other students understand, Mike encouraged students to help one another: "I've said to them that there may be a student who gets it but in a different way." As students share how they understand the material, "they'll kind of teach each other."
When asked how she balances all the different needs students have, Beth stated, "I don't worry about being fair. I can't be fair and I (try to) convey to the kids that I will give them what they need and [that] what one needs is not the same as another's [needs]. My goal is to meet the different needs of different kids."
4. Make Curriculum Relevant
The work of a teacher is to provide students with clear objectives, guidelines, and feedback and to support their next steps in growth (Tomlinson & Jarvis, 2012). If that task is not complex enough, students, especially at-risk students, will want to understand how the material they are learning is relevant to their lives.
At-risk students are not necessarily motivated to learn material because it is in the curriculum or on the test. Mike designs geometry projects to show how students will apply their new knowledge: "My time is spent more on problem solving in a small group with real-life examples [than on] major examples [solved] on the board."
Another approach is to have discussions with students about their futures and how education will contribute. Donna said, "Kids have to understand the difference between wants and needs. Your needs are food and shelter; and your wants are your cell phones, cable, iPods, stuff like that." She tells students that if they want these things "they will have to be prepared, and a high school diploma is just the beginning." When students see how their schoolwork relates to their knowledge, health, and well-being, their education often takes a giant step forward.
5. Start Fresh Daily
All of these teachers provided their students with fresh starts every day. "Teachers need to look at these kids knowing that every day is a new day. You cannot … harbor anger toward them," said Bohdan. Donna stressed the need to suspend judgment and not jump to hasty conclusions: "You cannot be judgmental. You just cannot do it, because if you are, they won't take any chances with you."
Teaching students who are at risk requires energy, dedication, talent, and commitment. These exemplary educators consistently and continuously remain connected and engaged with their students. By keeping their students' needs, interests, talents, and learning styles in the forefront, these teachers successfully reach and educate the students who need them most.
Hammond, C., Linton, D., Smink, J., & Drew, S. (2007). Dropout risk factors and exemplary programs: A technical report. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center and Alexandria, VA: Communities in Schools.
National Mentoring Partnership. (2007). Characteristics of high-risk students. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from www.mentoring.org/downloads/mentoring_618.doc
Riegert, J. (2009). The visions, dispositions and classroom practices of effective alternative educators of at-risk students (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Cardinal Stritch University, Milwaukee, WI.
Tomlinson, C. A., & Javius, E. L. (2012). Teach up for excellence. Educational Leadership, 66, 28–33.
James Riegert is an alternative educator at Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Donna Recht is an associate professor at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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