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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

Grooming Great Urban Teachers

Master teachers working in real urban classrooms share exemplary teaching practices in an after-school pedagogical lab.

Grooming Great Urban Teachers- thumbnail
Teacher 1: “You know the lull you get when there's learning versus playing going on? It was like that. I want to hear more of it in my class.”
Teacher 2: “What did it sound like?”
Teacher 1: “It's like people were doing what they were supposed to be doing. I've finally learned to identify it. I heard it, and it felt good.”
Teacher 3: “You hear noise, but it's not sticking to you.”
Teacher 4: “And it's not conflict. It's a hum.”
This conversation about the hum of classrooms in which students are actively engaged in learning took place among a group of novice teachers who were meeting for the third time. These teachers participate in Learning through Teaching in an After-School Pedagogical Laboratory (L-TAPL), a program for elementary students that also serves as a practice-rich professional development site for teachers. The program aims to improve the achievement of urban students and the competence of their teachers.
The L-TAPL enrichment program curriculum includes language arts, math, and science, as well as the arts. Elementary students in grades 1–4 who have volunteered for the lab meet after school for two hours, three days a week. The program, which runs for three to six months, has been launched in three urban school districts in California and New Jersey. At each site, master teachers work with 9 to 15 less experienced teachers who are grouped in cohorts of three, four, or five. Each cohort attends the after-school program once a week and meets for an additional hour of discussion.
Master teachers, who are paid extra for teaching in that capacity, are nominated by school and district personnel because of their demonstrated ability over time to effectively teach low-income urban students. They are wholly responsible for the program's curriculum and for the teaching strategies employed. The program recruits participating teachers from the schools that house L-TAPL as well as from neighboring elementary schools. Participating teachers receive a variety of incentives, such as college credit, additional pay, and up to $1,000 in minigrants. With the program now in its fourth year, approximately 90 students and 40 teachers have participated in L-TAPL sites in California and New Jersey.
  • To serve as a pedagogical laboratory and professional development site for inexperienced teachers.
  • To link inexperienced teachers with effective, experienced teachers of poor urban students.
  • To document and examine the processes of student learning.
  • To document and analyze the processes by which inexperienced teachers learn to teach.
Through a collaborative process, participating teachers learn new strategies and identify the conditions required to make these strategies effective. Less experienced teachers can put their new knowledge and understanding into practice within the supportive context of the after-school program as well as within their regular classrooms.

Good Teachers Matter

Numerous studies, policies, and programs have addressed the persistent problem of underachievement among poor urban students and its array of possible causes. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) links teacher quality to improved student achievement, especially among low-income urban children of color. Consequently, improving teacher quality has become one of the hallmarks of current reform efforts.
There is some disagreement, however, about the best approach to recruiting and developing competent teachers. One response is to stiffen certification requirements by requiring additional coursework. Another response aims to recruit new teachers with higher college grade point averages and higher standardized test scores or students who have graduated from elite universities. Other approaches stress selecting teacher candidates on the basis of certain underlying dispositions that will contribute to making them effective teachers of urban students of color (Haberman, 1995). Teacher induction programs are increasingly trying to teach culturally sensitive pedagogy as well (Glass & Wong, 2003).
According to Goldhaber (2002), teacher experience, degree attained, and other readily measurable and observable characteristics account for only 3 percent of the contribution teachers make to student achievement. The remaining 97 percent is associated with what researchers refer to as “elusive qualities.”

Findings from the Research

A principal recommendation for improving teachers' practice is high-quality professional development. Programs enhance learning when they provide teachers with sustained opportunities to experiment with and receive feedback on innovative practices, to collaborate with peers in and out of school, and to interact with external researchers. Nevertheless, much of the professional development that occurs in schools is still not organized around these crucial features (CEO Forum on Education and Technology, 1999; Corcoran, 1995; Hawley & Valli, 1999).
Although urban schools have served as research and implementation sites for more than 40 years, a huge gap remains between the world of university researchers and the realities of urban teachers (Fischer et al., 2004). Researchers and teachers in urban schools can work collaboratively, however, to bridge the university-school gap and provide a stronger link between theory and practice (Samuels, Rodenberg, Frey, & Fisher, 2001). Two recent models that engage university researchers and teachers in collaborative work are professional development schools—university-school partnerships designed to improve learning in K–12 schools—and deeply embedded professional development (Fischer et al., 2004). In both models, university researchers function as consultants and bring their expertise to bear on teacher and student needs.

A Look into the Lab

It's nearly an hour into the first day of the after-school lab. Students move from individual workstations into a semicircle around the master teacher. They're going to discuss the name the teacher has assigned the after-school program—the Mind, Body, and Spirit Club. The teacher asks the students to tell her the first word of the club's name. A boy responds jokingly; unbothered, she waves the joke off and directs her question to a second boy, who cannot remember the club's name. Although she has known the students for only an hour, she comfortably and inoffensively blends a mock challenge into her question. “You don't know?” Her tone is incredulous. “You sittin' in here and don't know where you are?” Other students are raising their hands, making sounds of excitement, clearly anxious to show that they know.
A girl offers, “Spirit and Body Club.” The teacher acknowledges that this is partly correct but is missing the first word. Finally, a second girl responds with the correct name, but mispronounces mind as mine. The teacher leans forward, directing her attention to the entire group, and says mind, stressing the final D sound. She then has the students repeat the word mind in unison, stressing the D. She provides a brief example of what mine means and then asks the students to tell her what mind means. The first two respondents continue to confuse mine with mind. A third student answers, “Like ‘mind your business.’” The teacher affirms that this is correct, but she's looking for more. The next student again confuses mine with mind but catches her mistake. She pauses, apparently thinking about how to correct herself when other hands go up with impatient “oohs.” At this point, the teacher stops the activity and says to the class,You know what? When someone's thinking, it's best to be nice and quiet because when you're on the hot seat and I'm waiting for you to say something, you want to be able to think.
The students settle down, and then one offers, “It's when you're thinking with your brain.” With this, the teacher exclaims, “Yes! When you're thinking with your brain, you're using your mind!
This vignette demonstrates some of the “elusive qualities” that characterize effective practice with urban African American students. In this brief five-minute segment, the teacher accomplishes several crucial things related to learning and community. First, she instructs, reinforcing proper pronunciation of a word that many speakers of vernacular African American English have difficulty pronouncing. She accomplishes this seamlessly, helping pupils define the word through group work that does not stigmatize any particular student. The teacher elicits from the students definitions of mind by drawing on and extending their knowledge and understanding while incorporating their contributions. She also nurtures mutual respect among students, pointing out that a person may need time to think before responding to a question.
Master teachers in L-TAPL engage in pedagogical practices that reflect a set of underlying principles. Each master teacher manages to create a respectful and vibrant classroom by discussing, teaching, and modeling specific values—such as self-discipline, self-regulation, inquisitiveness, purposefulness, camaraderie, and persistence in serious academic work. Despite attending punitive schools where authoritarian, inflexible classroom rules and unresponsive curriculum are the rule, students quickly respond to this different classroom environment. New, positive behaviors soon eclipse negative ones. When misbehavior does occur, teachers use the incident as an opportunity for the class as a whole to learn a lesson.
Students spend most of their time focused on activities that engage and stimulate both their minds and their emotions. This dual emphasis is apparent in the names that the master teachers independently assigned to the after-school labs: Mind, Body, and Spirit Club; Minds-On, Hands-On Learning; and Beautiful Minds, Beautiful Hearts.

Teachers as Learners

Less than a month after she began participating in the lab, a novice teacher from Trenton, New Jersey, commented, “I like the way the master teacher has the children learn the rules; the students are self-directed.” Another teacher noticed that when interacting with the students, the master teacher was able to “stay calm, maintain an even tone, and treat the students with a great deal of respect.”
After the first session, a teacher from Los Angeles remarked,The first thing I noticed was that the children seemed comfortable with their surroundings and with each other. They were intrigued, and they were trying to listen. And I saw Hassan. I don't even know him, but I know him: I have about three of them in my class. He tried this little distraction thing to get the others to go along. But they seemed more interested in paying attention to what was going on in class. He was just by himself, so he fell back in line.
At first, novice teachers are surprised by the absence of negative student behavior in the program. But as they become accustomed to seeing the students behave in positive ways—associating the students' behavior with that of the master teacher—the novice teachers begin altering their expectations for their own students and making small changes in their practice.
A teacher from Los Angeles noted thatIt's hard for me to let go of the reins. But today, I did. I let the kids get up and go to the trash can. I wanted to see what would happen if I wasn't constantly saying, “Why are you up? Sit down!” At first, the kids were looking at their friends, smiling as though to say, “What are you going to do?” But when they saw that I didn't say anything, they just got up on an as-needed basis. There wasn't any power in it anymore. So I saw how that could work. That's baby steps for me, but I'm going to get there.

The Learning Gains

Working in urban schools is challenging. Payne (1998) cites such impediments as teacher isolation, skepticism about students, weak sense of teacher agency, teacher factions, and student transience and mobility. Despite these obstacles, however, students, teachers, and schools can benefit from L-TAPL. The positive behavior demonstrated by students in the after-school lab trickles into and subtly influences their regular classrooms. Lewis and Kim found thatWithin the context of supportive teacher-student relationships [in L-TAPL] where teachers explicitly cared about, trusted, and believed in their students, African American children developed positive individual and collective identities at school and responded with hard work and enthusiasm to the challenge of rising expectations from their teachers. (2004, p. 11)

Benefits for Students

L-TAPL, now in its fourth year, clearly contributes to enhanced student learning. L-TAPL students at the New Jersey site demonstrated significant learning gains in reading, math, and writing on the basis of pre-tests and post-tests. L-TAPL students also outperformed a matched district sample of students in reading and math on the Terra Nova, a district-administered test. These gains were achieved in as little as 12 weeks (72 hours) of instructional time, which represents less than two and one-half weeks of instructional time in a regular classroom.

Benefits for Teachers

In L-TAPL, inexperienced teachers are able to observe how experienced teachers address and resolve problems and challenges that they encounter in their work with students who are similar to, or even the very same students as, those of the inexperienced teachers. Novice teachers explore why strategies work or don't work and connect their lab observations and group discussions to their own classrooms. This provides teachers with a window into the classrooms of their peers, easing the isolation they often experience and giving them the opportunity to support one another in responding creatively to challenges that they share in their practice.
One of L-TAPL's strengths is that it encourages participating teachers to develop professionally as a community as they discover and apply new knowledge and insights within the context of their shared everyday work. By observing a model of effective teaching of students like their own—and seeing these students respond in unexpected and productive ways—inexperienced teachers are challenged to become aware of how their own assumptions and biases affect their daily practice, limiting their effectiveness. Moreover, through the process of reflection and discussion, teachers are able to share ideas and concrete examples of how they can “search for responsible ways to mitigate [the] impact” of such biases (Glass & Wong, 2003, p. 76), a process that affects them in profoundly personal ways and deepens their understanding of their practice.
During the course of the L-TAPL program, inexperienced teachers begin to shift their perceptions of their students and of their own practice. At the beginning of the lab, teachers tend to view their task through the lens of things they cannot control, such as the poverty and disorder of communities and schools and curriculum and testing mandates. By the end of the lab year, however, teachers are focusing on creating conditions for implementing more effective teaching strategies—something they can control. Teachers go from seeing students primarily in terms of deficits to seeing them as knowledgeable and capable—as possessing assets to build on.

Benefits for Schools

Although professional development is increasingly focusing on supporting teachers in urban schools, too few models effectively link the exemplary practices of experienced urban schoolteachers directly to the professional development of novices. L-TAPL does just that: It provides a powerful link between the after-school pedagogical laboratory and the teachers' regular classrooms.
L-TAPL is also efficient and cost-effective. The resources targeted to help underachieving students come from the school system itself rather than from some outside company. This builds on local expertise and increases capacity within the system. Many school districts have interpreted student support to mean individual tutoring, but insufficient funds can make it unfeasible to provide this kind of service to all the students who need it (Chan, 2004). L-TAPL teachers, however, work with groups, thereby providing a greater number of students with increased instructional hours.
Teachers in the L-TAPL program continually grapple with what it means to be an effective teacher. They see firsthand how to teach the curriculum, structure a classroom, organize and facilitate small-group work, and orchestrate large-group instruction. But perhaps more important, as they observe master teachers and begin to implement the effective strategies that they witness, they begin to grasp those “elusive qualities” that merge to create great teachers.

CEO Forum on Education and Technology. (1999). Professional development: A link to better learning. Washington, DC: Author.

Chan, S. (2004, Aug. 4). Thousands of pupils qualify for help. Washington Post, p. B1.

Corcoran, T. (1995). Helping teachers teach well: Transforming professional development. Philadelphia: CPRE.

Fischer, J. M., Hamer, L., Zimmerman, J., Sidorkin, A., Samel, A., Long, L., et al. (2004). The unlikely faces of professional development in urban schools: Preparing at-risk students and colleges for each other. Educational Horizons, 82(3), 203–212.

Glass, R. D., & Wong, P. L. (2003). Engaged pedagogy: Meeting the demands for justice in urban professional development schools. Teacher Education Quarterly, 30(2), 69–87.

Goldhaber, D. (2002, Spring). The mystery of good teaching. Education Next, 50–55.

Haberman, M. (1995). Star teachers of children in poverty. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi.

Hawley, W. D., & Valli, L. (1999). The essentials of effective professional development. In L. Darling-Hammond & G. Sykes (Eds.), Teaching as a learning profession: Handbook of policy and practice (pp. 127–150). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lewis, J. L., & Kim, E. (2004). A desire to learn: African American children's positive attitudes toward learning within a school culture of low expectations. Unpublished manuscript.

Payne, C. (1998). So much reform, so little change: Building-level obstacles to urban school reform. Unpublished paper.

Samuels, P., Rodenberg, K., Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2001). Growing a community of high quality teachers: An urban professional development middle school. Education, 122(2), 310–319.

End Notes

1 This program was made possible through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Small Grant for Exploratory Research (REC-0004452) and a Field Initiated Studies grant award from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI). The opinions expressed in this paper do not necessarily reflect the views of either NSF or OERI. Michèle Foster is Principal Investigator; Jeffrey Lewis and Laura Onafowora are co-Principal Investigators.

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