Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It by Eric Jensen

4. School-Wide Success Factors

  • So what does it take for poor schools to exceed expectations? I agree with Eric that relationships make or break it. It’s fine to have high expectations, but this only works if you follow it up with high levels of support, which comes in many ways. Access to medical care is necessary, which some schools do on site. Teachers also need to meet with students and parents to engage in problem solving and provide consistent tutoring. Look for opportunities to offer on-site programs for parents as well.
  • The last thing you want to do is focus too much on data from state and district standardized tests. Formative assessments that feature immediate feedback are key to success. Ideally assessment is continual and followed by necessary adjustment. When possible, this data can help place students into small groups according to their needs. While multiple data sources are needed, too much data can get in the way. If the data does not suggest action, it may not be worth gathering.
  • Generally, students only spend 28% of their lives in school so you need to make the most of the time you have. It is also important to avoid suspensions for anything that is not serious. If students misbehave, don’t take it personally. Be empathetic and be a source of reliable support. As you work to build relationships with students it will help if you don’t raise your voice or speak with a harsh tone of voice. While you won’t give up your authority, it’s important that you demonstrate caring more. Heavy handed discipline is likely to undermine your efforts. Show students respect even when they may not be earning it.
  • If students feel a positive bond with teachers they are less likely to drop out. Note that many high performing schools find ways to extend the school day and the school year. Teachers need to work together as much as possible. Common planning time is vital. Stay away from giving poor kids remedial courses or keeping them out of enrichment opportunities. Eric suggests looping so that students can have the same teacher(s) for more than one year. (Doug: This should be possible in secondary schools in subjects like English, math, and social studies.) This allows for long-term relationships and is a key ingredient for mentoring. Coaches often work with students for multiple years and are commonly sited by students as being among the most influential people in their lives. The best coaches also follow up with teachers and parents about students’ academic performance. Students in athletic programs are less likely to have behavioral problems.
  • Status and acceptance are important. Teachers need to help students feel accepted for who they are and look to give them all situations where they they can find some status. (Doug: Recent research suggests that the coolest students are less likely to be successful after school.) While relationships with students are key, it is also vital that the staff get along and support one another. Students will see if the staff has less than positive relationships with each other. When the adults get along they will be better able to collaborate well. Informal events can help build relationships. When students see how well the staff gets along they are more likely to cooperate better with each other and do better academically. (Doug: There is no excuse for staff not acting like they like each other.)
  • If you need to revisit content, try to make the experience seem like enrichment rather than remediation. Since poor students don’t have rich experiences at home, try to feature real-life experiences and field trips when possible. Consider occasional lessons outdoors. Do what you can to make the classroom and common areas pleasant places to be, and let the students help when you can. Months away from school are a problem so many high performing schools with high poverty find ways to fund summer programs. They are also more likely to extend the school day. Nutrition is also important with a focus on quality. Science classes and projects can help build nutritional knowledge.
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