I often brag about the school where I work, explaining to people I meet that it’s a great place for kids and teachers. When I mention that the school is Boston, they ask if I teach in a suburb of the city, or whether it’s a private school. I am constantly disheartened by the perception that a high-poverty school cannot also be a place where students want to learn and where great teachers want to teach.
Unfortunately, this perception is based on the reality that excellent teachers are less likely to teach low-income students than their middle- and higher-income peers. My high-poverty school, which is filled with expertly-skilled educators, is not the norm. Too many schools across our country have only a handful of skilled teachers who are isolated in their efforts to change kids’ lives through learning. Many of my effective colleagues leave or avoid these schools not to escape the hard work of teaching children whose daily lives are affected by poverty, but because of the overwhelming frustration and exhaustion that result when schools are ill-equipped to support low income students and the teachers who lead their classrooms.
To address this, the U.S. Department of Education has now directed states to halt this pattern of inequitable distribution of effective teachers. The big question is, what do states need to do to succeed? After a decade of experience teaching in high-poverty schools, I am convinced that there are specific school and district practices that will help to attract and retain effective teachers, and that the right state policies are needed to support these practices.
To start, policies that support strong school-based teacher teams should be prioritized in states’ equity plans. For me, learning and problem-solving with other teachers in my grade level and content area make possible the challenging work of teaching in a high-poverty school. Many children in my classroom experience food and housing instability, have experienced trauma, or have recently arrived from another country. All this makes learning difficult. If a student repeatedly acts out in class, I turn to the team instead of taking on the less effective and exhausting work of trying to help single-handedly. During our weekly two-hour meetings, we plan ways to support the child together, throughout the entire school day. Or, if many English Language Learners perform poorly on a quiz, the science team helps me develop additional lab experiences that provide students with more context for the new words they are struggling to learn.
Second, state policies must be designed to draw the best school leaders into high poverty schools. My certainty about joining the staff of one of the lowest performing schools in Massachusetts was largely due to the excellent principal who interviewed me. In particular, he had a clear vision for the success of our school. During the interview, he communicated ambitious goals for student achievement and school culture, a sense of urgency for reaching these goals, and a plan for team-based decision making and data-driven instructional planning. His instructional vision aligned with what I already knew to be good teaching, which mattered greatly to me as I made a risky move to a new school with a history of poor academic performance and a broken school culture.
Third, states must have a plan for supporting shared school-wide leadership. In addition to his strong vision for our school, my school leader recruited many great teachers because of his commitment to distributing school-wide leadership among teachers and administrators. There is simply too much work at a high-poverty school for any few administrators to take on alone. My grade level team leader helps the sixth grade teachers design incentives to prevent chronic absenteeism, while I lead the science team in analysis of student work to determine the best ways to close gaps for our many English Language Learners. Being able to successfully utilize teacher leaders requires a great deal of skill on the part of both principals and teachers. Evaluations at high poverty schools should therefore be adjusted to emphasize distributed leadership. And meaningful, stipended leadership opportunities at high-poverty schools are the kind of financial incentives that might attract the effective teachers these schools need.
I have made the decision to teach science at high-poverty schools three times during my career. My choice of teaching positions has been based on the desire to teach students who are eager, yet statistically unlikely to receive a high quality education, and on the knowledge that certain schools are better places to teach and learn. Which schools are best has little to do with poverty rates of its students or community. Instead, the schools where I’ve chosen to teach have smart structures and policies in place that support learning for students growing up with the challenges of poverty. And these schools are designed to support teachers in the challenging work of teaching in low-income communities, making the work sustainable and satisfying.
By Erin Dukeshire, a 6th grade science teacher at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School, a Boston Public School. She is a recipient of the 2012 Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and is an America Achieves Fellow.
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