Published Online: September 10, 2008

Interview

Life in the Big City

A Chicago mentoring program helps new teachers build connections with disadvantaged students.

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Teachers in high-needs schools face particular challenges in understanding and accommodating students’ diverse learning needs, which are often shaped by poverty and racial issues.

In Chicago, a specialized induction program is working to help new educators bridge cultural disconnects and build on students’ individual assets. The Chicago New Teacher Center—a branch of the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz—primarily serves teachers on the city’s high-minority South Side, because “that’s where the revolving door of teachers is,” says Lisa Vahey, the program’s director. Among its components are a summer institute, year-round classroom coaching, and 24-hour online support. It completed the 2007-08 school year with a 98 percent teacher-retention rate.

—SOURCE: iStockphoto.com

Vahey recently spoke to us about her advice for teachers and principals on reaching out to at-risk students.

What do teachers tend to do wrong when working with high-needs or disadvantaged students?

I think I would frame this question differently because it’s not so much about the teachers failing as it is about the challenges and the disconnects between how schools are organized and how teachers are being trained to work in them. Better preparing teachers so that they face their challenges with a well-articulated sense of what will be difficult along the way and what they can do to make it better—that’s where our program steps in to connect new teachers from the moment of hire. With the schools that we are serving, we must think about these communities where there’s a need for teachers to engage on many levels.

This requires having an asset-based look at your kids. What are the students’ strengths that you can build on? You must have a vision for where you want them to go, and continue to think creatively and flexibly and intelligently about how you’ll get them there given where they are coming from.

We know that kids who come to school hungry, who have not had a safe night's sleep, who don’t have a safe adult relationship where someone is reading to them or checking their homework, who have huge responsibilities for caring for younger siblings—we know that it will be harder to engage them in lessons that might not feel relevant. We also realize that kids who have had multiple years of either poor instruction or poor performance in schools will also be harder to engage. You may have a group of kids on grade level, some way below grade level, and a couple of kids really beyond grade level. How does a clever, nimble teacher reach all of those kids? Those are the challenges starting from the beginning.

When teachers walk into the classroom, what should they be aware of?

Understand your kids and their community. Understand the assets of the community. Make sure you’ve driven around more than the block of your school and asked your kids what matters to them. And find out where the closest public library is.

If you’re not smart you might roll your eyes and say, “Oh, I have a lot of kids in social service care and I don’t really feel like I have a lot of parent involvement.” But you might have kids whose grandparents are raising them. Or you might not be aware of the importance of the church community. You need to understand what matters to your kids. Be smart about moving those assets forward to focus on learning.

I can remember one of the things I did when I was teaching was to change the radio station in the car, so I could listen to the cool music instead of light rock, which is what I was used to listening to, not because I was using rap in order to teach my 2nd graders, but because I wanted to make real authentic connections with my kids. When I first started teaching in Chicago, I really needed to understand what was going on with the Bulls. How many championships had they won? Who is Scottie Pippin? And what does it mean to be a “Pippin”? I think that just getting what matters to your kids helps a lot.

Then, you need to be responsible for and aware of their academic needs. If you’re going to study ecosystems, do you know if your kids have been to Lake Michigan? That would be a good place to start. If you have to use McDonald’s to explain the rain forest, great. Bring your instruction to life through a video or use some of the amazing stuff on YouTube. Find a picture book that touches your kids’ souls because the illustrations are so lush or the words are like poetry.

That’s what we want to create: Teachers who understand their kids, who know them as city kids, who know them for all of the potential that they have, and then push them beyond that point. How am I going to get these kids to be the kind of learners that they need to be? That means not just understanding the 8 blocks around them, but the 80 miles around them and the 800 miles around that and the 8000 miles around that.

In other words, learning more about students’ lives and then integrating that information into classroom instruction is critical.

Yes, and don’t say naïve things, like, “Take this note home to your mom and dad.” That sounds silly, but that’s a really important message. You need to know who the grown-up is in your students’ homes. Shake hands with each kid in the morning and say, “Good morning, Michele,” “Good morning, Derrick,” “I’m glad you’re here.” Build those personal relationships. Know where the grocery store, the post office, the CVS is. Know whether or not Christina Aguilera is cool.

A lot of folks know that it’s easier to teach your kids if you build a personal relationship with them. But we’re taking it one step further and saying, “Don’t forget that, and then don’t forget you’re not their friend, you’re their teacher. So make sure you teach the ecosystem and not just focus on the R. Kelly trial all year.”

I’m not negating the fact that there are really tough things to deal with or suggesting that if you just shake hands with your kids, it’ll be easier. To see your kids as individuals and stay focused on their learning, to stay energetic saying good morning to every kid, every day—that’s hard for a beginner to do and that’s hard to do in your 15th year. But it matters.

How does the Chicago NTC maintain an ongoing relationship with teachers?

The way we’re able to focus on not just retaining teachers but supporting teachers in their development, as strong instructional leaders in their classrooms, is through our coaches. The district invests in fully released coaches—classroom teachers who’ve left the classroom to receive mentor training for working in beginning teachers’ classrooms.

Our beginning teachers get two years of support from their coach and it’s not, “I’m going to drop by after school and drop off a really great unit on apples,” although they do share resources. Instead, it’s, “I’m going to come the first time you do centers and be an extra pair of hands and we’ll co-plan together. We’ll see how it goes Wednesday and we’ll debrief and figure it out.” A coach might do a read-aloud at the beginning of the year, with the beginning teacher watching to see how a coach works with disruptive students, or to see how she lowers instead of raising her voice to manage student behavior.

We’re doing a lot of standards-based mathematics curriculum here in Chicago. There are lots and lots of math meetings and getting kids to talk about mathematics. A beginning teacher might be taking on the challenge of these math conversations. Our coach will sit in the back of the room and script during the lesson. After the lesson, the coach and the beginning teacher will sit down with that script and discuss it. A teacher might realize that she wasn’t asking enough higher-order questions, or that her kids were struggling with a particular concept. This helps the teacher get back on track. The coach, beginning-teacher relationship and their focus on student learning and planning instruction is the real meat and potatoes of our work.

You have tremendous buy-in from the district. How did that develop?

We have worked really hard to make sure we’re not an add-on to the district, but a part of the important work that this district has embraced. We have a lot of support from our district leaders, who have said time and time again that the quality of the teacher in the classroom matters and that we’ve got to attract and keep the best and brightest people here. They see induction not as a cost, but as an investment. The district puts millions of dollars into this programming and they hold us accountable. We also work hard to keep the union informed about why this program matters. We keep the state and the district informed. We have the hard conversations that you need to have if you’re involved in a real accountable partnership.

I really want to highlight principals. You might see a coach 90 minutes a week, but a supportive principal, who understands what beginning teachers need, is also really key. We have both beginning principals and experienced principals in our schools. We offer them workshops where they can dig deep into why is it that beginning teachers think that everything should be easy for them. The principals also discuss how to help beginning teachers understand issues around race, class, and culture, how to support their teachers’ understanding of high-stakes testing. I want principals who understand that when they’re hiring beginning teachers, they will need to carve our time and space and patience to work with them for the health of their building.

And by the same token, I don’t want to create a bunch of beginning teachers who roll their eyes when their principal walks in the room. Instead I’d like them to take ownership of their end of the relationship and understand that it’s up to them to develop that with their principal. We feel that commitment to developing beginners into experts is incredibly important.

—Elizabeth Rich

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