“The Skillful Teacher” by Jon Saphier, Mary Ann Halye-Speca, and Robert Gower is one of the cornerstones of education preparation programs. The discoveries I’m making while reading it after a few years of classroom experience are enlightening.
“‘The indispensable characteristic of successful teachers in low-income-area schools is a positive attitude. It is not enough for a teacher to use the right words. The critical question is, what implicit and explicit messages are students getting from the teacher about their ability to learn?’ (Frick, 1987)” (Saphier, 305)
Any teacher who has worked or does work in a low-income-area school could tell you that having a positive attitude in such a setting is no easy feat. We are constantly overwhelmed with the knowledge that our students are not performing to state standards and feeling the burden of not having enough time or resources to meet their needs. The pressure of this environment is nothing sort of stressful, but here’s an uplifting message by Rita Pierson who became an instant hero of mine after I discovered it.
Here is the jingle she taught her students:
I am somebody.
I was somebody when I came,
I’ll be a better somebody when I leave,
I am powerful, and I am strong.
I deserve the education that I get here.
I have things to do, people to impress,
and places to go!
You see, as Saphier states, “In many poor communities, a major obstacle to motivation for students, especially high school students, is the absence of hope, the absence of faith that doing well in school would give them a chance at a better life. These students believe there is no payoff in store for investing in effective effort. The competencies they would gain from better school achievement are viewed as irrelevant to having a better life (305).” Additionally, students in these communities lack role models and mentors who look like them, we have to build community connections and bring them into our classrooms. Peer culture is also a challenge; its not always “cool” to do well in school. “Whereas individual teachers can work on such cultures within the four walls of their classrooms, the job, especially in American inner cities and among the rural poor, is to build such cultures school-wide (306).” Last year, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Geoffrey Canada, founder of The Harlem Children’s Zone. One of the points that stayed with me was that he changed the culture not only in his schools, but in the community of Harlem. He reached out to families to ensure that they understand why it is important for students to do well in school. If the culture of the community does not support the educational mission, he said, we simply have to change it.
I cannot help but believe that we are going about this all wrong. We relentlessly emphasize the importance of raising the scores as our primary goal and focus and I feel like we are overlooking a fundamental issue: the culture. Schools, districts, and communities need to identify what their culture is around academic success and if it does not match the educational mission, it needs to be changed. The Harlem Children’s Zone has a team of people who work solely with families on supporting their children to succeed in school and getting them to understand the importance of this for improving their child’s life. After all, who doesn’t want better for their children?