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Highly Effective Teachers of Vulnerable Students: Practice Transcending Theory

reviewed by Bernadette Musetti & Ammy Rojas - February 22, 2021

coverTitle: Highly Effective Teachers of Vulnerable Students: Practice Transcending Theory
Author(s): Mary S. Poplin & Claudia Bermudez
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 143314932X, Pages: 282, Year: 2019
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Mary Poplin, coeditor and author of the introductory chapter, “Entering the World of Highly Effective Teachers,” discusses the large-scale research study on effective teachers by 11 researchers throughout 2015–2016, on which the remaining chapters of the book are based. Each chapter is linked to one of the study’s research questions and authored by one or more of the research team members. Following a similar study previously carried out by Poplin and others during the NCLB era, the current study involved 41 teachers from K–12 schools, community colleges, and one Native American tutoring program in the greater Los Angeles area spanning 14 schools. Focal teachers were identified using quantitative methods, including students’ end-of-year gain scores over the prior three-year period, as compared with gains shown by colleagues; at the community college level, instructors were identified as those whose students passed the developmental English course at higher rates. Chapter 13, by June Hilton, explains the selection criteria for the teachers in the study. To investigate what makes an educator highly effective, including how they engage social capital, specifically in economically depressed communities, data were gathered through a series of teacher interviews, observations, and more than 2,000 anonymous surveys of focal teachers’ students, the majority of whom were African American or Latino. Findings reveal no particular theoretical or pedagogical approach, such as critical theory or constructivism, or even type of professional preparation for effectiveness (for example, more than 40% of teachers in the study did no student teaching). Rather, effectiveness is a combination of what teachers know, do, and believe, as described throughout the remaining chapters.                 

Chapters 2 and 3 are summaries of effective teaching as perceived by teachers and students respectively. In Chapter 2, “‘My classroom is not broken’: Interviews With Highly Effective Teachers,” Claudia Bermúdez states that effective teaching is characterized by academic and intellectual rigor, caring and supportive relationships, high expectations, and a love for the work of teaching; these characteristics make possible the devotion of time, energy, planning, self-reflection, and constant improvement required. Bermúdez concludes that effective teachers “endeavored consistently to provide their students with high quality instruction that recognized their cultural and linguistic assets and funds of knowledge. They did this because of their collective, deep-rooted belief in the worth and potential of every one of their students” (p. 36).

In Chapter 3, Wendy Moore and Claudia Bermúdez report on the results of approximately 1,400 middle and high school student surveys to understand student perceptions of what makes for effective teachers. Students identified dispositions of effective teachers as being kind, strict, caring, passionate, persistent, and dedicated. Regarding instruction, student responses were categorized in terms of knowing how to respond and intervene to assist students, being knowledgeable and trustworthy, using formative evaluation effectively, clarity, feedback, and making learning fun. Students also identified relationships and high expectations as two of the most important variables regarding teacher impact. The researchers suggest implementing student opinions and feedback into current practice and pedagogy to increase interest, optimism, hope, and engagement in school life.

Chapters 4, 5 and 6 concern the effective teaching of English learners. In Chapter 4, “‘The sky is the limit’: The Essential Teaching Practices of Successful Teachers of Latino English Learners,” Wendy Moore notes that Latino English learners (ELs) are the most rapidly growing subgroup of students in the nation. ELs have among the highest dropout, mobility, and poverty rates and among the lowest academic achievement, creating great urgency to increase teacher effectiveness for serving this highly vulnerable population. In the study, effective teachers of ELs employed multiple strategies and instructional practices (most of which are widely recognized as such within the research literature and have been codified into various protocols for teaching language and content to ELs). Moore notes that most teachers lack sufficient preparation to effectively meet EL students’ needs, where language and content must be promoted simultaneously. Recommendations include investing in the development of teacher dispositions, not abandoning explicit instruction, reiterating the importance of high expectations for ELs, and incorporating student voice as a component of teacher evaluations and reflections. In Chapter 5, “‘She won’t give up on you’: Math Instruction as Cultural Capital for English Leaners,” David Tarazón investigates practices of highly effective teachers of ELs in math learning. Tarazón discusses the disadvantage these students often have in learning mathematics, particularly with the Common Core State Standards assessments that require students to justify and explain their responses, construct arguments, and critique reasoning. Tarazón offers an insightful and useful critique of how this requirement of language in learning math further disadvantages ELs academically by denying them equitable access to cultural capital as compared with their native English-speaking peers, and he goes on to discuss related issues regarding long-term English learners. Observational themes include preinstructional characteristics, such as relationship and community building, and instructional themes such as activating prior knowledge, scaffolding and explicit instruction, collaborative grouping, debriefing, questioning, note-taking, and teaching math and language simultaneously. ELs engaged in a community of learners and the discourse of math with adults and peers develop an understanding of both mathematics and language, while using language for a range of functions, such as hypothesizing, explaining, and questioning. In Chapter 6, “‘Her method of teaching is extraordinary’: Preferred Strategies for Reclassification of English Learners,” author Kim Hall explains that EL students who are not reclassified as fluent English proficient (RFEP) by the end of middle school are typically excluded from postsecondary options and programmed into support and non–college preparatory courses in high school. Hall identifies the five primary instructional strategies used by highly effective teachers to promote academic success of ELs and accelerate their reclassification, and includes a ranked list of the 36 most frequently used strategies. Recommendations for policy include more deeply embedding study of language acquisition into teacher preparation, emphasizing the development of language skills, rapport building, and applying cultural knowledge and relevance of lessons to students’ lives in professional development.

In Chapter 7, “‘I’m not sitting at my desk’: The Essential Practices of Teacher Talk and Structured Group Work,” Calista Kelly focuses on just two of the many practices in which highly effective teachers engage—teacher talk characterized by explicit instruction, and structured group work characterized by shared responsibility for the work (which is also monitored and facilitated by teachers to various degrees depending on grade level and tasks). Kelly discusses the benefits of explicit instruction that is organized, purposeful, and engaging.

Chapters 8 and 9 discuss findings of effective teachers of African American students. In Chapter 8, “‘She kept me in the game’: How Black Males Perceive Effective Teachers,” Matthew Smith reports on the role of highly effective K–12 teachers as perceived by Black males after high school graduation (20 of the 30 interviewees were enrolled in college). Teacher strategies to support Black males’ academic identification and educational trajectories included rigorous instruction and high expectations, trust, care, mentoring and being genuinely invested in their personal lives outside of official school time, honesty, empathy, encouragement, and attention to students’ psychological and emotional needs. A major finding was that Black male students who were not enrolled in college typically lacked a K–12 teacher with whom they had a meaningful relationship. Smith emphasizes the need to create an ethic of care and meaningful relationships in educational institutions to promote academic success among Black male students and to privilege the voices of Black males in assessing teacher effectiveness. In Chapter 9, “A Culture of Honor: Highly Effective Teachers of African American Students in Grades 4–12,” Jacquet Dumas reports findings from observations, teacher interviews, and student survey data on effectiveness. Teachers varied instructional strategies to meet students’ needs; established and maintained relationships of trust; and created positive, respectful environments characterized by optimism and striving for excellence, caring yet strict “warm demanders,” teacher reflectivity and humility, and a culture of honor to cultivate academic and personal success. Setting high expectations boosted student confidence both academically and personally. Effective educators created a “culture of honor” in and out of the classroom and “a cognitively, physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe space” (p. 170). Dumas makes a case for linking practices with policy, such as disaggregation of data by race to promote greater accountability for supporting African American students’ academic success.

In Chapter 10, “‘He keeps me on track and prevents me from lollygagging’: Insights From a Native American Tutoring Program,” Alejandro López reports on study findings from the Southern California Native American Tutoring program, an after-school program providing academic and college guidance for students in elementary grades through high school. Findings demonstrate the importance of strong relationships between tutors, tutees, and families; content learning that is relevant and connected to students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds; high standards for learning and accountability; sustained focus; and implementing native languages into content. Especially noteworthy was the finding that tutors understood that students’ needs and preferences and created highly contextualized learning environments, including adjusting to students’ “culturally bound norms of communication” (p. 185). Upper grades tutors were strategically hired for their deep content expertise, which students recognized as valuable. This, together with tutors’ ability to make content comprehensible and support students beyond the scope of academic work, was a key theme. López suggests that the program could serve as model for high schools with Native American students; the program’s intentional and comprehensive support for academic achievement went well beyond tutoring and included cultural activities, college visits, and summer academies to prepare students for college. López explains that because Native American students’ total numbers are often small relative to other subgroups and not considered statistically significant (in terms of assessment and funding, for example), educators and administrators must be diligent to provide the support and guidance Native American students deserve in order to address their needs and promote their success.

In Chapter 11, “‘Believe you have something to say’: Successful Community College Teachers of Developmental English Classes,” Rebecca Hatkoff and Claudia Bermúdez report on a study of seven effective educators of students enrolled in non-credit-bearing developmental English courses, a prerequisite for the credit-earning course that follows, English 101. Teachers from one large community college were determined to be effective if 70%–89% of their students went on to pass the subsequent credit-bearing English course. These courses are often major gatekeepers to earning a college degree and are primarily taken by students who speak a primary language other than English. Although there were stark differences in instructors’ tones and teaching styles, similarities existed in having a balance between authentic care (concern for students’ emotional well-being) and aesthetic care (attendance, assignments, etc.), and all shared a serious commitment to improving students’ reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. These instructors’ teaching, like many of the K–12 teachers described previously, was marked by clarity, patience, effective use of scaffolding, constant and detailed feedback, and care. However, what distinguished the instructors in this context was their commitment to preparing students for success in English 101, determination to have students meet their degree and transfer goals, and presenting students with visions of their own talent and opportunity.

In Chapter 12, “Challenging Class: How Highly Effective Teachers Mitigate Social Class Reproduction in Working-Class Communities,” Rebecca Hatkoff sought to build on the work of others, including Anyon’s famous 1980 study on social class, which documented that schools reflect and reproduce class differences. Hatkoff also aimed to fill a gap in the research literature on social class by investigating to what extent the practices and beliefs of highly effective teachers in working-class communities limit or broaden students’ social class trajectory and how these teachers compare to those in a high-achieving upper-class community. The settings were seven Grades 4–6 classrooms across five elementary schools in working-class communities, and four classrooms in one school in an upper-class community. While effective teachers in both settings shared many of the same characteristics, those in working-class schools did not fit the profile described in Anyon’s study. Rather, these teachers had high expectations, explained context, content, and connections explicitly, and provided supports to make instruction accessible—including, importantly, that of hidden curriculum. They did not impose limitations, and they prepared and empowered students with agency for success in education and in their futures.

In the final chapter, “‘He never leaves someone behind’: Effective Practice Informing Policy and Theory,” author and coeditor Mary Poplin summarizes the premises and major findings of the studies conducted on highly effective public school educators in low-income, underresourced, and vulnerable student communities. Poplin gives statistics on the teachers studied, including that 61% said their lives had been very similar to or somewhat similar to those of their students. The majority also said they were from the lower middle class (38%) or had lived in poverty (23%). Eight of the 42 teachers were first- or second-generation immigrants; 56% were White, 36% were Latino, 6% were Black, and 3% were Native American, with an average age of 44. These demographics and this diversity within the teacher population were likely key contributing factors to teachers having high expectations of students and not operating from a deficit perspective of lower income students, English learners, African Americans, and other students often put at risk within our educational systems. Poplin emphasizes the importance of classroom culture, including creating a culture of honor, as discussed by Dumas in Chapter 9. Poplin reminds readers that these teachers are exceptional and unfortunately not the norm in far too many schools. She states that to have more effective teachers of our most vulnerable students, we must depend on committed and courageous policy makers, administrators, professors in education schools, teacher organizations, and other credentialing authorities. The remainder of the chapter includes recommendations in these areas, including an important focus on culturally responsive and critical pedagogies in teacher education. In “Final Thoughts,” Poplin states her conviction that we as a nation must concentrate our attention on raising the achievement of the most vulnerable as our most important social goal and “our most valuable strategy for confronting poverty, poor health, crime, and a host of social and economic problems that confront our nation” (p. 266).

In the epilogue, Paul Kirschner describes a great teacher as someone “whose efforts inside and outside the classroom lead to positive effects on student academic progress; that is, in their knowledge and skills” (p. 271). He reviews many of the requisite characteristics documented throughout the book’s chapters, but the important contribution of this final section is the author’s emphasis on great teachers’ authenticity, which students perceive as embodying expertise, passion, and uniqueness—the teacher’s personal stamp—and distance, where teachers show caring but maintain an appropriate professional distance.   

This work is important in describing and documenting the diversity and centrality of effective teaching. It reinforces the need to attract and retain more highly competent, caring, culturally responsive educators who honor students and parents, possess deep content and pedagogical knowledge, and use assessment effectively to promote learning, particularly among the most marginalized and vulnerable of our students. Without effective teachers, these students are placed at great risk within our schools and educational systems.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 22, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23606, Date Accessed: 3/4/2021 3:32:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Bernadette Musetti
    Loyola Marymount University
    E-mail Author
    BERNADETTE MUSETTI, Ph.D., is director of liberal studies (undergraduate elementary grades teacher preparation) and professor of urban and environmental studies at Loyola Marymount University. She has devoted her career to promoting equity and access in education and to developing ecological literacy among future teachers. Her work has been published in the Journal of Literacy Innovation and the CATESOL Journal.
  • Ammy Rojas
    Loyola Marymount University
    E-mail Author
    AMMY ROJAS is a kindergarten teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District and is earning a graduate degree in educational studies at Loyola Marymount University. She is a wetlands educator and strong believer in nature-based learning.
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