Tension between Students and Teachers in Urban High Schools: School Leaders Must Learn New Ways to Nurture Teachers Who Are Faced with Students Who Resist Learning

By Cheung, Rebecca | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Tension between Students and Teachers in Urban High Schools: School Leaders Must Learn New Ways to Nurture Teachers Who Are Faced with Students Who Resist Learning


Cheung, Rebecca, Phi Delta Kappan


Working with struggling students is often characterized by a pervasive tension between teacher and students. Teachers want students to work harder and learn more, and students are anxious about the expectations that they must work harder and learn more. Often, students' anxiety leads to resistance to learn.

This constant tension between teachers and struggling students is evident in many schools and, I believe, accounts for the high rates of burnout among teachers who work in our most challenged schools.

In a small study of 14 teachers with reputations for being committed to and successful with struggling urban high school students, I learned that these teachers responded to this tension in four primary ways.

* Psychologically, teachers accepted this tension as a normal part of their work and maintained their high expectations despite student resistance.

* Philosophically, teachers either had broad political commitments to social justice or believed that a teacher's job includes intensive academic support, counseling, and other roles.

* Instructionally, teachers constantly adapted their instruction and prioritized student engagement.

* Outside of the classroom, they provided extra support to students and worked with colleagues, and many were teacher leaders in their schools.

Teachers were encouraged by positive student outcomes and by such organizational supports as like-minded colleagues and strong leaders, as well as by personal supports. What discouraged teachers were negative student responses; difficult workplace conditions, such as large class sizes; conflicting personal and out-of-school priorities; and systemic roadblocks that impede success, such as unsolved societal ills. The substantial influence of organizational/workplace factors on teacher commitment to struggling students point to important implications for leadership preparation and practice as well as policy.

THE INFLUENCE OF LEADERS

Teacher commitment is strongly influenced by conditions that are largely controlled and determined by leaders. This is good news because it suggests that issues of commitment are not fixed and unalterable. This means leaders can influence teachers' commitment through focus and effort. While there has been substantial emphasis on the development of leaders beyond the traditional managerial role, there has been little attention focused on the impact of leadership on teacher commitment.

There is a need for change in leadership practice, particularly in the areas of leadership training to understand commitment, teacher hiring and induction to identify and sustain commitment, and organizing schools to support commitment.

While leadership preparation programs have expanded beyond basic managerial skills by emphasizing instructional practices, they still don't specifically focus on how to support teachers who work with struggling students. School leaders must know how to approach the endemic tension of high academic demand (on the part of the teacher) and anxiety related to meeting the demand (on the part of the student). For example, some teachers respond to this tension by lowering academic demand to reduce student anxiety and resistance. This is not the response of a committed teacher. Effective leaders must be prepared to raise teaching and learning expectations by discussing teacher responses to student anxiety and resistance.

In addition, most teachers working with struggling students in urban high schools don't share the ethnic and socioeconomic background of their students. Thus, issues of race and class complicate the endemic tension of high academic demand and student anxiety. For example, high academic demand requires persistence and "push back" from the teacher. Poor and minority students may perceive these actions from a white middle-class teacher as "picking on them," discrimination, or absence of care, while they may interpret the same action from a nonwhite teacher as care and concern.

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