Selecting 'Star' Teachers for Children and Youth in Urban Poverty

By Haberman, Martin | Phi Delta Kappan, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Selecting 'Star' Teachers for Children and Youth in Urban Poverty


Haberman, Martin, Phi Delta Kappan


Mr. Haberman describes the behaviors and undergirding ideologies that distinguish exemplary urban teachers from quitters and failures.

No school can be better than its teachers. And the surest and best way to improve the schooling of the approximately 12 million children and youth in poverty is to get better teachers for them. The strategy for doing this is not mysterious and has been evolving for more than 35 years.

The premise of the strategy is simple: selection is more important than training. My calculated hunch is that selection is 80% of the matter. The reason is that the functions performed by effective urban teachers of students in poverty are undergirded by a very clear ideology. Such teachers not only perform functions that quitters and burnouts do not perform, but they also know why they do what they do. They have a coherent vision. Moreover, it is a humane, respectful, caring, and nonviolent form of "gentle teaching" that I have described elsewhere.(1) My point here is that teachers' behaviors and the ideology that undergirds their behaviors cannot be unwrapped. They are of a piece.

Nor can this ideology be readily or easily taught in traditional programs of teacher preparation. Writing a term paper on Piaget's concept of conservation or sharing with other student teachers such problems as why Ray won't sit down will not provide neophytes with the ideological vision of "star teachers." This ideology, while it is open to development, must be selected for. What can be taught are the functional teaching behaviors that are built on the foundation of this belief system. And like the ideology, the teaching behaviors are not typically learned in traditional programs of teacher education but on the job, with the benefit of a teacher/coach, a support network, and some specific workshops.

There are four dimensions of excellence that programs claiming to prepare teachers for children of poverty can and should be held accountable for: 1) the individuals trained should be adults; 2) they should have demonstrated ability to establish rapport with low-income children of diverse ethnic backgrounds; 3) they should be admitted as candidates based on valid interviews that reliably predict their success with children in poverty; and 4) practicing urban teachers who are recognized as effective should be involved in selecting candidates.

My colleagues and I have identified three related truths that grow out of the recognition that selection is the heart of the matter where teachers for the urban poor are concerned: 1) the odds of selecting effective urban teachers for children and youth in poverty are approximately 10 times better if the candidates are over 30 rather than under 25 years of age; 2) there is no problem whatsoever in selecting more teachers of color, or more males, or more Hispanics, or more of any other "minority" constituency if training begins at the postbaccalaureate level; and 3) the selection and training of successful urban teachers is best accomplished in the worst schools and under the poorest conditions of practice.

This last truth requires some comment. States routinely give out teaching licenses that are deemed valid for any school in the state. The most reasonable basis for awarding such licenses would be to prepare teachers in the poorest schools and assume they will be able to deal with the "problems" presented by smaller classes, more and better materials and equipment, and safer neighborhoods if they should ever be "forced" to teach in more advantaged schools. Traditional teacher education makes almost the reverse assumption: create professional development centers (the equivalent of teaching hospitals) and then assume that beginners will be able to function in the poverty schools to which city school districts typically assign them. "Best practice" should not be thought of as ideal teaching under ideal conditions but as effective practice under the worst of conditions. …

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