Classroom teacher’s role in preventing school failure, The

classroom teacher’s role in preventing school failure, The

Parsley, Kelly

Research Reports

The quality of one’s education will determine his or her future (Plato 1985). Every educator must take these words to heart, teaching all students to the best of his or her ability. Teachers exert a powerful influence on a student’s potential success or failure, particularly when the student is at-risk. All teachers must become familiar with the characteristics, attitudes, and teaching methods most beneficial to at-risk students.

Students may be considered “at risk” for a variety of reasons. Moote and Wodarski (1997) noted that some researchers use the label “at risk” simply to mean that the student is likely to drop out of school. Others take a larger view and define “at-risk” students as also being in danger of unemployment and abusing drugs. Still others label students “at-risk” when they are likely to complete high school with inadequate skills.

Factors that lead to academic failure originate from several sources, including the student, the student’s family, the school, and the classroom teacher. Several characteristics within each source are likely to contribute to school failure. For each student, a multitude of factors either promote or discourage academic achievement. For the purposes of this article, the at-risk student is defined as one who operates within a system-whether the family, community, or school– that discourages him or her from succeeding academically.

Negative Factors

At-risk students often receive low grades and misbehave. Low self-esteem is common, and the students tend to attribute success and failure to luck (Vacha and McLaughlin 1992). This defeatist attitude can cause students to become low achievers (Bempechat 1999). The student’s attitude toward education thereby plays a role in determining his or her performance in school.

The foundations for school failure often are rooted in the child’s earliest school experiences (Alexander, Entwisle, and Horsey 1997). Academic and personal habits begin to develop during the student’s first years in school. If these habits or self-concepts are detrimental, students quickly fall behind their peers. In the primary grades, teachers regularly place students into inflexible reading and math groups from which they may never escape.

Family factors also may cause students to be at-risk: divorce, single-parent households, high mobility, parental drug and alcohol abuse, neglect, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, and poverty (Vacha and McLaughlin 1992; Moote and Wodarski 1997). The most common determining factor is socioeconomic status (SES); poor parents may be unable to provide children with the material and nonmaterial resources needed for success in school. In addition, parents who lack cultural capital-familiarity with the school system, access to informal sources of information, and comfort in interacting with school personnel-place the student atrisk (Vacha and McLaughlin 1992). Therefore, parents endanger their children’s academic success when they are not involved in their education. Familiarity with the “high culture” of museums, musical performances, and other educationally enriching experiences also plays a role in academic achievement, because students develop a richer backdrop of knowledge for school success (Vacha and McLaughlin 1992). Low-SES children often do not partake in these opportunities; consequently, they are placed at a disadvantage.

The school environment also influences academic performance. Low teacher expectations, lack of language instruction, inadequate curriculum, and a negative school environment damage children’s potential (Moote and Wodarski 1997). Teachers who resist change often work within a traditional, controloriented culture that does not take into account the students’ best interests (Haberman 1991; Parish and Aquila 1996). Poor school climate undoubtedly has a negative effect on the students attending the school.

What Should Be Done?

No single factor will doom a child to failure, nor is there one solution to the problem of academic failure. By concentrating on the classroom teacher, however, a part of the solution might be developed. Of all the factors that affect academic performance, teachers have the most impact on their students’ school experiences.

Though it is impossible for teachers, or even schools, to develop comprehensive programs involving students’ backgrounds to incur positive change, there is still much that an individual classroom teacher can do. Experienced, highly committed, caring teachers effectively promote the academic success of all their students (Vacha and McLaughlin 1992). Specific attitudes and teaching methods have increased students’ academic achievement. Teachers must take responsibility and support at-risk students.

Teacher-Student Relationships

The importance of positive teacher-student relationships applies at all grade levels. Through respect, courtesy, shared responsibility, and a sense of community, teachers convince students that they are working together and that everyone is wanted and needed in the classroom (Haberman 1995). When primary-grade teachers develop positive relationships with their students, positive school adjustment is more likely to occur. In addition, relationships that students have with their primary school teachers greatly influence their academic achievement throughout their school career (Esposito 1999). In a study involving 241 high school freshmen, Niebuhr and Niebuhr (1999) found a positive correlation between positive teacherstudent relationships and academic achievement. When students feel valued by their teachers, they are more likely to work harder at assignments and comply with classroom rules (Morganett 1991; Pigford 2001). As Haberman (1995) suggested, through the use of gentle teaching strategies rather than coercive methods, the promotion of intrinsic learning and student accountability will be attained.

At least four actions are essential for a teacher to establish a positive relationship with his or her students. First, a teacher must show students a high level of trust (Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, and Hoy 2001). For instance, the teacher might show students trust by making them responsible for taking care of new technology in the classroom. Second, a teacher must show students that he or shE cares about them as individuals. The teacher should talk with and listen to students discuss academic and personal issues. Third, a teacher must communicate to students that he or she is willing to help them learn by creating a learning environment in which students are not afraid to take risks. Finally, teachers must build a supportive classroom environment in which students feel that they belong. Positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior is an effective way to develop a supportive classroom environment (Morganett 1991). When teachers develop and maintain positive relationships with their students, they give the muchneeded support their at-risk students need to succeed (Esposito 1999).

Developing an Internal Locus of Control

One major roadblock to the success of at-risk students is an external locus of control. When students believe that their success or failure is determined by factors outside of themselves, teachers must help them take responsibility for their learning. Teachers can allow students to make choices involving assignments. For example, at the end of a unit on the rainforest, the teacher might allow students to write a factual report or draw a detailed picture. Another way to increase students’ responsibility for their learning is to involve them in setting goals and evaluating their progress. Of course, teachers should directly teach atrisk students the study skills they need to complete various assignments autonomously. In addition, when teachers provide time for cooperative learning in heterogeneous groups, at-risk students will achieve more (Knapp and Shields 1991). In elementary school, the teacher might frequently give individual students specific, authentic praise. When teachers give this type of praise consistently and persistently, their students begin to believe they have the ability to succeed (Bracey 1995). Teachers might also consider assigning students effort grades and recognizing effort because this helps students make a connection between their work and their success (Haberman 1995). Teachers who consistently apply these strategies can transform their students from low-achievers to high achievers.

Enriching Classroom Environment

Teachers can try to make up for the probable lack of resources in the home by providing an abundance of educational materials. A little extra spending can bring some great resources into the classroom. To some extent, however, money is not necessary to develop meaningful and relevant learning experiences in all subjects. During the first half of the 20th century, for example, Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., and many others like it, produced welleducated students using inferior resources (Lusk 2001). Limited government funding is no excuse for school failure.

Improving Teaching Methods

Our schools must stop using ineffective teaching strategies with at-risk students. Too many teachers use power and control rather than democratic principles in managing the classroom (Haberman 1991). Some teachers require students to engage in drill and practice activities without providing connections to their everyday lives (Parish, Eubanks, Aquila, and Walker 1989). Many teachers rely on direct instruction-an authoritative and directive teaching style-with little attention to involving students in more active ways. Ineffective teachers tend to give directions or assignments and then monitor for compliance. In contrast, star teachers (Haberman 1995) make learning as real, relevant, and interesting as possible to the learner through thematic instruction and discovery and inquiry methods.

A particularly effective strategy is to teach “the basics” within a meaning-oriented approach. This strategy should pervade the entire curriculum. For mathematics, the redundancy of the curriculum and the emphasis on computation skills must be avoided. Instead, a broader range of topics must be taught in depth, with an emphasis on understanding concepts and practical application. Similarly, in reading and writing, it is important for the emphasis to be on meaning rather than on decoding skills. Also, children benefit from reading a wide range of texts, many of which should reflect and respect their culture, and writing about their own experiences and for an audience. The focus should be on process rather than on the end product (Knapp and Shields 1991).

High Expectations

Finally, the factors that predict school failure need not determine school failure. Examples of students succeeding in adverse environments abound. Teachers who consistently communicate the belief that all students have the ability to learn and succeed make a large difference to at-risk students (Bempechat 1999; Bracey 1995; Williams 2000). These teachers do not accept excuses for failure, and they require their students to be ontask at all times (Williams 2000; Conrath 2001). In doing so, teachers help alter students’ perceptions that they lack the ability to succeed academically.

Expanding the Circle of Influence

Teachers must begin implementing these strategies. They must hold high expectations for students and communicate to all students a belief that they can succeed. After making an effort to ensure classroom success, teachers may choose to influence other factors affecting at-risk students. Teachers may get involved in a campaign to improve the school climate and implement change. As Haberman (1991) suggested, a pedagogy of poverty has created a variety of ritualistic acts that control student behavior rather than promote actual learning. By adopting good teaching habits, teachers can defeat the pedagogy of poverty

Specific ways to promote school-wide reform abound. Parent out-reach and tutoring are frequently used to combat the factors leading to low achievement. Teachers can promote such programs by working with volunteers, coordinating their efforts, or initiating a program themselves. While working on these larger efforts, classroom teachers must continuously reflect on the strategies they are using to promote the success of students in their own classrooms. As classroom teachers work together to provide a high-quality education for every student, the future of the young will assuredly be bright.


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Kelly Parsley and Carol A. Corcoran

Kelly Parsley is a full-time volunteer for the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky. She completed her student teaching in a fourthgrade classroom with children from a low SES. She is a member (and past vice-president) of the Zeta Tau Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi. CarolA. Corcoran is an associate professor at Stetson University and the counselor for KDP’s Zeta Tau Chapter

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