How can we help teachers fight the achievement gap?

Teachers are in urgent need of information and tools to meet the challenges of the 21st century
citylovesyou_ffm, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
citylovesyou_ffm, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

If poor and marginalized urban students are to thrive in the 21st century, they must acquire certain academic and collaborative skills. Teachers, in turn, need the skills to create a classroom climate that allows, and motivates, their students to do so.

Since public education began in the United States, lawmakers have made repeated efforts to close the achievement gap between poor ethnic minority students and their white peers. However, that gap persists, and it continues to widen from kindergarten through high school.

What might be the reasons? Various factors that account for students’ failure to thrive academically are external to the school, and may include low SES, uncertain immigration status, racial and cultural discrimination, and exposure to neighborhood violence. As a result of these factors, students may experience toxic stress and a cognitive load that can interfere with healthy brain development. In many cases, they suffer from anxiety that impedes emotional self-regulation in the classroom.

What can be done? In the schools, boosting achievement and improving students’ social and emotional health must start with teachers. Urban teachers need to develop their own social and emotional skills if they are to nurture the inner motivational resources of all students, especially those burdened by chronic toxic stress outside the classroom.

The first step to a solution lies in recognizing the need for teachers to develop these skills. There is an increased awareness, fueled by the popular press, of the importance of social and emotional learning. However, teachers are still offered information on how to improve student behavior that is often based only loosely on valid research findings. What is missing is a focus on how teachers can improve their own social and emotional health, and on how their behaviors affect their students.

“Urban teachers need to develop their own social and emotional skills if they are to nurture the inner motivational resources of all students, especially those burdened by chronic toxic stress outside the classroom.”

Teachers need evidence-based tools to create a classroom climate that facilitates the development of students’ academic and interpersonal skills, and teacher training must be guided by rigorous research.

As a veteran teacher and doctoral candidate, I worked with teachers in the course of my dissertation study. It became clear that they had a difficult time implementing my research-based strategies, and that this was related to their own difficulty self-regulating when they were frustrated by disruptive classroom behaviors. While I empathize with teachers’ frustrations, my training has enabled me to handle such classroom disruptions without taking them to heart.

Two of my students recently had a physical altercation on the playground that could have led to their suspension. Because I knew that both of them were living in very difficult and violent circumstances, however, we managed to work it out. The challenges in their lives make it very difficult for them to let small things go, and their tempers can easily reach the boiling point. What I have learned in my doctoral program, combined with an awareness of the terrible realities my students face, has helped me to self-regulate and find solutions that build trust, as well as to communicate to my students that I am always on their side, even when I need to hold them accountable.

Raising teachers’ awareness of the effects of their own social and emotional skills on students’ academic achievement is an important step toward closing the achievement gap. But researchers acknowledge that much remains to be learned about the classroom practices that will best promote students’ achievement and well-being.

“Raising teachers’ awareness of the effects of their own social and emotional skills on students’ academic achievement is an important step toward closing the achievement gap.”

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