old-shoe-womanThe Extraordinary Demands of High-Needs Teaching 

by Laurel Sturt, Author of Davonte’s Inferno

Over a decade ago, I saw an ad on the New York subway for Teaching Fellows and left my design career for a more fulfilling mission, education.

I was looking to give back, and what profession is more giving than teaching? But as I seek to convey in my recently published memoir, Davonte’s Inferno: Ten Years in the New York Public School Gulag, teaching in a high-needs school brings a whole new meaning and intensity to the generosity intrinsic to any educator. The giving quotient skyrockets when teaching students with a dearth of aptitude and motivation, while at the same time, a surfeit of behavior issues.

Indeed, teaching in a high-needs environment may be among the toughest jobs in the world. When doing research for my book, which brackets my experience in a framework of local and national education policy, I came to understand why the kids I taught presented such a challenge.

The deleterious effects of living in poverty impact a child from as early as the womb. Lack of prenatal care and nutrition, or a mother addicted to drugs or alcohol, for example, all negatively affect a fetus. Once born, the afflictions of poverty–perhaps a parent in jail, money problems, lack of nutritious food, homelessness, neighborhood and domestic violence, family substance abuse, and neglect, to name a few–serve to further damage a child.

As a teacher in such a community, I saw this situation and its effects up close. What I did not grasp, however, were its actual workings; in the past few years the science behind it has been revealed. As researched by Dr. Jack Shonkoff, a Harvard pediatrician, the negatives of poverty, which he calls “toxic stress,” actually rewire children’s brains. One important cognitive consideration, for example, is its destructive effect on working memory, the facility crucial to learning. Emotionally, of course, toxic stress promotes depression, anxiety, anger issues and impulsive, out-of-control behavior.

Of course, in terms of scholastic achievement, there’s the famous study finding a thirty million word gap by the age of three, between disadvantaged and advantaged children. Many teachers are aware of this situation, but new research shows this gap already extant, in fact, in babies. In a study by Stanford psychologist Anne Fernald of eighteen-month-olds of higher and lower socioeconomic status, babies were asked simple questions and shown pictures to point to the answer.

The mental processing of the advantaged children was not only faster, but in just the next six months, by the age of two, they had learned thirty percent more words than their less fortunate peers. The stage for failure, then, is set very early, with poor children entering school at the age of five already more than two years behind the wealthier ones. This difference in vocabulary and ability with words then extends up through the school grades, the achievement divide growing ever wider.

We now know, by virtue of other studies, the value of quality preschool as an intervention. James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has found every dollar spent on early education yields an investment return of seven to ten percent per annum in benefits to the child and society, including a likelier high school diploma, higher probability of employment and less chance of incarceration. So valuable deterrents exist, but until poverty itself is eradicated–the elephant in the achievement room, in greater policy terms–individually we must do what we can to better understand and help these students.

As a Teaching Fellow, I was put into a classroom after a mere five weeks of half-day “experience” assisting in a tiny summer school class with a veteran teacher and a decidedly desultory tone. The expedient blur of “training” neither replicated what I would face come the fall, nor prepared me in any way for it. Neither did my traditional master’s degree in education. Any teachers need sufficient training, but those in high-needs schools, I have come to believe, need an extra subset of instructions beyond pedagogical style and lesson planning.

As a teacher, and one who specifically sought to make a contribution to the disadvantaged, I already possessed a wealth of empathy and well-meaning intentions to call upon. But when my compassion faltered, which it naturally did on the days issues beyond my control crescendoed, my stress and impatience would have been immeasurably helped by better understanding of my student population, as well as training tailored to their specialized cognitive and emotional needs. 

Express supports to teaching these kids would better equip us to help them secure a place at society’s table. As such, it would behoove university education institutions to provide a targeted program for training the next generation of high-needs educators, while at the school level, teachers in these communities should receive ongoing professional development explicit to these kids and their challenges, with practical strategies to handle their specific issues.

Instruction in stress management modalities must be an important part of the approach.

Meanwhile, on a personal level we can benefit from breath work, meditation and yoga to maintain balance, while staying up-to-date on the latest research, as reported in the teaching journals we receive periodically in the mail. Perusing, in our limited spare time, inspiring books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed, can also bolster our comprehension and strengthen our teaching. Understanding why so many of our kindergartners arrive with little basic knowledge, or why a child struggles with a word every time it repeats frequently in a text, would expand not only our practice, but our hearts.

Because despite our noble intentions and the fact we’re increasingly called on to perform miracles, we’re teachers, after all, not saints.

A long-time social activist, in 2002 Laurel M. Sturt left a career in fashion design to become an elementary school teacher in a poor neighborhood of the Bronx. She is a graduate of the Madeira School and received her Bachelor of Arts in Art History from Vassar College.  Subsequently, she received an Associate degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology in Design and Illustration, as well as a Master of Arts in Education from City College, New York. Sturt is the mother of three stepchildren as well as a son, with whom she lives in Manhattan. Davonte’s Inferno is her first book.

Image attribution flickr user oldshoewoman; The Extraordinary Demands of High-Needs Teaching