After 40 years of research on teaching, Martin Haberman has concluded that urban schools should look for character more than training in hiring teachers.

Haberman, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor, further asserts that traditional teacher preparation programs are inherently irrelevant for urban teaching.

“Completing a traditional program of teacher education as preparation for working in this emotional cauldron is like preparing to swim the English Channel by doing laps in the university pool,” he writes in “Star Teachers of Children in Poverty,” a primer on the traits necessary to teach successfully in high-pressure urban settings.

“Swimming is not swimming. Having a warm shower, a clean towel, a private locker, your own lane and a heated, guarded, chlorinated pool has nothing to do with the grueling realities of eight-foot swells of freezing water for 22 miles without being certain of your direction and persisting alone knowing most reasonable people would never submit themselves to such a challenge.”

In many ways, life itself is the best preparation for urban schools, Haberman believes. Teachers must have enough maturity to understand the challenges of teaching in city schools and have the emotional tools to deal with them. “We have to go for adults,” he says.

“Most Americans don’t reach adulthood until 25,” he says. “Once you define Chicago kids as a life-and-death situation—i.e. education is their only hope—why would you put people not fully developed themselves into a classroom? You wouldn’t put them in the control tower at O’Hare Airport.”

Here are the traits Haberman has identified in urban “stars”:

PERSISTENCE Star teachers never give up trying to find better ways of doing things. Paraphrasing Thomas Edison, Haberman writes that “the difference between carbon and diamonds is that diamonds stayed on the job longer.” So, too, with star teachers. Unsuccessful teachers, he writes, tend to believe most of their students should not be in their classrooms because they need special help, are not achieving at grade level, are “abnormal” in their interests, attentiveness and behavior and are emotionally unsuited to school.

PROTECTING LEARNERS AND LEARNING Star teachers try to find solutions to their struggles with bureaucracy “patiently, courteously and professionally”; they want to negotiate with authority in order to protect their students’ best interests. “Quitters and failures” perceive the most professional response to be silent compliance, which Haberman sees as a failure to protect students. Star teachers typically have an interest outside school from which they derive a sense of well-being and from which they continually learn. It could be stamp collecting, opera or travel, but inevitably they bring these interests into the classroom and use them to involve students in learning.

APPLICATION OF GENERALIZATIONS Star teachers see the relationship between important ideas and day-to-day application and, therefore, have the ability to improve and develop. Without that, Haberman writes, “teaching degenerates into merely ‘keeping school.’ … Some teachers have 30 years of experience, while others have one year of experience 30 times over.”

APPROACH TO “AT-RISK” STUDENTS While recognizing that students’ life conditions can have a negative impact on their learning, star teachers believe that teachers have the primary responsibility for “sparking their students’ desire to learn.” In contrast, unsuccessful teachers blame the victims, their families or their neighborhoods, thereby missing the opportunity to come up with measures that schools and teachers can or should take to improve the situation. “Of all the factors that separate stars from quitters and failures, this is the most powerful in predicting their future effectiveness with urban children of poverty,” Haberman writes.

ORIENTATION TO STUDENTS Star teachers respect their students; they have strong, positive feelings toward them. While they don’t expect to love every one of them, they do expect to be able to teach all of them. Star teachers enjoy the affection of their students, but they do not see it as a prerequisite for learning. When their students misbehave, star teachers do not take it as a personal affront, nor do they use guilt to drive students’ effort.

AVOIDING BURNOUT Star teachers in large urban school districts know they work in a “mindless bureaucracy,” and that, therefore, even good teachers will burn out. Eventually, they learn how to negotiate for the widest discretion for themselves and their students without prompting the system to react punitively. They often set up networks of like-minded teachers or teach in teams.

Lacking such skills—or even an awareness that they need such skills—quitters and failures are “literally beaten down by the system.” Worst of all, they don’t believe that a good teacher should ever burn out; when burnout sets in, the feelings of guilt and inadequacy lead them to the conclusion that they probably never should have become teachers in the first place.

FALLIBILITY Star teachers acknowledge serious problems and accept human frailty as a fact of life. Quitters and failures confess to little more than “spelling and arithmetic errors,” he writes; they won’t acknowledge that to err is human. “One effective way to ensure we find teachers who can accept the mistakes of students is to select those who can accept their own mistakes. When such teachers are asked in an interview, ‘Do you ever make mistakes?’ they answer, ‘Of course, I’m only human!'”

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