Any student would want the person next to them in class to be trustworthy, approachable and willing to admit it when they’re wrong. Why should their expectations for the leader at the front of the room be any different?
Such was the discovery of Vajra Watson, director of research policy and equity at the UC Davis School of Education. After three years of interviewing and participating in the classrooms of four of the most successful teachers of at-risk youth in the Bay Area, Watson concluded that the teachers with the most impact are genuine, patient listeners who believe they have as much to learn about their students as their students do from them.
Watson’s teacher study started when phone calls about her former students being incarcerated kept interrupting her doctoral work at Harvard, where she had begun to study after taking a break from teaching.
“I really felt like a failure, and wanted to return to my community and find people who broke the cycle of poverty and turn the young people into college-bound students,” she said.
Her curiosity and determination led her on a “Quest to Find Best Practices,” the title of her research paper, to find educators that were regarded throughout their community as the best.
“I asked my colleagues, but more importantly, went to the brothers and sisters on the corner and asked them who was for real.”
Watson found that good teachers of at-risk youth aren’t afraid to open up and share their own stories, and adorn their students with respect before it is reciprocated.
“What that allows is for students to take off their masks and become vulnerable about their own lives, which leads to general communication and then a relationship,” Watson said.
Carrying on conversations about life before mentioning assignments provides students with a sounding board available five days a week that they may not have outside of school. Jenny Arietta, a math teacher at Lincoln High in San Francisco, said students take full advantage of her open-door policy.
“I have kids come in before school and after class talking to me about anything, one girl comes in every morning to talk about trouble at home,” Arietta said. “A lot of my kids come from broken families or have step-parents they don’t get along with, and I know just being in my room to listen can help.”
Soon after Arietta earned her morning visitors’ trust, students began to use her classroom after school as a study hall, often text-messaging her asking to use the room or go over a test.
“Nobody has abused the privilege at all, the correspondence has been so great that I had to increase my text plan,” Arietta said. “The best surprise came a few weeks ago when I got a text that said, ‘you’re like our mom, happy Mother’s Day!'”
In addition to communicating in an age-appropriate manner with her students, Arietta also employs peer-to-peer teaching – a technique Watson said best creates participation among students.
“The best leaders of young people are often each other, and when they can testify to how real something is, or what they’ve learned from it, they become the greatest advocates,” Watson said. “Sometimes it takes a thug to save a thug.”
Not only is asking a friend for help easier than asking a teacher, it also creates a momentum to look at their work and their world as things they can solve themselves, Watson said. The teacher’s responsibility is to recognize this passion and use it to further learning.
Such adaptability is one of principles purported by the famous education philosopher John Dewey, who asserted that “the center of correlation between school subjects should be the child’s own interests and activities.”
Each of the four educators that Watson observed believes that accepting that a teacher is a student of one’s students’ is essential to being called to work with high-risk youth.
“Listening to them has to have a deeper meaning,” Watson said. “One of my subjects, Jack Jacqua of the Omega Boys Club, said that if you burn out, you were never burnt on in the first place.”
The culmination of Watson’s three-year journey came earlier this month, when she was asked to present her findings to the American Educational Research Association, and was lauded for getting to the core of several issues in education.
“The reaction I’ve received is ‘Why aren’t we having more conversations about this?’ and what it means to be effective for some of the most vulnerable students,” she said. “I’m always humbled by that, and hopefully I’ve started some discussion.”
MIKE DORSEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.