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132 FEBRUARY 2010
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How to be a turnaround teacher

Bonnie Benard

Can you identify a special teacher or mentor in your life? What was it about him or her that influenced you? This article provides a set of best practices for working with “high-risk” young people derived from the approaches and strategies that have been used successfully by “turnaround teachers” for generations.

One of the wonderful things we see now in adulthood is that these children really remember one or two teachers who made the difference. They mourn some of those teachers more than they do their own family members because what went out of their lives was a person who looked beyond outward experience, their behavior, and their oftentimes unkempt appearance, and saw the promise.
- Emmy Werner, co-author of Overcoming the Odds: High-Risk Children from Birth to Adulthood, 1992.

For over a decade, public and educational discourse has been steeped in the language of risk. Between 1989 and 1994 alone, more than 2,500 articles were published on “children and families at risk” (Swadener & Lubeck, 1995, p.1). Over 40 years of social science research has clearly identified poverty – the direct result of public abdication of responsibility for human welfare – as the factor most likely to put a person “at risk” for social ills such as drug abuse, teen pregnancy, child abuse, violence, and school failure.

Yet policymakers, politicians, the media, and often researchers themselves have personalized “at-riskness” by locating it in youth, their families, and cultures – perhaps providing a convenient smokescreen for the naming and blaming of poverty. Even when its use is well intentioned (e.g., when used to secure needed services for children and families), this approach has increasingly led to harmful, isolating practices such as stereotyping, labeling, tracking, and reduced expectations for a growing number of students in urban schools.

Most dangerous of all, this risk focus has encouraged teachers and other helping professionals to see children and families only through a deficit lens. This “glass-as-half-empty” perspective blocks our vision to see the whole person and hear the “real story” “often one filled with strengths and capacity. Wehmiller (1992) warns, “When we don’t know each other’s stories, we substitute our own myth about who that person is. When we are operating with only a myth, none of that person's truth will ever be known to us, and we will injure them-mostly without ever meaning to” (p. 380).

Resilience: An alternative way of seeing
Indeed, this “mythical” lens is injurious, quickly translating into a racist, classist, sexist, or ageist perspective. While our common sense alone cautions us against such an approach, there is an even more concrete reason to reject it. We now have the most rigorous scientific research on human development – prospective longitudinal studies – that should put our preoccupation with risk to rest permanently. These studies on how individuals develop successfully despite risk and adversity certainly prove the lack of predictive power of risk factors. Researchers worldwide have documented the amazing finding that, when tracked into adulthood, at least 50 percent, and usually closer to 70 percent, of “high-risk” children grow up to be not only successful by societal indicators but also “confident, competent, and caring” persons (Werner & Smith, 1992).

The personal attitudes and competencies most often associated with these resilient individuals include the broad categories of social competence, metacognition, autonomy, and a sense of purpose and belief in a bright future. While many researchers and practitioners have latched onto these personal attributes, creating a myriad of social- and life-skills programs to teach them directly, the strong message of resilience research is that these attributes are expressions “not causes “of resilience. Werner and Smith (1992) refer to resilience as an innate “self-righting mechanism” (p. 202), and Lifton (1994) identifies resilience as the human capacity of all individuals to transform and change “no matter their risks. Human beings are genetically hard-wired to form relationships (social competence), to problem-solve (metacognition), to develop a sense of identity (autonomy), and to plan and hope (a sense of purpose and future). These are the growth capacities which have enabled survival throughout human history.

However, even though some individuals can express these capacities in the absence of a facilitative environment, it is clearly the presence of a nurturing climate that draws them forth and encourages their expression. This finding is perhaps the most important and prescriptive for educators. The research shows that, contrary to much popular belief, teachers and schools actually do have the power to tip the scales from risk to resilience.

Werner and Smith (1989) found that “among the most frequently encountered positive role models in the lives of the children ... outside of the family circle, was a favorite teacher. For the resilient youngster, a special teacher was not just an instructor for academic skills, but also a confidant and positive model for personal identification” (p. 162). Repeatedly, these turnaround teachers and mentors are described as building, in their own personal styles and ways, three crucial environmental protective factors: connection, competence, and contribution.

Turnaround teachers provide connection
Turnaround teachers are characterized, first and foremost, as caring individuals who develop relationships with their students. They convey the message that they are “there for” a youth through trust and unconditional love. To the greatest extent possible, they help meet the basic survival needs of overwhelmed students and their families. On a basic level, this may mean that they have extra school supplies on hand, as well as other necessities such as hats, mittens, and personal hygiene items. On a more comprehensive level, they may connect students and their families to outside community resources in order to find food, shelter, clothing, counseling, treatment, and mentoring.

Providing connection also translates into meeting emotional safety needs. Resilient survivors talk about teachers' “quiet availability,” “fundamental positive regard,” and “simple sustained kindness,” such as a touch on the shoulder, a smile, or a greeting (Higgins, 1994, pp. 324-25). Being interested in, actively listening to, and validating the feelings of struggling young people, as well as getting to know their strengths and gifts, conveys the message, “You matter.” According to renowned urban educator Deborah Meier (1995), this kind of respect “having a person acknowledge us, see us for who we are, as their equal in value and importance” (p. 120) figures high in turnaround relationships.

Finally, these teachers connect with their students by showing compassion “nonjudgmental support that looks beneath the students” negative behavior and sees their pain and suffering. They do not take the students' behavior personally, no matter how negative it may be, but understand instead that the student is doing the best he or she can, given his or her life experiences. Sandy McBrayer, founder of an alternative school for homeless youth and 1994 National Teacher of the Year, declares, “People ask me what my “methods” are. I don’t have a method. But I believe one of the things that makes me an adequate or proficient teacher is that I never judge ... and I tell my kids I love them every day” (Bacon, 1995, p. 44). This rapport is also the critical motivational foundation for successful learning. As Noddings (1988) points out, “It is obvious that children will work harder and do things – even odd things like adding fractions – for people they love and trust” (p. 4).

Turnaround teachers build competence
At the core of caring relationships are positive and high expectations that not only structure and guide behavior, but also challenge students to perform beyond what they believe they can do. These expectations reflect the teacher’s deep belief in the student’s innate competence and self-righting capacities. A consistent description of turnaround teachers is that they see the possibility: “They held visions of us that we could not imagine for ourselves” (Delpit, 1996, p. 199).

However, turnaround teachers not only see the possibilities, they also recognize existing competencies and mirror them back, helping students appreciate where they are already strong. When they use these strengths, interests, goals, and dreams as the beginning point for learning, they tap the students' intrinsic motivation and existing, innate drive for learning. Positive and high expectations then become easier for students to meet.

This identification of strengths can especially assist overwhelmed, labeled, and oppressed youth in refraining their life narratives from “damaged victims” to “resilient survivors.” Turnaround teachers help youth to avoid:

Instead, they build their students' sense of competency by teaching metacognition – the understanding of how thoughts influence feelings and behaviors. When students recognize their own conditioned thinking – the environmental messages they have internalized that they are not good enough, smart enough, thin enough, and so on – they can remove blocks to their innate resilience. For example, in a Miami, Florida, study, the dropout rate for youth from a public housing community fell to nearly zero when they were taught they had this power to construct the meaning they gave to everything that happened to them (Mills, 1991).

Turnaround teachers let students contribute
Rutter and his colleagues (1979), in their seminal research on effective urban schools in poor communities – schools in which the rates of delinquency and dropping out actually declined the longer students were in them – found a striking similarity among them. All of the schools gave students “a lot of responsibility. [Students] participated very actively in all sorts of things that went on in the school; they were treated as responsible people and they reacted accordingly” (1984, p. 65).

Indeed, providing outlets for student contribution is a natural outgrowth of working from this strengths-based perspective. In a physically and psychologically safe and structured environment, opportunities for participation can include:

Even in such classroom discipline issues, student participation can have surprising benefits. “Bring the kids in on it!” Alfie Kohn (1993) urges. “Instead of reaching for coercion, engage children and youth in a conversation about the underlying causes of what is happening and work together to negotiate a solution” (p. 14). When we invite students to help create the classroom rules and school policies, we ensure their buy-in, ownership, and sense of belonging. Perhaps more importantly, we also build their ability to make responsible choices. “It is in classrooms and families where participation is valued above adult control that students have the chance to learn self-control” (Kohn, 1993, p. 18).

The beliefs of turnaround teachers

Perhaps more significant than what [ourteachers] taught is what they believed...."They held visions of us that we could not imagine for ourselves. And they held those visions even when they themselves were denied entry into the larger white world. They were determined that, despite all odds, we would achieve. ” Lisa Delpit in City Kids, City Teachers, 1996

Certain programmatic approaches such as those described in “How to support turnaround teachers” below have proven particularly effective in providing opportunities for active participation and contribution. However, resilience research points out over and over that transformational power exists not in programmatic approaches per se, but at the deeper level of relationships, beliefs and expectations, and the willingness to share power. In other words, it is how we do what we do that counts.

How to support turnaround teachers

The characteristics and beliefs of turnaround teachers can be amplified when they are supported by colleagues and administration staff in a school building or organization. The following suggestions can help create classrooms and schools that are more likely to help students turn their lives around from risk to resilience.

Reflect on and discuss as a staff your beliefs about innate resilience. What does it mean in our classrooms and school if all kids are resilient? Answering this question as an individual and then coming to a consensus on the answer as a staff is the first step in creating a classroom or school that taps into its students' resilience.

Form a resiliency study group. Read the research on resiliency, including the studies of successful city schools. Share stories – both personal and literary – of individuals who successfully overcame the odds. “It is important to read about struggles that lead to empowerment and to successful advocacy, for resilient voices are critical to hear within the at-risk wasteland” (Polakow, 1995, p. 269). When working against the dominant risk paradigm, we need the support and “shelter of each other.”

Focus on climate. Schools and classrooms that have been turnaround experiences for stressed young people are continually described as being like “a family,” “a home,” “a community” “even “a sanctuary.” “School was my church, my religion. It was constant, the only thing that I could count on every day.... I would not be here if it was not for school” (Children's Express, 1993). Creating these safe havens requires a collective focus on building inclusive communities through relationships and responsibilities that invite back our disconnected and disenfranchised youth – and their families.

Foster school-community collaboration to coordinate needed services for children and families. Meeting the needs of the whole child necessitates school, family, and community collaboration. Develop a list of community agencies, including after-school neighborhood-based organizations. Match the needs of your students and families with the services of these organizations.

Provide for teachers what students need. Nurturing and sustaining a belief in resilience is not only the critical task of teachers; it should be the main focus of administrators. Resilience applies to all of us. What has sustained youth in the face of adversity is equally what enables teachers and administrators to overcome the incredible stresses they face in schools today. Teachers need the same good stuff as their students: caring relationships with colleagues; positive beliefs, expectations, and trust on the part of the administration; and ongoing opportunities to reflect, engage in dialogue, and make decisions together. A wise administrator once remarked, “If you don’t feed the teachers, they’ll eat the students:” Research has shown that providing teachers with the time and opportunity to work collegially together, and thus build a sense of professional community, is critical in both sustaining school change efforts and raising students' academic scores (McLaughlin & Talbert, 1993).

Self-assess. Make an assessment tool from the best practices describing turnaround teachers and schools. Assess your classroom and school and ask your students to do the same. Identify both areas of strength and areas of challenge.

Asa Hilliard (1991) advises that “to restructure we must first look deeply at the goals that we set for our children and the beliefs that we have about them. Once we are on the right track there, then we must turn our attention to the delivery systems, as we have begun to do. Cooperative learning is right. Technology access for all is right. Multiculturalism is right. But none of these approaches or strategies will mean anything if the fundamental belief system does not fit the new structures that are being created” (p. 36).

The starting point for creating both classrooms and schools that tap students' capacities is the deep belief of all school staff that every youth is resilient. This means that every adult in the school community must personally grapple with questions like “What tapped my resilience? What occurred in my life that brought out my strength and capacity? How am I connecting this knowledge to what I do in the classroom?”

Believing in our students' resilience requires foremost that we believe in our own innate capacity to transform and change. Our walk always speaks louder than our talk. So to teach our students about their internal power, we first must see that we have the power – no matter what external stresses we face – to let go of our conditioned thinking and access our innate capacities for compassion, intuition, self-efficacy, and hope. Only when this belief is in place are we truly able to create the connections, point out the competence, and invite the contribution that will engage the innate resilience in our students.

Resiliency research of your own
In the coming weeks or months, try an initial experiment of your own using the resiliency approach. Choose one of your most challenging students. Spend at least a few minutes each day building your connection with that student. Look for and identify all of his or her competencies. Mirror back those strengths. Teach that student that he or she has the power to create his or her own reality. Create opportunities to have the student participate and contribute his or her strengths. Be patient. Focus on small victories – they often grow into major transformations.

But in the meanwhile, relax, have fun, and trust the process! Working from our own innate resilience and well-being engages the same elements in our students. Thus, teaching becomes much more effortless and enjoyable. Resiliency research, as well as studies on nurturing teachers and successful schools, give us all the proof we need of the benefits of lightening up, letting go of our tight control, being patient, and trusting the process.

Finally, know that you are making a difference. When you care, believe in, and “invite back” our most precious resource – our children and youth – you are not only enabling their healthy development and successful learning. You are, indeed, creating inside-out social change, building the compassionate and creative citizenry of the future that will restore our lost vision of social and economic justice.


Bacon, J. (1995). The place for life and learning: National Teacher of the Year, Sandra McBrayer. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 3, 4. pp. 42-45.

Children's Express (1993). Voices from the future: Children tell us about violence in America. New York: Crown.

Delpit, L. (1996). The politics of teaching literate discourse. In W. Ayers & P. Ford (Eds.), City kids, city teachers: Reports from the front row. New York: New Press.

Higgins, G. (1994). Resilient adults: Overcoming a cruel past. San Francisco: JosseyBass.

Hilliard, A. (1991). Do we have the will to educate all children? Educational Leadership, 49, 1. pp. 31-36.

Kohn, A. (1993, September). Choices for children: Why and how to let students decide. Phi Delta Kappan.
Lifton, R. (1994). The protean self: Human resilience in an age of fragmentation. New York: Basic Books.

McLaughlin, M., & Talbert, J. (1993). Contexts that matter for teaching and learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mills, R. (1991). A new understanding of self: The role of affect, state of mind, self-understanding, and intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Education, 60, 1. pp. 67-81.

Noddings, N. (1988, December 7). Schools face crisis in caring. Education Week, p. 32.

Polakow, V. (1995). Naming and blaming: Beyond a pedagogy of the poor. In B. Swadener & S. Lubeck (Eds.), Children and families at promise: Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Rutter, M. (1984, March). Resilient children. Psychology Today. pp. 57-65.

Rutter, M., Maughan, B., Mortimore, P., Ouston, J., & Smith, A. (1979). Fifteen thousand hours. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Seligman, M. (1995). The optimistic child. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Swadener, B., & Lubeck, S. (Eds.) (1995). Children and families at promise: Deconstructing the discourse of risk. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Wehmiller, P. (1992). When the walls come tumbling down. Harvard Educational Review, 62, 3. pp. 373-383.

Wemer, E., & Smith, R. (1989). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York: Adams, Bannister, and Cox.

Werner, E., & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High-risk children from birth to adulthood. New York: Cornell University Press.

This feature: Benard, B. (1998). How to be a turnaround teacher. Reaching Today’s Youth, 2,3. pp. 31-35.

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