How the Best Teachers Help At-Risk Students Succeed

This is third in a series of articles about Virginia’s Standards of Learning assessments.

by Matt Hurt

Teachers play a central role in the education of our students. Therefore, it is important to identify the characteristics of effective teachers, especially those who demonstrate success at educating at-risk students.

Prior to the COVID epidemic, the Comprehensive Instructional Program (CIP), an independent consortium of mostly rural school systems, held fall meetings in which teachers shared resources and strategies, vented to peers, cried on each other’s shoulders, and generally supported one another. While some detractors believe that teaching is a pie job, nothing can be further from the truth. If teaching were easy, there would be no teacher shortage. Education is a people business, and people are messy. Teachers must effectively deal with problems their students bring into class before they can make sure their students attain the required skills. They must also deal with a host of organizational and school culture problems.

In these fall meetings, the teachers most successful at helping at-risk students, whether those who had disabilities or were economically disadvantaged, were called out in front of the group and asked how they helped their kids pass the SOLs.  In every instance, they would relate three things in common — curriculum alignment, relationships, and expectations.

First, the most successful teachers make sure to align instruction exactly with Virginia’s SOLs.  The Virginia Curriculum Frameworks, produced by the Virginia Department of Education, break down the Standards of Learning into the specific components that students are expected to master. The vast majority of textbooks are not 100% aligned to the standards, so teachers do not rely upon them exclusively. They make their own resources, buy them from other teachers online, and borrow them from colleagues. Basically, they curate an eclectic mix of materials to meet the needs of specific students.

Second, many of our at-risk students are not motivated by grades. Typically, their parents didn’t have a good experience in school, performed poorly, and expected no differently of their children. Effective teachers of at-risk students understand this. They know that even poorly performing students can be motivated by positive adult relations, and work to cultivate those relationships. A student might sleep or act up in the class of a teacher who not made an emotional investment, but will be attentive and responsive to the teacher who has demonstrated a genuine concern. 

The most successful teachers even persuade students that they care about their families. In many instances, families lack the capacity to help students at home, but they if they trust the teacher, they do not object when extra remediation is called for outside of class.

Third, the most successful teachers set high expectations for their students. At one of our fall meetings, a teacher was asked to define her idea of high expectations. She relayed that she expected the academically weakest student in her class to score at least 400 (passing) on her SOL test, that it was her job to make sure that happened, and it didn’t matter what label the student had, or on which side of the railroad tracks the student lived.

Successful teachers share this mindset, and as soon as a student demonstrates that he/she is unlikely to be successful, they provide extra help outside of class, often during a planning period. They don’t wait until the end of the year, or even the end of the quarter. They do this as soon as they see a student who needs that help — sometimes as early as August.

After a few years of the CIP fall meetings of successful teachers sharing their stories, many teachers joined their “Amen corner.” Inspired, these spread the effective practices around. In that way, teachers became major contributors to the successes enjoyed by Virginia’s educational Region VII in Southwest Virginia, as conveyed in the previous article, Poverty Not Destiny for Educational Performance, in this series.

Matt Hurt is director of the Comprehensive Instructional Program based in Wise.