Highly Effective Teachers of Vulnerable Students

Practice Transcending Theory

by Mary Poplin (Volume editor) Claudia Bermudez (Volume editor)
©2019 Textbook XIV, 282 Pages
Series: Critical Education and Ethics, Volume 10


Highly Effective Teachers of Vulnerable Students contains the quintessential details of highly effective teachers working with students who live in poverty inside our public schools and community colleges. This book features the words and actions of the teachers that can inspire and direct any current or future teacher who wants to be great and be a part of inspiring young people to fulfill their potential. This is the grist we need to spark a reinvigorated critical national conversation about what it takes to really have highly effective teachers in low-income public schools and whether we have the moral courage to work as hard as they do to make educational equity a reality in our nation.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Praise for Highly Effective Teachers of Vulnerable Students
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Figures and Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Enter the World of Highly Effective Teachers … (Mary Poplin)
  • 2. “My classroom is not broken”: Interviews with Highly Effective Teachers (Claudia Bermúdez)
  • 3. “She wants us to be the best and change the world”: How Middle and High School Students Perceive Highly Effective Teachers (Wendy Moore / Claudia Bermúdez)
  • 4. “The sky is the limit”: The Essential Teaching Practices of Successful Teachers of Latino English Learners (Wendy Moore)
  • 5. “She won’t give up on you”: Math Instruction as Cultural Capital for English Learners (David Tarazón)
  • 6. “Her method of teaching is extraordinary”: Preferred Strategies for Reclassification of English Learners (Kim Hall)
  • 7. “I’m not sittng at my desk”: The Essential Practices of Teacher Talk and Structured Group Work (Calista E. Kelly)
  • 8. “She kept me in the game”: How Black Males Perceive Effective Teachers (Matthew Smith)
  • 9. A Culture of Honor: Highly Effective Teachers of African American Students in Grades 4–12 (Jaquet Dumas)
  • 10. “He keeps me on track and prevents me from lollygagging”: Insights from a Native American Tutoring Program (Alejandro B. López)
  • 11. “Believe you have something to say”: Successful Community College Teachers of Developmental English Classes (Rebecca Hatkoff / Claudia Bermúdez)
  • 12. Challenging Class: How Highly Effective Teachers Mitigate Social Class Reproduction in Working-Class Communities (Rebecca Hatkoff)
  • 13. Finding the Experts: Selection Criteria of Highly Effective Teachers (June K. Hilton)
  • 14. “He never leaves someone behind”: Effective Practice Informing Policy and Theory (Mary Poplin)
  • Epilogue: What Makes a Great Teacher? (Paul Kirschner)
  • Contributors
  • Series index

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Figures and Tables


Figure 4.1. Commonalities Between Data Sources: Teacher Skills/Strategies.

Figure 4.2. Commonalities Between Data Sources: Teacher Dispositions.

Figure 12.1. Practices and Expectations Coded From Research.

Figure 12.2. Percentage of Observed Practices and Expectations Affiliated With Each Social Class.

Figure 12.3. Percentage of Categories Referenced in Students’ Responses Regarding Why Their Teachers Help Them Learn.

Figure 12.4. Percentage of Categories Referenced in Students’ Responses Regarding What Their Teachers Do to Help Them Learn.

Figure 13.1. Hispanic/White Achievement Gap NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics.

Figure 13.2. Hispanic/White Achievement Gap NAEP 8th Grade Reading.

Figure 13.3. Black/White Achievement Gap NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics.

Figure 13.4. Black/White Achievement Gap NAEP 8th Grade Reading.

Figure 13.5. EL/Non-EL Achievement Gap NAEP 8th Grade Mathematics.

Figure 13.6. EL/Non-EL Achievement Gap NAEP 8th Grade Reading.

Figure E.1. Didau’s Taxonomy. ← ix | x →


Table 3.1. Teacher Characteristics Compared to Hattie’s Influences.

Table 5.1. Students Attempt to Solve and Find the Pattern.

Appendix 6.1. Ranking of the 36 Strategies by Frequency of Usage in Descending Order of Means.

Appendix 8.1. Participants and Effective Teachers.

Table 9.1. Teacher Interview Data and Student Survey Data.

Table 9.2. Teacher’s Personal Characteristics Across the Data Sources.

Appendix 10.1. 2015 NAEP Data.

Table 13.1. Standardized Assessment Utilized by Districts/Schools to Identify Highly Effective Teachers.

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We would like to acknowledge the John Randolph Haynes and Dora Haynes Foundation for their generous support of this research.

We would also like to acknowledge all of the districts’ administrative staff and principals who helped us locate their most effective teachers and made it possible for us to observe them.

Last, but surely not least, we are ever so grateful to the highly effective teachers who every day give their best to help their students grow in knowledge, integrity and confidence. Their unrelenting dedication is a tribute to teaching as a high and noble calling.

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1. Enter the World of Highly Effective Teachers …


“I want them to grow up and be decent people and live a life they love.”

—Ms. D, Middle school life science teacher

You are holding in your hand, or viewing on your screen, probably the most valuable resource for a teacher who wants to be great. It is not just the words my colleagues and I have written in these chapters but the words of a group of 41 highly effective teachers (from K–12 to the community college level) who teach students in some of the most economically depressed communities in the greater Los Angeles area; as well as the words that their primarily Latino and African American students used to describe them. While we were in schools and colleges in three counties in southern California, we doubt it would be much different from any impoverished community in the U.S. or in many other countries. In addition, you will find the perspectives of 30 young college age Black men (20 of whom are in college and 10 not) regarding any significant teachers they had in K–12. We also offer insights into how teachers engage social capital in these low-income communities as compared to those in upper middle-class communities. Lastly, we share insights gained from observing a Native American tutoring program that supports students to succeed in schools and colleges. These 14 chapters collectively reveal a deeply detailed picture of highly effective teachers in their classrooms. Inside their stories are insights for teacher educators, school administrators, policy makers, teacher organizations and university faculty.

There is an odd phenomenon about language—the more we use theoretical and abstract academic language to describe other people’s actions, thoughts, and feelings, the more distant and less real they seem to us. Perhaps worse, the more distant this reality, the more danger there is that we ← 1 | 2 → will imagine very different pictures of the situations and practices in place or that we will simply imagine the situations through our own biases. Thus the more difficulty we have in understanding exactly what these concepts look like in the flesh, and the less power they have to truly inform us. So we hope these chapters will let you, the reader, deeper into the worlds of highly effective teachers by including here their own words and those of their students. Each one of the teachers we observed is quoted here. While we also use terms common to the academy to describe and categorize, it is our hope that their words and actions described here will make their classrooms and their students come alive in ways theoretical language might miss, thus making it a book that can inform new or veteran teachers, administrators, university educators, and policy makers.

Eleven researchers worked for over a year in 2015 and 2016 identifying, observing, and interviewing these 41 teachers, including the first days of the fall terms of 2015 and 2016. We surveyed their students anonymously, collecting over 2,000 student surveys. We identified these experts with the assistance of their administrators by analyzing three years of student achievement gains (See Hilton, Chapter 13). We were looking for teachers whose student achievement gains at the end of each year were one or more standard deviations above their colleagues teaching very similar students in the same school, subjects and grade levels. In the community college, we also studied teachers who taught developmental English courses and whose students more frequently passed the subsequent credit-bearing course. We used these criteria in order to have a common, objective measure of teacher efficacy—student achievement. As noted in a study by the RAND Corporation (2012):

You may be thinking that these teachers must be teaching to the test. Nothing could be further from the truth. They were teaching from the curriculum, the standards, previous experience, and their own knowledge of the subject matter and their students. They taught based on what they knew lay ahead for the students and from their knowledge of the students’ needs, interests and responses. They were determined to encourage, teach, cajole, and direct their students to succeed now and in the future despite the cards ← 2 | 3 → being stacked against them due to poverty, second language challenges, and other factors. They had many ways of knowing when they were and were not successful teaching their students particular concepts, operations, facts, skills, processes and higher-level understandings. They tirelessly walked their classrooms observing, encouraging, and teaching. They had no need to wait for end of the year testing results, nevertheless, their students consistently scored well on them. For example, 93% of the eighth grade students of one of the teachers we observed, Ms. C, scored proficient or advanced on the 2015 standardized state exam in life science, as compared to the district average of 54%; and the state average of 66%.

The Study

This study was designed to follow an earlier similar study where nine researchers had observed 31 highly effective K–12 teachers of English and math during the No Child Left Behind era (Poplin, Rivera, Durish, Hoff, Kawell, Pawlak, Soto-Hinman, Straus & Veney, 2011; Poplin and Rivera, 2010). That work prompted this deeper follow-up We wanted to go deeper and investigate highly effective educators working with other subject matter, specific student ethnicities, students in various contexts (e.g., college), as well the transmission of social/cultural capital. Thus the questions we proposed that guided this particular study honed in on specifics with regard to diverse student groups, college going, social capital, and teacher commitments, dispositions and actions. The specific research questions we sought to answer form the chapters as follows.

1. How do highly effective teachers describe themselves and their work? (See Claudia Bermúdez, Chapter 2.)

2. What teacher characteristics do students reveal regarding their highly effective teachers and their classrooms? (See Wendy Moore and Claudia Bermúdez, Chapter 3.)

3. What are the practices of highly effective teachers of upper elementary and middle school English learners (ELs) (See Wendy Moore, Chapter 4.)

4. What are the practices of highly effective upper-elementary math teachers who teach EL students (See David Tarazón, Chapter 5.)

5. How do highly effective teachers of English learners describe their preferred strategies? (See Kim Hall, Chapter 6.)

6. What did we observe regarding group work, student talk and teacher talk? (See Calista Kelly, Chapter 7.) ← 3 | 4 →

7. How do college-going and non-college-going African American males describe their respective school experience and the teachers who most helped them? (See Matthew Smith, Chapter 8.)

8. What are the characteristics of highly effective teachers of African American students in upper-elementary through high school (See Jaquet Dumas, Chapter 9.)

9. What are the successful practices observed in an afternoon Native American tutoring program (K–12 through college) that helps students achieve and stay in local schools, as well as, enter, persist, and succeed in college? (See Alejandro Lopez, Chapter 10.)

10. What are the practices of highly effective teachers in community college developmental (pre-credit) writing classes (See Rebecca Hatkoff & Claudia Bermúdez, Chapter 11.)

11. What are the differences in the instructional practices between highly effective teachers in low versus high SES schools in terms of the transmission of social capital? (See Rebecca Hatkoff, Chapter 12.)

12. How were the highly effective teachers identified? (See Hilton, Chapter 13.)

13. What are our subsequent recommendations to policy makers, teacher educators, school administrators, and teacher organizations that emerge from the collective findings? (See Poplin, chapter 14.)

Ten of our eleven-member research team made attempts to see each of the teachers. Most team members ultimately chose to concentrate their observations and analyses on particular questions with particular populations. These concentrations were a central part of the research work as the year progressed. Two researchers (Poplin and Bermúdez) saw all the teachers and tutors extensively, and conducted most of the teacher interviews; two other members saw all the teachers except the Native students’ tutors. One member solely took responsibility for working with district and school administrators using their data to identify the most highly effective teachers at the various sites. The Institutional Review Board at Claremont Graduate University approved all procedures of the study.


Teacher Identification—Quantitative

We used only quantitative methods to identify the most highly effective teachers in the K–12 schools and the community college classrooms. The particular method differed only slightly by school district when available student ← 4 | 5 → standardized assessments differed. On the whole we always chose a method with the local school and district administrators that selected the teachers in low performing schools whose students had very high achievement gains for the preceding three years on standardized instruments compared to their colleagues teaching similar students. We only approached teachers whose student gain scores over the prior three years indicated their students had gained one or more standard deviations greater than their colleagues teaching similar students in the same schools/districts. We carefully traced the developmental students in the community college who passed their first credit-bearing course after having had particular teachers in their developmental non-credit bearing course. June Hilton, our statistical advisor, describes these selection processes in more detail in Chapter 13. Tutors of Native Indian students were observed at a tribal tutoring program whose reputation is that it helps students achieve in K–12, as well as enter and succeed in college.

The teacher selection criteria in this study were similar to those used in the public schools during the prior study during the NCLB era (2005–2007)—substantially greater gains in student achievement than their colleagues teaching similar students in the same schools. For example, in the previous study, all schools were using the California Standards Test (used during NCLB). Of these 31 highly effective teachers in 2005–2007, 51% of the teachers’ students moved up one or more levels (on a five level scale), 34% maintained their level and only 15% dropped a level. In comparison with their colleagues during the same time period who were teaching virtually the same students in the three high schools where 50% percent of the English teachers and 60% of the math teachers had between 30 and 75% of their students moving down a level. Also, 65% of the comparison group of English teachers and 68% of math teachers in these same schools had the same number or more students moving down one or more levels as moving up a level.

Qualitative Methods—Grounded Theory


XIV, 282
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 280 pp., 13 b/w ill., 8 tbl.

Biographical notes

Mary Poplin (Volume editor) Claudia Bermudez (Volume editor)

Mary Poplin, Ph.D., is a graduate of the University of Texas and a professor at Claremont Graduate University in the School of Educational Studies. There she developed the CGU Teacher Education program from 1985–1995 and again from 2000–2004. She was also Dean of the School of Educational Studies from 2002–2004. Claudia Bermúdez, Ph.D., is a coordinator in the Teacher Education Program at Claremont Graduate University, where she received her Ph.D. in urban leadership in 2014. She held various positions in the Los Angeles Unifi ed School District including teacher, district EL expert, assistant principal, and principal.


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