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The educators who succeed with at-risk students

Anthony Dallmann-Jones, PhD, Director

At-Risk and Alternative Education MAE Program

Marian University – Wisconsin


SOMEDAY educators (and hopefully, communities) will look back in shame at how our schools turned its back on today’s at-risk children. A school that should offer well-prepared at-risk teachers often places freshmen faculty or burnouts into these teaching positions. Kids should be able to count on having highly trained and skilled educators with the resources necessary to provide the compensatory programs they need. The system should have the ability to launch prevention and intervention programs that at-risk youth desperately need—and need a great deal more than other children.


None of these children asked to be placed at risk.

—Jerry Conrath, teacher and author Early Prevention


If our school system insists on revictimizing our youth by officially neglecting them, what message does this send to our children? Today’s youth need champions more than ever, and educators are in the perfect position to fill that role—but they need the resources and professional development to do so. Most teachers, myself included, were trained to teach math, or science, or history. We were not trained to teach children—and we were certainly unprepared to teach at-risk children.

Children are the best investment one can make with their tax dollars. The costs for not addressing this problem in U.S. schools is over $94,000,000,000 annually. Or, based on President Obama’s broader formula $319,000,000,000 annually.

And that figure does nothing but get larger each year. Indeed, in many ways, our children are undoubtedly the best investment possible. From the affectionate vantage point of “our precious children” to the businesslike, multi-billion-dollar annual price tag, or both, it is in our best interest to provide them with the best teachers possible.

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind (2009) determined that teacher effectiveness is the key ingredient in student success. They also revealed that proper course work or a degree or certification does not necessarily make for the most effective teacher. What accurately measures effectiveness is student progress—the more students who progress under a teacher’s supervision, the more effective the teacher. Content is not king, competence is.

There is currently a large question in front of public education: What is success? What type of student progress is essential for a teacher to be known as a “good” teacher? If we cannot answer these questions, we are left with standardized test scores as the only consistent measure of a teacher. And, if that is what we focus on, it creates another set of problems for education. Namely, if we know that all children are different and believe in diversity as a source of enrichment, but only measure by standardized achievement test scores, we have set ourselves up. It is impossible to standardize students!

How do you measure the effectiveness of teachers who are working with students in these non-standardized content areas?

  • Art
  • Business
  • Drama
  • Driver education
  • Foreign language
  • Health and fitness
  • Home and family
  • Independent studies
  • Music
  • Physical education
  • Social studies
  • Special education
  • Speech
  • Sports
  • Vocational areas


Add to the above list any kind of new programs or content and, of course, alternative education or pull-out programs for either (1) those who have fallen behind and are in need of compensatory programs to “catch-up,” and/or (2) alternative education for the gifted and talented.

What We Focus on Expands

Common sense tells us that what we focus on expands. If you want to feel tired, just keep telling yourself and all around you just how tired you are. If you want to enlarge the negative aspects of anyone or anything, start a list of deficits and shortcomings and keep adding to it. More and more will come to mind. If you wish to feel truly impoverished keep talking and thinking about how broke you are and how unfortunate you are and how crappy your life is and how little you have. (Pretty soon even the national debt will look good to you.)

If we focus on standardized testing as the measure of a “good education” it will become all that we see as important and it will grow huge in our eyes, limiting our vision of all the other aspects of what schools and learning can be for students. The things that are memorable about school are rarely the results of a standardized test. Yet there are schools right now spending 2 to 4 weeks of the school year prepping for achievement tests, and that amount of time is expanding. Yet no one agrees on what a “good education” is. What is important for a student to know? What—learned now—will serve a student’s future well? Who is the “best” teacher?

Without answers to these questions, why are we spending so much time trying to standardize our students? With this focus, diversity will become our enemy. Tension and competition among teachers, administrators, and schools (and states) will mount to a fever pitch. Collaboration, creativity, team-teaching, and flexibility will become concepts to avoid.

Focusing on Teaching

My research shows that what makes for effectiveness in at-risk education comes in two categories that we liberally, deliberately, and dramatically label Angel Educators and/or Warrior Educators. Both categories of educators have several things in common. They prize learning and student progress. They see education as having the power to change life for the better and they see themselves as having high self-efficacy as instruments of betterment for kids. These and a few other commonalities are internal attributes, and usually invisible. What is amazing is how the external attributes of these educators can appear to mirror the opposite of who they really are. It is the visible means by which these educators relate to at-risk learners that is noticeably dramatic. Most highly successful at-risk educators are either Angel Educators or Warrior Educators. These labels have nothing to do with religion or with violence. Rather, they help to understand, underline, define, and explain.

The quotes below are from a survey of over 90 at-risk students in alternative programs, and 110-plus current teachers who were formerly at-risk students.

Angel Educators

Angel educators are teachers who, despite being quiet, low key, and studious, are remarkably successful with at-risk students.

  • This is number one for a reason. Angel teachers may be no more compassionate than Warrior teachers, but they show it clearly. It is obvious they care about children. They seem to look past symptomatic behaviors of defiance, gruffness, resistance, and reluctance sometimes shown by at-risk kids, and, as one student said, can “peer into my soul with eyes of concern.”
  • Being present is obvious to children. “She wanted to be with us!” People who do not want to work with an at-risk kid are either bitter because they are required to be working with this child, or they are distant and focused on something other than the child in the moment, meaning they would rather be someplace else.
  • A Light Being. This difficult to define, but one participant said it best: “It seemed like her feet never touched the floor. I used to watch to make sure because rumor had it that she was an angel and might be able to fly.” Light beings seem to be quiet, soft, and almost spooky in their silence, suddenly showing up at your elbow when you need help. “Ms._____ scared the hell out of me, as she seemed to materialize just behind my shoulder when I was having trouble!”
  • “She never raised her voice the whole year!” Angel educators are not always teachers. A principal may be the most

powerful educator in the whole building. “Mr. C always called us by name, and never yelled at us.” “Our principal was a great guy. He never yelled at us, would smile softly at us and knew all our names. I never figured out how he knew everyone’s name. I realized years later that maybe he only knew my name!” Most seasoned educators know that you do not force anything onto people. You nudge them gently in a direction until it is their idea. Shouting, or being angry, just causes fear and resistance. Most at-risk kids have already experienced enough force to last a lifetime.

  • Focused on Positivism. “She never criticized us!” “Mr. H only marked the correct answers on our tests, not the wrong ones. He always said, ‘Let’s build on our strengths, people!’” Great teachers know that everyone loves to talk about their good points and withdraw or get defensive when you focus on their negative points. It has never dawned on some teachers that what you focus on expands. Once a teacher understands this fact, things go better for them because they see the room begin to fill up with a pleasant, positive, and progressive atmosphere.

Warrior Educators

Warrior Educators may appear loud and gruff, but they have hearts of gold. Warrior Educators exhibit their lives on their sleeves. They often have troubled backgrounds and have learned from the school of hard knocks. Now they want to help at-risk kids get the break perhaps they never had. They want to be the teachers they never had, but so desperately needed.

Perhaps the Warrior Educator is teaching—though they act more like a professional wrestler—because they were inspired by a teacher or person who changed their life. But beneath their bark is a caring, loving person dedicated to at-risk youth.

  • Battle-scarred, perhaps, or maybe protecting themselves from being too vulnerable, the Warrior Educator’s gruffness is apparent, but not meant to harm anyone. They are often surprised when told they appear aggressive or loud, but they will not deny they are intense. “Mrs. N____ acted like there was no tomorrow and tenaciously moved us along like a freight train on an emergency mission!”
  • Street Savvy. When in a dark and dangerous place, this is the person you would want with you: smart, capable of handling the unknown, and fearless. “My best teachers at the Tech School had all been scarred by life!” To which one of my students added: “And some had done a little scarring themselves. My history teacher was a Vietnam vet and said he never felt more alive than when there, but he wouldn’t talk about things he had done there. ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ was one of his expressions. But he taught like we were lucky to have this chance to learn. ‘The things people take for granted in the United States do not apply everywhere. It is a privilege to have people care enough about you to teach you—and you will learn!’ he would say with a smile—but he meant it!”
  • Goal Focused. Whereas Angel Educators may appear more needs-based—meaning they deal with each child in a nurse-like manner—Warrior Educators appear more focused on outcomes. “He would start off by saying, ‘Today we WILL accomplish the following things!’ then he would proceed to do exactly that, repeating it at the end of the class with, ‘Look what you did!’ That was powerful to me. Every day I could see what I had gained.

Other classes seemed to slip by with me being unchanged, but Mr. W______ made it look like we had just gone up a step on the universal stairwell and would never be the same.”

  • Overcomes Obstacles. Warrior Educators are at war. They may even use warlike words, such as “conquering,” “winning the battle,” or “victory.” Angel Educators seem to look on the bright side whereas Warrior Educators see the world as a challenge, or a race against an imaginary clock with dire consequences if one loses. They believe in the power of effort and make it clear that, not unlike a mountain climber, if you try hard enough you can make it. “Mrs. C____ never gave up on us and said we could ‘win the race of life’ if we just wanted it bad enough and were determined enough.”

Does this mean that only a clearly defined Angel or Warrior Educator can be successful with at-risk children? Of course not. Many educators are a combination of the two. What I have attempted to do is make it clear what works and show that great teachers can be quite different in their effectiveness with approaches to learning and students. On the other hand, a very successful educator once said to me, “The secret to a great program is not what you teach but who teaches it.” When I asked him to clarify he said, “Real learning is about effective relationships—with either the content alone or with a teacher who inspires you to be all you can be. A good teacher makes learning enjoyable or meaningful, but a great teacher makes learning seem essential as well.”

Mentioned in this article are some factors common to successful at-risk educators. Every effective teacher usually also possesses a sense of humor and great enthusiasm for the academic content or learning processes. Former students often cite the attributes of humor and enthusiasm when they describe “exceptional” teachers. Educators of at-risk children are this and more: They are Angels and Warriors who do not know the word quit. They fight failure as if it were a dragon. Above all else, they care deeply about their children’s futures and are not shy about showing it.

You are fortunate if you have had one of these educators in your life. There is no reason we could not attract and train more of them, but the field of education is timid, it seems, about the character education of teachers, despite the knowledge of its positive and direct impact on the education of their students. We just need to think a bit and then be willing to announce these findings and, in our teacher training, aim directly at the target of creating Angel and Warrior Educators with deliberate and determined enthusiasm. It can be done. I have seen it happen.




This article is abbreviated and modified from a forthcoming

publication in Spring of 2020 under the new title:



Creating learning environments for exponential success


Published by DZ Media Publications

In conjunction with Kindle Direct Publishing

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