Extreme Schools in an Extreme Interview

 Teacher Q&A

Instead of our usual featured “Extreme School” (of which we have many), we are featuring an unusual question-answer session. These were posed by real staff members from two real Title 1 schools. The questions cut right to the core of what it takes to succeed, but the answers may surprise you.

In fact, the answers apply to every single school, including yours. I have combined two school interviews so there’s enough variety for everyone. By the way, everything here applies to ALL schools, not just those in poverty. Enjoy!


Staff Q:  “Our school staff read your book and we do all the things in Teaching with Poverty In Mind, but there seems to be no change. Help!”

Jensen Reply: Glad you were able to use the book for a book study. The book is just to provide a foundation for understanding kids from poverty better. It provides suggestions for teachers. But it doesn’t do the hard work for you. The real work, to get the results you want, is over the long haul. Schools that thoroughly implement the book’s suggestions will perform better. You can’t do everything in this book at once. You’ve got to use data to determine where the biggest gap is in your student achievement and go after that. Most school turnarounds happen in the 3-5 year time frame. No school has ever implemented 50 action steps, thoroughly, and done error-correction to maximize results in one year.

If you’re NOT seeing miracles, get a second opinion. Do a student survey (anonymous and confidential) that asks students about their everyday experience in school. In most cases, the students tell the truth about what’s going on. Ask the students: 1) how often they are engaged daily, 2) does the teacher call you by name and know your interests, 3) how much feedback students or the teacher get daily, 4) what skills are being built, and 5) are they feeling hopeful about their future.


Staff Q:  “How can a school ensure teachers implement the changes needed without it being done in a top-down manner?”

Jensen Reply: The question you’re asking is very legitimate and common. This is a school leadership question. You’re asking, “How can, or how does, the leadership or PLCs orchestrate the integrity of staff implementation?” These issues are best handled by school-based teams who are committed to change. Teams should embrace the responsibility and hold their peers accountable.  I’d rather not suggest how specifically leadership can or should make this happen, as that’s the role they are hired to do. We all know it starts with building trusting, collaborative teams with a singular, urgent focus.


Staff Q:  “Is it reasonable to expect our teachers to have courageous conversations with other staff who are not “on board” or not doing the implementation needed that the more successful colleagues are doing?”

Jensen Reply: If you were on a ship that was sinking, and your shipmates had the keys to the lifeboats, would you go down with the ship or get your shipmates involved to help out? How desperate do you need to be in order to start thinking of your school as a single unified force for good with every single staff playing a part?

In the successful Title 1 schools I’ve visited or heard from, teachers develop their leadership. They: 1) collaborate, 2) become transparent about their own gaps, errors and struggles, and 3) are reflective and responsive to change.  Sometimes this means being hard on one’s self. This is the part of the change process that is missing from school staffs that struggle. These are not easy things to do for some. But these are the exact same qualities needed for saving lives on a sinking boat.


Staff Q:  “How do you empower students to thrive in classes where their teachers do not implement the changes suggested?”

Jensen Reply: Two thoughts on that one. First, empower students to become more capable by teaching them study skills, self-control, mindset, hope and goal-setting. In short, the more capacity-building that a staff does, the better the student’s chances for success.

Second, work with staff to shift their focus. Every year that a student has a teacher that is at or below “annual yearly progress” or AYP (one year’s academic gains in one school year), the odds drop. The possibility for students to succeed in a low “implementation” Title 1 School exists, but the odds are very, very low.

Another question to ask is, “If you know the odds are low, why on earth would you purposely reduce a child’s chances for success? Do you dislike kids or are your own issues so paralyzing that your personal comfort (e.g. staying the same and not changing) is more important than hundreds of student lives that are denied success?” In short, if you’re not changing, your kids won’t change.


Staff Q:  “Can you clarify and determine accountability beyond a teacher’s actions/responsibilities and how it should exist for students?”

Jensen Reply: Let’s square away a common myth: the myth is that kids should do this, and that kids should do that. Here’s the truth: most kids are in school for two reasons: 1) it’s the law and 2) their friends are there. Teachers are accountable because it’s part of the profession in which they get paid to perform services. You cannot hold hostages (kids who are required to be at school) and demand that same equal level of responsibility that you have. To some kids, they’re in “prison” all day. Kill that myth that it’s all up to the kids. You cannot “assign responsibility” to unpaid hostages.

However, in schools that succeed, the staff develops the students responsibility over time. They engage the students in relevant activities with strong relationships that foster well-being and a more positive future. Only then, can you see kids taking on more responsibility for their learning and being part of the solution. This happens consistently at strong schools. At those countless high-performing Title 1 schools, NONE of the staff say, “Why aren’t these kids more responsible?” Every one of them creates the climate in which kids will slowly WANT to become more responsible. But the staff has to first be responsible enough to create the conditions for kids to develop responsibility.


Staff Q:  “How many high poverty / high performing schools are charter or magnet schools? I feel as though those schools have more autonomy and less red tape to get through to tackle their own problems.”

Jensen Reply: From the numbers I have seen, it is about 60% public and 40% that are charter or magnet. Yes, they (charter and magnet) can and do have more autonomy. Here’s a more relevant question for your staff: “How many successful traditional public Title 1 schools would you need to see or hear of to feel it’s possible? Would you need five, twenty, or even five hundred schools? What’s the “tipping point” in your brain that says to you, ‘Okay, I guess it’s actually possible.’?


Staff Q:  “How many schools become worse before seeing any improvements? I love the success stories in the book, but I can’t help but wonder…how many schools don’t see improvements? Why?”

Jensen Reply: It’s possible to get worse before things improve, but only for a few months of “re-grouping.”  There are many schools that continue to struggle in spite of their efforts. This is hard work. This is not easy.  Why? As I said, these are people-driven solutions. Some staff struggle because of these “big three” issues:

  • Being addicted to drama… and they make their personal drama more important than the kid’s success.
  • Being unwilling to learn and apply new skills so they make students the victims of their calcification. They want to either do nothing or buy their way out of the problem.
  • Being too stuck to change and they make their fears more important than the success of their students.

The reasons are many. But ultimately, you’ll end up with your success (and no “story” needed) or your struggles (and there will be a nice long entertaining story about why things didn’t work out) which some will cling to as if it’s as good as a success. But it’s not success; it a story about why you don’t have it.


Staff Q:  “How do we get people to at least be open to new ideas, theories and information?”

Jensen Reply: Each of your staff may have a different “driver” or motivator for making changes. Start with building relationships. Make the change process daily or weekly professional development in the form of ongoing learning. Make it part of the air your staff breathes. That means, podcasts, emails, short meetings, sharing success stories by your staff, attending conferences, quality in-service, etc. Make the changes social. Chunk down the changes to bite sizes and script out the details. Provide support and encouragement. Many times, the staff wants the students to change, but they don’t want to change themselves. Those two statements don’t go together.


Staff Q:  “How are successful schools getting the neediest of students to participate? Who is paying for research based reading programs? Where are these programs being held and who is running them?”

Jensen Reply: Since the Title 1 ESEA act was passed in 1965, we’ve spent trillions of dollars on this “problem” of poverty. Some want to BUY a book, BUY a software program, PAY a consultant to boost test scores. You can’t BUY your way out this. It’s about people and it takes people-driven solutions. That means trust, collaboration, relationships and teamwork. That’s why it’s hard. It takes people to generate partnerships, build relationships and inspire hope.

The most aggressive Title 1 school finds ways to: 1) write and get the grants and funding they need, and 2) partner with the community or other schools. Many successful Title 1 schools work out partnerships with universities, businesses or community colleges to develop cooperative programs. Some get free tutoring, and others get student programs in learning job skills.

Plus many good reading programs are affordable: Alpha Phonics • Alpha gram • Earobics • Lexia • LindaMood Bell • Open Court • Orton-Gillingham • PhonemiQuest • Project Read • Read Right • Read 180 • SPIRE • Study Dog •Tucker • Wilson.  Fast ForWord (Scientific Learning) now has a newer less expensive program for your budget. Every school has obstacles. Stay focused on the solutions, not the obstacles.


Staff Q:  “How do we get our colleagues to see that there is a major difference between having information and showing empathy towards our students, and making excuses for their behavior?”

Jensen Reply They need to see the distinction role modeled, then debrief it. Instructional coaches can do this. A short video can help, too.


Staff Q:  “What one thing should we focus our energy on?”

Jensen Reply: Review your data to determine where the serious gaps are in meeting the standards, or the testing criteria. Then formulate a plan and go after that. This is your decision, not mine, to make. Here are some of the crucial factors that will drive change at your school from an instructional angle.

1) Engagement: is every class engaging, every day?

2) Relationship-building: does every teacher know the name of every student? Do you know family background on your kids as well as their interests?

3) Do you get daily feedback and use on-going formative assessment? Do you know where kids are at academically, every single week of the year and do you adjust your teaching to fill the gaps?

4) Do you build “learn-to-learn” skills and executive function skills, such as meta-cognition, study skills, working memory, etc.? This takes focus over weeks and months.

5) Do you build daily student optimism and growth mindset?    How?

6) Control over their day: do you give kids increasing amounts of appropriate control over their school day? Does staff teach coping skills weekly?

7) Vocabulary building: is this done daily, in every class, every day?

8) Do you teach appropriate social/emotional responses, or do you just notice the misbehaviors?

If I walk into a classroom to observe for an hour, I should see 2 – 4 items from above embedded into every hour of kid’s lives. No excuses.


Staff Q:  “Can Eric Jensen come out to individual schools?”

Jensen Reply: Yes, I can, but the role MOST useful in schools like yours are instructional coaches that: 1) have unshakeable confidence, 2) possess strong enough skill sets to role model what teachers can do and how to do it, and 3) have strong enough relationship skills to support the tough change process while still being a cheerleader for your staff.

Thanks for the thoughtful questions. You guys can do this. It’s simple; it’s just not easy. If it were easy, everyone would have done it. But everything in life that’s ever been worth getting has also required a lot of hard (and smart) work.



What can you learn from the interview mentioned above? The only good that happens in this world are when you move things from inside your brain to the outside world. What ideas, principles or strategies were either affirmed OR were new to you?  Could this be a topic of discussion at your next staff meeting?

Miracles do happen every day. Are you ready to be one of them?

FINALLY: If your Title 1 school has an “Extreme School” story to tell (whether you have moved up or are currently struggling, please email me your story to: info@jlcbrain.com. In the subject line, put “Extreme School Story”. Thanks.

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen,
CEO, Jensen Learning, the Leader in Brain-Based Education

* * * * Opportunity Notice * * * *

For staff developers and administrators… Sharpen your skills as a “change agent”. Back again by popular demand is the amazing 3-Day Event called “Game-Changers”.  You can register and attend this career-changing event from February 18-20, 2013 at the Omni San Antonio at the Colonnade, an affordable 4-Diamond Hotel in San Antonio, Texas.

Why on earth would I tell you about a 2013 event this early? The last one we held SOLD OUT within weeks. “Early bird” discounts will apply, but only as long as we have seats available. To learn more about this powerful, career-boosting event, CLICK HERE

If you took any of our workshops this summer and need to present the information back at your school, be sure to go to our website to view our Power Points for purchase. These could make your preparation a lot easier. Go to www.jensenlearning.com. Considering the value of your time, these are a HUGE bargain at $79 each.


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