What’s it like teaching in a high-performing school?


By popular demand, we feature a teacher this month, not an entire school. After all, teachers make the difference. This teacher works at an “Extreme School.” Her high school is one of many underperforming schools in this low-performing district, within a high-poverty area. Another teacher in her place might feel like she has the deck stacked against her and every excuse to give up on her kids. Every other teacher at her school already has their excuses lined up, but this teacher doesn’t give up. In fact, the achievement scores that HER kids get are.


“In fact, the achievement scores that HER kids get are… so awesome that 100 percent of her students passed their state-mandated, end-of-course exams despite data from the state’s predictive model suggesting that over a third would not.” In short, she out-teaches every other teacher in her district.

Her school, Ben Smith High School, has 1,200 kids and 80% of its kids are from poverty. Academically, the school performed worse than 75% of the schools in North Carolina, meaning that Ben Smith is in the bottom 25%. About 96% are children of color. As a school, it struggles. But, is the problem with the kids or the staff?

First a bit of background about HOW this teacher succeeds…


“If they say it can’t be done, I sure would like to be the person to do it.” She tells students that if they are willing to do what she asks, they’ll succeed. Usually a student stands up, and interrupts her to say, “What if I do all of that, and I still fail?” The teacher jumps right back at her, with confidence: “That’s never happened!” she assures her. “If you do all that I ask, then you simply can’t fail.” By the way, are YOU that confident? If you are, tell your students. They need to know that “They are in good hands.”


Her focus is on people, relationships and positivity. She carefully builds a culture of teamwork and competition. She asks her students at the start of the semester if they are up to the challenge. “Who thinks they are capable of making an A or B in this course?” “I’m an A student,” one student blurts out. This amazing teacher starts the class culture early. She says, “Yes, but can you help someone else succeed, too? It’s not enough that you are successful. I want 100%, that’s EVERY ONE of you to be successful. Can you help me do that?” In fact, she takes a very firm stance on team effort from the student’s study partners. She says, quite frankly, “If you score 100 on your test and your partner fails, you have collectively failed.” The kids gasp, and from that moment on they realize they are all in this class together.

The way she builds student connections is with constant focus on, “We are together” teamwork. They get to know each other with “A Me Bag.” It’s a brown paper lunch bag with a small note attached that reads… My Favorite Snack, Picture of Someone Important To Me, Something I Collect, Something I Found, Something I Enjoy Doing, and Something No One Knows About Me. Students put one item in the bag for each topic. The kids make the bag, then share it.

The teacher also does “A Me Bag” and goes first, sharing about herself. Then the students go next. What the kids share is always moving, sometimes heart breaking, but the teacher listens like her life depends on it. She affirms the positive things they share and she validates just how important they are to her. The kids learn quickly that she listens to everything they say and it truly matters so much to them – the teacher says, “I never forget what they say about themselves.”


She puts in the extra effort at the start of each semester. Earlier we mentioned the class spirit, which is the class climate and support system. But this teacher also works with the kids and parents directly to build and clarify expectations. These hold a key piece of the academic success for low-performers.

Some students admit to her that they have never, ever, made an A or B grade in any course they have ever taken in their life. She begins ASAP to remove their reservations.

The process starts with 1) a first-day conversation, 2) initial assignments that all students can perform successfully so that all students are now able to begin the course with a strong grade average and a running start, and 3) an academic contract.

The individual contract is a set of delicate negotiations with students and parents that often go unnoticed. She clearly establishes the expectation that each and every student WILL score an A/B in the course – and that NOTHING LESS is acceptable.

All students sign an academic contract at the beginning of the honors biology course. The contract outlines what they will do to ensure their success.
It includes:
a) participation in class, b) required attendance, and c) mandatory weekly tutorials if they score less than 85 percent on any major quiz or test.

Parents also sign the contract, stating that they will support and encourage their student, review notes, attend conferences, and support this teacher. The teacher signs the contract, as well, stating what she will do. She keeps such close tabs on her students that any who are getting less than 85% get immediate help. Her strategy, attitude and effort always pay off.

When one of her biggest student challenges finished the biology course with an A average and one of the highest scores, he hugged the teacher and said, “I couldn’t have done this without you.” He then faced his classmates and shouted, “You know what, I couldn’t have done this without all of y’all!”

In addition to mastering content, they’ve all learned that none of us is as great as all of us. So as she closes out the year, she attends professional development in the summer. When it’s time to begin another successful year, she says, “Here we grow again.”


Leslie Ross, 9th grade biology. Ben Smith High School, Greensboro, NC. Her school email is: rossl@gcsn.com. Be very respectful of her time, she is very busy helping her kids graduate! Last year, she won one the highest teaching honors in the nation, The Fishman Prize.


Now that you’ve read about an “Extreme Teacher” success story, we have a question for you. How many true stories of successful teachers in low-performing schools and low-performing districts do you need to see and hear about before you BELIEVE that it can happen for you? And, if there’s another member of your staff that does not think it can happen for them, please forward these monthly bulletins their way.

Second, what can you learn from the true story mentioned above? The only good that happens in this world is 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?


If your Title 1 school has an “Extreme School” story to tell OR there is an “extreme teacher” story in you (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” or “Extreme Teacher” story. Thanks.

Your partner in learning,

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


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