Tapping In: Strategies for New Teachers Working With At-Risk Students

By Phil Kitchel posted 04-12-2022 09:55 AM


Teaching in an urban setting can offer a diverse range of valuable practices and perspectives, and new teachers who begin working in urban areas are twice as likely to be assigned to high-poverty, low-performing schools as more experienced teachers (Bolich, 2001). The National Council for Behavioral Health reported that 35% of urban youth exposed to community violence develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Sexual assault, physical assault, and witnessing domestic violence are the three most prevalent stressors in youth. With little to no experience dealing with students, let alone those with traumatic experiences, new teachers can be overwhelmed by the enormity of their job responsibilities and often leave urban areas for more affluent areas—or leave the profession altogether.

New teachers can benefit significantly from this often-challenging experience with the proper support and guidance. New teachers in urban communities with at-risk students must be acknowledged as a priority and professionally developed to be effective. Research shows that the likelihood of a first-year teacher quitting is reduced by more than half when the teacher is supported with mentoring, collaboration, extra resources, and a strong network of colleagues (Sutcher et al., 2016). Any new educator working in urban settings could apply these teaching strategies backed by research to cultivate a rich, fulfilling teaching experience with at-risk students. The recommendations are action oriented so that new teachers can feel empowered to apply them to master their craft and expand their consciousness as educators and citizens of the world.

Become a Trauma-Informed Educator

New teachers can become trauma-informed educators by using their observations and experiences to create safe spaces and establish strong routines for at-risk students. No teacher should go to work believing that their students need to be saved or fixed. The efforts of a trauma-informed educator focus on rebuilding broken, inequitable systems and concepts that leave marginalized students isolated.

Research on trauma-informed practices demonstrates that schools should give youth many chances to explore, play, and learn in a supportive, accepting environment (Trauth & Harris, 2019). Teaching in the diverse and unpredictable setting of an urban school will mean that educators must be aware of their surroundings to meet the needs of their student populations. New teachers should be observant and take good notes on their school’s culture and the communities served by the school. This ensures that we are aware of things within our systems that stakeholders should actively manage for the benefit of the students. 

Trauma-informed schools are reminded daily of developmental theories that all teachers are introduced to before entering the classroom. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is easy to understand and demonstrate through trauma-informed practice. The entire approach keeps new teachers active and exposes them to teaching methods of self-regulation and emotional coping skills, reducing the prevalence of disruptive behaviors in class.

Evaluate Students Through Reliable Means

Plan time to look through student backgrounds to learn about their IEP or 504 accommodations. Doing so will immediately help a new teacher differentiate adequate and culturally relevant instruction for these students. Using the data available on student families and their community will, at the very least, make you informed of your students’ circumstances and help avoid a deficit mindset.

It is important to remember that all students can learn, and all students can do well when the teacher knows what to assess and how to take a reliable performance measurement. Deficit thinking is in play when a teacher blames a student, a student’s family, or a student’s culture for academic or behavioral difficulties that occur at school.

Practice Self-Care

The teacher is perhaps the most valuable resource in the classroom. It is important that new teachers put self-care practices at the top of their to-do list every single day. The 2017 Educator Quality of Work Life Survey reported that nearly two-thirds of teachers feel their jobs are “always” or “often” stressful (American Federation of Teachers, 2017). This data reported a stress level nearly twice as high as experienced by the general workforce.

To counteract this, it is important to create meaningful, sustainable relationships. The strong, stable, and stimulating relationships that new teachers build with students and colleagues will prove helpful in building the resilience of a new teacher with a passion for impacting their students.

By Mateo Jose Lopez

Mr. Lopez is a Foreign Language teacher at Carroll High School, teaching Spanish I, Spanish II, and AP Spanish Language and Culture. In addition, he is a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at Xavier University of Louisiana.


American Federation of Teachers. (2017). 2017 Educator quality of work life survey.

Bolich, A. (2001). Reduce your losses: Help new teachers become veteran teachers. Southern Regional Education Board.

Sutcher, L., Darling-Hammond, L., & Carver-Thomas, D. (2016). Coming crisis in teaching? Teacher supply, demand, and shortages in the U.S. (Research brief). Learning Policy Institute.

Trauth, J. N., & Harris, K. (2019). Lighthouse Community School: An in-depth look at successful strategies used with at-risk students. Multicultural Education, 27(1), 25–29.