We examine how uncertainty, both about students and the context in which they are taught, remains a persistent condition of teachers’ work in high-poverty, urban schools. We describe six schools’ organizational responses to these uncertainties, analyze how these responses reflect more open- versus closed-system approaches, and examine how this orientation affects teachers’ work.
We draw on interviews with a diverse set of 95 teachers and administrators across a purposive sample of six high-poverty, urban schools in one district. We analyzed these interviews by drafting thematic summaries, coding interview transcripts, creating data-analytic matrices, and writing analytic memos.
We find that students introduced considerable uncertainty into teachers’ work. Although most teachers we spoke with embraced the challenges of their work and the expanded responsibilities that it entailed, they recognized that their individual efforts were not sufficient to succeed. Teachers consistently spoke about the need for organizational responses that addressed the environmental uncertainty of working with students from low-income families whose experience in school often has been unsuccessful. We describe four types of organizational responses — coordinated instructional supports, systems to promote order and discipline, socio-emotional supports for students, and efforts to engage parents — and illustrate how these responses affected teachers’ ability to manage the uncertainty introduced by their environment.
Traditional public schools are open systems, and require systematic organizational responses to address the uncertainty introduced by their environments. Uncoordinated individual efforts alone are not sufficient to meet the needs of students in high-poverty urban communities.