Education Q&A

Becoming a Culturally Responsive Teacher

June 02, 2010 7 min read
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The Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color is a group formed in 2007 dedicated to ensuring that boys and young men of color have full opportunities for in-school success. Recently, the COSEBOC released a document entitled “Standards and Promising Practices for Schools Educating Boys of Color,” as a blueprint for how to better serve students with an African-American or Latino background.

We recently spoke with Ron Walker, executive director of COSEBOC, about the proposed standards, the challenges faced by students of color, and how teachers can shape their curriculum and instruction—and their own perspectives—to better serve the needs of these students.

Ron Walker, executive director of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color.

Why did you and your organization decide to write this report?

If you notice how it’s titled, it says “Standards for Schools Educating Boys of Color.” Because of the great disparity, relative to the achievement gap, the intention of our organization is to develop means, strategies, and tools that will help contribute to eliminating the gap.

This document is meant to complement, not to replace the existing. It’s meant to really fill the spaces in areas that may not be touched upon in the general approaches to teaching kids every day. It speaks to certain dimensions such as culturally relevant pedagogy, culturally relevant practice—things that bring children of color in greater touch with their culture. That requirement is so they really have the opportunity to understand their identity, their roots, and so forth. It also presents a great opportunity for the instructor and the school to have a full appreciation for the many cultures that represent the school.

How can teachers shape their curricula to better fit the needs of students of color?

You’ve got to know who’s in front of you. It’s a conscious act to get to know kids. Every kid has a story—I bet when you went to school, you had a story. And I’d bet that the teachers you either gravitated towards or got the best out of you knew something about you, which speaks to the power of relationships. One of my mentors, Ted Sizer, used to say, “You can’t teach somebody you don’t know.” How true, how true.

Being a former teacher and former principal, I’m fully aware that today is even more challenging than ever before. But, I think that step of getting to know these kids, building a relationship is critical. And let me also suggest,—because teachers have stories, too—that they have to get to know themselves, as well.

Also as a former teacher, I know there were some things that I didn’t want to do or I didn’t really do well. But I had to know that about myself and I had to acknowledge that.

The willingness of teachers to be reflective professionals helps because you start to see your weaknesses or what bothers you. You’re more likely to either find ways to adjust or adapt, or to share that responsibility with someone else on your team who can do it a little bit better.

How important is professional development for teachers? Is good professional development key to undergoing some of the reforms suggested in the report?

Absolutely. Good, solid PD is the lifeblood of creative and successful schools because they are on the razor’s edge. It keeps teachers sharp. Good, well-developed, thoughtful PD that takes into account where people are across the continuum of their learning styles and experiences validates and affirms. It keeps people fresh. It gives people a chance to create and contribute to their own development.

I would contend professional development needs the people who live in that school to be the stakeholders. They need to play an active role in developing it which is why having learning communities that are really functioning entities makes sense.

You recommend that teachers expose their students to a wide variety of viewpoints, traditions, and cultures. For teachers who are bogged down with curriculum mandates and testing goals, how can this be implemented?

Anyone who’s taught long enough knows that it ain’t easy. There’s not a quick fix, and yes, there is a challenge of making kids ready for a test. But I’m of the mindset that this is why you need talented teachers working together in learning communities to create units and lessons that are sensitive to the cultural, racial, ethnic, and socio-economic makeup of schools. Number one, it invests that young person in that work because you’re saying, basically, “I see you. I see you being a mathematician. And I know a little bit about the mathematics that it took not only to build the pyramids in Egypt, but in Guatemala.” If the teacher makes these references—I know my juices are gonna be stimulated if I’m a kid. So, it’s not easy, it’s not quick, but I think it’s important, particularly if we want to be globally competitive. Globally competitive, in my mind, means understanding what the globe looks like and knowing who the people are who reside across the globe.

You suggest teachers must be aware of their own cultural heritage and values. How can schools encourage prospective teachers in this regard?

Often times, when I do professional development, there’s a little activity I do from a book by Patrick Lencioni, which is called Five Dysfunctions of a Team. There are three questions that I often start a presentation with. The first question is, “Where were you born?” The second question is, “How many siblings do you have, and where were you in the birth order?” And the third question is, “What was the greatest question you faced growing up?” And I’ve done this with superintendents, principals, and teachers because it begins to tell a little bit about who you are and your perspective. Your [personal] geography can be helpful, as well.

But certainly, the third question about what challenges you faced growing up, is very, very revealing. It’s not a trick question. It just is what it is. I might ask a teacher, “Tell me a story about a challenge you overcame. Tell me a story about a circumstance where you came in contact with somebody who was outside of your comfort zone.”

The answer reveals a lot about how people think and how people see the world. At least at the beginning stages, I think you want to have them see that they’re a part of a world community with differences and similarities.

They’re certainly going to know what their stretches are and what their strengths are, and that will help them as they begin to interact and engage with kids who may not look like them. You’ve got to understand yourself before you start to lay the gospel on someone else.

What initial assumptions do teachers sometimes make about students of color? How do those assumptions shade the way they teach students of color?

When you don’t know anybody, when you don’t know their story or background, you might fall prey to focus on stereotypes and limitations. You might get caught up in the fact that a student comes from a place of poverty and presume that he or she doesn’t come from a culture where education is valued. And you might assume that because a kid who talks with Ebonics doesn’t understand how to use the King’s English. You might assume that since poverty is an issue, maybe this student doesn’t have a lot of books and maybe doesn’t read.

I think you have to look at Square A and say, “OK, what do I not know about this group of students that I should know in order to frame, form, and develop a curriculum and my teaching strategies?” You’ve got to read the data, and data being not only the numbers, but all around. You’ve got to listen. You’ve got to be willing to listen to these kids, in a way that maybe they haven’t been listened to before.

If a school is slow to adapt to some of the changes you recommend, what can individual teachers do to better facilitate learning for all of their students?

Someone once said, “You’ve got the choice between being exemplary and being cautious, but you can’t do both.” I do understand the pressure on individual teachers, particularly if they’re new. But I’ve hired new teachers that were courageous, that were willing to take a risk. So ultimately, the decision is left with the teacher. And the question the teacher has to ask is, “What do I want to contribute? If I believe this is my calling, what do I want to do to make a difference in the lives of kids?”

If I asked every teacher to start with “Why are you here?,” some teachers will tell me what they want to get [out of the experience]. Other teachers will tell me how they want to get it. But then you’ll have some teachers that will tell you, very clearly, “I am here because I want to be a difference maker. That’s why I’m here.” When it comes down to it, at the end of the day, when the shades go down, that’s the decision that each teacher has to make for him or herself: Why am I here? And if they answer, “I want to be a decision-maker,” then I think you’ve got something. That’s what school leaders and schools need. In the end, if the school doesn’t adopt these ideas, and groups of teachers don’t adopt these ideas, but you’ve got that one teacher in the corner who says, “I’m going for it,” which happens in some cases, I believe that the individual can make a difference in spite of the system.

One thing in closing: I do believe that the educator, the teacher, after the parent, is the second most important person in a young person’s life. I think teaching is critically undervalued for all that it does to shape, mold, and nurture. I give that first place to the parent, and then teacher is right there.

—Bryan Toporek


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