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‘Warm Demanders’

By Jacqueline Jordan Irvine — May 13, 1998 8 min read
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“That’s enough of your nonsense, Darius. Your story does not make sense. I told you time and time again that you must stick to the theme I gave you. Now sit down.” Darius, a 1st grader trying desperately to tell his story, proceeds slowly to his seat with his head hung low. The other children snicker as he looks embarrassed and hurt. What kind of teacher could say such words to a child? Most of us would agree that this teacher would not meet any local or national performance standards and certainly would not pass the rigorous screening to receive certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Ironically, Irene Washington, an African-American teacher with 23 years of experience, is a recognized model teacher in her predominantly African-American school and community. Like thousands of African-American educators across the country, Irene Washington teaches her African-American students with a sense of passion and mission based in the African-American cultural traditions and history she shares with her students. James Vasquez calls these African-American and other teachers of color “warm demanders” who provide a tough-minded, no-nonsense, structured, and disciplined classroom environment for kids whom society has psychologically and physically abandoned. Strongly identifying with their students and determined to give them a future, these teachers believe that culturally diverse children not only can learn but must learn. Descriptions of their work, such as the scene above, are reminiscent of the much-acclaimed teaching style of Marva Collins, the African-American teacher who started her own school in Chicago, and Jaime Escalante, the Hispanic teacher in Los Angeles who produced amazing results with his high school math students.

When asked about the teaching episode with Darius, Irene Washington provides insight into the culturally responsive style she uses: “Oh that little Darius is something else. Now he knows that there are times I will allow them to shoot from the hip. But he knows that this time we’re working on themes. You see, you’ve got to know these students and where they’re coming from--you know, ‘talk the talk.’ He knows what’s expected during these activities, but he’s trying to play the comedian. I know he knows how to develop a theme, and I won’t let him get away with ignoring my instructions.”

She explains that her comments to Darius were motivated out of a peculiar set of negative environmental circumstances and a sense of urgency not only to teach her children well but to save and protect them from the perils of urban street life. “Darius is street-smart, streetwise. You see, he has older brothers who are out there on the streets, selling and using. I know if I don’t reach him, or if I retain him, I may lose him to the streets this early. That’s what I’m here for, to give them opportunities--to get an education and the confidence. I certainly don’t want them to meet closed doors.” She ends in a pensive and reflective mood. “When I look at these children, I see myself. I know what it is to grow up black.”

There is growing research evidence that teachers like Irene Washington use a culturally specific pedagogical style that is substantively different from the pedagogical approaches described and prescribed in the effective-teaching research. This emerging research literature also reveals that African-American teachers’ unique style is correlated with achievement gains by black students. Researchers like Gloria Ladson-Billings, Asa Hilliard, Michele Foster, Lisa Delpit, Etta Hollins, Joyce King, and others have described the characteristics and teaching behaviors of effective African-American teachers who used this pedagogy.

Culturally responsive African-American teachers do the following, for example:

  • They perceive themselves as parental surrogates and advocates for their African-American students.
  • They employ a teaching style filled with rhythmic language and rapid intonation with many instances of repetition, call and response, high emotional involvement, creative analogies, figurative language, gestures and body movements, symbolism, aphorisms, and lively and often spontaneous discussions.
  • They use students’ everyday cultural and historical experiences in an effort to link new concepts to prior knowledge.
  • They spend classroom and nonclassroom time developing a personal relationship with their children, and often tease and joke with their students using dialect or slang to establish this personal relationship.
  • They teach with authority. As Michele Foster discovered, for example, students in her study were “proud of their teacher’s meanness” and thought that the teacher pushed them to achieve, limited the amount of disruptions, and ran the class in ways that contributed to students’ achievement.

In spite of the research evidence that supports these findings and the acknowledged principle that good teaching is related to context--teachers’ and students’ ethnic and cultural experiences, as well as their needs and motivation--newly implemented standards aimed at increasing teacher quality and accountability have ignored the cultural pedagogical style and beliefs that African-American teachers bring to their classrooms.

Nowhere is this situation more problematic than in the work of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. According to the most recent data available to these authors, the pass rate for all applicants is 40 percent. Although the pass rate for African-American teachers was 20 percent during the 1996-97 testing period, the overall pass rate for African-American candidates to date is 11 percent.

If the national board becomes the arbiter of the definition of good teaching, as seems more and more likely given the range of governmental and foundation support that private body is receiving, and if its dismal failure to certify African-American teachers continues, then the current crisis-level shortage of African-American teachers is sure to continue and get worse.

Of course, there could be multiple explanations for the 11 percent certification rate for African-American applicants--racism that continues to assure limits on the preparation of people of color at every stage of their schooling; lack of mentoring and adequate professional development; culturally specific styles of writing and reflection; and racial interactions between assessor and candidate. But there are probably more complex explanations than these. School systems are not putting forward the average teacher of any racial group for national board review. And if the very best of African-American teachers, as identified by school districts willing to pay the considerable costs of national board review, are still failing at an 89 percent rate, then there is more to be considered here. We believe that there is a very strong possibility that the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards’ review process, in spite of its many technical psychometric reports that declare adverse impact but no bias, contains a deeply flawed cultural bias in favor of white, middle-class teacher norms--and against the norms which are seen by many African-American educators as most effective.

As the national board continues its work, we urge more attention to the “adverse impact” issue and more open discussions on how the problem might be solved. A competent, culturally diverse teaching force is imperative, and good teachers should be rewarded and acknowledged for their hard work and their success with their students, not excluded because of a culturally insensitive assessment process which biases the definition of good teaching in a way that privileges white, middle-class, and suburban teachers and penalizes teachers like Irene Washington.

Although the national board is attempting to address these issues, more attention and resources must be directed to addressing some basic questions before additional teachers are recruited for assessment. These questions include: Who is setting and defining the standards? Is the implementation process, and not the standards, the reason that African-American teachers fare so poorly? Do teachers who work with privileged students have an advantage over teachers who work with poor students? Does the process disadvantage teachers from districts with limited resources? Do the standards favor teachers who use a constructivist teaching style and penalize teachers, like some African-American teachers, who employ more-didactic strategies? Since board-certified teachers serve as assessors of applicants, will the cultural bias in the current standards become a self-perpetuating cycle? Will assessors be trained to recognize and appreciate the culturally relevant styles of African-American teachers? Will the low pass rate of African-American teachers contribute to the declining numbers of persons of color who enter teacher education programs?

These questions do not imply that the national board standards specifically, or the standards movement generally, should be eliminated. We want high standards for all teachers as much as anyone. Nor do we imply that African-American teachers be held accountable to a different or less stringent set of standards. The question is whose standards and which children do the standards serve?

These issues are presented for two important reasons. First, we raise the questions to ensure that excellent African-American teachers claim their deserved place among America’s most accomplished teachers. We find it untenable that 89 percent of the African-American teachers who undergo review by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards fail in the profession where African-Americans have historically excelled. Second, we believe that standards that define excellence in teaching must be made sensitive to and inclusive of culturally responsive pedagogy which has reversed the cycle of school failure for the growing number of diverse children, like Darius, whose futures depend on an Irene Washington’s firm yet loving guidance. Unless this is done, one of our generation’s most significant reforms is going to make the educational future for students like Darius even more bleak. We cannot allow an effort aimed at improving every child’s education to result in such an ironic and tragic outcome.

Jacqueline Jordan Irvine is the Candler professor of urban education and the director of cultures at Emory University in Atlanta. James W. Fraser is a professor of history and education and the director for innovation in urban education at Northeastern University in Boston.

A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 1998 edition of Education Week as ‘Warm Demanders’


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