I have been fortunate to have taught in some extraordinary and revolutionary schools across the country and to have learned from some exceptional and dedicated professionals. The best thing about these combined experiences is that I get to use what I see works and reflect and grow from those things that have not been successful. If I was given the opportunity to help design and sustain a school, these are factors that I would urgently make sure are in place.
- Appreciation of family
All of the families that I have served want their children to succeed. They often say that they want their children to be better than they are. I remember my father often motivating my brothers and me with similar words. Teachers must value a family’s resiliency, grit, and cultural and linguistic contributions. I have seen teachers form strong, lasting relationships with families over the summer. This was apparent during the first social event of our school year where over 100 adults came to celebrate a new beginning. If families are not attending events or meetings, teachers must ask themselves why. Why are families not attending these important meetings? What needs to be set in place so that we can reach the goal?
- Respect for students’ experiences
It is too often that people focus on the deficits of communities instead of valuing and building on their gifts and potential. Sometimes people teach as if the child is coming with zero. This child speaks zero English. This child can’t read. It is up to us to learn about our students’ experiences and use them to scaffold their learning. Culturally-responsive teaching is a way to engage students, helping them uncover their cultural selves, and help them discover their places as lifelong learners.
- High expectations and support
Students often come to us with gaps in their education. Even so, it is urgent that we maintain high expectations for all students. At my current school, we carve out times in the day where students are working in small groups. We use computer programs to differentiate the learning for students so that our struggling students and our more proficient students can all access the material at their level and push themselves forward. These systems of learning build independence and make each student a master of his or her learning.
- Importance of character education
Character strengths such as grit, creativity, social intelligence, and optimism are used by students both inside and outside of my Washington Heights school. Students use them to hold each other accountable and to call each other out. They are given the vocabulary to recognize positive choices from their classmates, teammates, and the adults in the school. We make it a point to make sure that our students are strong academically and are also nice.
Teaching is hard work. Students in low-income communities need teachers that are committed to push themselves and their students to be able to compete beyond their classrooms.
Silvestre Arcos is the founding 5th grade math teacher at KIPP: Washington Heights Middle School in New York City.
The opinions expressed in Teaching Ahead: A Roundtable are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.