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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview With Rich Milner: “Reimagining ‘Classroom Management’ for Equity”

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 13, 2019 10 min read
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Rich Milner agreed to answer a few questions about his recent book, “These Kids Are Out Of Control” Why We Must Reimagine “Classroom Management” For Equity (co-authored with Heather B. Cunningham, Lori Delale-O’Connor, and Erika Gold Kestenberg).

H. Richard Milner IV is a Cornelius Vanderbilt Endowed Chair of Education and Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt University. As editor-in-chief of the journal Urban Education and co-editor of the Handbook of Urban Education, his research, teaching, and policy interests concern urban teacher education and the social context of education. He can be reached at rich.milner@vanderbilt.edu.

LF: In the book, you point out that discipline is important, but that teachers also need to be focused on “restorative discipline,” as well as recognizing when their own actions contribute to student misbehavior. It reminds me of a teacher who once told me that he “never lets a student get the last word"—as if we teachers can ever “win” a power struggle with a student! In the midst of teaching every day, how can teachers be encouraged to practice the “critical self-reflection” that you recommend as necessary to implement these kinds of classroom practices?

Rich Milner:

Teachers sometimes forget that they too are human beings and that they may get it wrong in their work with students. All teachers—those newer to the profession as well as those more experienced—need to ask themselves what roles they played as educators in classroom-management dilemmas in a classroom. Engaging in such reflective practices allows teachers to see themselves as active participants in restoration practices that shepherd all into spaces that heal rather than tear down. In short, restoration should be a discipline-centered practice for all—students and educators alike. It takes discipline for educators to consistently engage in deep levels of introspection to recognize when they need to change. When healing, restoration, and human worth are seen as pillars and anchors to a school community, learning and development tend to be enhanced.

LF: The book highlights the importance of teacher/student relationships. Most of us teachers at least give lip service to it, and many emphasize it in our practice. What does research say about its impact, and what types of actions do you recommend teachers take in the classroom to develop them?

Rich Milner:

I cannot stress enough the importance of relationship cultivation in teaching and learning. Research shows that the “relationship factor” can be the difference maker in all types of classroom spaces. But a precursor to building and sustaining relationships is for educators to actually care about—see the humanity in—and recognize the many strengths and assets of the students they work with. This means that they break down and come to terms with implicit biases they may have about their students’ capacity. Research also shows that it is essential for educators to demonstrate their own humanity with their students. This means that teachers, for instance, share some of the struggles, challenges, and lived experiences with students. Students, particularly younger ones, may believe their teachers are flawless or at best “unrelatable.” When teachers share aspects of their own lives with students, students see them as real people, and school-related needs become seamless.

For instance, a middle school science teacher I studied and showcased in my book, Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms (Harvard Education Press, 2010), who worked in an urban, high-poverty environment improved his practices over time and became an exceptional teacher in his school because he realized the role and salience of relationship building and cultivation with his students. Although he began his teaching career focused on wanting his students to simply “fall in love with science,” he was open and astute enough to realize that he could not teach science until he deeply understood to whom he was teaching science. The students made it clear to him that he had to get to know them before he could be successful. Other teachers, indeed, understand the importance of building relationships with their students. But for many of them, they believe they can engage in some superficial relationship exercises with their students at the beginning of the academic year and then “get on” with the business of teaching and learning. Effective teachers realize that the relationship factor involves engagement and fostering every single day in our classrooms.

While through my research I have observed some powerful instructional practices that were anchored and nurtured through the relationship factor, I have also observed and interacted with educators who (1) rarely recognize the assets of their students, (2) place the onus of academic and social challenges on students and their families, and (3) ultimately do not realize and acknowledge the role of relationships in their practices. My colleagues Heather Cunningham, Lori Delale-O’Connor, and Erika Gold Kestenberg and I have heard these teachers describe their students as “out of control” (see, These Kids are Out of Control: Why We Must Reimagine Classroom Management for Equity, Corwin, 2018). But the kinds of teachers we need in our schools recognize that other bodies are not to be “controlled.” What we stress in These Kids Are Out of Control is that teachers should not try to control the minds, hearts, and movements of their students. When strong and powerful relationships are in place, teachers tend to move away from control to care and empathy.

Of course, educators can cultivate relationships with their students by (1) talking to and with students - not necessarily about them -to others; (2) co-developing assignments and learning opportunities that capture insights about their students’ identities, interests, experiences, challenges, triumphs, hopes, and dreams (these same assignments can be used by educators to reflect on their own lives); (3) co-developing a classroom ethos where dialogue and discussion are common; and (4) attending extracurricular activities inside and outside of school featuring and showcasing students. It is also essential to remember that relationship building is essential not only for students and teachers, but educators should work to connect with the broader community at well by (5) visiting sites in students’ community; and (6) participating in some of the activities and events in students and the school’s communities such as community meetings, council meetings, and religious ceremonies; (7) attending community events to establish presence and commitment to students and their community and families.

LF: You write about the dangers of practicing “colorblind” teaching. Can you share more about it and what educators should do, instead?

Rich Milner:

When teachers practice “colorblind” ideologies in their work, they may not deeply understand important identity aspects of their students. Race—among other factors—is an essential feature of who students are and what they experience and practice. When teachers, for instance, do not recognize students’ racial identity, it makes it difficult or impossible to teach to and from those aspects of students. Moreover, when teachers do not recognize or centralize race, they may not be able to deeply understand their own racial biases, preferences, and worldviews. Especially because teachers are mostly white, rejecting the propensity to be colorblind is essential as demographic shifts point to increases in students of color across the United States of America. Thus, on a micro or classroom level, when teachers avoid race, they may not select and build on curriculum materials that relate to students’ racial experiences and practices. They may not develop instructional practices that align with students’ race and racialized practices. Or they may not construct and select assessment practices that connect to students’ racialized practices. Unfortunately, some of these racialized experiences are laced with racism. And teachers must be aware of these issues in their work.

On a more macro level, when teachers do not recognize and center race in their work, it can make it difficult if not impossible for them to recognize the under-representation of students of color (especially black and brown students) in gifted and talented programs and courses and the referral rates and patterns of students of color (especially black and brown students) sent to the office for misbehavior who are subsequently suspended and expelled.

LF: What would you describe as the key elements of the culturally responsive teaching you recommend in the book?

Rich Milner:

The key elements we believe are essential for culturally responsive teaching and reimagining classroom management are the following:

  • Understanding the Landscape of—that is, what research says about —Culturally Responsive Teaching and Classroom Management. In other words, we believe that educators, as professionals, should understand what we know and understand from good research about improving their practices.
  • Connecting Classroom Management and the Cradle-to-Prison Pipeline—We believe that when educators deeply understand how their practices may be actually contributing to the perpetuation and maintenance of the prison pipeline that they will reconsider their punitive practices that exclude students rather than help them develop.
  • Focus on and Center Effective Teaching—We have learned that good teaching is essential to addressing classroom-management challenges. In fact, when students are actively engaged in learning because of good teaching, fewer classroom-management challenges will emerge.
  • Care and Empathy are Essential to Teaching and Learning—We believe that it is difficult for teachers to teach if they do not have a heart for students with whom they are working. This means that teachers and students co-construct an environment where students are allowed and encouraged to take risks and be intellectually curious and where the rigor of the classroom environment builds up rather than tears down students’ confidence and self-worth.
  • Restoration is Essential for All—We also stress that restorative discipline is about working toward justice—what is right and deservingly appropriate in situations where challenges exist. Restoration is essential for healing students, families, and educators alike.

LF: How can teachers best deal with administrators who might not support their implementing some of your recommendations at their schools?

Rich Milner:

I believe when teachers demonstrate and especially document their growth and success with their students, school administrators will support their efforts to move beyond business-as-usual approaches that do not work.

LF: You’re editing the Race and Education series for Harvard Education Press. Can you share details about what you’re doing there?

Rich Milner:

Just for clarification, These Kids are Out of Control was published by Corwin Press. But my other books, Rac(e)ing to Class (Harvard Education Press, 2015) and Start Where You Are But Don’t Stay There (Harvard Education Press, 2010), were published by Harvard Education Press. The Race and Education series “addresses urgent, contemporary issues at the intersection of race, society, and education. The books strive to advance a critical, forward-thinking body of research on race that contributes to policy, theory, practice, and action. The series aims to highlight effective practices designed to help solve intractable problems of race in education.”

We have already published some really insightful books that I believe will advance the field—especially for real educators in schools and institutions. The published books include the following, with an extremely impressive lineup of books forthcoming:

Dilworth, M. E. (2018). Millennial Teachers of Color

Hodges, C. R., Welch, O. M. (2018). Truth Without Tears: African American Women Deans Share Lessons in Leadership.

Muhammad, K. (2018). Culturally Responsive School Leadership

Warren, C. (2017). Urban Preparation: Young Black Men Moving From Chicago’s South Side to Success in Higher Education

Winn, M. (2018). Justice on Both Sides: Transforming Education Through Restorative Justice

In short, I wanted to launch a series that showcased the very best of what we know about race and education, one where people grounded their analyses and recommendations in sound scholarship with explicit implications for practice. In other words, the series is designed to help educators get better across the grade span, including higher education, and also outside of school.

LF: Is there anything you’d like to share that I didn’t ask you about here?

Rich Milner:

The only point I would add is that my colleagues and I wrote the book we wished we had access to when we were early-career teachers when we wrote These Kids are Out of Control: Why We Must Reimagine “Classroom Management” for Equity.

LF: Thanks, Rich!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.