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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Curriculum Opinion

‘Critical Questions for Inspiring Classroom Excellence': an Interview With Baruti K. Kafele

By Larry Ferlazzo — August 15, 2016 10 min read
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Baruti K. Kafele agreed to answer a few questions about his new book, The Teacher 50: Critical Questions For Inspiring Classroom Excellence.

A public school educator in New Jersey for nearly 30 years, Baruti K. Kafele has distinguished himself as a classroom teacher, a school principal, and now as a sought-after speaker on education. His best-selling books include Closing the Attitude Gap: How to Fire Up Your Students to Strive for Success, The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, and his latest, The Teacher 50: Critical Questions for Inspiring Classroom Excellence, all available from ASCD.

LF: In the book, you list fifty questions that teachers should be asking themselves, along with commentary on each. They’re divided into ten categories, including parent engagement, classroom climate and culture, and classroom instruction.

What moved you to write a book emphasizing questions, as opposed to a list of answers? And what, if anything, might your answer say about the kind of mindset you think teachers should have in the classroom?

Baruti K. Kafele:

Since my first day as a teacher in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, NY, I have been a reflective practitioner. Of course, in those early days of my “mission,” I did not fully understand the significance nor the power in the reflective aspect of my work. I just did it. As time went on, I came to the realization that my successes as a teacher and subsequently as a principal were rooted in my being reflective in everything I did, which included being reflecting on my own thinking. Being reflective essentially put a mirror in my face. It forced me to look not only outside for answers but, more importantly, it forced me to dare to look within.

When I became a national consultant twelve years ago, every workshop and program I developed was built around reflective questions. In other words, my personal growth and success as a consultant wasn’t as much in the answers I provided, but more so in the reflective questions that I raised. I wanted to put a mirror in front of the teachers. I wanted teachers to “dig deep” into who they were and why they were practitioners. To this day, I can spend four to six hours with a room full of educators on up to ten reflective questions, and participants telling me at the end of the day that they are “fired up” and ready to get back into their classrooms and schools and taking their practice to another level. Essentially, what occurred is that the participants spent the day with me studying their “game film.” Just as the athletic team spends hours studying film, the reflective questions are essentially “film”. They comprise the self-reflection, self-assessment and ultimate self-adjustment that are so essential for the teacher having the ability to perform consistently at the highest possible level.

I am therefore saying that teachers must always have a reflective mindset related to their teaching practice. Never should they string the days together without an earnest reflection and assessment of each. Instead, they should hit the pause button of their practice daily and engage in an intense self-reflection, self-assessment, and ultimate self-adjustment. They should look in that mirror every day, study their game film and come out that much more prepared and stronger with each successive day.

LF: In your category called “Teacher Attitude,” you include the question, “Why Do I Teach, Anyway?” It’s reflective of other ones in the book -- simple, basic, and important. However, I suspect many of us teachers don’t take the time to consider them. What do you think schools can do to encourage teachers to take the time to consider these sorts of questions, and what are your suggestions of what teachers can do to develop the discipline to reflect on them - with or without school support to do so?

Baruti K. Kafele:

I wrote my first real self-reflective book in 2013, Closing the Attitude Gap. I knew that I was taking a chance on a book filled with fifty self-reflective questions but, to my surprise, administrators at the district and school levels caught onto it and engaged teachers in book studies on the questions. The power of self-reflection became evident and readers found a lot of value in the process, so I used the same premise for my next book, The Principal 50, and now for The Teacher 50. With The Principal 50, many leaders told me that the questions challenged the very foundation upon which their leadership stood. With The Teacher 50, and especially with the question, “Why do I teach, anyway?” as you’ve pointed out here, I think the opportunity is there―and the time is right―to challenge teachers in the same way.

Every school can encourage teachers to consider these self-reflective questions by devoting a portion of staff meeting time, grade level and department meetings, and PLC meetings to engaging in self-reflective practice and looking within themselves as practitioners. What’s key to its success is the school leadership seeing the value of this practice. I have observed ever so frequently that the answers and solutions that so many teachers are searching for are actually lying within, but the school lacks a mechanism to bring them out. The reflective process at the building level is that mechanism.

Beyond the encouragement that comes from the schools, teachers will need to develop their own self-motivation and discipline, as well. One way that teachers can do this is via a practice that I introduced to one of my staffs several years ago: I strongly recommend that teachers hang a small mirror in their classrooms for themselves. Beneath the mirror would be a sign with the following language: As it relates to the academic performance of my students and my overall practice as a teacher, 1. Who are you? (a question of teacher identity), 2. What are you about? (a question of teacher purpose and mission), and 3. What is your most recent evidence? (a question of authenticity). I, along with many staff members, would ask “the person in our mirrors” those three questions to start our day, daily. It forced us to look within ourselves to ensure that we were mentally and emotionally prepared to be great every morning. Teachers eventually became self-motivated and disciplined to engage in this practice daily and on their own. What a strong practice this was (and still is in my role as speaker / consultant). Many teachers informed me that it was a difference-maker and to this day, many teachers across the U.S. post their mirrors and signs on social media for me to see.

LF: You have a chapter on Cultural Responsiveness. Most teachers in the United States, including me, are white, yet students of color make up the majority of a school’s population. Race is an “uncomfortable” topic for many to discuss and these might be the hardest ones for teachers to ask themselves. How can educators move past that discomfort to not only ask themselves these kinds of questions, but to also ask them of their colleagues?

Baruti K. Kafele:

Over the years, I have written eight education books and far more articles than I can count. Everything I have written addresses cultural responsiveness in some form because it is such an essential aspect of the learning process; particularly when we are talking about student populations comprised of children of color. It is absolutely unavoidable and indispensable because at the end of the day, the children have to be able to see themselves in the lessons they are learning and see the relevance of what they have learned after the dismissal bell rings at 3 o’clock.

In an ideal situation, a given school has a principal who understands the significance of conversations with staff that address race. These conversations are typically called “courageous conversations” because they require courage to engage in, but in this case they require courage from the principal to address the “elephant in the room.” As an urban middle and high school principal for fourteen years, I made a decision that I was not going to shy away from this conversation despite the fact that my four different staffs were always at least 50 percent white. I needed my staff to feel comfortable engaging in conversations about race in the workplace. Why? Because all of our data was rooted in race and to ignore race was to ignore the data.

Regardless of the race or ethnicity of staff and faculty members, they must develop a level of comfort with talking to one another about race. However, before they can do so, they must deal with their own biases, issues, and hangups about race. Coming out of my undergraduate studies, I had to deal with my own; particularly if I was going to one day become an effective school leader working with a diverse staff and student body. As I dealt with my own issues, I prepared myself for the school leadership that would become my reality eleven years later.

LF: If you had to choose three out of the fifty as the most important questions educators should ask, which would they be and why?

Baruti K. Kafele:

By far, my favorite three questions are the following and in this order:

1. Are my students at an advantage because I am their teacher?

Why? It is my strong contention that anyone who sets foot in a classroom to teach students must be of the mindset that, “I am the number one determinant of the success or failure of my students.” I compare this to the sports team that prepares for their next game. As they prepare and subsequently walk out onto the field or court, their mindset must be that we are here to win and we will win. Anything less will probably result in a loss. The underdog team that heads onto the field with the mindset that “we can’t win” has very little chance with that kind of losing attitude. Attitude matters. Attitude wins games. It works the same way in the classroom. When that teacher can walk into the classroom with the mindset that, “My students are at an advantage because I am their teacher,” the probability for student success elevates exponentially because the teacher is bringing the requisite confidence into the classroom.

2. Why do I teach, anyway?

Why? This question speaks to the teacher’s purpose for teaching....his or her definition. Just as every word in the dictionary has a definition, the teacher’s practice must have a personal definition that gives the teacher’s practice meaning. The teacher with no definition has no purpose for being in the classroom. They are just there. They’re probably working very hard but what is driving it. Teaching is the “what?” The “what” isn’t good enough. Purpose is the “why.” The “why” drives it all. I appreciate fully the teacher that is walking in his or her “why” in that classroom everyday with the why driving everything he or she says and does daily.

3. What is my classroom signature move?

Typically, when we think of the word “signature,” we think of our endorsement, but it is the other definition of “signature” that I think about regarding our practices as educators. Think of that restaurant with the signature recipe or signature entrée, or the singer with the signature song, the poet with the signature poem, or the basketball player with the signature move on the court. I am a strong proponent of educators having signatures, too. The aforementioned entities’ signatures are what distinguish them; what make them stand out; what separate them from the pack. The teacher signature works the same way. I ask teachers daily, “What’s that thing you say, that thing you do, that program, activity, word, phrase, sentence; whatever it is, when you say, do, or implement it, things find a way of falling intp place?” I call that the teacher’s signature move in the classroom.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to share?

Baruti K. Kafele:

There’s a “signature” word that I have come to be known for via keynotes, workshops and videos. The word is “Bam.” One of The Teacher 50 questions is, “Is my classroom a BAM Classroom?” A derivative of this question is, “Are you a BAM teacher?” I say that the absolute best classroom is a BAM classroom and the absolute best teacher is a BAM teacher. What is a BAM classroom? What is a BAM teacher? I will leave that as a tease and encourage the readers to obtain a copy of The Teacher 50, which I am confident will be prove to be an essential part of their classroom practice.

LF: Thanks, Baruti!

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