"i believe that the most important factor impacting the academic achievement of african american children is not the race or gender of the teacher but the teacher's expectations." —jawanza kunjufu
In Black Students—Middle Class Teachers (2002) Kunjufu states that teacher expectations are the most important determinant impacting academic achievement for Black children. This is a sexy quote for someone like me, who might think increasing expectations and developing more compelling and challenging lessons might be simpler ways to make meaningful contributions to a classroom than changing a lifestyle or excavating decades of racial complacency. And yet, it isn't that simple. Kunjufu expands: "How could a teacher who grew up in a White rural community and was educated in a White environment be effective in the inner cities of America?"
How, indeed? Taking my own, perhaps not-quite-analagous professional experience as an example: I would not, after decades of work in Boston College, presume to go to Harvard or MIT and think that all the work processes, group dynamics, social customs, and accepted behaviors I'm familiar and/or comfortable with at BC would simply replace whatever systems were established at another school (however convenient that might be for me, it would not likely go over well!). If I'm smart, I go there to observe and try to learn what methods work best, what standard and successful practices exist there, so that I might adapt my own behavior, ditch false assumptions, and adjust my own habits.
Kunjufu emphasizes this point as it applies to multicultural teaching, which "requires applying your understanding of another culture to your curriculum and pedagogy. It necessitates respect, tolerance, and a willingness to learn from your students."
In my peripatetic childhood I had to continually learn to code-switch in new environments, though not in the same way as I will need to in going from middle-class Whiteness to an urban school. So I still have a great deal to learn and absorb. What seems clear, however, is that for White teachers to assume their schooling touchstones and long-held references and practices belong in schools in which they have no experience or background in themselves, is a form of schooling colonialism and does not bode well for a successful or meaningful experience for the students or the teacher.
The idea that because urban schools are failing in some (or many) ways means that they need to replicate suburban schools or even worse, prisons, ignores the many stories of success, kinship, and hope that are likely going on in these schools yet no one on the outside pays attention to or has the social capital to widely share.
"the effectiveness of the teacher can be traced directly back to what that teacher thinks of the student. if the teacher does not value the student, there is no motivation to take risks to engage with the student." —Christopher emdin
In For White Folks who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education (2016), Christopher Emdin introduces his concept of reality pedagogy to White folks (and teachers of color who might subscribe to standards and structures of Whiteness in schools) as "an approach to teaching and learning that has a primary goal of meeting each student on his or her own cultural and emotional turf" and that "positions the student as the expert in his or her own teaching and learning" (2016).
Given my inexperience in the classroom, I don't pretend to understand all the ways that strategy can manifest in the classroom. Emdin's book offers themed chapters that present various ways of accomplishing what seems to be respectful teaching that honors students' lived experiences and engages students with relevant curricula and methods (such as cyphers and hiphop) attuned to their interests.
Another theme that this book keys in on is how a teacher's presence (or lack therof) in a community during non-school hours is a clear manifestation of the teacher's interest (or lack thereof) in his/her students. As someone with a husband and two young children, I wonder about my ability to be in multiple communities at once, but Emdin points out that many teachers spend time creating lesson plans that don't function well in class; would not that time be better spent out in the community learning about the students you're composing lesson plans for? (2016).
He does have a point. And while some of his language is mysterious to me and the classroom techniques he espouses sound tough to achieve for a newbie, the quote at the top of this section, reminding teachers that valuing students goes hand-in-hand with being willing to take risks in order to help them achieve, strikes me as a key ingredient in culturally responsive teaching.
If the teacher is not willing to take risks in the classroom, then why should the students? If the teacher does not believe in or truly value and respect the students, then why should s/he expect engagement and respect in return?