“One of the most powerful dynamics of human interaction is when people feel as though they have been heard. Really heard. Hearing someone does not mean we necessarily have to agree with what is being said. Rather, it is working to understand where people are coming from and then going to a new place together. Dr. Joyce Brothers has commented that listening, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery.”- James Hunter
Most of my reflection pieces have focused on self-evaluation and on understanding our students or improving instruction. This week, I want to focus on colleague relationships. Relationships among teachers and other staff are, I believe, important to the overall climate and success of the school. Teachers that respect each other work better together, and teachers that work better together help students more. This process is the same for administration. Collaboration breeds creativity and innovation. To do this successfully, however, there has to be a team mindset and a desire/willingness to listen and understand our colleagues better. Do you focus on how well your particular students perform, or are you concerned about your grade level, subject, or school as a whole? If we all view achievement of all students as our responsibility collectively, instead of just individual teachers, I think we are more likely to have success. Sometimes we are reluctant to work with others because they frustrate us or we don’t agree with their approach or their views or their personality. Is there another staff member that comes to mind when you read that? Will you intentionally make an effort this week to really understand where they are coming from and figure out a way to better work together? Sometimes this requires putting aside pride. It’s a process I’m still learning myself, but it’s one we all need to practice and model for our students as well. As divisiveness continues to grow in many ways across our country, educators should be central in modeling how to listen, empathize, and work together despite differences.
“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”- Epictetus
Throughout this first semester, I have tried to post reflection pieces that encourage each of you to think about your teaching practice and how your own personal experiences and backgrounds shape how you view students and teaching. Many of these reflections are based on questions I have wrestled with and issues that I think about frequently. A first step in growing, of course, is recognizing our need for growth and our lack of understanding of certain issues. I am constantly reminded of this fact myself. As the quote above notes, there is a need to approach issues, even ones where we have extensive experience, with an attitude of humility and an open mind. I believe that most of us are already like this, and in that spirit I have included a list of six books that have made me think, have challenged me, have helped me understand my students better, and have offered perspectives and research that are not always obvious to me as a white male from a middle-class background.
I grew up surrounded by a good amount of diversity and was still partially blind to the experiences of those different than me. My hope is that these books will challenge you in ways that they did me. I do not mean to say that I agree with everything the authors say (that rarely happens with any author), but that they do say much that is valuable in helping me learn and grow. Some of the books may prick some of you a little bit, but I encourage you to keep reading. It should also be noted that these books are not just important for my fellow white educators—in fact, they can be beneficial for all. They are also all primarily education-focused. Many of my favorite books that have benefitted me the most are sociological, but those are not listed here.
For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Yall Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education Christopher Emdin
A relatively recent release that really is for all teachers, not just those that are white. The author is a Brooklyn native who also taught in Brooklyn before training teachers at Columbia University. He talks about what he learned as a teacher, provides a good theoretical foundation, and offers practical tips that he utilized in the classroom. Most of the information is not groundbreaking or completely new, but he does a good job of making it accessible and blending theory and practice.
Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom Lisa Delpit
Written in the 90s and considered a seminal work, this book is actually a collection of essays by the author. Her specialty is literacy, and she deals a lot with cultural differences and power imbalances in instruction. She also has a section on her teaching experiences with minority groups in other countries and shows their similarities to minority groups in America.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race
Beverly Daniel Tatum
This book takes a psychological approach to helping us understand how racial identity develops in people. The focus is not solely on black students—it also deals with the racial identity development of white students, biracial students, and students of other racial groups.
The Way Schools Work: A Sociological Analysis of Education Kathleen Bennett de Marrais and Margaret LeCompte
Exactly what the title says, this book looks at education and schools through a sociological lens. If you want a book that will look at the process of education in America as a whole and challenge you to think about it critically, this is it. Even if you don’t share the author’s perspective, it’s worth a read to understand different views.
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character Paul Tough
A good introduction to the importance of social-emotional/character development in students. The author is a journalist, not an educator, and the book is very engaging. He makes the case that social-emotional development is actually more important in a student’s future success than the intense focus on academics that is common in most schools (of course, he is not saying that academics should be neglected).
Education and Racism: A Primer on Issues and Dilemmas Zeus Leonardo and W. Norton Grubb
The authors take a very complicated issue with loads of research and narrow it down to a rather small book. They discuss how race shapes different areas of education and impacts outcomes for students. Most of what is discussed is not recognized by many teachers. They give a quality overview.
“In all things that you do, consider the end.”- Solon
As we begin a new semester, I decided to keep my initial reflection brief and to the point. In addition to any personal resolutions you may have made for the new year, what goals are you setting for your classroom? I do not mean the SMART goals that you fill out for the division, but your personal work goals for the end of the semester. Maybe it’s not easily dissected as data or doesn’t align to a particular standard. Maybe it doesn’t relate to academics directly at all. Or maybe it does. All are okay. As I do for myself, I just challenge you to set some goals for this semester and track yourself to see how well you do in meeting those goals. If you want to make more positive phone calls home and do something nice for a coworker each week, that’s fine. Maybe you want to attend more after-school activities. I don’t know. Just consider how it will make a positive difference in your life and/or the lives of those around you. And when you get off track, as most resolutions do, remember that it is the process of growth that is important. Habits don’t become habits immediately. I hope you each have a great start to the year and we continue to learn together!
“I got students to engage with me and each other differently because I blurred the lines between the in-and out-of-school contexts…Teaching more effectively requires embedding oneself into the contexts where the students are from, and developing weak ties with the community that will organically impact the classroom…When students have developed a disdain for school because they feel that to be successful they must repress their authentic selves, making them see that the content being delivered respects and values their culture makes them feel like the classroom is not at all like the rest of the school. The classroom that respects their contexts becomes a way to reconcile the broken relationship the neoindigenous have to schools and schooling.”- Chris Emdin
By now, as a result of training or schooling or daily interactions, most of you are aware that culture matters when teaching. And culture is not merely a coded word for race, though racial differences can and do contribute to culture. It includes many overlapping parts of our identity, from race and religion to geographic location and age. What many of us do not recognize, however, is how schools reflect a certain culture. If you are generally part of that culture, like I am, then it is more difficult to see. In contrast, the disconnect between some students’ culture and school culture is obvious, even if they don’t know how to articulate it. And many students, when they don’t sense that their culture is valued or represented in school, become disengaged or disdainful, feeling that to take on the culture of the school is to not represent themselves authentically. This leads to a tension that other students never have to face.
Chris Emdin suggests that creating a bridge from students’ out-of-school contexts and in-school contexts is the path that leads to healing and engagement within school. This leaves three questions for us that I encourage each of you to think about this week:
(1) How do you recognize the culture of the school? With what groups or identities do you think this culture most closely relates?
(2) How do you learn the culture of your students, especially considering that they are often a different race, income, and generational group that many of us? And
(3) If school and mainstream society operate from a particular cultural viewpoint, how do we both value and include our students’ culture in the classroom while also teaching them the culture they will need to know to be successful in broader society?
In the weeks to come, my aim is to go deeper into each of these questions, as they are central to teaching diverse students in an urban school such as Dunbar. For now, I hope they are enough to get your brain turning. Happy Spirit Week Dunbar family!
“Recognizing the teaching Self is all about recognizing teacher identities, beliefs, and values. That is to say, a teacher’s personal disposition toward various aspects of their professional life is so vital that it determines their teaching behavior and hence shapes learning outcome.”---B. Kumaravadivelu
I consistently return to the theme of knowing ourselves, including how we are shaped by our personal experiences and the culture around us, because I believe that it so drastically influences teaching. It does so even when we don’t realize it. A reflective teacher is one that reflects on his or her practices in the classroom, while a reflexive teacher is one that consistently reflects on his or her own identity and how that shapes teaching.
The first question I mentioned last week asked you to consider how you recognize the culture of the school and what groups might identify most closely with it. Understanding the history of schooling in America and examining the taken-for-granted notions about how schools and classrooms should be run are important for improving outcomes for all students. Public schooling in America has traditionally been based on a factory model and was explicitly designed to sort students into groups. The structure of having summers off was put into place for students that needed to be home during the summer to work on farms. Other policies and practices closely reflect particular cultures. Some are widely known: the alignment of winter break and Christmas, as well as the alignment of Easter and spring break, reflect a historical association with Christian culture. The emphasis on individual achievement and competition reflects European culture, while Latino, Native American, and African cultures tend to be more communal. The hyper-emphasis on individualism is actually very American—research surveys have shown that America is the most individualistic country on Earth. Interactive, communicative, and linguistic styles in schools often reflect European traditions and norms. And curriculum has traditionally been Eurocentric in nature, leaving out significant contributions of other people groups and presenting a singular perspective.
There are other examples of daily interactions and values that are imparted to students by you as their teacher. These things are known in education lingo as the “hidden curriculum”—things that are taught implicitly rather than explicitly.
The questions I leave for you this week are: (1) What culture does your classroom privilege, if any? (This doesn’t mean intentionally—most of the time it’s not); (2) What cultures and experiences influence your teaching style? What core beliefs, values, and identities do you have? Knowing these things is important because they shape how we conduct our classroom and how we expect students to learn. After knowing these things, we can turn to knowing our students’ culture better and we can begin to see potential conflicts and challenges when the two come together. That is the topic we turn to next week.
“Impacted by profound social isolation, the children face the basic problem of alienation. Many students become smug in their lack of appreciation of what the business of the school is and how it is connected to the world outside…Education is thus undermined because the mission of the school cannot equal the mission of the kids.”—Anderson, 1999.
The last reflection I wrote focused on seeing and understanding the intrinsic culture of most schools and how our own culture influences the way we teach and structure education. Much of this is invisible to us because it is so normalized in our daily lives. This week, we turn to understanding the culture of our students. This is a large task (and one that I do not claim to accomplish in one reflection post) because culture is so ambiguous, debatable, and varied for many people. There are multiple overlapping factors that influence our students, and in diverse schools students cannot be easily lumped together. Nonetheless, I will focus on research-based cultural characteristics for many of our African-American students since they represent the largest group in Dunbar and the culture that is opposite most of the teachers.
The quote at the beginning of the reflection comes from a seminal work by Elijah Anderson entitled Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (highly recommended, by the way.) Anderson outlines how many inner-city kids are so isolated from mainstream society and successful adults in their neighborhoods that they do not see the relevance of school to their lives. Their culture includes a “code of the street” that develops and includes an intense focus on respect and retributive justice. This code is applicable across races and is mainly based on geographic location in high-poverty neighborhoods. You can likely think of students in our school, both black and otherwise, that act at least in part according to this code. In general, however, many black students have even broader cultural characteristics that are common even across socioeconomic status, gender, and religion. See the list below (from Boykin, 1986; as cited in Irvine, 1991).
Harmony with nature
Mastery over nature
Before I go any further, let me comment that I realize each of these characteristics is not easy to understand without further explanation (unfortunately, that is limited for length’s sake). I also understand that cultural characteristics are not set in stone for every individual. Each individual is still unique though influenced by culture. It is also important to note that our students are shaped by a generational culture that is different than ours, as well as experiences related to gender, geographic location, immigrant status, sexuality, religion, and a host of other things. Despite all this, consider the above cultural characteristics as a start to understanding many of our students. This week, consider the following questions: (1) What do you agree and disagree with from the chart above?; (2) How do you see these cultural differences playing out in your classroom and in your interactions?; (3) How can you address multiple cultures in the classroom with such distinct differences?; and (4) How can you understand the diversity of your students’ experiences and cultures better to help incorporate them into the classroom? Next reflection, we turn to the conflict that happens when cultures collide in the classroom and some practical strategies for addressing those issues.
“According to Greenfield et al. (1996), children come to school acting in accordance with the invisible cultures of their homes and communities, but conflict often arises when their behavior differs from the invisible culture of the school. Three things may occur: the school may devalue and even punish children for behavior their parents value, teachers may structure classroom interaction patterns that violate the invisible cultural norms of various minority groups, and such conflict may not be recognized as cultural because of their invisible nature.”—Bireda, 2010
The previous two reflections have dealt with the culture of schools/many teachers and the culture of many of our students, respectively. When looking back at those two reflections, it is hopefully easy to see how putting different cultures together in the same space could lead to conflicts, especially when one has power over another. This week, I offer some suggestions and thoughts on how to bridge that cultural divide in the classroom in order to help raise achievement for all students. Before doing so, I think it is important to point out a few things: (1) There are both positive and harmful aspects of every culture (we are just not conditioned to see it easily when it’s our own). Helping diverse students achieve in school does not mean that they should be “cleansed” of their culture—their culture has many positive attributes; (2) Helping bridge the cultural divide in classrooms does not mean that teachers go from teaching in one way that appeals primarily to one culture to teaching in another way that appeals primarily to other cultures. Diverse classrooms provide a mixture and a balance; and (3) Learning different cultures of students requires intentional and consistent effort to engage with students and their worlds—preferably going into their social contexts to better understand their lives.
The suggestions I offer below are brief and not intended to be all encompassing. For further information, please come talk to me or refer to Cultures in Conflict: Eliminating Racial Profiling (Bireda), For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too (Emdin), and Black Students and School Failure (Irvine), among others.
One of the easiest and most effective ways to make classrooms more multicultural is to structure your lessons in such a way that students are encouraged to share their own perspectives on many issues. They also need to feel safe to do so. Create guiding questions, set boundaries, open the floor up, and listen.
Use Local Examples
Many teachers try to incorporate hip-hop and various forms of entertainment culture with which youth identify into the classroom, and this is good. Try, however, to go beyond this and learn family norms and traditions, or local landmarks and events, and bring them into your lesson. Work backwards—figure out what is important to them and then figure out how to structure it into your lesson.
Become Familiar with Code Switching
This one will likely take more training, but diverse students can benefit when educators talk to them about how to code-switch—adjusting their language and interactions based on setting. It is helpful to learn that Standard English and certain interactions are needed for certain settings and that other vernaculars and ways of interacting are fine for other settings. Students should not have their language and interaction styles demeaned, however. This leads to alienation and further disconnection from school, or it leads to internalized shame.
Use Physical Movement
For many students, physical movement is important to their culture and to their engagement in learning. Though it may make you feel uncomfortable, try incorporating some physical movement into your lessons.
Use More Oral Responses
Call and response techniques, or other oral strategies, can be helpful in increasing engagement and retention.
Encourage Student Reflection
Just as I encourage each of you to reflect constantly, encourage your students to reflect on how they are represented in curriculum, the school, classroom practices, and broader society. Create a space where they feel comfortable expressing dissent and offering feedback for you to improve how you teach them.
I leave you with one question for the week: How will you try to learn more and use these strategies (or others) to bridge the cultural divide in your classroom?
“Teachers like students who like them. Those students who let teachers know that they are liked, valued, needed, and appreciated engender the affections of the teachers, who subsequently spend more instructional time with them.” – Jacqueline Irvine
I came across the above quote in one of my books when I was searching for something else and I decided to use it for this week’s Pen because it made me reflect on the complex social processes and student-teacher relationships that affect classroom dynamics and learning. The truth is, it’s natural for all of us to like others who clearly display their fondness for us. We often don’t even recognize when we do it. This has clear implications for teaching, however. Many students don’t treat us as we would wish. Many don’t really know how to express their affection, or they are cautious in their interactions with adults in authority. Others’ personalities or cultures clash with ours. The result of these interactions, or lack thereof, is that we often give more positive attention and the benefit of the doubt to some students over others—and we may not even realize it. This scenario also works in reverse, making the entire process cyclical. As we express more positive attention to students, they are often more likely to reciprocate.
For this week, think about how these social interactions possibly play out in your classroom. Which students might you favor because of how they treat you? Which students need more help and intentional focus but you might fail to give it to them on a subconscious level (or purposefully) because of how your interactions with each other occur? What factors (external, internal, or school-related) might be causing some students to not appreciate you, or express their appreciation, like others do? What factors might cause you to not appreciate some students like you do others? Do you think these things impact your teaching?
I was recently thinking about the labels we assign to others in society and how those labels impact our relationships and our teaching. Truthfully, I think about labels a lot. It is pretty much a universal experience. Our society is constantly dividing people and things into binary categories and establishing us versus them mentalities. In fact, we evaluate and start making judgments about other people within a few seconds of seeing them or meeting them. It’s a natural part of how human brains function—categorizing everything into groups—but it can be extremely harmful to both our working relationships and our teaching of students when not recognized. And once we assign a label to somebody, mostly subconsciously, we are more likely to remember or notice things that serve to reinforce that label instead of contradict it. We label people in terms of in-groups and out-groups, and the labels then become self-reinforcing in our minds and often in reality. Research also shows that when we assign labels to students, they are often aware of those labels and it affects their educational outcomes. Many students often become what adults or society has labeled them, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes labels that educators assign students subconsciously affect expectations, the help students receive, discipline that is handed out, and resources or opportunities that are given.
One of my professors told me once that all stereotypes are false. Every single one of them. A common saying is that stereotypes exist because they have some basis in reality, but the simple fact is they distort the uniqueness of each individual and are often used as a basis for judgements without taking the time to get to know someone in depth. Of course there can be commonalities among people or people groups, but labels and stereotypes are too often used as harmful simplifications. In the end, they can even become self-fulfilling. Social psychology, as a field, has a lot to say about these things and how they impact interactions and education.
For this week, I leave you with several questions for reflection: (1) What labels have people given you in your life that you disagreed with?; (2) How did labels assigned to you (either positive or negative) affect who you became? (you might have to dig deep for that one); (3) What labels might you subconsciously assign to certain students without really getting to know them?; (4) What labels might you subconsciously assign to certain colleagues without really getting to know them?; and (5) How might these labels affect your relationships and teaching? I can assure you that I will be answering these questions along with you. It takes consistent practice to develop that reflective demeanor that searches how we see other people.
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”- James Baldwin
The quote above is a personal favorite of mine, and one I used to share with my students in history class on the first day of school, because I think it clearly articulates the power and importance of history. As I’ve discussed in previous Principal Pens, our history (and the legacy we inherit) affects us in numerous ways that we often don’t realize. Our values, teaching style, interactions with others, personal beliefs, and social benefits (or lack thereof) are all affected by our history. As we approach the end of the school year and upcoming SOL tests, I encourage you to not only reflect continuously on your personal history and the larger history of America, but also on your individual history with certain students this year.
You may have had several negative experiences with a student and those experiences now shape how you approach the student, the expectations you set, the patience and assistance you give, or the care that you exhibit. Personally, I know this is true for me. I have caught myself many times lately just wanting to complain about certain students and not seeing (or searching) for the positive attributes they have. I have caught myself just wanting to be negative about them. The reality is that this does not solve anything, but in fact can make the relationship with the student worse. Though it can be tiring, I encourage you to keep pushing, holding students accountable, showing them that you care, and trying to emphasize the positive assets that they may not see in themselves. I will be working on this right alongside you. With this in mind, my only question for you this week: What student(s) came to mind when you read this reflection and what will you purposefully do to promote positive interactions with them?
“It's a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack.”--Germany Kent
This past week and weekend were good reminders of the many things I have to be thankful for in my life. Teachers’ Appreciation Week and Mothers’ Day both remind me of the people around me that have helped to shape who I am. This year, however, there was a new dynamic involved since it’s my first year as an administrator. Rather than just thinking about the teachers that taught me and those I taught alongside, I am also encouraged to reflect on the many things that you all do for Dunbar and how I can express my appreciation for you in this new role.
In the midst of the busyness of school life and personal life, I don’t always thank you for how hard you work and for how you help me grow. I haven’t thanked you for working alongside me and giving me a chance, even when you might be unsure about some things. Truthfully, I am not always sure how to make people feel appreciated. Much like love, different people receive appreciation in different ways. And sometimes I don’t say what I should to each of you or I focus so much on improvement (even in myself) that I fail to appreciate properly. Nevertheless, I want to make sure that I thank each one of you for the work you have done this year and for being willing to grow alongside us. As the quote above mentions, I do believe that noticing (and expressing) the things for which I am grateful is a good way to stay positive and hopeful. Happy end of Teachers’ Appreciation week Dunbar family! And in typical reflection style, this week I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: (1) What things do I have to be grateful for at Dunbar?, (2) What do I have to be thankful for in my students?, and (3) How can I focus on and express these areas of thankfulness this week?
“If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively. However, if everything is either good news or bad news about your precious traits—as it is with fixed-mindset people—distortion almost inevitably enters the picture. Some outcomes are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it you don’t know yourself at all.”—Carol Dweck
One of the things I like most about a break from students and the busyness of school is the chance to reflect more extensively on the year and figure out how to restructure and retool some areas while sustaining the areas that are already moving in the right direction. Though I reflect frequently during the school year, there is less time for sustained reflection than during the summer, and even less time to reorganize and restructure various areas. I certainly know better than anyone my weaknesses and flaws, in part because I reflect on them and in part because I try to be open to helpful criticism and hearing the perspectives of others. Additionally, data sometimes speak all too clearly and tell me where I need improvement. What I have learned, and what I try to model for students and staff, is that we are all in the process of growing. I ask for feedback and tough conversations and critique precisely because I want and need to grow. I received mostly helpful feedback for both glows and grows on my assistant principal survey, and I am trying to have end-of-the-year conferences that allow teachers to express concerns and issues with the school as a whole or with me personally. My weaknesses, and your weaknesses, are not something to be afraid of, but rather something to embrace and be open to learning about.
The interesting thing to me, however, is that I think most of us preach this view to students but don’t necessarily look at ourselves in this way. We beat ourselves up over every mistake, misstep, or failure. Or we become defensive when someone offers a critique or a perspective that threatens the established identity/perception we have of ourselves. It’s not easy to open ourselves up to examining our weaknesses, much less having someone else point them out. I often find myself simultaneously wanting critique and not wanting critique because I know it’s good for me but it doesn’t always feel good. The good news I’ve found is that when I open myself up, I’m better because of it.
As we end this year, I encourage you to reflect on the year as a whole and figure out what needs improvement and how you will improve in these areas. Yes, you already did your teacher self-assessments, but I am also interested in how you will know the perceptions of your students. Beyond administrator evaluations, self-assessments, and SOL scores (all of which should be used for reflection), your students have valuable perspectives that should not be overlooked. Some may be immature and petty in their responses, but how can you get feedback from students that will help you evaluate yourself? Where can you see value and learn from their perspectives while also recognizing that you don’t have to agree with all that is said? I am looking forward to improving with all of you next year and hope that your summer is full of rest, relaxation, and reflection:)