By ROBERTA LENGER KANG
What do you do?
I’m a teacher.
Oh wow, I could never do that! [long pause] It must be so rewarding, though.
I’ve had this conversation at least a hundred times, maybe more. There’s the same rhythm of awkward pauses each time, where the other person looks to say something positive, and I recall small, not-so-rewarding incidents that have happened over my teaching career.
Yes, I do find my work in education, both in and out of the classroom, to be extremely rewarding when I focus on the big picture. But on a day-to-day basis, teaching can be a struggle. It’s a struggle because, contrary to popular belief, teachers do not teach Math or Science, or History — they teach students. From tiny to tall, students are actual human beings with independent identities, personal autonomy, and a will of their own. The concept of “controlling your class” is both inaccurate and impossible. On any given day, a highly effective teacher can facilitate, guide, support, foster, and nurture a positive learning environment — but we can never control it. Subsequently, creating classroom culture or managing student behaviors is a major stressor for teachers at all levels.
Many teachers maintain the myth of classroom control and as a result, they may struggle to embrace student-centered instructional strategies like peer-to-peer discussions, group work, and student choice on tasks. The more fear we have, the more likely we are to become hyper-vigilant micro-managers in the classroom, which can sometimes magnify small issues and escalate conflicts, creating disruptive and potentially dangerous power dynamics that can block off relationships and erode trust between teachers and students. None of which feels rewarding, I promise.
As teachers, we have a lot of power and responsibility to set the tone in our own classrooms and create a culture of learning that empowers students to engage in the lessons with respect for themselves and others. Here are three ways we can de-escalate conflicts and maximize positive learning opportunities for students.
Don't take it personally
The first thing we want to remember is that all of our students are actual human beings who typically live 23 hrs and 10 minutes a day without us. When they enter into our classroom after a bad morning, feeling hungry, distracted, or any number of other emotions, it’s easy for us to take their words and actions as a personal attack. This can put us on defense, or worse — on the offense.
Before reacting, we will benefit from asking a few simple questions that will help us to strategize our next steps.
Even in the smallest classes, teachers are outnumbered. As a result, we’re hyper-focused on distracting, disruptive, disrespectful, and defiant behaviors and we’re far more likely to address everything that’s going wrong, rather than what’s actually going right. Often, we’re addressing negative classroom behaviors in front of the whole class because it’s more efficient to say, “Brian, stop talking” from the front of the room than it is to walk to the back of the class and talk with Brian privately in the middle of a lesson. But culture is shaped primarily by the narrative, and as teachers, we have the privileged opportunity to set up a positive narrative in our space. By eliminating public criticism, and praising publicly instead, we have the power to create positive momentum, spotlight all the students who are doing the “right” thing, and set clear expectations for what students are supposed to do.
Reflect & redirect
Our goal is not to become afraid of addressing students’ negative behaviors directly, but rather to begin addressing them strategically. If we can remove our personal feelings from the situation, we’ll be better positioned to find a method for motivating students to fully commit to a proactive and positive learning environment. Part of that methodology is public praise — the other part is personalized reflection and redirection. Especially when working in a culture that is vastly different from one’s own, focusing on short, private conversations when it’s necessary to address a negative behavior can only have a positive impact on the culture.
Our classroom spaces will feel physically and psychologically safer when we acknowledge that students’ behavior is a form of communication, even when directed towards us. When we allow ourselves to be personally offended, we are likely to simplify the situation and vilify the student. This leaves us more likely to respond defensively, criticize, and engage in power struggles. Each of these instincts are likely to increase tension and escalate conflicts at the exact moment when we know that diffusing the situation would be more beneficial to our students and ourselves.
By AVANTI CHAJED
Culturally sustaining practices (CSP) allow, invite, and encourage students to not only use their cultural practices from home in school, but to maintain them. CSP allows students to exist not only in the culture of their school, but also in the culture of their home.
For teachers within New York City, it’s important to note that culturally responsive pedagogy, or culturally responsive-sustaining education according to the DOE, is a requirement for New York City schools. This requirement emphasizes the need for teachers to embrace diversity, get to know their students, and to help students feel welcomed and seen in school.
There is no one way of practicing CSP — this would go against the very idea of sustaining students’ cultures! — but there are ways to understand what a CSP approach may require from a teacher. Think about CSP as a mindset rather than a series of practices.
But even with a mindset of wanting to be responsive to student needs, it can be difficult to figure out what you should actually do to respond to student cultures, and much of the information out there comes from the world of academia, which can be difficult to translate into practice.
Funds of knowledge
CSP asks: what do my students already know? What are their strengths? What are the strengths of their families and communities?
It’s important to investigate the funds of knowledge that your students bring to the classroom. Funds of knowledge can be applied to every area of classroom learning and behavior. A three-year-old who appears to read books backwards may have funds of knowledge stemming from reading in Arabic, which is read from right to left. A fifth grader who fights often on the playground may be defending her friends and family. As teachers, looking at both situations from an asset perspective will change the way we teach these children, whether it’s demonstrating how English texts are read without telling a student that what they’re doing is wrong, or disciplining with compassion and an understanding of the virtuous (though inappropriate) intentions involved in engaging in a fight.
Funds of knowledge do not only apply to knowledge about culture and language, which, while important, are not the complete extent of how students bring their cultural experiences into the classroom. Tabitha Kidwell and Luis Javier Pentón Herrera offer an example of how a teacher in the US learned that one of his students, who was from a marginalized indigenous group from Guatemala, had spent much of his life working in fields surrounded by nature. The teacher used this new knowledge to plan a lesson where students went outside and collected rocks for a future project.
Why is CSP needed?
School practices currently reflect the norms of monolingual, white, middle class students, which often excludes students who come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Students who are excluded from these norms are often viewed through a deficit lens, which means that teachers or school personnel attribute poor academic performance or behavior problems to faults within the students.
Deficit lenses can be directed toward anyone in the school or community. If, for example, a teacher believes that parents in a particular cultural demographic are not involved in their child’s education and blames this for their students not doing well academically, that teacher is looking at the parents through a deficit lens. A deficit lens may mean a teacher believes a student to be incapable of learning due to language, disability, or personal characteristics, or attributing behaviors due to “culture”.
Even literature from respected sources may be operating within a deficit lens. In my first teaching job in the US, my school district required us to read a book on how poverty affects children’s development and cognitive abilities. Although the book appeared to have a sympathetic view of children living in poverty (and I lapped it up eagerly at the time), I can see now that it was hugely problematic.
The book created a focus on what my students could not do. On their supposed deficiencies that I did not blame them for, but did allow me to envision myself as some sort of savior. My students did not need saving. They needed love and compassion and understanding. The book projected a deficit lens of an entire social class.
Incorporating a CSP approach into your practice can help you to question the deficit lens that may exist in your school, and work towards diversifying materials that are available to your students. From a CSP standpoint, students and their families are viewed as people who possess assets for your classroom — a stark contrast to the deficit lens, which implies that they are lacking in some way. This shift in mindset will help you to meet the specific cultural needs of your students as you begin to bring their cultural practices into the classroom.
It’s not necessary to know everything about every culture or language in order to incorporate CSP into your classroom. It is important, however, to try to get to know the cultures and lives of the students you’re teaching, and to evaluate ways in which your instructional practices can support your students.
“The importance of good parent-teacher relationships has been well documented. Research has shown that parent involvement in education benefits not only the child but also the parents and teachers.”
We want our students, parents, and teachers to experience these benefits.
Challenges are easy to list, and we likely have a long list beyond these, but here are some of the big ones.
Start by planning
Strengthening your communication with students and families can start as simply as organizing your approach. Whether you’re approaching the beginning of the year, a new term, or are in the middle of a course, trying a new tool that can be customized to your unique communication style and your school’s expectations for family contact will support your work.
In the example below, our first goal was to start with listening, in this case using a baseline survey to the student’s parents that establishes a connection and supports us in understanding our student from the parent’s perspective. Our second goal was to have three positive contacts with the family, in addition to any contacts necessary to discuss issues that may arise in the classroom.
From here, we would continue to add our notes and check in on communication that may be needed in order to meet our goals. This template can continue to be streamlined or expanded as practices change over time.
While the content of parent/teacher conversations may not always be easy, simply getting started can give you confidence and increase the ways in which you can connect with families.
By DR. MARCELLE MENTOR
The Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) is a private, affluent Quaker school just outside of Baltimore, Maryland. They have a predominantly white faculty and staff, but at least 50% of their student population across middle and high school are of color, and includes an international student population with students from the East and Africa. The school’s administration has been eager to have the demographics of their student population reflected in their teaching faculty, as well as across their administrative staff. To address this, they began the process of examining their current hiring practices.
When I was initially approached to tackle this work, I was excited — not only do I have experience with anti-bias and anti-racist training, but I was happy to be focusing this work specifically for hiring and the hiring committee of the school. Studies have shown that hiring committees are often implicitly biased when in comes to broadening a homogenous group of staff members. Though we logically understand the need to make a staff more diverse, our implicit bias often prevents us from doing that, and as a result, impacts the hiring process. However, when we are aware of the way implicit bias works, we can take deliberate steps to check ourselves and our colleagues as we move forward.
Working around issues of race and bias is by no means easy. Sandy Springs Friends School stands out as an example for schools who want to deliberately and fastidiously address some very hard and painful truths about themselves — both as individuals, and as an organization that upholds the pillars of a rich, traditional Quaker value system.
Interrupting and reducing bias requires that we learn how to pause, slow down, and be more mindful in how we make decisions and relate to others (or those that we perceive to be "the other"). Finding a new place, a better place on race (and other forms of difference) does not require a lot of money. But it will require time, internal motivation, and sustained practice in order to form new individual and organizational habits.
Here are some initial steps to take:
Across two separate visits to the Sandy Springs campus, we examined what internal, personal bias looks like by reviewing current research, as well as what other schools or educational institutions are grappling with. This information allowed us to begin a plan of action that would benefit the team at SSFS, which included concrete steps that administrators could take to begin improving hiring practices at the school:
In just a matter of months, the faculty and administrators at SSFS made great strides in addressing this action plan. The school completed a diversity audit, which revealed some hard truths about the community. Focus groups reports strongly suggested that students — especially boys — of color felt marginalized at the school. The same was true for students and staff of the LGBTQi population. Teachers of color reported that they felt unfairly burdened by the need to step in an explain racial situations and struggles. International students felt that they did not have any representation in the staff on the school dormitories. Clearly, there were many places that needed attention.
You may be overwhelmed by all of these layers and may be wondering how to begin the work of addressing hard truths in your community. My answer to that would be: start with yourself. Slow, steady, and continued work will be the most effective.