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  • Tonya Breland

Am I Responsive When it Comes to Black & Brown Students?

I do a lot of training on culturally responsive practices and often start the conversation with norms to set the tone for what could be uncomfortable and/or painful for some. I then share information about the general landscape in classrooms all across the country in which we can point to what is known as a racial/ethnic mismatch between educators and students. What I mean by that is simple: approximately 80% of the teaching staff is comprised of White women, while nearly half or more than half of the student population is comprised of students of color. What's so significant about that? Why is that important to talk about?

Well let's look at the data. It tells a story, a very familiar story about Black and Brown children all over the country. For decades, Black students have been on the bottom of student performance data, with Latinx students being slightly better, but neither comparable to their White and Asian peers. Now, I'm not suggesting that White teachers are failing our Black and Brown students (at least not intentionally), but I am suggesting that this perpetuation of poor data for our nation's children of color warrants further exploration.


As a former school principal in a school with primarily students of color, I supervised some amazing White, female educators who knew how to teach their Black and Brown students. But what was it about those teachers that stood out compared to some of their colleagues who were less successful? I would venture to guess it had something to do with how well they connected to their students and the types of expectations they held for their students and the environments that they created for their learners. In other words, they were culturally responsive to their students' needs and it showed in the data. Employing cultural responsiveness to your teaching and leadership lens may be the difference between success and failure. It should not matter if there is a racial mismatch between teachers and students when the teachers practice cultural responsiveness. I strongly believe that any teacher can teach any child when they know how and employ the right care, lens, and approach.

Districts need to invest in ongoing professional learning that teaches culturally responsive practices. When they do, they position their educators to meet the needs of their diverse learners. It means that educators acknowledge and see the race of their students, not pretend to not see it...which is to be color blind, but rather are willing to see race, which means they explicitly see and acknowledge their Black and Brown students. Skin color is an immutable characteristic that is a part of their identity and there is no shame. Ignoring students’ race is a way of ignoring a very important part of their identity. And that causes harm to students.


So what does it mean to be culturally responsive? When educators are culturally responsive, they empower “students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using social referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes,” according to Gloria-Ladson-Billings, scholar and author of Dreamkeepers. Geneva Gay, another scholar and author, contends that these cultural referents make learning more relevant and effective for students.


Additionally culturally responsive educators actively search for any historical forms of oppression embedded in the curriculum, instruction and relationships with students. Culturally Responsive Practices (CRP) looks at policies, programs, and practices through a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).


Zaretta Hammond, another well-known scholar and author, emphasizes the responsive part of CRP and that educators need to be responsive to the the learning and cognitive needs of students and see them as scholars and learners while creating learning environments that are intellectually stimulating.


CRP also requires that educators be willing to examine their own racial/cultural identities and understand how their own identities shape and inform their ideals about teaching. Educators need to be able to acknowledge and face their biases and how they influence their beliefs about students. Our own cultural contexts influence how we relate to and teach students, including the expectations we have of them. Understand that students are capable of analyzing and critiquing the sociopolitical world around them and they need opportunities to do just that. This is from the work of scholar/author, Tonikiaa Orange, contributing author of All Students Must Thrive.


Being culturally responsive is also about the relationships that you build with students and their families, demonstrating care for your students and their world. Relationships are key! Focus on the deep culture issues, not surface cultural aspects of students like food, games, dance, and/or music - this is the low hanging fruit. Learn to know more about your students' ways of living, being, and relating.


And most importantly, CRP is not a program or initiative that we can put down or drop when a better program comes along. It's a way of existing and operating in educational spaces that cultivate learners and set them up for a life of success.



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