How SHOULD we...? with CRT
How should we design equitable learning experiences that foster growth in all learners?
Urban teachers face many struggles, and many burnout not just of teaching in urban schools but out of education entirely in five years or less (Camacho & Parham, 2019). Culturally responsive teaching is one approach that’s been recommended to help teachers, especially white teachers in urban and ethnically diverse schools, reach their kids. I believe this suggestion has been made with the best of all possible intentions. Indeed, I’ve seen at least a few articles and essays written by teachers praising the success they’ve had with implementing Zoretta Hammond’s work, among others (Hammond & Jackson, 2015). There’s an element to implementing CRT in classrooms, though, that I’ve seen ignored or brushed aside too often. It’s encapsulated well in this module’s question: how should we design equitable learning experiences for all learners? That word “should” is where I’d like to begin.
I am an educational practitioner. Or, more accurately, I’m a teacher. I began as an energetic, idealistic high school English teacher in rural Virginia. I was obsessed with teaching excellently: every summer I attended teaching conferences and read books on pedagogy, and during the year I listened to teacher podcasts while driving to work. Eventually, though, the wear and tear of daily life in a public school classroom started to get me down. In my first teaching position, I experienced maybe half of the factors listed in the report titled “Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It” (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). In an attempt to shake things up, I moved to Albemarle! In my interview for a middle school teaching position, I remember asking the principal if she had any insight as to why a higher percentage of Black students at her school had been suspended than white students (Virginia Department of Education, 2018). She answered that yes, she did, and that due to work by Cornell and JustChildren, she was in the process of teaching her staff how to implement culturally responsive teaching (Cornell & JustChildren, 2013). She had just assigned her staff a summer reading book titled Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zoretta Hammond, and would I like to read it with them? I would. I accepted the teaching position the next day.
I only spent one year teaching at that school. It was a very good place. All of the staff I met were there for the right reasons: they wanted to serve, uplift, and encourage underprivileged kids. All of us participated in CRT professional learning communities and had the opportunity to earn micro-credentials. Before school began, we toured the neighborhoods our students lived in and talked at length about asset-based thinking. We did all the right things, so to speak, and we were in a good place for it. Our students hailed from countries around the world. They spoke scores of native languages. They were also, by and large, desperately poor. Many were in the process of learning English as a second language. Classroom management was a challenge. Far too many students experienced community violence and trauma on at least a weekly if not daily basis. The counselling office was always packed to the gills. There wasn’t enough money for “extras” like field trips or new books, and because our students’ test scores weren’t up to snuff, we were tied to increasingly draconian standardized growth measurements. Through it all, we teachers soldiered on, gamely trying our best to teach in culturally responsive manners while also striving to maintain safe, positive spaces for our students. My mentor, a gentleman who’d taught there for seven years already, told me, “I always feel like my hair is on fire when I’m here. I probably won’t make it much longer.”
Sobel and Taylor (2011) summarize CRT principles thusly:
Get to know your students and value their lives and experiences
Be passionate about equity and social justice
Desire to serve all children, regardless of identity or background
Question mainstream schooling and be willing to do things in an unconventional way
I don’t disagree with their summary. And indeed, as Ladson-Billings titled her seminal article, “That’s just good teaching!” (1995) For teachers on the ground, though, I find this list deceptively simple. Four bullet points are a nice, neat way to sum up a list of ideals. Ideals, by their very nature, are not pragmatic. Based on my ten years in public and private classrooms alike, as well as copious reading of educational research, I would ammed Sobel and Taylor’s list to say the following:
MOST of your time and effort as a teacher should be spent getting to know students & finding things about them to praise. A veritable army of researchers report that knowing and caring about one’s students individually correlates positively with achievement and engagement (Hammond & Jackson, 2015; Marzano et al., 2003; Reichert & Hawley, 2010). Furthermore, there are dozens of practical ways to do this while going about your daily business of running a classroom. In terms of bang for your buck, this is your highest-return priority. As a secondary benefit, getting to know children as individuals makes asset-based thinking vastly easier (Sobel & Taylor, 2011).
Next, be willing to do things unconventionally, but get students in on it. None of us teaches in a classroom alone, and what students feel and think about your latest scheme matters. It’s not especially responsive or empowering if you just do things to them. Student buy in matters (Marzano et al., 2003; Reichert & Hawley, 2010).
Third, if you don’t know already, definitely learn about racial history, social injustice, and systems of inequality and impoverishment in the U.S. For middle and upper middle class white Americans, still 79% of public school teachers, this may be new and shocking information indeed (Spiegelman, 2020). Intentionally getting outside of your comfort zone helps you remember what it’s like to be a learner and will likely move you closer to being able to see the world through your students’ eyes, but… be careful about overdoing this during the school year! An overloaded plate topples fast.
The implicit claim that seems to lace every text I’ve read so far extolling the virtues of culturally responsive teaching is, “Teachers are the ones working directly with students, so they should be the ones learning and applying CRT!” I think this is partially true. Teachers do need access to good, reliable mindset shifts and tools they can use at a moment’s notice with students in all kinds of situations. And of course we hope teachers are in the field to serve the kids in their schools. I take issue with “all children regardless of identity or background” - I don’t think it’s humanly possible to extend one’s empathy and compassion that far without either thinking so big you end up missing the kids right in front of you OR getting a serious case of compassion fatigue.
And therein lies the rub. The reality is that teachers in the U.S. are already carrying so much responsibility that what we should do and what we realistically can do are moving ever farther apart. Teacher preparation programs, overburdened as they also are, are at least in a slightly less high-pressure environment. Those are excellent places for pre-service teachers to be introduced to concepts like racial inequity and systems of oppression in the U.S. They’re also prime places to learn concrete tools like 2x10 to get to know students personally. Mentorship of new teachers by older teachers interested in CRT or community members who are ready and willing to share their expertise may help new hires acclimate to the culture of their communities (Callahan, 2016). And PD provided by the school or district is another opportunity, albeit a thorny one, to give teachers access to the asset-based, culturally responsive background they may not know. Even those solutions, though, come right back around to the problem of over-burdened staff (Martin, 2021) - in an attempt to keep teachers from breaking under the extra pressure of “learn principles of CRT and then do it,” the weight of that task then must fall on someone else. In the world of public education, most everyone is juggling whilst treading water with sharks. So who should volunteer to carry even more?
In conclusion, as a researcher and educational philosopher, I find culturally responsive teaching fascinating. As the adoptive mother of a biracial teen from an intensely impoverished background, I wish and try desperately to help my son’s teachers understand what he brings with him to school. I can see why parents of children from even more diverse or challenging backgrounds would want schools to embrace CRT practices and thinking. Heck, I even imagine students jumping on the CRT bandwagon, if they’re even looped in on the topic. After all, who wouldn’t want their teacher to be more interested and engaged with their own culture and interests? That sounds awesome! So I get it, from those perspectives. I understand why culturally responsive teaching is a current hot topic and why many and more researchers are writing furiously about its benefits for kids. What I don’t get, as a public school teacher in Virginia, is how anyone expects me to learn and apply this thinking on top of everything else? According to a study published by the RAND Corporation, stress topped the reasons for public school teachers quitting even before COVID-19 hit (Diliberti et al., 2021). In the past five years I’ve said to two bosses, “This sounds like an awesome idea. I’m willing to be convinced that it’s great for our students. But if you want me to take this on, what can I take off my plate to make room for it?” The first boss just blinked. The second stuttered for a moment and then said hotly, “Nothing. Nothing comes off the plate, everything stays exactly as it is. We’re just adding this.”
That’s what I’m afraid of.
Callahan, J. (2016). Encouraging Retention of New Teachers Through Mentoring Strategies. The Delta Kappa Gamma Bulletin: International Journal for Professional Educators, 83(1). http://www.deltakappagamma.org/GA-betaepsilon/Newsletters/2016_Jour_83-1_Early-Career-Educators_web.pdf#page=6
Camacho, D. A., & Parham, B. (2019). Urban teacher challenges: What they are and what we can learn from them. Teaching and Teacher Education, 85, 160–174. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2019.06.014
Carver-Thomas, D., & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher Turnover: Why It Matters and What We Can Do About It. In Learning Policy Institute. https://ahed.assembly.ca.gov/sites/ahed.assembly.ca.gov/files/hearings/6.%20Teacher%20Turnover%20BRIEF%20Sep%202017.pdf
Cornell, D., and JustChildren. Prevention vs. Punishment: Threat Assessment, School Suspensions, and Racial Disparities. Legal Aid Justice Center, 18 Dec. 2013.
Diliberti, M. K., Schwartz, H. L., & Grant, D. (2021). Stress Topped the Reasons Why Public School Teachers Quit, Even Before COVID-19. Rand.org; RAND Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA1121-2.html
Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin/Sage.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Culturally Relevant Teaching, 34(3), 159–165.
Martin, D. (2021). Attrition of Beginning Teachers and the Factors of Collaboration and School Setting. RMLE Online: Research in Middle Level Education, 27(2), 1–7. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ807409
Marzano, R. J., Marzano, J. S., & Pickering, D. J. (2003). Classroom management that works : Research-based strategies for every teacher. ASCD.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (Ed.). (2018). How people
learn: Learners, contexts, and cultures. II. The National Academies Press.
Reichert, M., & Hawley, R. A. (2010). Reaching boys, teaching boys: Strategies that work and why. Jossey-Bass.
Schiff, Mara. “Can Restorative Justice Disrupt the ‘School-To-Prison Pipeline?’” Contemporary Justice Review, vol. 21, no. 2, 3 Apr. 2018, pp. 121–139, 10.1080/10282580.2018.1455509.
Sobel, D. M., & Taylor, S. V. (2011). Culturally responsive pedagogy teaching like our students’
lives matter. Emerald Group.