If students don’t feel safe, respected and celebrated in your classroom, they really aren’t going to learn much. You can know your material backwards and forwards, but it won’t matter. Everything I know about being a good teacher, I learned from my students.
Once I was counseling a student from the Gay Straight Alliance Club. I said, “You are so bright. Why are you failing?” He said he was worried about being shoved down the stairs after class. Now, if you are sitting in a class worried about getting from algebra to English without being shoved down the stairs, if you are worried all the time about what is going to happen to you if someone finds out you’re gay, you can’t study or learn.
I think that student saved me as a teacher. That became my number one priority: Students can be whoever they are, and they will be celebrated. They are allowed to bring their cultural capital into the classroom.
Ferial Pearson with Omaha South High School students at an event for their book, In My Shoes: Teen Reflections on Hope and Their Future.
For instance, a lot of students have names from other countries, and teachers don’t even try to say their names. Your name is the first part of your identity, and so many students have stories about why they are named what they are. You’ve got to know your students’ names.
Teachers will often say they can’t get parents to meetings. A lot of parents don’t feel comfortable in the school building. In some cultures, parents only come to the school if a student is in trouble. I ask, “Are you inviting them for a good reason?” I had a parent who was a poet. I invited her to help the students. She gave them some ideas, read some poems, and the students loved it.
I try to never put down a student’s language or culture. If my students speak African-American slang or are cussing, I talk about code switching. There is a time and place for different languages. I tell them that in this class, you are going to talk like you are on Oprah. In the hallway you can talk like you talk at the club.
Instead of them just following rules I create, we sit together and make up a list of behaviors that will make us all feel safe and comfortable—and that includes me. We describe what each rule means and what it means in their cultures. I try not to implement my norms, but there are some non-negotiables, like no violence.
I encourage humor with the rules, like make sure you keep your clothes on at all times. Don’t tear your hair out if you are frustrated. Because of these rules, I have never had a problem in the classroom.
We have to be responsive to their culture, and technology is their culture. It seems everyone has a cell phone, so I try to use cell phones in the classroom. I use polleverywhere.com, a free web application that allows you to create a survey online, and students can text their answers online. It’s a good way to do a formative assessment. Sometimes we have a competition about who can define a word the fastest. I say, “Okay, go,” and they whip out their phone to see who can find the definition. The first one to get it wins a pack of gum or something.
If they abuse the technology, they lose it. (But I would never take a phone from a student. I saw a teacher beat up once over that.)
Teachers need support. At the College of Education at the University of Nebraska, they have created a brand-new initiative. There are four of us, and we are trying to figure out ways to get teachers in the classroom earlier, with more mentoring and support. I’m an “instructional coach.” A lot of teachers waste time in college, spending money and then realizing that teaching isn’t for them. Now we want them to answer the question before they get out: Is this something I love? Young teachers also really need to know they are not alone, and that schools serve students as a team. It’s easy for a young teacher to burn out and feel overwhelmed if they feel responsible for every aspect of a student’s well-being and academic growth, especially if they have students who are struggling.
The number one thing in teaching is relationships. You have to build relationships with basically everyone you come in contact with—students, other teachers, administrators, parents. If teachers communicate well and often with staff, faculty, parents, and members of the community, they can be culturally responsive and make use of the cultural capital students bring to the classroom. It makes things easier on the teachers, prevents classroom management issues, and empowers students.
Ferial Pearson specializes in urban education in Omaha, Nebraska, which has more Fortune 500 companies than any other U.S. city. But it is also a place with intense poverty and a high number of undocumented immigrants. This semester, Pearson is coaching wanna-be teachers at the College of Education at the University of Nebraska on how to be culturally responsive educators.
This article was created as part of the social action campaign for the documentary TEACH, produced by TakePart's parent company, Participant Media, in partnership with Bill and Melinda Gates.