Looking back, as a principal, highlights in my day were visiting classrooms, interacting with students, and witnessing teaching and learning. By far, my students across grade levels were fortunate to have some great teachers, and if I ever had to select the most effective teacher I worked with, indisputably, I could not. Although different in their approaches, but sharing the same beliefs about students, these teachers did whatever it took to ensure students received a quality education. They made sure that students were present and engaged.
They never allowed students to fail; this task was easier said than done. Like most teachers, it was not unusual to find these teachers staying after school to provide extra help, spending their Saturday mornings conducting tutorials in the local library, and communicating with parents regularly. In all of my schools, these behaviors were demonstrated by a majority of teachers at different degrees. However, several teachers, in particular, received the most accolades from students, parents, district administrators, and community members. What made these specific teachers so effective and highly requested among students and parents? Furthermore, what made these specific teachers pillars in the school district, often, being employed as mentors and coaches for novice and underperforming teachers. In my quest to answer these burning questions, immediately I thought of the classroom teacher Mrs. Robin Thorpe, perhaps one of my favorite intermediate teachers.
Daily, she worked hard to ensure that her students received the best education. This dedication meant creating content specifically designed for each student in her class as well as never giving up on her students or parents. Throughout the school year, she remained sincere in her teaching styles, yet brutally honest in her academic feedback, but she would always end those critical conversations with “Baby, we will get you there. I need you to meet me halfway, do not give up.”
Her classroom was full of respect, energy, and love, sometimes tough. However, there was a noticeable distinction. Easily to discern to a naïve individual would be race; Mrs. Thorpe was Black, a representative in a small percentage of racial and ethnic minorities in public schools, or her ease with manipulating content and effectively employing instructional strategies; she had 38 years of teaching experience. While accurate and essential factors in the equation, neither race nor experience were the most notable distinctions. It was the healthy relationships she had with the students. In return, Mrs. Thorpe created culturally responsive classrooms.
The much-needed campaign to recruit teachers who are attentive to the characteristics of each student is germane to the advancement of all students, creating culturally responsive classrooms which are vital to building a better narrative for students in education. Zaretta Hammond (2013), the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, asserts that culturally responsive teaching is really about building relationships and validating students.
Said differently, it is not a requirement to have a shared race, background, or experience in order to connect. Mrs. Thorpe’s success illustrates how building a relationship, setting expectations, and working to keep your students engaged by including them within the curricula are vital in creating a conducive learning environment.
Creating a culturally responsive classroom is not a program, but it is a mindset. In order to create this much needed learning environment, a teacher must be able to acknowledge his/her own biases. This task is not simple; often, it requires individuals to dig deeper into their “why.” Asking the tough questions of themselves, such as “Why do they teach?” How do I create a warm and academic safe environment for all students? etc. Another task to complete in creating a culturally responsive classroom is including your students in the curricula. Said differently, acknowledge students’ experiences and background by reading literature that includes characters who look like them and by discussing present-day issues that influence their daily interactions. For instance, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (2018) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison reported that 50 percent of characters in children’s books were White, 27 percent were animals, while 10 percent were African/African American and 5 percent were Latinx. Returning to Mrs. Thorpe, she unfailingly ensured that her students remained at the forefront of her planning and teaching by revisiting her why and including literature or activities that reflected her students. Additionally, she displayed pictures that reflected the communities where students lived and incorporated activities specifically designed to close opportunity gaps. These simple yet profound tasks meant that her students were not only engaged in their coursework, but the school as a whole. Their instructional time positively affected their academic progress. Classroom leadership was consistently favorable.
Although administrators are vital key players, teachers play the most critical role in engaging students in learning. Joint efforts among principals, teachers, and students can collaboratively develop effective interventions targeted at creating culturally responsive classrooms. A clear focus on building relationships with students — much like Mrs. Thorpe did — is likely to reduce biases teachers might hold and increase student engagement in the classroom and the learning process. Consequently, sending a message to students that they belong.
Throughout my career as a principal, I encountered numerous teachers who possessed Mrs. Thorpe’s characteristics. These types of teachers are the cornerstones to creating learning environments that are essential to the academic development of all students. Imagine being in an environment where you are not acknowledged.
More than likely, you would be hesitant to participate in discussions actively or reluctant to voice your thoughts. Those “Mrs. Thorpe” type teachers create safe academic learning environments for all students. Any administrator desires for his or her students to be in the presence of a great teacher. It was not unusual for Mrs. Thorpe to have frequent visitors – former students and occasionally, parents who stopped by to say, “Thank you.” Imagine a school full of Mrs. Thorpes? I encourage you to reflect; I am sure there is at least one.
-Jamon Flowers, eduConsultant