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How Teachers Can Be Better: A Call for Cultural Knowledge in the Classroom

New federal education policy must lift the burden of "educational debt" among black students. That starts with training teachers to think outside their own cultural contexts.
cultural knowledge elementary school

(Photo: Cristina Muraca/Shutterstock)

It was 5 a.m.—right before I was due to rise, dress, get my two children ready to go to church—and tears began to stream down my face. I was struck by the irony of my emotion: Seven years before, I’d been crying because I thought I had a serious illness and could not have children. This morning, I was crying because of my children: in particular, my boy child, about whom I was desperately worried, unsure how to help him navigate the everyday world of school as an African-American male.

Teaching matters. And good teaching matters particularly to those students who, like my son, through no fault of their own, are physically active, verbal, and outwardly focused and sometimes demonstrate their intellectual curiosity by asking lots of questions in class. These qualities ought to be indicative of a bright, energetic, and eager student. But in the case of black students, and males in particular, they are often read the opposite way: In too many cases, such children are dismissed as “hyper”—too physical and impulsive—and therefore eventually become overrepresented in disciplinary referrals. Key to these interactions is a cultural mismatch whereby teachers, many of whom are white and socialized to judge student behavior using a mainstream, white-dominant lens—struggle to view students socialized outside of this cultural frame as “normal,” or even teachable. Indeed, under the care of a pedagogically skillful, culturally competent teacher, these vibrant children of color can flourish as learners and leaders—without racking up unnecessary, and unmerited, disciplinary citations.

Yet, in the hands of a teacher overwhelmed by crowded classrooms, or else underprepared (whether in pedagogy, content, or cultural knowledge), the costs for under-served students become heavy indeed. They manifest first in the child’s being stigmatized as a “problem-student”; later, such students tend to evince a diminished interest in learning and school altogether. I have witnessed this in my experiences as an elementary and middle-school English teacher. It is also well-documented in peer-reviewed research. And sadly, it is reflected, too, in what is commonly called the pre-K-to-prison pipeline. This is why multicultural teacher education recognizes the need to prepare the overwhelmingly to teach in critical, culturally relevant, and responsive ways.

As a former teacher and school administrator—and now a researcher and university education professor—I know this terrain all too well. The 1990s ushered a wave of reforms to which we are now experiencing intense backlash. The move toward standards and greater accountability—even if it was intended to create greater equity in schooling and student outcomes, primarily for under-served student populations—has led to school cultures that focus more on how well students perform on standardized tests than on the what and why of teaching, and the kids who get doubly penalized are overwhelmingly those of color.

With the recent signing of the Every Student Succeed Act, President Obama responded to the growing resistance of families who have chosen to opt their children out of testing, and who have cited these precise reasons.

The Every Student Succeed Act is far from perfect. In an early critique of the new act, teacher-education researcher Kenneth Zeichner laments the bill's strong support for the growth of non-traditional teacher education programs; these programs place student-teachers on the fast track to certification, meaning they teach while preparing to become a teacher, all at the most basic proficiency level.

If the goal is to create a more equitable education system for all students—one that transcends an over-reliance on testing and standardization in favor of more authentic, individualized education—fast-tracking the teacher preparation route seems short-sighted. Can a truncated teacher-education program prepare teachers to teach in an authentic, robust, and culturally responsive way?

Contemporary schools must have these kinds of teachers. And this was the reason why I shed tears that Sunday morning: I worried that in my zeal to place my black child in a progressive school that claimed to value “authentic” learning, I might be setting him up for failure—if that space does not recognize him or value his cultural strengths.

Failure is a real possibility for black students of all socioeconomic backgrounds in K-12 schools. And, according to a recent article in the Journal of Black Studies, is a key contributing factor in the increase of black families choosing to homeschool. Black parents fear for their children’s well-being in classrooms under the care of teachers who do not understand or deeply value the unique contexts black children must navigate in society and school. It is well documented that black students often measure lower than their counterparts on critical performance indicators for academic achievement, including scores on standardized tests, graduation rates, dropout rates, and in-school disciplinary measures.

Now, lest we subscribe to the empirically dubious and racist rhetoric recently expressed by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on the inability of black students to succeed academically in highly regarded universities, remember that these outcomes are not the result of genetic or cultural deficiency. Rather, these education outcomes are shaped by opportunity and the sociopolitical and economic contexts in which schooling occurs.

Rather than showing “gaps” in achievement or any other key indicators, black students are on the receiving end of what education researcher Gloria Ladson-Billings calls an “education debt.” This debt serves to fuel dominant economic and political interests, while maintaining the oppressive, inequitable conditions faced historically by people of color. In schools, this affects material resources directly related to teaching, including school funding, access to rigorous, relevant curriculum, and, perhaps most importantly, qualified, effective teachers.

In the aftermath of my crying episode, I considered home-schooling. After furtive searches on the Internet into the legal niceties of home-schooling, I placed an emotional phone call to my sister, who lives two hours away and has successfully home-schooled my nine-year-old nephew for almost four years. I realized it was not financially or professionally feasible for me to successfully home-school my son without sending him to live with my sister during the school week. I also realized the situation at the school was not beyond repair. After taking time to create an action plan with teachers and staff that showed real care and cultural sensitivity toward my son, I've found he continues to receive the progressive education I had hoped he would.

Schools are not a panacea, but given the amount of time students spend in them, they are positioned to have an awesome impact on the lives of students. We do well to attend to them seriously. At a minimum, we cannot continue to accept widely held, uninterrogated assumptions about what it means to be a teacher, how teachers should teach, and how we can prepare teachers to think beyond their own reflexive cultural contexts.