Thought Leaders – Dr. Cherry Ross Gooden & Dr. Renée T. Willis
“You cannot think of human beings as independent of culture and their society.”
Like all students, African American students need teachers who are compassionate, competent, and dedicated. Like all students, African American students need teachers who are skilled in instructional design, delivery, and classroom management techniques. However, unlike other students, African American students have a greater need for teachers who are also culturally competent and skilled in cross-cultural communication and culturally responsive teaching. Unlike other students, African American students have a greater need for teachers who understand how racism, oppression, and the social realities of poverty, exclusion, and violence impact the academic achievement and social-emotional growth of these learners. Finally, African American students need teachers who possess high-level social-emotional skills and who are committed to the implementation of teaching practices that promote student SEL development. Unfortunately, Educator Preparation programs as they currently exist often do not address in substantive ways, teacher candidate preparation in areas related to the kind of teachers needed by African American students/learners(Marchitello &Trinidad, 2019; Van Hook, 2000; Yuan, 2017).
The preparation of effective teachers for African American students is a critical issue for NABSE as African American students need such teachers if these students are to move forward and experience better and more equitable learning opportunities in today’s schools. The reality is that increasingly white teachers will be the teachers that African American students are likely to see throughout the K-12 schooling experience. It is also important to note that this is not a new issue for NABSE. In its 1984 groundbreaking document, “Saving the African American Child: A Report of the Task Force on Black Academic and Cultural Excellence,” NABSE scholars focused on 20 essential topics to articulate its vision of quality education for the African American child. In that document, issues specifically related to the role of teachers in ensuring a quality education for African American students were staff development, special teaching methods, teacher certification, and education, poverty, and the quality of life. It is entirely fitting that thirty-six years later, NABSE once again focuses on the critical role of teachers, both new and “veteran,” to ensure that our children receive a true, appropriate, rigorous, and relevant education.
This paper will focus on the skills and training needed by teachers to become effective educators of African American students. The importance of culturally responsive teaching will be emphasized with a detailed discussion of the need to reshape pedagogy to meet the instructional needs of African American learners more effectively. Policy implications will also be addressed to give NABSE a framework for drafting policy statements that focus on the appropriate preparation and continuing development of teachers for today’s diverse students with a particular focus on African American students.
Effective Educators of African American Students
Educators for African American students must master essential verbal and non-verbal actions and behaviors intended to facilitate and support student learning. These skills areas include developmentally appropriate planning and preparation, lesson presentation and management, classroom climate and discipline, assessment and evaluation, technological skills, and, more recently, skills associated with self-reflection and self-evaluation. However, first and foremost, all educators, no matter what ethnicity, culture, or race, must be proficient in the content area that they teach. What good is it for educators to be culturally competent, yet not proficient in the subject matter they are teaching? After obtaining the necessary knowledge in one’s respective content area(s), there then must be an understanding and, ultimately, mastery of the learning style that many African American students possess.
Decades of research have shown that African American students, particularly males, require a reshaping of traditional pedagogy to maximize effectiveness (Hale, 2018; Ransaw, 2016). These strategies include using hands-on materials, manipulatives, and projects to engage students, particularly those who are tactile learners. Incorporating technology and allowing opportunities for competition and movement have been widely held as “best practices” in teaching students of color. With today’s narrative around the African American male being written on a global platform, all educators must understand that the dilemma we face today did not begin when the African American male became an adult. Instead, this conundrum starts in the early childhood stages. African American boys, with their verve, energy, and vitality, are often misdiagnosed and labeled for life as being emotionally disturbed or too aggressive. Consequently, they are placed in special education. The reality is that too often, African American boys become victims of traditional schools with traditional teachers and a traditional curriculum that emphasizes
left-brain cognitive skills, ignoring that these skills develop at a slower rate in all boys. When coupled with culturally irrelevant teaching materials, this combination does nothing more than create frustration, boredom, disconnectedness, and misbehavior, particularly for African American boys.
Just as culturally irrelevant teaching materials prove to be detrimental to the learning success of African American students, so do culturally insensitive teachers. African American students need teachers who understand cultural norms, societal barriers, and the real challenges they may face. Becoming a culturally responsive teacher for African American students begins with recognizing the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. Culturally responsive teaching involves “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them (Gay, 2010, p. 31).” This notion may seem hard to do if, for example, the teacher is Caucasian, and the students are African American. The initial difficulty arises from the fact that the teacher likely does not know or understand the students’ cultural references or experiences. This lack of knowledge or understanding is extremely problematic in that “ignorance of, and disrespect for African American history and culture also breeds low expectations and unhealthy educator assessments of African American students, families, personalities, and potentials (Saving the African American Child, p. 12).” This reality lends itself to the idea that a starting point in developing an understanding of cultural relevance is to establish relationships with the students to better comprehend and appreciate “their world.” All students must feel respected, valued, and seen for who they are. There is no room for color blindness when it comes to being an effective educator.
Once these foundational pieces are in order, educators must then ensure that classrooms and curricula are culturally relevant and congruent. Students of color need learning materials to be mirrors as well as windows. Lessons should also tie into the students’ social communities, be justice-oriented, and reflect the social context of the time. For educators who are not of the same cultural background as their students, there will be challenges. One challenge will be the time that must be invested in learning about the issues existing in the students’ community and their root causes. Another challenge will be the intentionality by which a teacher empowers African American students to use their cultural capital, without making them feel as if they must speak for all African American students, particularly in mixed race or diverse classrooms.
Additional skills areas for teacher development include Cultural Competence for Social Justice Skills and Social-Emotional Skills. Cultural Competence for Social Justice Skills includes being culturally self-aware, understanding and valuing diversity, knowledge of students’ culture, knowledge of societal inequities, cross-cultural communication skills, and skills to foster equity and inclusion. Skills associated with Social-Emotional Development include self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. It is important to note that social-emotional competence provides a robust framework for implementing culturally responsive teaching. Moreover, these areas of skill development should not be viewed as isolated areas of teacher preparation. Instead, the interplay between these skills areas is critical as skill development in one area may well contribute to or depend on skill development in another category. For example, cross-cultural communication certainly impacts lesson presentation as well as classroom climate and discipline strategies.
Although a great deal of concern focuses on preservice teachers, it must be acknowledged that veteran teachers may also lack the skills needed for optimum academic, social, and emotional growth of African American students. These in-service teachers sometimes prove to be a more significant challenge as it relates to operating out of a culturally responsive paradigm. Certainly,
teachers differ in their willingness and commitment to engage in self-reflection and self-evaluation that results in an investment of time and energy to improve their teaching skills. Thus, culturally responsive attitudes and skills that must be developed, enhanced, refreshed, or maintained will likely differ from teacher to teacher. That is why the development of specific skills associated with self-reflection and self-evaluation must be strong components of educator preparation programs and staff development experiences so that teachers will design or request professional development activities that meet their individual needs.
Implications for Policy-Driven Legislation
Policies must be developed to ensure that all educator preparation programs, including alternative routes to teacher certification, prepare candidate teachers with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes critical for meeting the academic and learning needs of African American students. However, this can prove to be a daunting task as there are many routes to teacher certification, and these pathways vary from state to state. Moreover, the degree to which many of the routes require adequate preparation in the skills areas identified in this paper for effective teachers of African American students in all likelihood may not exist.
However, there are myriad implications for policy changes that will help to ensure effective educators for African American learners. The first area of impact is the actual certification or licensure process. There must be a hybrid of traditional and alternative routes that can lead to certification or licensure. The policies involved must be sensitive to the notion that having these credentials tied directly to performance on a test will, unfortunately, exclude many potentially outstanding educators. The second area for policy effect is with regard to professional and pedagogical knowledge that will optimally impact African American learners and their achievement. Policies that require preservice teachers to learn not only academic content but also trauma-informed methodologies, social-emotional learning tenets, and social justice curricula will prove to be invaluable in meeting the authentic needs of our students. Our students should be able to formally learn THEIR history within the context of all history rather than having it relegated to Black History Month. The third area by which policy should be adjusted is the requirement for pre-service teachers to participate in high-quality field placements or residencies in low-performing schools in urban areas. Under the mentorship of a highly effective teacher of African American students in the actual setting will allow pre-service teachers to gain valuable insight and experience. This type of residency is likened to that of medical doctors, whereby the preservice teacher will also be afforded the opportunity to conduct instructional rounds. Instructional rounds represent a powerful process that educators use to understand better teaching and learning within the school setting (City, Elmore, Fiarman & Lee, 2011).
“Given the low levels of performance for the masses of our children, the loss of African American educators, the absence of sufficient support for schools, and serious questions about the content of education (both traditional academic and cultural), our voices must be raised. (Saving the African American Child, p.21).”
This clarion cry from the voices of NABSE Scholars thirty-six years ago, call out to us now as we consider the reality of the educational landscape that our children continue to face. Clearly, there is still much to be done. Clearly, the last bulwark has to be the individual teachers who fill the learning spaces that our children occupy. These professionals must, despite the newer technologies, revised methodologies, and social, political, economic, and cultural challenges, save our children. Therefore, careful and comprehensive educator preparation and on-going staff development must arm them with the skills and attitudes needed to educate African American children successfully. To that end, it is the recommendation of the Educator Preparation Thought Leaders that NABSE undertakes the yeomen’s task of creating a high-quality intensive teacher institute. This institute will take preservice as well as veteran teachers through a carefully selected set of experiences (knowledge, skills, and attitudes) designed to prepare them to teach children of African descent more effectively. This institute will foster a paradigm shift resulting in a teaching-learning template that will translate into effective teaching for all students. It has often been said that when things improve for African American children, all children become beneficiaries. More importantly, such an institute will also demonstrate that even as we propose and fight for policy changes, we still recognize that “ . . . there will remain some things we must do for ourselves (Saving the African American Child, p. 21).”
City, E., Elmore, R., Fiarman, S., & Teitel, L. (2009). Instructional rounds in education: A network approach to improving teaching and learning. Harvard Education Press.
Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice, 2nd Ed. Teachers College Press.
Hale, J. (2016). Learning styles of African American children: Instructional implications. Journal of Curriculum and Teaching, 5(2). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1157579.pdf
Marchitello, M. & Trinidad, J. (2019). Preparing teachers for diverse populations: Lessons from minority serving institutions. Bellwether Education Partners. https://bellwethereducation.org/sites/default/files/Preparing%20Teachers%20for%20Diverse%20Schools_Bellwether.pdf
National Alliance of Black School Educators. (1984). Saving the African American child: A report of the task force on Black academic and cultural excellence. NABSE, Inc. https://blackcommunitycourse.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/savingtheafricanamericanchild.pdf
Ransaw, T.S. (2016). Male and Black male learning styles. Michigan State University Press https://www.academia.edu/33835576/Male_and_Black_Male_Learning_Styles
Van Hook, C. W. ( 2000). Preparing teachers for the diverse classroom: A developmental model of intercultural sensitivity. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a106/4177dbe1be80ed4669b73a6c8009ad269f8d.pdf?_ga=2.131717455.1517479011.1593379724-92000610.1593379724
Yuan, H. (2017). Preparing teachers for diversity: A literature review and implications from community-based teacher education. University of Washington https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1168438.pdf
Dr. Cherry Ross Gooden
Texas Southern University (Retired)
Life Member NABSE
Higher Education Commission
Texas Alliance of Black School Educators
Houston Area Alliance of Black
School Educators (HAABSE)
Dr. Renée T Willis
Superintendent of Schools
Richmond Heights Local School District
Richmond Heights, Ohio
NABSE Superintendents Commission
Ohio Alliance of Black School Educators