Three Ways to Become a Culturally Responsive Teacher

As teachers, we want our students to feel safe and empowered inside our classrooms. But most of us know kids in our schools who feel unsupported or invisible. This disparity is troubling, especially in light of the growing diversity at most independent schools. Compared to 20 or even 10 years ago, today our students occupy a range of racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic levels, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations.

 We know that our schools need culturally responsive teachers, but how does one become a culturally responsive teacher?
A colleague and I recently posed this question to a group of 30 new teachers in a workshop at the New Educator Institute, an annual one-day conference sponsored by the Multicultural Resource Center of Philadelphia Independent Schools, part of the Association of Delaware Valley Independent Schools. More than 130 new independent school teachers from all grade levels across greater Philadelphia attended the event, which was hosted this year by The Episcopal Academy located in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Culturally responsive teaching was the theme of this year’s conference.
We might think of a culturally responsive teacher as one who understands and celebrates the differences between her students; one who bridges the gap between students from marginalized cultural or identity groups and her curriculum; one who makes every student feel welcome and valuable in class; and one who allows all students to share their experiences, perspectives, and opinions without fear. What follows are some of my personal experiences as a classroom teacher, along with some modest suggestions for ways to train our students and ourselves to become more culturally sensitive.
1.      Seize moments of cultural awareness.
Teachable moments related to cultural awareness frequently bubble up in our classrooms. I had one last October in my 11th grade English classroom at The Haverford School (Pennsylvania), where I have taught upper school English for four years.
Before I describe the situation, I should point out that Haverford is a small (425 students), all-boys school located in suburban Philadelphia, on the city’s Main Line, which has long been home to some of the region’s wealthiest families. Like many independent schools, Haverford enrolls many students from affluent families. We also have students from lower-income families. As part of a school-wide commitment to creating a more diverse learning community, and to attracting the most remarkable boys, Haverford has nearly doubled its spending on student financial aid in the last decade. About 30 percent of our current students receive some level of financial help from the school.
We’re making good progress in this regard, but the income gap between our most and least wealthy families occasionally creates tension and anxiety for our kids. Lower-income students have written essays for me in which they describe feeling alienated from our prep school world. Financially strapped parents have opened up to me during our annual advisory conferences about their struggles to keep up appearances among other well-to-do parents. If you have worked in independent schools for a long time, you have no doubt had similar experiences.
After reading Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, America’s archetypal rags-to-riches story, I invited my 11th graders to think about socioeconomic mobility today. Perhaps not surprisingly, the room remained silent for nearly a minute. One boy finally broke the silence. He insisted, with an unmistakable hint of condescension in his voice, that most poor people are lazy. Another student, a boy whose family I knew to be of modest means and to receive financial aid, disagreed immediately. I’ll spare you the language he used. Suffice it to say that the tension in the room mounted as the other students looked first at the two speakers and then at me.
Perhaps you’re thinking of how you would handle this situation had you been in my shoes. I decided to pause my lesson, inviting the group to think carefully about the views both boys expressed. “Can we point to empirical evidence,” I asked the group, “that confirms that people experiencing poverty are always lazy?”
Silence ensued. Scanning the room, I sensed that kids were afraid to say the “wrong” thing.
So I asked another question: “Why do some people make it in America while others don’t?”
This time, several hands shot up in the air. The first person I called on was the boy who had accused poor people of being lazy. I invited him to speak again because I wanted to give him a chance to explain his thinking. Also, I wanted to remind everyone that we must grant others the right to their opinions, even when we vehemently disagree. He insisted that success boils down to hard work, citing his father and grandfather as examples of hard workers who built and maintained a lucrative company. Other students then joined the fray.
The group was split roughly down the middle: Some students agreed with the notion that grit and hard work are all that’s needed to make it in America, while others cited examples from their personal lives and our literature to dispel that idea. These objectors noted that the American Dream is more myth than reality for the majority of middle- and lower-class people.
The room was fraught when I announced that because we had run out of time, class was over for the day. Before my students left, I encouraged them to keep the debate alive outside of class. Frustrated by our lack of resolution, a few kids rolled their eyes.
Looking back, what I recall about that discussion are the collective feelings of frustration and passion. Every boy held tightly to his ideas about social mobility; no one wanted to concede the other one’s point.
Yet I consider that day a small victory. We take a small step toward becoming culturally responsive teachers when we confront rather than retreat from such situations. Taking direct action is not easy. Admittedly, my first impulse when I heard my student accuse poor people of being lazy was to ignore the storm and simply move ahead with my lesson plan. But by not responding, I would have sent a powerful message to my students about what I stand for as a teacher and a citizen. Also, had I remained silent, I would have missed a chance to raise my students’ (and my own) cultural awareness around an issue that affects all of us in independent schools.
I encourage all of us to be mindful of these situations when they arise. If you feel unprepared to respond immediately, let your students know that you will not drop the issue and want to return to it later. I might have said, “You know, I’m glad you guys made your points. Let’s talk more about them tomorrow.” A decade of teaching has taught me that these moments can have a profound and lasting impact on students.
My school’s motto is “preparing boys for life.” As educators, we prepare our students when we place cultural awareness at the center of our courses, when we create a safe space for students to explore their ideas with respect to, say, race relations or social class or gender identity. When these thorny topics come up in my class, I remind my students that these subjects are what our course is really about.
Kellen Graham NAIS Classroom Photo 1.jpg
Arranging the desks in my classroom into a symmetrical square enhances our literary discussions, allowing us to face one another.  I typically sit among the boys, which I hope reinforces my conviction that their perspectives are every bit as valuable as mine. Credit: The Haverford School/Dawn Blake.
2.      Invite kids to share their stories.
Students who appear culturally insensitive to us often lack exposure to different people. Some boys at my school rarely venture into the city of Philadelphia. Television, films, and sensational media reports inform their sense of who lives there and what those people’s lives are like. It’s easy for these students — and for young people in general — to assume that everyone’s experience mirrors their own.
So I ask my students at the start of the school year to write personal narratives about what matters most to them. Their stories reveal aspects of their hometowns, families, friends, and hobbies. Then they share their stories in a series of in-class writing workshops. I project each boy’s narrative on my SMART board and ask other boys to read them. Our workshop reinforces the fact that their lives are at the heart of our course. It also gives them a glimpse into the experiences of their peers. They see where their lives intersect and diverge from one another.
Culturally responsive teachers fill their classrooms with the rich experiences of students’ varied lives. As teachers, we can also share our own personal stories, which help us earn students’ trust and respect. I talk to my students, for example, about the sacrifices my parents made to send my brother and me to college. The point is that sharing stories fosters a culture of empathy and respect inside our classrooms.
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I like to move around in my classroom. Here, I walk around the room, checking in on their progress and responding to their questions.  Most of the boys appreciate the instant feedback and encouragement. Credit: The Haverford School/Dawn Blake.
3.       Recognize that resolution is not guaranteed.
Like many teachers, I entered the profession with a desire to positively transform the lives of young people. While that desire hasn’t changed, what has changed is my understanding of the time it takes for our work to pay off. When I first walked into a classroom, I was na├»ve enough to think that I could change students’ hearts and minds in the span of a single class period, marking period, or even a whole school year. Now I see how woefully misguided I was.
Culturally sensitive teachers ask their students to wrestle with intensely personal, highly complex issues like politics, identity, and moral values. Let’s not forget that these are topics with which many adults struggle. It should come as no surprise that our students often resist wading into such murky waters. But we should not abandon the work, nor should we expect to resolve our society’s most complex problems before lunch. A more realistic approach frames culturally responsive teaching as a “slow burn” process. We build our curriculum to ignite our students’ passions and sympathies. It may take years for the spark to catch fire.
Teach long enough and you will be gratified by a student who writes a letter or stops by your classroom to tell you that a class discussion, or a time you lent him your ear, changed his life. When difficult moments like the one outlined above come up in my classroom, I reiterate to my students that there are no easy answers. 
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Kellen Graham

Kellen Graham teaches upper school English and coaches cross-country at The Haverford School (Pennsylvania), an all-boys independent school located outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected].