Culturally Responsive Teaching: Bridging the Gap Between Teachers and Students to Promote Academic Success
A Personal Story
During my first year as a principal in New York City, a young man (we’ll call him Thomas) enrolled at my school. Thomas had been classified as being emotionally disturbed in the third grade. He was previously placed in self-contained special education classrooms where he was not provided with rigorous expectations or instruction. As a result, he came to us multiple grades behind grade level in reading and mathematics.
As I got to know Thomas, I questioned how an even-keeled young man who played three instruments, was active in his church, and possessed strong oral communication skills ended up being two grades behind AND be classified with such a significant disability. By getting to know Thomas and his family more I learned that, in third grade, his father passed away and that deeply impacted him academically, socially, and emotionally. It made me wonder if anyone took the time to truly get to know him. Were they aware of the challenges he was facing at home? Would they have supported him differently if they knew he was grieving?
For me, those reflective questions shifted into a single strategic question–what are the supports Thomas needs to get back on track? As a school leader, I knew that we would need to center his needs and his talents while collaborating with his family to create a plan to catch him up to grade level and get him on the path to completing high school. We did this by inviting him to join the school’s gospel choir (which tapped into his interest in music and his church), asking him to serve as a “big brother” in Pre-K classes and read to students during lunch (which tapped into his identity as a big brother outside of school and allowed him to use academic skills in service of others), and also by providing one-on-one tutoring to support him in accessing grade level content (as opposed to widening his academic gaps by focusing solely on remedial instruction). This mindset and approach to pedagogy was grounded in the principles of Culturally Responsive Teaching. Its premise centers on the fact that students learn more effectively when we tap into their background, their knowledge, and their experiences in service of their scholastic success.
What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
Within every classroom, there is a gap between the teacher and student. The gap could be rooted in differences in generation, race, culture, socio-economic background, ability/disability, family background, and more. Culturally Responsive Teaching is a way for teachers to bridge the gap with students by finding connection and common ground—so that learning can take place. Creating classroom environments that honor and affirm students helps them to feel safe in their school community.
As scholar Geneva Gay defines it: “Culturally responsive teaching is defined as using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively. It is based on the assumption that when academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly”
Culturally responsive teaching is rooted in a practice of valuing students for their whole selves, including important identies such as their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, nationality, and socioeconomic status, as these all influence how they show up in the world and in the classroom. But as scholar Zaretta Hammond stresses, it’s not about just “mentioning cultural facts or naming famous people of color.” It’s not about creating a rap song to teach this week’s content. As Hammond says, “Culturally responsive teaching is when the teacher grounds the lesson in community issues that are relevant and meaningful to students’ daily life as a vehicle for teaching content. Or when, the teacher uses students’ natural cultural learning tools like talk and word play to help them process new content.”
Culturally Responsive Teaching belongs in every grade level and content area. We know the American education system has disenfranchised students of diverse backgrounds and we can consistently see that many students receive substandard education opportunities based on race, language, and ability. This opportunity gap creates a disparity in academic achievement and Culturally Responsive Teaching is one way to combat that historical system of disenfranchisement.
What is the role of Culturally Responsive Teaching at Relay?
Beyond the moral reason for Culturally Responsive Teaching, it’s just good teaching (as scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings would say!). As we at Relay teach teachers who are committed to serving diverse communities of color, we need to ensure that our teachers are proficient practitioners of these approaches. Since 2018, Relay has been deeply exploring principles and strategies for preparing culturally responsive educators by engaging with expansive research in the field, consulting with our experienced faculty and outside experts, and asking our teachers what they need to serve the needs of their diverse learners. What we learned confirmed for us that this concept is too expansive for a single class or even one course; it must be woven throughout the entire teacher training process.
Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Relay Curriculum
Throughout the Relay curriculum, teachers are asked to consider these questions when implementing culturally responsive teaching:
- Are we giving students opportunities to work with rigorous grade-level content that’s going to develop and change their intellectual capacity?
- Are we giving students chances to think, process, share, discuss, synthesize, and apply what they are learning?
- Are we creating classroom environments where students feel like they are a scientist, writer, or mathematician? How do we develop their ability to see themselves as successful in a content area?
- Have we empowered students to examine and challenge the inequities they see?
On a day-to-day basis in the classroom, culturally responsive teaching is exemplified by teachers who build relationships with students that foster trust and mutual respect. Relay teachers learn and practice specific skills and strategies that support relationship building, implement them with their students, and reflect upon the impact. Relay teachers are supported by faculty to make authentic connections between their content and their knowledge of students. As they develop their proficiency with making meaningful connections between their content and their students, Relay teachers learn to develop units and projects that incorporate students' interests and community assets in meaningful ways, and build students’ critical consciousness about the world outside of the classroom.
In practice, this might look like a middle school math teacher learning about the businesses that students and families frequent in the community and identifying the products that they purchase most often. They can leverage that knowledge to create scenarios in the classroom that ask students to apply concepts of ratios, percent, tax, and discounts to academic tasks. In this way, students are building their proficiency with grade level content, while seeing the applicability of their content within their lived experiences.
The state of education is shifting rapidly and Relay’s curriculum is changing along with it. We must prepare teachers for the changing world—one where students are more expressive, more informed, and more socially engaged. In a time where many are concerned about the learning loss from the pandemic, we can’t overlook the importance of bridging the gap–and fostering connection–between teachers and students so that teaching and learning that combats inequities can happen.