This article originally appeared in Learning Forward, April 20, 2020
In the unprecedented crisis we’re all facing, educators need culturally responsive competencies more than ever. In situations of urgency, it’s human nature to default to old patterns and drop hard-won awareness practices. We can keep that from happening, and through this crisis become even more effective as culturally responsive practitioners.
Who we are as individuals and as members of racial, class, gender, age, and other social groups influences how we experience and act in the face of the current crisis. Applying a culturally responsive lens helps us focus on how to respond compassionately, respectfully, and effectively to one another across differences.
It may seem contradictory, but the first step in culturally responsive practice is creating emotional stability in ourselves. When we support others from a base of unexamined fear or grief, it’s difficult to meet people where they are, let alone connect across different lived experiences of age, race, class, gender, or cultural groups of any kind. When we establish our own stability first, we have more emotional energy for others, as well as a clearer sense of our own social perspective.
The next essential step is listening. Especially while we are physically separated from one another, listening builds relational trust, broadens our understanding of the challenges, and allows expert voices from diverse communities to emerge, giving us a much stronger base for problem-solving.
Starting with self-care
Right now, coaches, school leaders, and teachers are expected to be leading others, while at the same time many of us are anxious, afraid, or grieving ourselves. We’re expected to take charge, have answers and solutions, and be there for more vulnerable people, while we may be struggling to care for our own families and friends. We’re leading a mass experiment, teaching students online with no advance notice and little preparation.
Fears can be rational, but they shouldn’t drive us. While the phrase “putting on our own oxygen masks first,” is overused, we need to practice this life-saving action even at the same time as we respond to the urgent needs to make sure students are safe and fed and to launch online teaching. Neuroscience tells us that when stressed, we’re in a state of “amygdala hijack,” physically pumping the stress hormone, cortisol, into our veins. We can take steps to reduce cortisol. The trick is to observe emotions, name them and allow them to move through us, rather than letting them drive our actions.
If I don’t know I’m anxious, I may believe that the solution to the disquiet inside of me is to work harder or tell the people around me what to do with more force and emphasis. But if I can notice my fears and needs, I have many more choices on how to proceed. Cultivating calm instead of anxiety leads to resilience, improved thinking capacity, and increased immunity. The simplest term for noticing and naming emotions is mindfulness.
Here’s an example of how mindfulness can help. My own fears in the last few weeks have taken very physical forms – knots in the stomach and headaches. To help manage them, I have a stretching and meditation practice every morning, before I begin my work or look at the news. When I can, I take walks in nature and look for signs of spring. I talk to friends and we listen to each other. All of this helped me support my teenage daughter, who was painfully disappointed about the many losses she is experiencing due to the shelter-in-place order. Because I took time to first talk about all my own disappointments with another adult, I was able to be more clear and focused to hear hers. The same principle applies to providing similar support to a whole class of students or school of colleagues – at that scale, we need mindfulness and self-care strategies even more.
Moving from self-care to cultural responsiveness
This awareness of ourselves and our current states sets the stage for us to be aware of and responsive to others’ perspectives and needs. It is more important than ever that we do this work with a culturally responsive lens. Those of us from a dominant culture always need to remember to monitor our assumptions and beliefs about the capabilities and choices of both students and colleagues from multiple cultures and social identity groups. All of us will need to put extra thought and attention into noticing our perspective and judgments, now that we have little-to-no in-person contact with anyone outside of our family pod.
Not only our students but our adult colleagues may lack equal access to resources or technology. Struggles with social distancing may look different across cultural, linguistic, class, or race lines. And anxieties are shaped by both our personal experiences as well as those of our communities.
To help broaden our understanding of what others are experiencing, we can and should continue asking ourselves questions like these: How does my own social identity help or limit my being able to support the people I work with? What assumptions am I making about families’ or colleagues’ lives and needs right now? What might I be missing? As a white person, how am I listening to and learning from people of color now? As a man, how am I listening to women? How am I balancing the giving of information with attention to social and emotional needs?
As we are all still adjusting to the new rules, agreements, and systems, we can start with listening. Many of us in leadership roles are now giving directives, and we all (whether leaders or not) are often compelled to tell others what they should or should not be doing. Yet, even in times of crisis, people from a dominant culture telling people from a non-dominant culture what to do is hard to separate from histories of oppression and injustice. Our social identity in combination with our role identity, plus our tone, impacts how we are heard.
I was recently in an online meeting where the program administrator, a white, middle-class man leading a group of multi-racial participants made an effort to set firm boundaries about social distancing and not mixing “germ pods.” He publicly commented towards one of the participants, “You delivered the Chromebook to the student’s house? You definitely should not be doing that!” While the leader had valid information to convey, he skipped the vital first step of empathic listening to the intention behind the teacher’s actions. Equally significant, he did not self-monitor his tone, which was heard by many as shaming and patronizing, and was triggering for people of color and women who often experience white men in positions of power asserting that their way is the “right way.” When I asked a few people later what they took away from the meeting, one said, “I didn’t need someone else to tell me I’m bad at a time like this.” Another said, “He doesn’t understand or care about our situation.” At least one had resolved “not to let him know what I’m doing next time.”
When we are aware and notice ourselves judging others (for example, thinking “This teacher/colleague/family/child is doing something wrong”), we have an opportunity to return to culturally responsive practice. We can ask ourselves again what we might be missing, even with adults we think we know well. Then we can ask others what we’re missing and what their needs are. In our urgency to address many demands, it may feel like there is no time to listen now. But there is.
Essential practices in times of crisis
I hear many people struggling to figure out the most important priorities in working with teachers and colleagues now. The practices suggested below are derived from my experience as a coach, consultant, and leader. They apply to coaching and other professional relationships. Their sequence is important.
In the spirit of cultural responsiveness, I acknowledge that there is no one right approach for everyone, and my approach as a white, middle-class woman will not fit every situation. But I hope the tips offer inspiration and build on what you already know from past practice.
- First, acknowledge your own fears and anxieties, tend to them, and put them aside before entering into a coaching or leadership situation
- Listen to those you are aiming to support.
- Keep listening, perhaps for an agreed-upon amount of time, without interrupting, or jumping in to fix anything.
- Paraphrase and verbalize what you heard to the other person, to make sure you really understand the person’s individual situation and needs.
- Ask yourself, what might I be missing?
- Express empathy for the person’s specific situation and feelings.
- Help guide the person towards identifying what he or she can and can’t control, and what he or she most needs.
- Assure the person you are coaching/leading that he or she is not alone, and share what you can and cannot do to support him or her, asserting healthy boundaries.
- Identify a key area within the person’s locus of control, and help him or her identify specific goals to accomplish with specific timelines (e.g. – “My teaching goal between now and Friday is to set up student rules and protocols for using the Zoom platform,” or “My self-care goal is to stop, step outside, and breathe for ten minutes, three times a day.”)
- Help them to identify all relevant public health expectations and educational system changes, and to solve any challenges in meeting those expectations.
In following these practices and this sequence, we are not only building relational trust, but we are modeling for teachers and leaders how to take the same approach with their students. Ultimately, we want teachers to ask themselves the same questions about their students that we are asking about them: What is working for my students? What do I know about their situations, and what might I be missing? How does my social identity support or limit my understanding of what others are going through? What support do I need in order to provide quality education to all under these extreme circumstances? What would need to change in the system for me to get that support?
Coaching and leading for equity during the crisis
The months we will spend in this crisis will profoundly exacerbate existing inequities and academic gaps between privileged and non-privileged students. We must stay alert to academic practices that may widen the gap even more. At the same time, just as we are learning that there are benefits to our global environment and air quality from the COVID-19 crisis, we should be alert to the possibility that the crisis will reveal some educational solutions that promote more access and academic success for all students. Being aware of ourselves, others, and the vitality within our different points of view is key to developing practices that will provide the full range of students with an engaging, rigorous, and responsive education.
Many of us, without realizing it, have been preparing for this crisis all along. Here is an opportunity as school leaders, coaches, and teachers to pull out everything we’ve learned about coaching practice, effective communication, resilience, self-care, and cultural responsiveness, and apply it. The crisis is affirming for us that we are all connected. It is a time like no other, and we can hope to come out of it having strengthened our skills, our vision, and even better prepared for the long road ahead.
Sarah Young (email@example.com) works as a consultant supporting teacher effectiveness for educational equity. As a coach and workshop facilitator, she has a special focus on culturally responsive practice, coaching and communication skills, and adult social and emotional learning.
This article originally appeared in Leaning Forward, December 13, 2019
A white colleague recently asked me, “Sarah, why do we need culturally responsive coaching? Isn’t it just good coaching to be responsive to everyone?”
I had to give some thought to how I framed my response. The crux of the answer is, “No, it’s more complex than that,” as is the answer to the parallel question about serving diverse learners: “Isn’t it all just good teaching?” But I had to find the right words to explain this to my colleague and the others with whom I work as a culturally responsive coach.
It’s true that effective coaching is always responsive and based in listening deeply to each individual. However, what’s different for me as a culturally responsive coach is that I regularly set an intention to reflect on the role of social identity; the differences between myself, the teacher, or students; and the social political context in which the teacher is working. Before I open my mouth, I engage in self-talk: What do I think I know, and what might I be missing? How does my cultural lens give me insight, and how does it limit my understanding?
I want the teachers I support to learn about the diverse cultures and world-views of their students, examine unconscious biases, consider gaps in how they understand student behavior, make curriculum relevant and engaging, and raise rigor while cultivating a safe classroom environment. In a parallel process, I strive to model those same skills in working with the teacher.
Often, the challenges teachers present to me are framed as neutral when they are, in fact, related to social context, culture, or race. Teachers often fail to recognize the assumptions that underlie comments like: “The curriculum is too hard for these students,” “The students are too noisy,” “They won’t do homework,” “They just don’t have skills based on their home life,” or “These parents don’t value education.”
In these situations, I push myself to move beyond color-blind or politically neutral coaching, to raise questions that help the teacher consider his or her perceptions of student behavior, engagement, or markers of intelligence and how those perceptions are influenced by identity and social location.
I’ll admit there are times I’m tempted to respond to teacher frustration or desperation by guiding them toward a quick-fix instructional solution. But this would be a disservice to the teachers and, more importantly, to students.
In a parallel process, I also ask myself about my own perceptions. I reflect on what I think I know about the teacher. I am a white, middle-aged, middle-class, Jewish woman. In what ways are my and the teachers’ identities similar or different? What might I need to learn more about the person I’m coaching? What do I know about my own triggers, and how they might surface in conversation?
As a white coach, how do I make it safe enough for teachers of color to share their struggles with me? How do I support white teachers to look beyond the lens of “whiteness” as they look at behavior and academic skills of racially diverse students and families?
While I question myself about many kinds of differences between me and the adults I serve, race is the hardest and takes the most practice. For example, I recently prepared to observe Sally, a new, young, white teacher from a white suburban community working in racially diverse urban area.
Sally had asked me to collect data on a “certain group” of kids that often “call-out to disrupt the lesson.” I observed three African American boys who did regularly call-out without raising hands, yet my data showed the comments were relevant and on topic.
My first coaching step was to share the data and then model naming the influence of “whiteness” on my interpretations.
“As a white observer of students of color, I always ask myself what I think I know, and what I might be missing,” I said to Sally. “I know that having grown up in a segregated, white, middle-class community can affect my interpretations. I have a lot of influences that prime me to see loud, spontaneous behavior in kids of color as disruptive or threatening, where I might see the same behavior in white kids as merely exuberant. In this case, I have to ask myself, are the comments intending to disrupt, or could this be a learning strategy? The data I recorded shows the call-outs relate to what you’re teaching.”
Sally read over my notes and nodded thoughtfully. “Why are they calling out then?” she asks. “Why can’t they wait for me to call on them like the other students do?”
I responded: “It’s interesting. I’ve been reading and talking to other people who know more about different cultural learning styles than I do. From my own white perspective, I’m coming to understand how various nonwhite communities encourage a highly verbal learning style, where the audience is expected to interact out loud as they learn. I’m curious to see how the boys’ exuberance to respond might be channeled into a different sort of participation structure where call-outs are welcomed and encouraged, and you still feel in charge as a teacher.”
“What do you think that would look like?” Sally asked, looking perplexed, but still open. Now Sally and I had an entry point to a culturally responsive coaching conversation.
When I work with teachers of color, my self-talk questions are both similar and different from the ones I used with Sally. My starting place is radical humility, as I ask myself what I think I know and what I might be missing. Race is the topic I’ve been least prepared to talk about in my teacher training, coach training, or life experience.
One year I was assigned to coach Ted, an African American teacher about 20 years older than me. Ted related well to his students, but the curriculum he used in his alternative high school classes was built entirely around rote worksheets, which were not engaging the students or helping their comprehension.
Ted’s school was one where most students had been pushed out of mainstream settings. I felt some urgency to see them engaged with curriculum that supported critical thinking and drew on their rich life experiences.
As a teacher and professional learning leader for the California Writing Project, I figured I was just the right person to jump in and demonstrate to Ted how much more his students were capable of when they engaged in writing process lessons. Ted responded politely to my offering but was surprisingly distracted when I came in to model lessons, even though the kids were more engaged than I had seen them previously.
Ted then began to withdraw, missing our appointments and not following up on my gently offered suggestions for follow-up lessons. At one point, after I called him at home to reschedule a missed meeting, he got frustrated with me and asked to have me replaced as his coach.
I was confused — the request seemed abrupt. At the same time, I was relieved. I considered Ted to be a resistant teacher, or one who was just not up to doing the extra work involved in a more engaging curriculum.
However, my supervisor insisted I try to work it out with Ted, starting with an apology. Reluctantly, I agreed.
“Ted, I’m sorry I called you on a Sunday,” I said as I sat down at the desk across from him. “I didn’t understand. I’m used to teachers working on Sundays. Including me.”
“Do you want to understand?” he asked. His tone was calmer, and he looked at me directly. Did I want to understand? The question was uncomfortable. Had I come here to learn something or to defend myself?
“Yes,” I said, hesitating. “I may need help to understand.”
Ted chuckled. “True. You haven’t tried too hard.”
It became clear that he had a perception of me not trying too hard as a mentor. Ironically, that was how I had seen him as a teacher.
“I have a big life outside of this job, and Sundays are important to me.”
“Oh yes, you must have church on Sundays,” I replied.
“Don’t put me in a box, little lady. Black people don’t do any one thing the same. Do you want to ‘figure me out,’ or do you want to understand?”
“I do want to understand,” I said, uneasy that I still wasn’t getting it right. “I know someone like me might be missing a few things.” “Someone like me” was the closest I could come at that point to saying “white person.” I had not yet learned to use the muscle of naming whiteness. But I did want to make a bridge.
“On Sunday mornings, I do a radio show. It’s a mix of my faith, Baha’i, and my own experiences and spiritual path. On Sunday afternoon, I meet with other black Baha’is.”
“Really?” My undisguised astonishment was yet another flag of my white ignorance.
“I thought you’d be surprised. People often are. So I brought you something I wrote.” Ted handed me a pamphlet he had written about using principles of the Baha’i faith to reach out to black teenage boys.
“You’re a writer?” I stammered. “Why didn’t you mention that when I talked about teaching the kids writing?”
“You didn’t ask.”
“No, I guess I didn’t.”
Did Ted think I assumed he couldn’t have had professional writing experience because he is black? And, most difficult to ask myself, was it in any way true that that was my assumption? I hadn’t checked for his prior knowledge, even though that’s a basic practice in preparing teachers to use any new strategy. Had I even considered the possibility that he would know as much about writing as I did? Would I have asked different questions of a white person 20 years my senior?
I skimmed Ted’s pamphlet. It was thought-provoking, clearly organized, with a distinctive writer’s voice.
“Why didn’t you tell me about your writing skills?” I asked.
“You didn’t ask,” he repeated. “You just jumped right in like you knew it all.”
“That’s true. I thought you only knew how to teach from worksheets. Why did you use so many worksheets when you know so much about how to write?”
“I was trying to do well with what they gave me to use. That’s what I thought the job was.”
I wasn’t wrong about the need to move on from the worksheets, but I had been wrong about his motivation for using them. I had jumped in with the “best” way to teach without expressing curiosity about what Ted knew.
And I hadn’t considered that Ted viewed our interactions through the lens of his own life experience, in which he had frequently received the message that the “white way” of teaching was presumed to be best by the majority of white teachers, school leaders, and other authorities he had worked with and studied under, and the myriad books about education that are written by white authors.
I felt embarrassed, especially because, as a former bilingual teacher, I had worked with many students and families from backgrounds different from my own. Now I wondered: What else had I missed?
“Do you ever share any of your journalistic work with your students?” I asked.
“No.” Ted smiled and looked directly at me. “Do you think I should?” It was a genuine question.
I paused to take a breath. This was the first time in months of working with him that Ted had asked for my opinion on any teaching strategy. “Absolutely! I think the students would love it.”
Ted nodded and jotted down a few notes. I breathed out a deep sigh. It was only now that we had begun a culturally responsive conversation and could begin the work of mentoring.
With both Ted and Sally, the process of culturally responsive coaching began not with inquiry-based coaching questions, but with engaging in an internal process of self-talk, reflection, humility, naming race and social identity, and cultivating genuine curiosity. When coaches and teachers cultivate our awareness, we are better positioned to identify the variety of strategies that will support diverse students with rigorous curriculum in a respectful, safe classroom environment.
Engaging in this process with one another allow us to model and reflect on how to engage in culturally responsive practice with students and families. Culturally responsive adult-to-adult relationships are foundational to forming school community where all adults and all students are able to thrive professionally, academically, and as whole beings.
Sarah Young works as a consultant supporting teacher effectiveness for educational equity. She works as a coach and workshop facilitator with a special focus on culturally responsive practice, coaching skills, and adult social and emotional learning. Sarah@sarahyoungconsulting.com