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Jon Saphier

Breaking Down Classroom Doors: The Role Leaders Play

Peer observation has long been seen as a pivot point for the improvement of teaching and learning, but seldom has the role of building leaders to get that started been examined.

Bruce Joyce and Beverly Showers (1990) coined the term “public teaching” 35 years ago. It refers to teachers teaching in the presence of peers and having productive conversations afterward. Richard Elmore (2008) wrote some years ago that “it is virtually impossible for teachers to improve their practice if they can’t watch each other teach.” There are many echoes of that sentiment back over the decades. For example, Heibert, Gallimore and Stigler (Ed Week, Nov 6, 2003) wrote, “The process starts by learning to analyze the details of ordinary classroom instruction, with all its warts and foibles, and then learning to see more effective ways of teaching. But to do this, to even begin down this path, teachers must be willing to open their doors. They must be willing to allow others to use their lessons as data that can be examined and discussed . . . a professional activity open to collective observations, study, and improvement.”

There is evidence that when peer observation is frequent, student achievement rises beyond expectations (see the decades-long track record of Elmont Jr.-Sr. High school in Nassau County, N.Y. featured on The Education Trust website).

In order to support frequent peer observation, teachers must believe they can be vulnerable in front of their colleagues without being judged or disdained. Some lessons will not go as planned; that is inevitable. Mistakes are opportunities for learning, and surprises are routine! So, to create the conditions of basic trust for peer observation to be effective, leaders need to model vulnerability themselves.

Safety to be vulnerable is the liberator. To be sure, if my leader does not have basic competence to keep the wheels turning (student entry and dismissal, cafeteria behavior) then I won’t have trust, to say nothing of respect. The same goes for having my back with parent complaints. But if that leader also builds trust that it will be safe to be vulnerable in front of peers, then the pathway is open. Such trust building begins when the leader is willing to model it herself.

The take-off point for the improvement of teaching in a building is the willingness to be vulnerable in front of one another so that we can go deeply into problem-solving and the inventive thinking and sharing among staff that goes with it. In addition, the parallel job of leaders is to acknowledge the complexity of teaching and the huge range of knowledge and skills that are continually learned over one’s career. Learning is never done.

Learning About Racism and White Privilege

Issues of race and the experience of people of color in America are more central in our national conversation and the media than I can remember since the Civil Rights Era of the 50s and 60s. Bringing this experience to the surface is a good thing.

Fundamental to the forward motion we can and must make toward a more integrated and just society is deepening white people’s understanding of the actual experience of people of color in our country. This is particularly important for educators. Our teacher workforce is predominantly white and our student population nationwide is majority non-white.

At Research for Better Teaching, a school improvement organization working since 1979 on behalf of children, we have spent the last five years studying and sharing experiences to deepen our own understanding of racism and white privilege. Twenty percent of our staff and consultants are people of color.

I am offering here a series of readings we have done together which has a certain logical sequence to it. For example, for all its literary power and depth of emotion, I think Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, is not the first reading that white people beginning the journey to cultural proficiency should undertake if they are beginners in this study and have lived their lives mainly in protected white circles. Yet, for those who are ready, it is essential reading.

Readers may disagree with the sequence and even the reading (and films) in this list. I look forward to suggestions friends and colleagues may offer. Together we can improve this list. I urge others interested in improving our schools and moving social justice forward in our country to begin this study. We have to open our eyes to the current reality and to what our real possibilities are as a multi-racial society.

Here is my starter list of recommendations and a few sentences on where each focuses: PDF of suggested reading and films on racism

I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.

Time to Be Tackling Racial Bias in the Classroom

Student Looking at GlobeRacism is a social construct that operates as a system of oppression based on race. It operates everywhere, even inside the best intentioned of educators.

Racism is built on stereotypes and expressed in various forms of oppression. It shows up in individuals belonging to marginalized groups as internalized racism, in unaware individuals committing micro-aggressions, and in the implementation of school procedures like student placement into special education, tracking, and unequal application of discipline. Facing all this invites difficult conversations that need to take place in schools across the country.

Racism is certainly a first cousin of cultural blindness and cultural improficiency, but it is profoundly different. Culturally improficiency arises from lack of interest and awareness and respect for other cultures. Racism comes from an ancient tradition of dominance and control.

The presumed inferiority of non-white racial groups shows up in a range of places throughout our history. We can see this bias systemically in unequal distribution of governmental resources to schools even to this day. We see this bias in views of intelligence as innate and fixed. Racism prompts differential teacher behavior.

One consequence of our history of racism is what Claude Steele identified twenty-five years ago as “stereotype threat.” “Stereotype threat” induces an unconscious loss of edge in performance based on racial cues. His 2011 book, Whistling Vivaldi, summarizes his quarter-century of research on this topic in engaging and non-judgmental prose. I recommend it to anyone who wants to broaden understanding of this very important and challenging topic.

As teachers, we deepen our understanding of racism by studying the manifestations of white privilege and racism from the beginning, in the history of our country and other countries. It is, in fact, an often unexamined history, and one whose consequences for people of color can be hard for white Americans to comprehend completely without a conscious effort to learn and talk openly about it.

The quest for racial awareness and anti-racist teaching should propel us to push back on negative stereotypes, to correct distortions, and to remedy omissions in our behavior and curriculum that stem from racism. Most powerfully, it should inspire us to make students of color believers in themselves and their capacity. And it is our job to convince them of that. In the process, we will have to work hard to convince ourselves, since we are all, without exception, tainted by traces of racism.

Recommended Reading:

Steele, Claude, Whistling Vivaldi

Singleton, Glenn E. Courageous Conversations about Race.

Why Teachers Need Cultural Proficiency

Group of Elementary Pupils In Classroom With TeacherChanging demographics have made a “should” into a “must” for American teachers. Cultural proficiency produces behaviors that acknowledge and value the culture of those different from oneself. It develops out of being curious and wanting to learn about other people and their cultures.

We are culturally improficient when we lack any understanding of people whose cultural backgrounds and traditions are not that same as our own. Cultural improficiency in the classroom has the result of leaving students who are culturally and linguistically diverse feeling misunderstood and excluded. When a teacher is culturally proficient all students feel that they have a place in the classroom because cultural difference is acknowledged and recognized as having value. This shows up in the artifacts of the class and the examples used in lessons. Cultural diversity is viewed as enriching the classroom experience for everyone.

As teachers of all children, each of us has an obligation, a moral imperative really, to 1) learn about the different cultures of our students and 2) find ways to make their cultures appear in validating ways in our curricula and instructional examples. That is the starting point for cultural proficiency, and cultural proficiency is a new skill set that all American teachers must have to provide every student with the best learning environment.

Recommended Reading:

Excellent recent book in a rich literature: Zaretta’ Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

A Short History of Ed Reform

This short video describes the history of Ed Reform and recommends that the focus be on high expertise teaching in every classroom.