Where do you teach? It’s a simple enough question, but actually a hard one to answer. I could say that I teach in Massachusetts, or more specifically Lawrence. While geographically true, it’s not a very colorful or interesting response. As I think about a more compelling reply, I hesitate between two possible descriptions of my school.
The first is that I teach at a school that serves the most curious, motivated, and compassionate students in Massachusetts. These students include a first-grader who loves cartography and draws her own treasure maps, and a second-grader who immigrated from Guatemala and is learning English as a fourth language (after Spanish and two indigenous languages).
The second is that I teach at a school that serves the poorest neighborhood in one of the poorest cities in Massachusetts, where all students receive free lunch, families move frequently and parents have low levels of educational attainment. These students include a first-grader who experienced extreme trauma from witnessing an act of violence at home and a fourth-grader with no prior school experience.
Most teachers at my school did not grow up in this city and do not live here — myself included.
When we start working here, we often focus on the second description of our school. Generally speaking, we are, to borrow a phrase from Christopher Emdin, “white folks who teach in the hood.” The majority of us have a different skin color, native language, socioeconomic status and academic background from the families we serve.
As a teacher and instructional coach, I have seen three key mindsets that can narrow (but never completely close) this cultural gap and allow us to shift from the second description of our school to the first one.
The first is to know yourself. Did you know the alphabet before you went to kindergarten? Did you ever worry about where you would go to sleep? Did your parents ever take you to a museum or a play? Did you learn piano, karate or ballet outside of school? Did you ever wonder whether (not where) you would go to college?
This kind of self-assessment helps us reflect on how our own backgrounds differ from our students’ and how those differences manifest themselves in the complex relationships between teachers, students and family members. I see this play out when a new teacher gets frustrated with a parent for not bringing her child to school on time. By recognizing our own values and experiences (in this case, punctuality in institutional settings), we can approach this conversation more constructively, seeking to bridge two different sets of values by collaborating on a solution that allows this particular child to spend the most possible time in school.
The more we know about ourselves, the more we can understand our side of the cultural gap, and the more authentic and proactive we can be in narrowing it.
The second is to know your community. I can’t overstate the importance of learning a community’s stories by asking questions from a stance of genuine curiosity and humility.
Where do families come from? What languages do they speak at home? What are their hopes and concerns? What has been their past experience with school? If we continually look for the answers to these questions, then we can support families’ aspirations for their children and become a part of their stories.
When we move from being outsiders teaching “other people’s children,” as Lisa Delpit put it, to being insiders rallying around a community’s dreams for its kids, we begin to narrow the cultural gap.
In addition to stories, we also need to learn a community’s statistics. Knowing that the high school graduation rate has been egregiously low for a generation affirms the gravity of our work and pushes us to care intensely, in this moment, about building different outcomes for our students.
Knowing how many of our students receive free and reduced-price lunch adds detail to our understanding of the financial difficulties families deal with and the poverty-related challenges students face in the classroom. Knowing the number of students who speak a language other than English can allow us to narrow the cultural gap by valuing this linguistic diversity and inviting other languages into the school environment.
The third is to know your students. Teachers are responsible for learning two kinds of information about our students: school-defined and student-defined. School-defined information, or assessment data, tells us how well students perform in key subject areas on parameters defined by the school.
We need this information to determine our students’ academic needs and plan lessons that support their goals. But we also need student-defined information—what students tell us and show us about themselves. We can bridge the cultural gap by earnestly listening and looking for our students’ stories, strengths, and interests.
Learning that Felicia is obsessed with lions, that Brandon loves to help his baby sister at home, and that Lana enjoys drawing treasure maps allows us to access what’s important and real for each student and helps us narrow the gap between our life experiences and our students’.
So many teachers enter the communities we serve as outsiders, but we don’t have to let that fact define the relationship with our students and their families and diminish our potential to help them succeed.
We need to engage in an ongoing process of knowing ourselves, our teaching environment and our children, leveraging these mindsets to close the cultural gap and help our students become the best versions of themselves.
Josh Benjamin is an ELL coordinator at a public elementary school in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Lawrence Public Schools.