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'Educators Get Transformed From Life-Changers Into Wardens': Chris Emdin on Urban Schools

Editor's Note: This is the third post in a series called "A Look Back." In it, I'll be highlighting a particularly insightful response an educator has provided in a past column.

Past posts in this series have included:

'Stop Hiding Behind the Factory Model of Teaching': Rick Wormeli on Differentiation

'The Importance Of White Students Having Black Teachers': Gloria Ladson-Billings on Education

Today's "A Look Back" shares a portion of a lengthy interview I did with Christopher Emdin about his book, For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood...and the rest of Y'all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education.

You can see the entire interview at 'For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...': An Interview With Chris Emdin.

You might also be interested in a collection of previous posts on Race & Gender Challenges.

Christopher Emdin is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. He is the creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S.

LF: You make the point that, often, urban communities and the youth who live in them are viewed more through the lens of deficits instead of assets. That point of view seems to be reinforced by many of our institutions, including the media and our schools.  What recommendations would you make to teachers about beginning steps they could take to move towards that more positive point of view?

Christopher Emdin:

I appreciate your acknowledgment of the role that both media and schools play in the creation and maintaining of deficit views of urban youth. While there is usually an acceptance that media constructs flawed narratives about urban youth, society often overlooks the ways that schools reinforce these narratives and cause them to fester in the minds and hearts of teachers. Zero-tolerance policies that punish and demonize youth for violating strict school rules that have nothing to do with teaching and learning encourage teachers to focus on everything but the academic potential of youth. In turn, teaching devolves into policing, and educators get transformed from life changers into wardens who are more invested in catching and punishing "bad students" than seeing them as children who desire academic success.

The most valuable thing any urban educator can do before working in urban communities is to engage in deep reflective work about who they are, what biases they hold, and why they have chosen to work in these communities. This self-work is more important and rigorous than any academic work one may engage in on the path towards becoming an effective teacher. It is a process that can begin with writing an autobiography that centers around the teachers' experiences with urban communities and the youth who are from them. Teachers must ask and answer questions like, what was my first experience in communities like the one where I am teaching? When was the first time I interacted with a person of color from these communities? What feelings did I have during my previous experiences with youth from these neighborhoods? Am I planning to teach with an exit strategy in mind?

When the teacher asks these questions, many truths about their biases are revealed. These revelations can then guide their interactions with young people. The teacher who knows who they are is more critical of how these biases are played out in their interactions with students and inevitably interacts with students more positively.

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LF: You write that many challenges in the classroom can be helped by teachers "seeing students in the same way they see themselves," including acknowledging the trauma that students have experienced. Can you share some specific examples of how you think a teacher would act differently if they had that perspective?

Christopher Emdin:

Many urban teachers who come from communities more affluent than the ones where they teach see themselves as kindhearted people who work in these schools because they care about others who may be less fortunate or have fewer resources.  These are overwhelmingly a group of people who have been recruited to urban schools by organizations that affirm their self-perceptions as educated, caring, and altruistic people. They come into the profession seeing themselves as heroes  -and all people who see themselves as heroes feel like there has to be someone to save. This creates an image of students as victims to be saved or inherently bad, violent, and uneducated people to be enlightened. As a result, the humanity of students is lost to the ego of the teacher and it becomes easy for a teacher to see a student as a test score and data point and not a real person.

When teachers see students like they see themselves, they see the best in students. They see them as heroes that have overcome the challenges of living in communities that have been deprived of resources. Students are not seen as victims, but rather as peers to exchange information with. Once teachers see students as they see themselves, they ask students to give feedback on instruction, consider students' thoughts and opinions on how the school operates, allow students to express their content knowledge in non-traditional ways, and engage with them both inside and outside of the classroom.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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