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Finding Amanda Gorman: Guess What? She's Sitting In Your Classroom Right Now.


Amanda Gorman. Image credit: Stephanie Mitchell

This powerful quote by Dr. Brit Williams (@drbritwilliams) has been circulating the internet since Amanda Gorman’s breathtaking recitation of her poem at the recent Presidential inauguration. These words forced me to pause and reflect. What keeps teachers from valuing the art and talent of their students of color? How can a teacher learn to honor Black students? Are there any practical answers to what it really looks like in a classroom for teachers to truly “see” their students of color? Can this mindset be learned? I believe that the answer is a resounding yes. But only if we are willing to critically examine our deeply-held beliefs about student ability, humble ourselves to the process, and purposely pursue genuine relationships. If we want our Black and brown students to invite us to see their authentic genius, to shine their lights brightly, then we have to show them through our actions that we won’t snuff out their spark.



To teachers who are already connecting well with all students, these may seem like no-brainer practices. I wrote this for teachers like me who have had to work hard to conquer their personal demons and cultural incompetence. This article will examine four daily practices that help me more equitably embrace the inherent value and talent of all students in my classroom.


Backstory:

In 2015, I transferred from one of the top magnet schools in my district to one of the lowest-performing schools, which happened to be 72% African-American. I’m a Black woman, so I was motivated by my personal mission to help my people and to be an asset to students who need good teaching the most.


I was hit with so many surprises that first semester that I considered quitting at Christmas Break. My students viewed me as an outsider. It often felt as if we were speaking two different languages. They tolerated me, but would not allow me beyond the protection of their necessary armor of sarcasm and contempt. I later learned that the staff turnover was so high at this campus that a teacher once said she was going to the restroom and never came back. My students had no reason to trust me. While I was strapping on my cape to come and save them, I did not consider how socioeconomic and class differences between my students and me would affect our interactions.


I came with district accolades, multiple degrees, and ten years of teaching under my belt, and I still got my (Black) butt kicked. Because I unconsciously credited assimilation for being what made me successful, I entered my new assignment with the implicit goal of “fixing” my students. If they just spoke like me and acted like me, then maybe they could be successful like me. Pompous. Prideful. Arrogant. Hurtful. Traumatizing. Colonizer mentality. Read my racial narrative to better understand why I was trippin’.


Once my cape (and my pride) got shredded to pieces by my failure to effectively teach in this new context, I had to strip off my savior complex and humble myself. I recently learned that the difference between the culture of my students and the culture they encounter at school is called “cultural mismatch.” Either I was going to continue to alienate my students or I was going to build a bridge. I had to own that it was my job to address these mismatches head-on. Below are the four practices that I adopted through trial and error to better connect with my students despite our differences, along with real-life examples from my classroom interactions as an eighth-grade teacher.


Four Practices for Authentic Connection with Students



Humble yourself and check your deficit thinking.

I thought that I knew better than my student’s parents about how to help them grow. I assumed (wrongly) that parents didn’t care about their students because many didn’t attend every basketball game and every parent conference like my parents had. I thought intelligence was determined by how articulate you were. Subconsciously and consciously, I thought many other negative things about my students and families that I am too ashamed to share here. But that I had to process somehow if I was going to be honest with myself.


Humility is hard when the standard operating procedure is to strap on our “teacher armor” and always act like we’re in control. Disconnection fosters defiance. Armor prevents connection. So vulnerability is required. If we teachers don’t feel silly or nervous sometimes when relating to our students who are not like us, then we probably aren’t connecting with them effectively.


One of our biggest points of connection in my classroom is music. One of our challenges to earn extra points was to do the first half of the routine to Level Up by Ciara. Of course, I had to go first. I thought I could dance until I saw the utter disgust on my students’ faces! But those few minutes of joy brought us a different kind of kindredness. I recently let the top-scoring students choose which Tik Tok dance I would do. On Zoom. In front of the entire 8th grade. And all eighth-grade teachers. Cringey! But worth it. My students saw that I was willing to invite them to be in a position of power and allow them to “grade” me for a change.


Become a “student of your students” (Scott, 2017) and share yourself with your students by asking and answering authentic questions.

My bell ringer/”do now” activity every single day is a personal question for my students, related to the topic I’m teaching. The first five minutes of every class is spent discussing them and sharing a part of myself. I always answer the bell ringer aloud first. I model transparency by trusting them with my authentic self with the hopes that they will reciprocate. This year, I started asking them to answer the question in their native language (mostly Spanish and African-American Vernacular English) and in standard English. My goal is to show them that every part of each of us is honored in my classroom. Our class motto is “this is a safe place” and that applies to all of us, including me.


I also ask my students to complete a student experience survey each year with questions related to my strengths and weaknesses, how they feel when attending my class, etc. But beware. Students typically are not afraid to share their entire truth with you if they know you are listening. Below is a real-life sample response I received on one of my surveys during a school year when I thought I was killing the game. Definitely a growth moment for me.


Look for patterns, traditions, and important events to support unobtrusively.

The difference between a stereotype and a tradition is the level of respect given to it. If an event or object is important to my students, then it needs to be important to me. I found ways to play a practical, supporting role in their cultural traditions. If I put myself in the center of their traditions and made it about me, then I would lose their trust and probably be guilty of cultural appropriation. I recently learned that the term for this in equity lingo is “de-centering.” The process cannot be one way--that’s dictatorship not relationship. I have to invite my students into my culture just like I want them to invite me into their cultures.

  • Most of my students love Jordans. I am not even sure if “love” is a strong enough word for the level of fandom that I have seen from many of my students over the years. So I let them know that I was considering getting my first pair. I asked in my bell ringer if I should by the Retro 4 Black Cats or if they had other recommendations. I got my Js, and my students were overjoyed that I acknowledged them, heard their choice and wanted to fit in with them.

  • I learned that birthdays are a big deal for my students, complete with balloons and tiaras at school. My Black students come to school on their birthday with money pinned to their chest. Many of my students even offered me money on my birthday! I wanted to be a part of the celebrations without going broke, so I picked up a pack of safety pins from Dollar Tree, so I could become a part of the tradition. I came to be known as the place to go if you needed a safety pin for your birthday money. Unbeknownst to me, I “de-centered” myself in their tradition and found a way to play an active role in something that was important to my students.

Lead with joy and positivity.

  • I was shocked to discover early on that positive responses brought more change and respect than negative ones. I bought a $1 colorful notepad and I would write positive notes home to their parents. I had an 8th-grade girl actually tape the note on her chest. Positive calls home are my students’ favorite, no-cost rewards. They love when their parents hear something positive from their teacher. I learned to try the positive approach before I resort to consequences. Most times, that approach works much better than threats. Plus it preserves the relationship I try so hard to build with each student.

  • That first year, I asked several students after an absence where they had been. They nonchalantly responded, “At the house. I’m only here because of truancy.” As this scenario played out repeatedly over the years, my pat response has now become, “Well please come to school every day. I miss you when you're not here.” My students always smile really big when I tell them that. Because I mean it. I know that for several of my students, there are many barriers to daily school attendance that are beyond their control, so my goal is to make them want to be there.

Before we can inspire our Black and brown students to soar, we have to make sure they feel like they belong. To that end, instead of attempting to assimilate my students into my own personal set of acceptable “norms”, I now work hard first to be accepted by them. This shift in power dynamic sets the stage for the mutual, authentic connection required for students to allow me to do life with them. Although it’s not in our job descriptions, we are both teachers and mentors. My actions and words have the power to provide lifelong motivation for students. Inspired by Amanda Gorman, I pledge to use my power in the classroom to become the lightkeeper and protector of every student’s dream.


18 Reflection Questions for Addressing Teacher-Student Cultural Mismatch


Humble yourself and check your deficit thinking.

  1. Do you think building positive teacher/student relationships is even important? If not, attempt to list at least three reasons why you feel that way. If you possibly value the content you teach over relationship building, consider that a student’s sense of relatedness improves motivation and engagement (Ryan & Deci, 2017).

  2. Do you often “other” the minority students in your community with terms like “these kids” and “these parents?”

  3. Deeply examine your “why.” Complete this statement: I teach at this school because____. Hopefully, your answer includes at least one positive statement about students. If not, draft a new, positive, student-centered guiding vision for what you want to accomplish through your work with young people.

  4. Do you ever weaponize language or use it as your place of power by making your students feel bad for using certain words, referring to their native language negatively or even thinking less of a student or parent that does not use standard English?

  5. Have you taken some time to examine your foundational beliefs related to each of the races you teach? Instead of just being defensive and shouting that you aren’t a racist, privately write down how you really feel about your students. Separate the list by race.

Become a “student of your students” (Scott, 2017) and share yourself with your students by asking and answering authentic questions.

  1. Have you allowed any intentional space in your class schedule to purposely ask and answer personal questions?

  2. Can you name personal, specific details about most of your students of color? Do they have siblings? Play sports? Have hidden talents? Are they introverted or extroverted? Do they know the answers to these questions about you?

  3. Have you ever collected formative data through student experience surveys like this one?

Look for patterns, traditions and important events and support them unobtrusively.

  1. How do your students celebrate birthdays?

  2. How do your students mourn after a loss? What are their death/