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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Culturally Responsive Instruction: The Importance of Caring to Raise the Academic Achievement of all

"Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

-Theodore Roosevelt

Effective educators share a common denominator, they care deeply about their students. "I teach students, not subjects" is a common refrain among these educators, that's because good teachers care about their students' social and emotional wellbeing before content.

Caring for students can be seen in teachers' attitudes, values, and beliefs about students expressed both verbally and nonverbally. In other words, caring is a "point of convergence" between what the teacher believes and how teachers interact with students in the classroom (Jensen, Whiting, & Chapman, 2018). Caring for students means honoring them as human beings, having positive interactions with them, and setting high expectations for behavior and academic performance. Showing students you care can yield huge dividends. For example, studies indicate that students who have had positive relationships with their teachers in high school experience higher confidence levels, are less likely to drop out of school, and are generally more confident about their chances for gainful employment after high school (Flint, Dollar, and Stewart, 2019). Unfortunately, many students of color perceive their teachers as emotionally distant. This may be because some teachers do not view students of color as a good investment of time or deserving of their affection (Lane, 2018). To become a culturally responsive teacher, educators must develop caring relationships based on trust.

There are several things that teachers can do to build a culturing of caring in their classrooms. One of the most important is to build trust with diverse learners. To build trust, teachers should engage in a pedagogy of listening. Nothing says, "I care about you" more than taking a genuine interest in what students' have to say. And since 70% of communication is nonverbal, it is equally important to demonstrate that teachers are actively listening and are present through their body language. According to Zaretta Hammond (2010), teachers should be sensitive to the emotions and feelings behind the words students use, suspend judgment, and listen to students with compassion. Many young people, regardless of culture, don't have the experience, skills, or knowledge to effectively communicate with adults. That is why teachers must meet students where they are and recognize and value their cultural way of communicating.

Another thing that teachers can do to show their students that they care about them is to have high expectations of all learners. To combat what President George W. Bush called the "soft bigotry of low expectations," teachers should become "warm demanders." According to Lisa Delpit, warm demanders are teachers who "expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment." It is amazing how students will rise, or sink, to meet their teachers' expectations. Teachers who erroneously believe their students cannot learn or come from cultures that don't appreciate education are only perpetuating negative stereotypes. Teachers must make high expectations an integral component of their classroom culture and demand that all students rise to the occasion. Maintaining high expectations is easier to do when teachers maintain a structured learning environment. As much as students may resist procedure and protocol, they crave the predictability that structure provides. This is especially true of students whose lives are scarred by the trauma of poverty, neighborhood and family violence, and racism. Classroom discipline is less about individual behaviors and consequences and more about managing classroom processes. When students from affluent backgrounds become disengaged in school, they usually have ample opportunities to regain what they have lost through tutoring, enrichment activities, and other second chances. When students from high poverty areas fall behind, there is no safety net to help them turn things around. As a result, these students experience higher dropout rates, lower unemployment, higher poverty rates, poor health, and involvement with the criminal justice system (National Research Council, 2004). There are no second chances for these students. That is why it is crucial to get it right the first time and warmly demand all students' academic success. Students will rise to the challenge when pushed by someone who genuinely and sincerely cares about them.

To build trusting and caring relationships with students, teachers need to establish rapport in which teachers affirm their students' unique cultures and identities. One of the easiest but overlooked ways to do this is to learn students' names and pronounce them correctly. Sometimes it takes me a while to do this, but names are important. It is how we are identified in the world, and every effort must be made to make students feel welcome and appreciated. Building rapport means that teachers should try and connect with students. Teachers can do this by engaging students with small talk to learn about their interests. I like to arrive to class early and leave late to have plenty of opportunities to talk with students informally, one-on-one. As motivational guru Tony Robbins says, "energy flows where attention goes." Stand in the hallway during passing period and greet students as they enter the classroom. This is an excellent way to start the day, and it signals to students that you take a personal interest in their wellbeing. In addition, I like to greet my Spanish speakers with "Buenos días que tengas un día maravilloso" good morning, have wonderful day! My accent is awful, and the students usually laugh at my pronunciation, but they appreciate that I am making a sincere attempt at using Spanish. Let students see you outside of the classroom. This reminds students that you are an actual person. Go to students' sporting events, chaperone dances, and events. Especially those that celebrate cultural heritage. Nothing says "I care" more than spending time with someone. To build rapport, teachers should be their authentic selves. Don't try and be someone you are not. Students can see through this a mile away. Let students know about your interests and hobbies, even if they are corny. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable, as uncomfortable as it is sometimes. For example, I tell my students stories about my many failures in life because I want them to know that failure is nothing to be ashamed of. It is an integral part of the growth process.

Showing students empathy is another way in which teachers can build positive relationships with their students. Empathy is the ability to step into another persons' shoes, with the desire to understand their feelings, points of view, and lived experiences. Empathetic teachers will then use their knowledge of students to guide their interactions and teaching. Empathy can be broken down into two main categories; they are empathic concern and empathetic perspective-taking. Empathic concern is when a teacher feels sympathy and compassion for their students. Empathetic perspective-taking is applying empathy when dealing with others. This enables teachers to develop students' knowledge by helping teachers connect with their students on an individual and personal basis (Warren, 2018). Teachers who demonstrate an understanding of their students as individuals may connect with them more effectively, forming relationships that could translate into higher student achievement. For example, a recent study of 7 and 8th grade Latinx students revealed that authentically caring relationships are the foundation of academic achievement. In addition to academic instruction, interpersonal relationships are integral components of student learning (Newcomer, 2018). The empathetic teacher can understand their classroom from the students' perspective (Rychly & Graces, 2012). In other words, empathetic teachers demonstrate their cultural awareness through their actions, such as choice of curriculum, pedagogical decisions, and language choices. Teachers who fail to develop robust knowledge of students, to include empathy, may produce a variety of negative consequences such as unnecessary remediation, excessive discipline, and equating the students' disruptive behavior and low academic performance to defects in the child's home life and community (Williams, Edwards, Kuhel, & Lim, 2016). In a study of 18 educators, Peck, Maude, and Brotherson (2015) found that empathetic teachers embrace inclusion, are responsive to students' and families' needs, accept and respond to students' cultures, and engage students and families in meaningful conversations. However, as Maya Angelou points out, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”

Building a culture of caring, based on trust and empathy, takes time. Teachers must be deliberate in their use of limited time to cultivate relationships that will translate into student achievement. As 40-year veteran educator Rita Pierson explains in her TED talk, Every kid needs a champion, "kids don't learn from people they don't like." In my next blog post, I will explore culturally responsive pedagogy to raise all learners' achievement.


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