Blackness and whiteness in schools and the impact of culturally responsive teaching
What does it mean for Black and Brown students when education spaces are centered around Whiteness? Turnaround for Children's Tami Hill-Washington on building the capacity of educators and the science of attunement.
The nonprofit Turnaround for Children translates knowledge about how children develop and learn into integrated tools and strategies that enable every child to reach their full potential. Their 180 Podcast features leading voices in education exploring how to transform the systems that educate our children using 21st-century science. The Renewal Project is publishing a series of interviews featured on the podcast to highlight the perspectives and experiences of educators who are striving to build equitable and positive learning environments.
How can we move forward as a united community? And within that framework, how can teachers help our children? Are they prepared to create safe environments and foster an environment of diversity and inclusion?
I now continue my conversation with Tami Hill-Washington (part I is here), an educator with deep experience in the K-12 school system. Today she works at Turnaround for Children, which explores the science and actions around learning, as well as social and emotional well-being. Tami partners with school leaders, helping them develop positive and inclusive learning environments.
In this conversation, Tami explains why she is hopeful–hopeful that we will come together as a nation and in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, whom she references: “That our children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
— Chris Riback, host of The 180 Podcast
Chris Riback: You discussed the importance of re-imagining a world that we all can live in together. What does that world look like?
Tami Hill-Washington: That world to me looks like the work that we’re doing at Turnaround for Children. We are intentionally examining ourselves so that we can understand how to interact and converse with one another, even in moments where we have uncertainty, lack of clarity, non-closure about issues that we may have to walk away with and be accepting of us not having all the answers but creating a necessary space where we can come together and talk about, and manage through our differences to create a community and a world that is more cohesive and interwoven together.
So a lot of the work that we’ve done is really around introspection of self. And then when you span out a little further, you want to also think about how are your behaviors, your attitudes and beliefs about how you interact with people? Are they harming or marginalizing them further? And how are you being an ally or a co-conspirator in helping people that are furthest from opportunity and marginalized to come closest to opportunity and less marginalized? And those are individual acts that happen every day in our society now that either can marginalize a person or advance a person forward.
So what I really hope and envision the world can be, is a world that is more equitable because we have a greater self-awareness of how we operate as individuals in the world. I’m not sure if that will happen in my lifetime, but I know I am working not only today, but towards future generations to have a deeper understanding of how we can get this work done together.
The challenges that you’re describing, the realities that you’re describing, the responsibility for shared cross-racial understanding that you’re describing, what is school’s role in this? What are the conversations that schools should be having with teachers, with parents, and with students?
One of the things that I think is vital for any school to have, is to create dedicated resources and time to do diversity, equity, and inclusion work. And as a secondary education teacher, I can think of a district that I worked in, in Minnesota, where there was a dedicated team to not only think about what does it mean to be a culturally responsive school, but how do you move beyond representation in terms of using culturally responsive teaching and having all of the buzz words to action within a school?
And one of the best ways to do that I believe, is my point of view, is that people have to get real with themselves in terms of how they understand the world, and how they understand their own identities—and how those identities show up interacting with students. So that is a huge thing that people need to focus on is themselves first, to understand especially if you’re a White educator. And we know in this country that the majority of educators are White females. To really understand the historical, political, and social context of what does whiteness mean? And what are the implications when Whiteness is centered in an education space that has intersectionality with race, gender, sexual orientation, and all those things that are nexus that come together that you have to take into account?
"Teachers have to be aware of the relationships that are created ... because you are building not only a trusting relationship, but you’re also building a supportive environment where kids are affirmed for their own identities, where they feel connected to an adult, where they feel like they can be themselves and flourish in an academic setting." — Educator Tami Hill-Washington
I think schools need to do a better job of really investing in deep developmental relationship, trainings that builds the capacity of teachers to really understand the science of attunement and how students being connected in relationship to an adult helps to form not only a strong bond with an adult and student. But it also helps to open up and access that student’s brain. So teachers have to be aware of the relationships that are created harness the genius of students, because you are building not only a trusting relationship, but you’re also building a supportive environment where kids are affirmed for their own identities, where they feel connected to an adult, where they feel like they can be themselves and flourish in an academic setting. And oftentimes, schools create false choices with academics and social and emotional learning. And they think those things don’t go together but we know that the science says very clearly that those things do fit together.
And those are the things that we really need to be focused on, especially during this time when we’re fighting the virus of racism and COVID-19. Schools need to make a huge investment in working very deliberately in creating strong relationships with students where adults are attuned and that they’re setting up environments that are supportive so that students can flourish. And I think that this is a strong antidote to the racial trauma that our students are facing. And also the disproportionate effects of Black and Brown communities with COVID. Those communities have been hit harder than White communities with this virus. And there’s going to be a great need for educators to have an understanding of developmental relationships and supportive environments.
I’m thinking now about the teachers. Are they prepared to take on this challenge and this task that you’re outlining?
I would say no, they’re not prepared at this time. But one of the things that I really appreciate about working for an organization like Turnaround is that we do build the capacity of educators. And the point of view that we have from going from a hero to host mentality is that we’re actually collaborating with partners, meaning educators or districts, in terms of what the needs are. And how we meet those needs, the tools and resources we have to build the capacity of educators.
What we’re saying is that we have a really strong point of view around the whole child purpose, where we believe that there are three strong elements that help to build the capacity of educators if it’s done in an integrated way. And that’s supportive environments, developmental relationships, and integrated skills and mindsets. And what makes that all work is the collective responsibility of the leadership to integrate these systems together to make them work in a way that currently doesn’t work today.
So most schools that you see today work in silos in terms of the work that they do. So they might be doing some SEL (social emotional learning) work, but that SEL work may not be connected to how they’re doing their academics. Or academics is not connected to how do you get a student to self-efficacy or growth mindset. So when I think about that, I’m thinking about the building blocks for learning. And we know that school districts assume that most students walk in the door with school readiness. But what we know through the science is that they don’t in that we have to teach teachers how to build the capacity of their students in order to get the integrated skills and mindsets like growth mindset, in order to be a fully developed human being that is able to take on challenges with persistence and not giving up because they have an attuned relationship and an identity-affirming, supportive environment that helps them to do those things.
So if we’re able to help schools build the capacity of educators and leaders, and teaching them our point of view through a whole-child purpose, what they get is we’re able to integrate those things together through our vision for school success. That helps them to really understand how you bring those pieces together. And one of the things that we say and that people have said to us is once they see the science, they can’t unsee it.
Is our education system prepared to adequately prepare and educate Black children?
No, it’s totally not ready and prepared to educate Black children. The state of Black children in schools today to me is alarming and scary. With the focus so much on academic outcomes, I think all children in the system are dehumanized. But specifically, when you think about children who are in communities that have been divested or funds in those schools have dropped dramatically. What you see is schools that may be functioning to schools that are dysfunctional. If you’re in a school that is dysfunctional, you are not going to be able to attract the talent that you need. Which will impact the environment and the relationships that are created with kids. And if there’s not an intentional lens taken into the cultural relevancy of kids seeing themselves in the work and the relevancy in the world that they interact with, that can be really hard and challenging for kids. And the current way that schools interact specifically with Black boys and Black girls, and Latinx students. I would say is in a compliance driven way that feels to me more like a prison to pipeline side of conditioning than it does where it’s an affirming environment where kids can actually flourish and grow because they’re themselves.
There have been studies that have been done that show over time, the opportunity myth, in which children of Color are given below grade level assignments compared to their White counterparts. So our children, Black and Brown children, are not prepared in the same way a White child is prepared. The resources, the approach that schools are taking in terms of the communities that they have to serve that have Black and Brown children in them could be very harmful to the child because every day a piece of their identity might be stripped away from them, either through the content that they’re learning, the interactions with a predominantly White, female staff. And a community of educators that are not really taking the time to listen and understand the communities that they work in.
So I think we need to do a better job in education. We can’t be parachuting into communities teaching and not understanding the community. A school is in a community. A school is not the community. So to really understand the intricacies of a community that you work in and to be inclusive of parent voice and how students are being educated, it is really important. And what I see right now is a shift in how schools have to interact with parents in a way that they have not before. And I think that this is a great opportunity for schools to move away from compliance and telling parents what they need to do. And partner with parents in a way that is going to be productive for the child to get the outcomes that both the school and the parents want. And what that comes back to Chris, is really being in relationship with parents and building community in a way that schools have not before.
It’s really a moment for everyone along the spectrum to rethink, reimagine, reinvent their approaches. I mean the school districts, the teachers and I would assume as well, perhaps parents and the expectations and requirements perhaps that we put on ourselves and our schools and the way that we interact with them.
Yes, that’s exactly right.
How would you be teaching to this moment? I would think it would have to depend on what the racial makeup of the classroom was? To the extent that you can offer insights based on both personal, parental, but also educational experience, how would you be teaching to this moment?
That’s a great question, Chris. So I can speak to my experience about being a secondary teacher. So I taught seniors. And my favorite subjects to teach were econ and government. And teaching that to 17-and 18-year-old students was really exciting because they were getting ready to transition into their first experience into adulthood. And I would say that I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done in the past, in terms of really having students understand what is their own political stance or point of view in terms of government. And one of the ways we did that is we would explore different types of governments and constitutions. So for instance, we did a great activity where we compared and contrasted the U.S. Constitution to the new Iraqi Constitution. And what we wanted them to really get out of that is what are the differences in the constitution that was created a couple of hundred years ago versus the one that was just created? What are you seeing in terms of the intersectionality of gender in here? What are some opportunities that are afforded to one constitution said that are not said in another? Then make them make sense out of that.
Another activity that I did in my world history class was have students understand the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, which is very hard to understand. And have them make some sense of okay, if you have two groups of people that are very disconnected from their worldviews and how they think they should live together, how would you think about solving this problem based on the geography, the political context that they’re in? And also their point of view in terms of their ethnic and religious backgrounds? And how do you bring those two groups together through a shared humanity?
So there were lots of discussions that I’ve always had with my students. I also brought in readings from James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, and Howard Zinn, A People’s History. So I’ve always been conscious about giving students the opportunity to see different points of view about history. And not having just one point of view or story told. Another thing that I did also was to ask them who is telling the story and who’s not telling the story? Who writes our history? And what’s being left out?
So those moments for me were very rewarding because I can actually see students thinking and making some meaning for themselves of the world that they lived in and how they were going to interact with the world as young adults. And as they were going off to college.
What do you hope and what do you think those students are doing now in this moment?
I know some of them are protesting, are very vocal about what is happening in the world right now. And some are actually serving in the military. Some have really taken on economics and they were like, they used to call me H dubs, they’re like, “H dubs. You really prepared me for econ 101 in college.” As an educator, it’s a privilege to teach and be in front of anyone’s children. So when I was in front of other people’s children, I took it very seriously like those were my own kids. And I wanted to make sure that they were able to see world history, government, and economics through a lens that just wasn’t textbook driven, but helped them to think outside of the box. And how I did that in Econ is that we created a virtual world and economies that they had to trade like they were different countries. We read Freakonomics. We did a lot of different things to draw their interest in so that it made relevance for them in the world, and that they were able to use those tools when they went out.
And to close out our conversation Tami, what changes do you hope to see come out of the moment we’re in?
I’m extremely hopeful in the moment that we’re in right now. Because what the tragedy of George Floyd dying has created a movement not just for Black people, but I see my White sisters and brothers marching in the street. I see them protecting Black folks as they’re protesting, especially in the earlier days of the protest.
But what I want people to know is that the protest will end at some point, but the fight is not over. And the fight really is going to require us to mobilize in a way that we haven’t done before. So, what’s hopeful to me is when I think of Dr. King and his message about I Have a Dream, I feel like we are converging and coming together in a way that we have not in history before, which is very exciting to me. And that the advocacy of the White community in terms of their outrage of George Floyd being killed hopefully will push policies to be different. Will really catalyze people to go out and vote. And I don’t care who you vote for, but I do think that we have to have a different point of view around citizenship and what it means to be a citizen in the United States.
And what our responsibilities are to shape a more perfect union in the country that we all want to live in and be proud to say that we’re American. So, I’m really hoping that this moment galvanizes us to be more intentional about how we organize and mobilize, that we take our citizenship seriously in terms of going out, and voting, and participating, and letting your voice be heard.
Sounds like you’re still teaching government. We all can benefit from learning from you on that and on everything else. Tami, thank you.
Thank you, Chris.
This article and podcast first appeared on Turnaround for Children’s website.