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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Courageous Conversations: Empowering teachers through language

In 2006, Gloria Ladson-Billings, a leading education advocate, addressed the achievement gap at the American Education Research Association by arguing that the focus on the achievement gap is misguided because it shines the spotlight on education disparities along the lines of race and immigration but does not address the larger issues of institutional oppression (see From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools). Changing the conversation, Ladson-Billings moves attention away from achievement gaps to what she calls the education debt that includes historical, sociopolitical, moral, and economic debt owed to the marginalized in our nation. By addressing educational disparities from the perspective of educational debt, she reframes the conversation from a deficit conversation to a conversation about justice. Ladson-Billings inspires the question: how might the conversation about supporting struggling students be different if it came from a place of moral, political, and economic justice, in reparation for the historic oppression that has led to the achievement gap?

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I currently serve as a Field Director for the Los Angeles Urban Teacher Residency (LAUTR) and part of my job is to provide instructional coaching for our graduates. Our credentialing program has a focus on social justice teaching and my intention is to integrate the technical aspects of teaching with the purpose of promoting social justice. I meet with graduates to plan and debrief their instructional practices the first two years of teaching. To do this work, I must build relationships through trust. In reflections with teachers, I often hear:

“He never listens.”

“They all have such low skills; I don’t know what else to do.”

“They come in with such low skills, and their parents—as nice as they are—can’t really help them.”

Regardless of their intentions, this language of blame and deficit influences teachers’ ability to problem-solve and take personal responsibility for the student’s success.

Yet, there is a paradigm shift when I remind our graduates to reframe their thinking from achievement gap to education debt. Our instructional conversations shift from the language of blame to a language of assets to help the student. Instead of blaming them or throwing up their hands in despair, the teachers begin to use language of empowerment and persistence in finding a network of support for their instruction, their school environment, and the community.

One such conversation was about the low math skills of one teacher’s chemistry students. It initially started out to be a conversation about time, content and her ability to meet a majority of student’s needs. After a gentle reminder about the concept, she came up with a plan that included mini-workshops to reteach, reaching out to the students’ math teachers, and re-establishing her relationship with activities that provided opportunity to build their growth mindset with measurable goals. Did the students’ all reach grade level standards? No, but now the teacher has a mindset in which measurable goals and achievement is integrated into her curriculum based on meeting the cultural needs of the students. And all of her students made gains in their understanding.

Here are suggestions to set up a climate of trust to have courageous conversations with teachers*:

  1. Establish common language and understanding of education debt framework through text based dialogue and trust.
  2. Continue the conversation about social justice and empowerment by using the third point. The third point uses observational data that is scripted or recorded. This moves the conversation from a place of judgement to observation and to offer casual factor stems like, “I noticed that five out of six African American students are sitting in opposite corners of the room by themselves. What might happen if they were able to choose their own seats? What unspoken norms are you establishing?”
  3. Reframe their statements of deficit with specificity: “There skills are so low, how am I supposed to teach everything” is reframed to “What specific skills are they lacking? Is it a case of won’t do or can’t do? How many students in your class have this issue?”
  4. Take time out to have courageous conversation about race, class and gender and its impact on student achievement. In a trusting coaching relationship, this painful but often needed conversation must happen for instruction to change.
  5. Encourage the teachers to ask the students themselves. Teachers often want to solve and be experts and forget to ask students about their needs. When given time and space, students are able to articulate their needs and frustrations so that teacher can build both trust and deeper understanding of their needs.

It’s been a decade since Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced this concept to reframe the conversation. Yet the conversation has barely shifted towards empowerment and sits in an endless rhetoric of gaps that focuses the remedy on the students and not the system. If you believe in the importance of equity, access, and justice the time is now to self-educate, to share your understanding and push for a different way to lead the conversation about instruction that are for all students.

*Excerpts and ideas found here.