As a teacher, I was prepared for students to ask questions like, “Why do we have to know this?” But I wasn’t prepared for what a Black student said to me on the first day of school. Damien looked around, said, “There aren’t any other Black people here?” and put his head down. I smiled and said, “You have me.”
It was supposed to be a moment of solidarity, a hidden fist bump. Instead, it became one of the most embarrassing moments of my career. Damien lifted his head, laughed, and said, “I meant real Black people.”
I wish I could tell you that this was the first or last time my Blackness was challenged. I wish I could tell you that many Black people reading this won’t be able to relate. But they will. Society sends young people the message that white cultural norms are the “right” way to be American. So, like many other students of color, I learned to code-switch at a very young age, constructing a Brandon that would “pass.” The problem for Damien wasn’t how I spoke, how I was dressed, or how I carried myself. It was that, in his mind, I’d chosen to reject our shared culture and identity, and was now on the wrong side of an invisible line.
This problematic mindset isn’t new, but the identity crises it creates in young people of color are very real, and they create barriers to academic success in schools built on white norms. The Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards will address this problem by asking future educators to reflect on how their own identities may influence their biases and to learn about their students’ culture, languages, and learning styles. Teachers should be able to connect their content to students’ lives and encourage all students to be their authentic selves, even if they don’t look like them. In essence, these standards ask educators to walk a school day in our shoes.
Unfortunately, as we near a vote on these standards, there are false accusations that they will have a negative impact on K-12 classrooms. Opponents claim they will leave less time for content-area learning, and more time for a “progressive agenda.” So let’s unpack that.
First, unlike content area standards, these standards don’t dictate what teachers should teach. They simply challenge teacher prep programs to prepare future educators to reflect on their instruction, improve their classroom management, and ensure that their communication style works for families and students from all backgrounds.
Second, in order for students to master content area skills, they have to see a clear connection to their everyday lives. Unfortunately, that isn’t always happening. For example, White students consistently outperform students of color on standardized tests. We know this gap isn’t due to ability, but rather the fact that not enough teachers promote authentic, culturally relevant experiences for students of color. These standards will maximize opportunities for a richer, more relevant learning experience while also ensuring all students have an opportunity to feel “seen.”
All of our colleges and universities have mission statements about preparing students to become lifelong learners and global citizens. These institutions can’t possibly accomplish this for teacher candidates without showing them how to engage with all learners. So I look forward to the adoption of the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards. These standards will challenge not only future educators, but the entire profession, to dig deep and consider how we can encourage students, like Damien, to be their authentic selves regardless of who is delivering the content.
Brandon Thornton is a 2021 Illinois Teacher of the Year Finalist, a Policy Fellow with Teach Plus Illinois, and a Golden Apple Scholar who teaches special education at Bloomington High School.