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Supporting Teachers in a Culturally Responsive Manner

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Culturally Responsive Coaching Is More Than Just Good Coaching” by Sarah Young in Learning Forward, December 13, 2019,; Young can be reached at
In this Learning Forward article, consultant/instructional coach Sarah Young defines culturally responsive coaching: it addresses differences between the coach, the teacher, and students; the role of social identity; and the social-political context in which the teacher is working. Key questions for an instructional coach using this approach: What do I think I know, and what might I be missing? How does my cultural lens give me insight, and how does it limit my understanding? Young goes on to describe two coaching interactions in which her cultural lens was particularly important:
• Sally was a young, white, novice teacher working in a racially diverse urban school. She asked Young for advice on how to handle several students who were calling out and disrupting her lessons. Young observed her class and noticed that the three students who were calling out without raising their hands were African-American boys, and their comments were actually relevant and on topic.
Here’s what Young said to Sally: “As a white observer of students of color, I always ask myself what I think I know, and what I might be missing. I know that having grown up in a segregated, white, middle-class community can affect my interpretations. I have a lot of influences that prime me to see loud, spontaneous behavior in kids of color as disruptive or threatening, where I might see the same behavior in white kids as merely exuberant. In this case, I have to ask myself, are the comments intending to disrupt, or could this be a learning strategy? The data I recorded show the call-outs relate to what you’re teaching.”
The teacher nodded thoughtfully but wondered why the boys were calling out. “Why can’t they wait for me to call on them like the other students do?” Young replied that in these students’ community, an audience might be expected to interact out loud as people learned: “I’m curious to see how the boys’ exuberance to respond might be channeled into a different sort of participation structure where call-outs are welcomed and encouraged, and you still feel in charge as a teacher.”
“What do you think that would look like?” the teacher asked, looking perplexed yet open. “Now,” thought Young, “Sally and I had an entry point to a culturally responsive coaching conversation.”
• Ted was an African-American teacher 20 years older than Young, and she had been assigned to coach him in an alternative high school. Observing his class, she saw that he related well to students, but his curriculum consisted entirely of rote worksheets and students seemed disengaged and weren’t learning very much. “Ted’s school was one where most students had been pushed out of mainstream settings,” says Young. “I felt some urgency to see them engaged with curriculum that supported critical thinking and drew on their rich life experiences.”
Trained in the California Writing Project, Young was confident she had the solution and taught a demonstration lesson showing how much better students could perform. They were more engaged, but Ted was “surprisingly distracted” during the demo lesson, missed subsequent coaching appointments, brushed off her offer to teach another lesson, and finally, after she called him at home on a Sunday, asked his principal to be assigned a different coach.
Young was ready to write Ted off as a resistant teacher, but her supervisor insisted that she try to work things out with him. When they met, Young apologized for calling on Sunday (“I’m used to teachers working on Sundays. Including me.”), and he asked, “Do you want to understand?” She replied, “Yes. I may need help to understand.” He chuckled: “True. You haven’t tried very hard.” This threw her, since she thought he was the one not trying very hard.
Ted said he had a “big life” outside of school, and Sundays were important. “Oh yes, you must have church on Sundays,” said Young. “Don’t put me in a box, little lady,” Ted replied. “Black people don’t do any one thing the same. Do you want to ‘figure me out,’ or do you want to understand?” Ted explained that he had a radio show. “It’s a mix of my faith, Baha’i, and my own experiences and spiritual path. On Sunday afternoon, I meet with other black Baha’is.”
Ted handed Young a pamphlet he’d written about using principles of the Baha’i faith to reach out to teenage black boys. Skimming it, Young saw that it was clearly organized, thought-provoking, and had a distinctive writer’s voice. “You’re a writer?” she stammered. “Why didn’t you mention that when I talked about teaching the kids writing?” “You didn’t ask,” he replied.
“Did Ted think I assumed he couldn’t have had professional writing experience because he was black?” thought Young. “And, most difficult to ask myself, was it in any way true that that was my assumption? I hadn’t checked his prior knowledge, even though that’s a basic practice in preparing teachers to use any new strategy. Had I even considered the possibility that he would know as much about writing as I did? Would I have asked different questions of a white person 20 years my senior?”
Young recovered her composure and asked why, given his writing skills, Ted was using rote worksheets with his high-school students. “I was trying to do well with what they gave me to use,” he replied. “That’s what I thought the job was.” For the first time Young understood, and could see the trap Ted was in, feeling unable to connect the two parts of his life.
“Do you ever share any of your journalistic work with your students?” she asked. “No,” Ted replied, smiling and looking directly at her. “Do you think I should?” Young paused, realizing that it was the first time in months of working with Ted that he’d asked for her opinion on any teaching strategy. “Absolutely!” she said. “I think the students would love it.” Ted nodded and jotted notes. “I breathed out a deep sigh,” Young reflects. “It was only now that we had begun a culturally responsive conversation and could begin the work of mentoring.”

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