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A Lesson in Culturally Responsive Teaching

I grew up in a household with parents who lived through Jim Crow and Civil Rights. Throughout their childhood my parents were taught to never look a white person in the eye - it could have incredibly detrimental implications for a young person of color in the 1950s. Because of their experience, I believe my parents tried to instill self-pride by instructing me to look people in the eye when they’re speaking to you, because of their experience of always having to put their heads down. My parents’ message was clear - people show you respect by looking you in your eyes. Even when I got into trouble as a child, my parents would say, “Look at me when I’m speaking to you.” That’s a lesson I have carried with me throughout my life.  

I was early in my teaching career when Eduardo came into my life. He was one of my third-grade students - full of life and talked a ton! I remember pulling him to the side one day during recess, as he had to sit out because he gotten to orange on the class behavior chart. Orange meant a student received a consequence for their behavior. Eduardo’s consequence on this given day was sitting out for part of recess. I remember going to speak to him and saying, “Do you understand why you sat out at recess?” Eduardo kept looking down at his feet and shaking his head, not saying anything. I said to him, “I’m speaking to you. You need to look at me when I’m speaking to you. You are being disrespectful, Eduardo.” Nervously, he continued looking at his feet in silence. 

Another third-grade teacher was standing nearby on the playground that day. She was listening in on the conversation, and later pulled me aside.  She told me, “I heard what you said to Eduardo about looking into your eyes when you speak to him, and that he was being disrespectful. In my home, I was taught the opposite. To look into an adult’s eyes is to show disrespect. It shows that you don't have respect for an adult’s authority." 

That teacher’s call-out was a game-changer for me. I just remember thinking to myself, “Wow, I just disregarded Eduardo’s culture because he didn’t respond to a reprimand the way I was taught to.”  

I was reiterating my cultural experience, and in turn, forcing that expectation onto Eduardo. 

The next day at school, I remember pulling him to the side during breakfast.  I sat down next to him and asked, “Do you remember our conversation from the playground yesterday?” Initially, he looked down at his shoes, awkwardly tried to look up at me, but then looked back down again. I said, “Eduardo, it’s okay if you look at me or down at your shoes.” We had a conversation about the different ways people respond to authority figures - I shared with him what my parents taught me growing up, and he shared with me what his parents had taught him.  We acknowledged our differences in that conversation, and that we have different perspectives on how to show respect to an authority figure, based on our unique experiences. I asked him if he understood, and Eduardo, always deep in thought, nodded his head to respond ‘yes,’ and a small smile began to emerge. I shared with him that I understood he wasn’t being disrespectful, and I appreciated his honesty and willingness to allow me to learn from him. Then Eduardo did something he had never done before – he hugged me. He hugged me EVERY DAY after that. Months later, Eduardo completed an assignment, where he had to illustrate the definitions of his vocabulary words. One of his illustrations was of he and I, and the caption read, “My teacher understaks me”. ‘Understand’ was one of his words that week, and although he didn’t spell it right, he absolutely nailed the definition. 

That one incident with Eduardo broadened my view of culture beyond my own family’s perspectives. Eduardo wasn’t wrong in his reaction, and my parents weren’t wrong in their approach to build my self-confidence. Our perspectives on authority were driven by our unique experiences. Eduardo also taught me that when you make a mistake, it is imperative to have the humility to make it right again. I am thankful for the teacher who shared her perspective and allowed me the opportunity to reflect on how I responded to Eduardo. I am also thankful to my parents' life experience, and their dedication to ensuring I had a strong sense of worth. Finally, I am thankful for Eduardo, as this incident improved our relationship and my relationships with all my students.

Taylor Alston is Senoir Director of Coach Development. Our regionally-based Coach corps supports core programs through content development and delivery to both teachers and students. Learn more