Transcript: Welcoming & Keynote: Cultivating Healthy Relationships
On behalf of the California Center for School Climate (CCSC), I would like to welcome you to our virtual event, The Power of Relationships in Positive School Climate. Again, my name is Rebeca Cerna. I am an Area Director at WestEd, and I serve as the Director for the California Center for School Climate. I will be your moderator for the keynote session, Cultivating Healthy Relationships. Before introducing our keynote, I want to take a brief moment to introduce the California Center for School Climate and provide an overview of today’s virtual event.
The California Center for School Climate is a California Department of Education initiative led by WestEd. We provide free support and trainings on school climate data use to LEAs, to local education agencies, in California. And our Center strives to provide relevant and responsive coaching supports to districts and schools related to school climate strategies and practices for collecting, using, and monitoring school climate data. We also serve as a convener and a connector of LEAs across the state and elevate and disseminate existing and promising practices in California to support LEAs. We invite you to visit our website, ccsc.wested.org, to learn more about the supports the Center provides to districts and schools across the state. The link to the website can be found in the Linktree that’s posted in the chat, and you can also use the QR code to visit our website.
The topic for our event today is the power of relationships. Relationships are foundational in strengthening and transforming school climates, and in creating spaces for students, family members, and staff.
So, now I’m going to pass it to Hilva, an education programs consultant from the California Department of Education and she will be providing us with a brief welcome.
Thanks, Rebeca. Good morning, everyone. On behalf of the CDE, I would like to welcome you all to today’s annual school climate event. My name is Hilva Chan, and I’m an Education Programs Consultant with the CDE. We are so happy that you can join us today. I’m particularly excited about today’s theme: talking about the power of relationships in supporting positive school climates. All of us who work in education have implemented many interventions to improve student outcomes, whether on enhancing student academic achievements or supporting their social emotional mental health. We’ve also collaborated with many partners to make those work. But behind all this work, behind all these fancy names of the interventions, it is about people. It’s about building relationships. It’s about making students feel safe, feel connected, and having a sense of belonging. And all of us benefit from having strong, healthy relationships in school.
So, today, we get a chance to go a little deeper on the various aspects of building relationships, and help place that in community schools, in mental health, and school safety, et cetera. We’ll also hear from our key education partners, from students, family members, district, county, and plus staff and researchers, because, after all, school climate is a shared vision. It affects everyone on campus, and has to be above everyone. We just simply could not improve school climate in our cubicle on our own. So, whether you can join us today only for the keynote or for more than one sessions, we are pleased that you’re here today. And welcome again. Back to Rebeca.
Thanks, Hilva. So, I’m excited to get us started with our keynote session on cultivating healthy relationships. You are in for a very thought-provoking and inspiring session to kick off our virtual event today. With us today, we have Jaleel Howard. Jaleel is a former English teacher who has extensive knowledge of classroom supports and accommodations for instructional practices that embrace the learning for underrepresented students. His research interests center around urban context and social forces that affect the educational experiences and outcomes for chronically-underserved students. In addition, he is currently a doctoral candidate at UCLA in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. Jaleel is also the co-author of a book, No More Teaching Without Positive Relationships, which reviews teacher-student relationship research, and provides practices for building relationships that make a difference. And with that, I’m going to pass it to Jaleel.
Thank you so much for that wonderful introduction, Rebeca. And good morning to everyone. I see that we have folks coming from all across, not just California, but the country. And it’s absolutely a pleasure to be here with you all today.
My time is short, so I’m going to get right to the point. We are here to talk about the importance of healthy relationships in school. Before I start, though, this may feel a bit dramatic, but I need us to go to a certain place in our mind to prepare us for the information that we’re going to digest. So, what I need you all to do for a second is just forget the positions we currently hold, the titles we have, whatever it may be, and just go back, go way, way back to when we were young people in school. I want us to remember what that was like. I want you to think of that one educator — it may have been a teacher, administrator, whoever it may have been — I need you to think of that person that really stood out and made a difference for you in your K-12 years, that one educator who it was. I need you to put that person in the chat for me, that person’s name. Who was that one educator that really made a difference in your life, who gave you that sense of belonging? Who allowed you to feel that sense of safety? Who gave you that sense of connectedness?
I’ll give y’all a moment. Please fill the chat. As we’re filling the chat with these names, and I’m sure you all see these coming in, I start here because I think it’s important for us to remember the power and influence that these educators had because that’s why we’re here today. The power of what a meaningful relationship with an educator can do to completely transform our experiences, that provide us with a sense of safety that leads to confidence that allows us to do better in schools in a lot of ways.
The crux of this presentation today is figuring out how we make these not just individual one-offs of us having these amazing educators who went that extra mile to help us out, but instead, how do we begin to develop a culture of care and relational trust in school that makes a difference for our students on a daily basis? I think we have to start to imagine radically different school spaces. And when we see these names of all these educators that are in the chat right now, I want you for a second to think, “What if I had that relationship with not just that one educator but with every educator that I interacted with in that school space?” What would that have meant to you in school? Because that’s our goal here today. How do we begin to move away from these individual examples that we have of amazing educators to the collective idea of relationships being a core part of what we do in school?
But I’ll be very frank. Our goal today is to bridge this gap between research and practice when it comes to relationship building. As Rebeca said at the outset, I am a former teacher, but I’m currently a doctoral student at UCLA, so I’ve been able to have the chance to see both sides. I’ve been a classroom teacher and seeing the power of relationships, but I’ve also been able to do research and understand the way in which it positively affects students both behaviorally and academically when they have these connections.
However, when I go out to different schools, organizations, whatever it may be, and I talk about relationship building, frequently we hear, “Yes, relationships matter, they matter, they matter, but how? How do I have the time?” I hear administrators talk about the fact that I understand relationships matter, but I have a lot of different tasks that need to be taken care of on a daily basis. When can I do that? I hear teachers and particularly secondary teachers say, “With all these students that I have, it is a struggle to me to find that time to build relationships.” And while these things are very real, what I think we have to understand is that relationships are not just a nice add-on to the process of teaching and learning. They’re integral in the process of teaching and learning. So, we have to bridge that gap today.
So, what we’re going to do is we’re going to talk about research that hammers home the importance of building meaningful relationships, but also practices and pragmatic approaches that can be utilized by educators across the educational landscape to improve relationships in the classroom. But, before we dive into that, I must say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Once again, folks, I need you to go to the chat and say, “Thank you.” Say, “Thank you.” Say, “Thank you.” I wish we could do this in person because I’ve always said and will continue to say that educators just don’t hear thank you enough. Thank you for all the work that you do on a constant, constant, constant basis to make learning better for our students.
Education is one of those professions where a lot of folks have opinions on what should be done. Especially recently, there’s a lot of folks with opinions on what should be happening within public education. However, there’s not a ton of people jumping to get into public education to help fix a lot of these complaints that they have. That just doesn’t exist. So, I thank you to all these people on this call because folks will comment on what you are doing, but they can’t do what you do on a daily basis. They’re not committed in the same way that you are on a daily basis. I was in Texas recently and I saw a billboard that said, “Do you want to teach? When can you start?” Because it’s just that simple to jump into a classroom and become an educator. We know that is far from true, folks. So, if there’s one thing that you take away from this session today you may completely check out, just remember that you are appreciated. The work that you do on a daily basis matters and makes a difference in the lives of our children.
But I buttered you up first and then we got to get to some very hard truths. My advisor, Dr. Pedro Noguera, currently a dean at USC, showed us this statement on one of my first days of grad school. He said, “Education is implicated in the reproduction of inequality across generations.” I want to see quickly in the chat, very briefly, I just want you to see thumbs up, thumb down, yes or no, do we agree with this statement? You can put agree or disagree. I’m just very curious. Do we agree with this statement or disagree? I’m looking at the chat. I would just love to see. Overwhelmingly, we see people saying, “Yes,” and it’s a fact. I’m so glad we’re at least starting here on the same basis.
When we started public education in this country, John Dewey and these great architects, this idea was that schools would be the great equalizer, that if we gave everybody access to education, that means everybody has the same chance toward upward mobility. That sounds good; however, we never did that. We never provided equal access and we never provided people the same thing. Instead, we did the exact opposite in many ways. We give some people a whole lot of resources and a lot of quality teachers and some people very little. And we’ve done this time and time again in education, and yet we see the outcomes. So, I like to think about, “How do we do something differently?”
And to counter this tendency to reproduce inequality, we must empower educators to create change. My mother taught me a very long time ago, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, that’s the definition of insanity. We have to do something fundamentally different in education. And for me, that comes back to relationships. I believe relationships provide us the insights into what our students need to make a difference in their lives. I believe students are our greatest assets in schools. We have to learn from our students, build those meaningful relationships with our students, to transform our schools into what we need them to be today. But that begins with the power of listening.
Cornelius Minor is a fantastic author who has a great deal of books. There’s a wonderful book called We Got This that talks about the importance of relationship building. He has this quote that says, “Our journey starts with an understanding that no great good can be done for a people if we do not listen to them first. Powerful teaching is rooted in powerful listening.” I think that’s what we have to put first before we start doing anything and prescribing things that may work for our students in education is we must listen first. Listen to what our students are asking for, because if we don’t take the time to listen, even the most well-intentioned educators can unintentionally cause harm.
I’ll briefly give a story in my own personal life. I’m fortunate to be a new father, folks. I have a brand new, beautiful three-month-old baby, and it’s just been a wonder and a joy in my life. I tell this story because I recently got an education in the power of listening. My significant other, of course, has been on maternity leave as she’s welcomed a new baby, and the other day she had her first day back at work. I, trying to be a supportive partner, said “I would love to do something to celebrate you for your first day back at work. What would you like to do?” She said, “Hmm. You know what I’d like to do? When I get off work, why don’t we go to BJ’s and we can get some pizookies and split it and do all this wonderful stuff?” Blase blah. It sounded good. So, while she was working, I said, “You know what? I’m going to be a really good partner,” and I decided to go out to BJ’s, order the stuff that I knew she wanted, grab that, bring it home so therefore, when she got home from work, she would see all this food and she’d be so happy that I did what she wanted.
I know I can’t see folks’ faces, but I know folks are nodding their head right now because they can already tell where I messed up. She said she wanted to go out and get BJ’s and do X, Y, Z. However, I did what I thought was right. I did not take the time to listen and understand what she wanted. She wanted to have the experience of getting dressed up and going out and going on a date and enjoying these things, this, that, and the other. And some of you all may be listening to this and say, “This is completely disconnected from education,” but I promise you folks, this comes to that core of listening. I think what we find is that many educators think — I’ll emphasize that again, think — they are doing the things that students want them to do. However, we are not listening. We’re not listening, and what educators have to do is have to find a way to create a space for student voice.
We must find a way for students to express themselves. We talk constantly about culturally responsive teaching, adapting our learning environments to meet student needs, and that all sounds good. However, we must recognize that we cannot respond to the needs of our students unless we are aware of them, point blank, period. Our best teachers, our best educators at all aspects — because I understand that we’re not just teachers on here — our best educators know their students and they’ve gotten to know their students by listening early and often.
But what I think we have to acknowledge here is that we face very real barriers when it comes to public education today, especially when it comes to relationship building. These five things that you see up here are often the most common things I hear when folks talk about the difficulty of relationships. [Displayed onscreen: Barriers! 1. “I am so overwhelmed with all I have to teach.” 2. “I have too many students and not enough time to build relationships with all of them. I am just not going to reach every student.” 3. “I am not equipped to handle all the problems that students have.” 4. “I just do not get these kids.” 5. “I am held accountable based on how my students do academically now how well we get along.”]
Quickly, once again in the chat — thank you all so much for engaging within the chat — between these numbers one through five, which one resonates most with you all, that you hear most in your line of work? One through five. Which one of these? Go ahead and put in the chat for me. One through five, which one resonates most or do you hear most in your sphere of work? Oh, I see a lot of twos, threes with some exclamation points. That must have hit for somebody. Okay. As you all see in the chat, the same way that I do, all of these hit in some way, shape, or form, and I’ll be real and say these are all very real in some way, shape, or form — in effect what happens in relationship building on a daily basis.
I’m going to hammer home on a couple of them that I hear most often. “2. I have too many students and not enough time with them. I’m just not going to reach every student.” While that is a very real thing, what I think we as educators have to take the time to understand is the consequences of us not reaching all those students. That’s the question I asked: If we’re going to accept that we can’t do it, then what is the consequences of us not doing it? Or even “4. — I frequently hear often — “I just don’t get these kids.” I frequently hear educators talk about the fact, “Well, these kids are just different than what we were growing up. I just don’t understand these kids.” And when I hear that, I frequently say, “Well, okay. If you say these kids are just different than you were growing up, then why are you engaging in the same practices that were done by educators when you were in school?”
Why haven’t we updated? Why haven’t we done anything different? These barriers are all real, folks, but these barriers aren’t going anywhere. We need to understand that in spite of these barriers, as Hilva said at the beginning, we need to find a way to prioritize people. At the end of the day, education is a people business. It’s about relationships. It’s about getting to know our students because you all who have been in education for years, you see the benefits of students having these meaningful connections. But the question that I frequently get is, “Why relationships?”
A few years ago, my grandfather, who’s 70 plus years old, found out that I was going to grad school and that one of my focuses would be on relationship building in school. And to be frank, he must have looked at me like the most educated fool in the world. He didn’t understand why I would need to go to school to learn more about relationships between teachers and students. But I have to give you some background on my grandfather. My grandfather was raised in Louisiana and in the Jim Crow South, and he had 12 people in his graduating class. That was a very communal aspect of schooling that he experienced from teachers. He would tell us stories all the time, (she) was not just his teacher but would be seen in the community frequently. She went to the same church as them. Her husband, I believe, was his barber and cut his hair. Not just that. She was a neighbor. She lived down the street. So, there was so much overlap between schools and communities, so therefore, when I talk about the importance of relationships in school for my grandfather, that’s perplexing. That’s what schooling is.
However, what we have to recognize now is that our schools have changed and many of our students experience a great deal of isolation. Far too many of our students go through school lacking connections to someone else. I’m going to pause right here, and I want us to once again think about those educators we highlighted at the beginning, those names we flooded the chat with. I want us to think about when we had those connections to those folks, the buffer that that created for us while we were in school, how it didn’t make us feel alone as if we were doing things by ourself. What we find consistently is that research shows that when students feel alone, they don’t do better. They don’t do well in school, point blank, period. When I don’t have the connections to other students, when I don’t have the connections to faculty members, I feel alone. When I feel alone, I don’t achieve to the same rate in school.
We also have data to back this up. Nearly 25% of students reported experiencing bullying in school. 25%. For my data folks on the call, if we have 25% of students reporting bullying, we know that number is significantly higher. And similar to the previous point, whenever students are being bullied, when students are feeling isolated, they don’t have meaningful connections. Let’s go a step further. What we see now is that 20% of students are reporting dealing with things such as anxiety and depression. Once again, this is 20% reported and also these are pre-pandemic numbers, folks, pre-pandemic numbers. What we found consistently is that many of our students, when they don’t have these connections to others in schools, it’s harming them at multiple levels. Moreover, we go a step further. What the data and research tells us is that students of color and students who have experienced trauma, in particular, struggle in school when they can’t find connections to educators. When they’re able to build these meaningful connections to folks, that makes a difference for their learning experience, and when they don’t have them, it hurts. We can’t learn the same.
Let’s go a step further and we have to grapple with the impact of COVID. You all see the data that we have up here. The CDC has released a number of reports showing the unique impact that COVID has had on teenagers during remote learning. I’ve had the opportunity to do some surveys for students across LAUSD related to their peer-to-peer interactions. One of the things that I found absolutely fascinating is that many students talk about the fact that the two years they spent at home during remote learning dramatically impacted their social skills, that they struggled to connect with folks in the same way that they did before. That teachers, there’s a disconnect that they struggle to get past in many ways. And that’s just me hearing from students one-on-one, but we have data like this research from CNN that tells us that teen’s brains aged faster during the pandemic during stress.
When I share this with educators, they often feel overwhelmed and they’re just, once again, I think going back to number three: there’s just so many things going on that I don’t have the skills to deal with. But I have to hammer this point home, that feeling close to people at school provides a critical protection for students, and it’s not just when I feel close to another student. If I have a student at school, if I have a teacher, an administrator, a counselor, whatever it may be, if I have that person at school, it creates a buffer for me, a connection to me that makes a difference in my overall wellness and well-being. Relationships, folks. Time and time again, we find that relationships are critical. We talk a lot about the fact that one traumatic event that can happen in a child’s life can alter their brain chemistry for their worst, and it’s hard for that child to ever reclaim what they were before that experience happened. However, we don’t talk about that other side of biology, that one positive experience in a child’s life can alter both brain structure and chemistry. It goes both ways.
As much as our students have dealt with hardship over the past two years — and we don’t have the time to go through the litany of things in which our students have experienced — we have to understand that we matter. We have to understand that we can make a difference in our young people’s lives in spite of everything going on outside of our classrooms. We matter. We have a great deal of power, and I dare say that I think that’s the reason that many of us got into education in the first place, because we recognize the power that we hold as educators and the way in which we can transform not just learning, but the lives of our young people.
Folks, I will be honest, I am far, far, far from a scientist as could be. However, Matthew Lieberman has an excellent book on cognitive science and talking about the brain as a social organ. It’s absolutely fascinating. Highly recommend anybody in education goes to this, because he talks about the fact that, number one, the brain is a social organ and that the brain develops within the context of attachment and relationships. We need people. That’s how we learn. That’s how we do better. In fact, Matthew Lieberman says that the size of our brain indicates the size of our social groups in which we desire. So, meaning for us as humans with large brains, we need these big social groups. We need them to function. There’s actually research that tells us that connections to others is as important for our mental health as not smoking is to our physical health. I’ll say that one more time. Connections to other people is as important to our mental health as not smoking is to our physical health. Folks, it is absolutely crucial. We can’t get through this world without connections to others.
Very briefly, there’s this show on Netflix that I saw recently called Alone where they take these survivalist folks and they send them way, way, way out in the wilderness. Now, mind you, these folks are like the type that cannot just build fire, they can build these elaborate structures, find their own food, whatever it may be out in the wild. But the point of this show is how do you put these people out here, long out away from everybody else, and see how long can they stay there alone, completely by themselves. And you will be amazed at how well-equipped these people are, yet they still break down when they don’t have those connections to other people. We need each other, folks. We need each other. So, we need each other on just the very sheer spot that we can’t function in this world by ourselves. Then when we’re in school, we definitely need each other.
I ask you once again to think back to those times in which we were in schools with those favorite educators and what that did to us. But research tells us plain and simple, that more time with students improves relationships and achievement, and I want to talk about two studies in which we found this. The first study looked at this concept of platooning in school — where, instead of being taught by a specialist or a single content area, those teachers who teach everything — that students taught by a specialist actually did worse than students taught by a single teacher. And in this study they actually talked to students and what they found is that, in many ways, the secret was when I’m with a teacher all day, they get an understanding of my learning style. She understands that I’m a hands-on learner, so therefore I need manipulatives and things that I can do to show my mastery besides just writing things down. My teacher understands that I’m a visual learner, that I not only need her to say things verbally, but I need things on the board as well. And that cuts across concepts. Not just that, my teacher has an understanding of the peer-to-peer relationships in my class and understands who works well together, who do I need to make sure I’m checking in with to make sure they feel safe in this space, whatever that may be. But the whole idea is the fact that when I get to know you a little bit better, I can create the classroom that you need. When I create the classroom that you need, the possibilities are limitless.
Hill and Jones did another excellent report looking at the standardized tests and found that teachers who looped with students – meaning that they go up a grade level with students – students also do better. This one was especially interesting because it took the teachers’ perspective, and teachers felt that they were able to just save time, that in many ways, this was an investment for them. The last year, they had spent so much time getting to know students, getting to know their families, getting to know student interests, getting to know best ways to communicate, whatever that may be, that by the time they got to that second year, they were ready to hit the ground running. They knew exactly the leverage points to tap into students. They knew exactly how to customize lessons so that met student needs. All these type of wonderful things that we talk about. It goes to the fact that when we know our students, we are able to do better by our students. When we have a deep understanding of who our students are, we do better.
But I still get this question, “Why relationships now?” And I think what we have to grapple with is we’re seeing a change in this field that we need to be prepared for. So, what I put up first here is a nation of our teachers. This is what our teaching population looks like in the United States. Please feel free to put in the chat, what stands out to you? As you look at this graphic, what stands out? I see some people just putting White in here, just White, not saying anything else, just White. Yes, and thank you, Jessica, so much for saying that. That’s the one that always catches my eye that 35% of schools had zero teachers of color. Zero, folks.
So, let’s break down a couple facets of this graph as we keep going in the chat. What we see is that 75% of our teachers are female. This is still an overwhelmingly female-dominated field when it comes to teachers, not administrators, however. That’s a different conversation. 90% of our educators are monolingual – 90%! But we know our bilingual population is booming in this country. And the overwhelming majority of our teachers are White. Now, this matters because in many ways when we think about our school population, it doesn’t look like this anymore. And I’m going to hammer this point home here, that historically when we think about schools, and I go back to that beginning when we talk about schools being implicated and reproducing inequality, we have to remember who schools were originally designed for.
So, in the year 1900 in public education, this is what our schools looked like. Over 88% of students in school were White. So, when we talk about the initial design of the way in which we do schooling in this country, we have to be frank that this was originally designed for White children and particular White children of a certain socioeconomic background. By 1970, 70 years later — and let’s be frank, 1970 is not that many years ago — we would expect to see a dramatic shift. However, when we look at our demographic, what we see is that, in 1970, 80% of our students were still White and only 20% were of color. At that point, we weren’t even taking the time to differentiate between different folks of color. We just said, “Of color.”
Now, I know I have some folks on this call who were around in 1970 who remember this time. This is not that long ago, folks. So once again, I want us to think about the way in which we’ve structured schooling in this country and who it’s been designed for. 2016-17 though, something happened that we didn’t expect to happen. We thought in about 2040, we would start to see this rapid demographic shift in which we’d see more students of color. However, 2016-17, something happened much sooner than we anticipated. For the first time, White students did not represent the majority of students in public schools. 52% of students were non-White. Folks, I think this is wonderful. It speaks to the fact that our country continues to get more and more diverse. However, when we look at that previous slide, we realize our teaching population is not matching that. And if that’s 2016-17, I want us to think about what 2030 will look like.
Here are the projections that we see so far. The largest student group we will have in this country will be Latinx students. All of our White students, immigrant students will be about 20% of our population. African American students won’t change much in terms of their representation. They’ll be about 10%. Asian API students won’t change much, they’ll stay about the same. Our mixed race students will be 5% of our school population, which is one of our fastest growing populations in this country. Our Native American students will be 1%. When we look at that previous graph and then we look at this graph, we have to ask ourself the question, “What does this mean? What does this mean for us in education and the work that we do?”
At the beginning, we started off this call by talking about where we were from and the different roles we take within education. Regardless of the role in which we have, this is going to impact the stuff that we do. We are in the midst of one of the greatest racial/ethnic transformations that we’ve seen in public education, and if we don’t find ways to get to know these students, to build meaningful relationships, we’ll be ill-equipped to serve the majority of students in our schools. We won’t know how. We must, we must, we must take the time to build meaningful relationships.
Relationships matter. Meaningful relationships with students will provide us the insights into the best ways to reach and teach our ever-changing student demographics. But what we also must be aware of as we look at this is the fact that race matters and we must make a distinction between race and culture. Race deals with things such as phenotype, hair, skin, facial features. These are the things that we can see on the surface. So, when we look back at this previous graph, we see the racial implications of what our country will look like. However, what we do not know is culture. We cannot look at a graph such as that and assume the culture of our students. These are norms, values, practices, and beliefs. This goes much deeper than the surface, and it’s not the same as race because I can be of the same racial background as someone but be very different culturally. In the same way, I can be of the same cultural background, but different racially.
I think there are very simple ways in which we. . . . when we think about behavior, culture, food, attitude, whatever it may be. The example I always give is very simple. My parents, they’re both the same racially. However, culturally, there are some major differences. One of the easy examples I can always give is if you tell my parents they have to be somewhere at 1:00, my father will undoubtedly be there at 12:55 on the dime. That’s a part of culturally the way he was raised and what he believes. My mother will be lucky if she’s there by 1:15 because culturally she does things differently. We can’t just assume things about people just because they’re of the same racial background. We must get to know them culturally. And as we look at things like this and we see a rapid, a rapid racial change coming in this country, we must get to understand our students culturally, and that can’t happen without relationships.
But we also need to understand that race matters. And I’m going to start here with this one. We cannot, we cannot, we cannot be color blind, folks. Far too many times, even as we’ve done all this amazing work talking about why race matters in schools, I still find time and time again that educators talk about, “Well, I want to see all my students as they’re the same. I don’t see race.” Stop it. Stop it. You all are going to hear a host of, I think Rebeca said, over 20 speakers today. And after you get off, you will talk to whoever may be at home, significant others, friends, and they’ll ask you about these presentations and they’ll ask you how it went, this, that, or the other. And they may ask, “Okay, well, what was the race of some of these speakers?” And nobody will be confused. You know exactly who’s up there. We see race every day, folks. That’s how we get through this world.
But we must understand there are no racial monoliths. There is diversity that exists within all racial and ethnic groups, and it’s imperative that we learn about the impact that race has. But at the end, I have to talk about this part. Do not let a racial mismatch stop you. Far too often I hear educators talk about, “Because I’m of a different racial and ethnic background of my students, then I struggle to get to know them.” I talked to a teacher recently who said, “Well, I’m different than my students. I’m somewhat of a spectator on the outside.” Folks, that’s completely unacceptable. We can’t let race stop us. We still have to take that time to get to know who our students are below the surface. When we get to know who our students are below the surface, I think what we often find is that there’s more that we have in common than there is different.
Let’s keep going. In many ways why we have to make sure we’re attending to these things is because we need to stop this progression of disengagement. The progression of disengagement’s very simple. I think, in many ways, it starts with task disengagement. I’m a former ELA teacher, so I’m going to use English examples. It starts with a simple assignment that we give students related to English that if students just aren’t connected to that task, then I’m just not doing it. “I’m not doing this task. I feel isolated in this classroom. I’m not doing it.” But what we find is that weeks and weeks on end of task disengagement all of a sudden leads to subject matter disengagement because I’m just no longer getting the content. I missed out on tasks here, there, the other. Now, all of a sudden, English doesn’t make sense to me. We’re in education, though, so we understand the ways in which our different subjects intersect and overlap here and there. And after a while, if I’m not getting it in one subject, it starts to ripple effect into others. And now, all of a sudden, school just isn’t a thing I do. School, I’m completely disengaged from. But what we know, especially as older folks, is what this leads to is a structural disenfranchisement that disproportionately harms our students of color that we just talked about. When we don’t find a way to catch students at the task of disengagement, when we don’t find a way to build those meaningful connections to students, to change their in-class experiences, what we find is that will affect their life experiences for many years to come, for many years to come. So, what we have to do is we have to find ways to disrupt this progression of disengagement. However, that doesn’t happen without getting to know folks.
So, how do educators prevent disengagement? Number one [displayed onscreen], they know their students, how they learn, and what motivates them. That’s so key, folks. I said this at the beginning. Our best educators know their students. I asked you all to talk about your favorite educator. My favorite educator, it’s my ninth grade algebra teacher. I feel comfortable, I’ll be frank, I was in his class because I had failed algebra the year before, folks. Math has never been my subject. However, when I got to this class, this was the first educator that took the first two weeks of class and we didn’t do any work. Not a single textbook was opened. There was no homework assignments given out, nothing like that. Instead, what he wanted to do with our first two weeks was get to know everybody in the classroom. We did these corny, kumbaya-type activities day in and day out. We did these questionnaires where we had to answer questions about ourselves, whatever it may be, and at the time, it seemed like this was nonsense. However, as we went throughout that school year, he constantly found ways to incorporate that into what he was doing. He constantly used those leverage points to create a safer classroom space for everybody. He knew who each and every one of his students were, and that’s why that classroom functioned in the way that it did.
These teachers know themselves and their blind spots [displayed onscreen]. I say all the time, I think quite frankly, we put too much expectations on teachers to be everything for everybody. Our best teachers understand where they’re not strong. That means that I can either incorporate others or I can point you to the resource that you need because I recognize what I cannot be for you. Recently, I had some teachers reach out to me from Washington. There’s two White female teachers. They said, “We are English teachers in Washington about to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Our student demographics are over 80% African American and we understand that the way our students will read and interpret this book is different than we will. Do you have any resources or would you be willing to come and speak to our class about what we’re about to talk about in this book?” I use this example because these were teachers who understood their blind spots. And what I did is I Zoomed into their class. I met their students. They had wonderful questions prepared. I even went back after they finished the book to talk about similarities they noticed between what was happening in the book back then to what’s happening in our world now. All of this to say these were two amazing educators who understood that I may not be able to do this for my students, but I can find someone who will. That’s key.
They differentiate support [displayed onscreen]. I ask this very simple, for my parents, do you parent all your children the same? Overwhelmingly I hear, “No, because they’re different.” The same thing applies to our students. We cannot treat all of our students as if they’re the exact same because they’re not. They all come with different experiences, with different backgrounds, with different learning preferences, interests, whatever it may be. Therefore, we need to constantly differentiate our support.
Building communal learning spaces [displayed onscreen]. Folks, we cannot underestimate the impact that unsafe learning environments have on learning outcomes. When students don’t feel that they can ask a question without being judged by their peers, when students don’t feel physically safe in a classroom without being accosted by their peers, whatever it may be, they can’t learn to the best of their abilities. So, we not only need to build healthy relationships with our students, we need to ensure the safety of relationships between students in our classroom.
Next, they challenge students [displayed onscreen]. They understand the best way to push students so that goals are not just classroom overarching goals, but individual goals for each students to reach.
But I think what this takes is a great deal of reflection. We have to ask ourselves truly, how strong are our relationships? Frequently when this question is asked, I think teachers default to, “They’re great.” Administrators, “They’re great.” I know, folks, but there are certain questions that we can go to to really examine our relationships. I think that we have to ask, “Do I greet students by name? Do the students and I laugh together? Do students have a way of sharing feedback? Do students think I believe in them?” I think if we take time to ask ourselves these questions, we will gain insights into what is or is not working in our classrooms. I think these are practical activities we need to do on our own to learn about how our relationships are with students.
I had some teachers recently that we did this activity with and they decided we want to test this. So, each teacher was given this sheet. This sheet has those exact questions laid out here, one through nine. And what they did is they had to fill out their entire class roster, and they had to go through and see how many students could they answer yes to. And what they found is that they didn’t have the quality of relationships that they thought they did. So, they each took two of those students that they couldn’t answer yes to as many of those questions to and used the two at 10 strategy. I’m sure you all are familiar with — two minutes a day, 10 days in a row, to see the blossoming of a relationship. And what these teachers found is that they made a dramatic difference in the lives of their students when they just took a chance to get to know them. We frequently don’t take that chance and opportunity to first reflect on ourselves and then get to know our students. So, what that takes isn’t a great deal, and what I frequently do with teachers is we need opportunities to unpack parts of our identity and why we believe what we do and interact the way we do.
Many teachers don’t recognize the ways in which our past experiences impact the way in which we structure our classrooms. Many administrators don’t recognize the ways in which their past experiences structure the ways in which they interact with staff members and structure school spaces. We have to take the time to see how things such as race, gender, religion play into the ways in which we shape our educational environments because they impact relationships. We use this identity wheels to not just identify parts of ourselves, but then we have to think about, “Well, how does this connect to the students that I have had great relationships with in the past and the ones that I have not had great relationships in the past?” A great deal of self-reflection, I believe, has to happen on the outset before we can do these meaningful relationships with students.
Because what we recognize is there’s a complexity in identity comprised of things such as language, religion, gender, age, and race. And if we’re not aware of the ways in which all these things work together to make us who we are, then we’re missing the valuable relations that we can be connecting to others with. We start out by asking ourselves to reflect, but I believe as teachers, we often miss the opportunity to gather direct feedback from our students, and that only come when we ask our students to reflect. Simple prompts we can give our students such as, “I learn my best by. . . I wish my teacher knew. . . I wish my teacher would ‘blank’ because it helps me learn.” These are very simple questions that we can ask to our students that not only make a difference to how they learn, but you’re showing students that we care, that I care, about the way that you learn, that I want to do something differently in this classroom if you’ll just provide me the information that I need. All these things show a level of care that makes a difference in our student’s lives.
I’m also going to turn to school leadership. I saw we have a number of school leaders and administrators on this call. School leaders, right? Muhammad Khalifa’s work constantly tells us that school leaders have to model the behavior that they want to see in school [displayed onscreen]. So, when I hear leaders talk about that, they want to make sure that teachers have strong relationships with their students, I often have to flip that on them and ask them, “What are your relationships like with students? What are your relationships like with staff members? What are your relationships like with the family?” I believe our administrators, those school leaders at the top, need to go above and beyond to model what it means to develop meaningful relationships, because that’s how we establish a culture of relationships within the school.
One of the biggest things for our administrators is they need to be visible and engaging with students on the campus on a daily basis [displayed onscreen]. I love when I do different site visits on campus and I’m able to walk around campus with an administrator just to see how many students will go out of their way to just say, “Hello,” to just ask a question. I was on a campus recently and a student made a beeline across campus to tell a principal, “My mom is making tamales next weekend, and she wanted to know, did you want beef or chicken?” And that tells me that’s an educator that has taken time to build meaningful connections.
Our school counselors frequently understand that by the nature of their jobs, school counselors can be siloed in their offices waiting for students to come to them, and what I often ask is, how do we instead go out and start to build these connections and relationships to be on the forefront rather than reactive to students? So, the first time that I’m meeting you and interacting with you is not when there’s some point of crisis when you’re sent to my office. No. You’ve seen me out and around campus. We’ve talked, whatever it may be, on a daily basis.
Model relationship building with caregivers and families [displayed onscreen]. I talked to a principal recently who said that for back-to-school night, what they try to make sure they do to connect with as many parents as possible is they do an AM and a PM session, to make sure they’re meeting different work schedules. Not just that, we now have the Zoom capability, so we’re not just going to do in-person, we’re going to do online as well interactions. We’re going to continue to find ways to make ourself as available as possible to our families because they matter. And last but not least, build relationships with teachers. This is to my instructional coaches on this call as well.
Build relationships with teachers [displayed onscreen]. I believe, in many ways, caring begets caring. When our teachers feel as if they’re being cared for and valued, I believe that goes a step further for them to do that same thing for others. So, our school leaders, my counselors, my administrators, whatever it may be, we have to find ways to model this behavior early and often.
I know my time is short, so I just want to touch in on a couple more things before I close. Checking in – I think we can never underestimate the value of checking in with our students. Often when I was a classroom teacher, what I frequently did with students was weekend check-ins. On Mondays, I want you to talk about the amazing things that you did over the weekend and on Fridays, I want you to talk about what you’re going to do over the weekend. For me as a teacher, this gave me insights into what my students were doing outside of the classroom, which was so valuable because it gave me a sense of what I needed to incorporate in my classroom. But when we talk about building those healthy peer networks, that’s how students got to know each other. “Oh, you were there this weekend? I went there last weekend. Oh, you do that with your family? So do I.” All these connections that could be built by doing check-ins properly.
Next, expect different types of behaviors. For far too long, folks, we’ve expected students to be some type of way in school. There’s this idea that we have, it’s unstated in the education, but it’s an idea that we have of what a good student is supposed to look like, act like, sound like, whatever that may be. And I need us to completely throw that out. We need to begin to expect different types of behaviors and within that, learn from these behaviors. Learn from what students are doing. Focus on the content and not the delivery. We understand that we’re dealing with young people. We remember what it was like to be young people and that, at times, we may not deliver the content in the way in which we wanted to, but what we were trying to say we meant. And I think we need to remember that with our students.
Constantly reestablishing routines and familiarity. And last, but not least, learn on your own, folks. We have to be constantly learning on our own, finding ways to get out of our comfort zone and learn about others. I think one of our tools that we use, on some timing, are things like YouTube, Google, books, whatever it may be. We can learn about all these amazing, wonderful things when we want to. I want us to do that same thing with our students. I want us to take the time to learn and read books, to attend conferences such as this. To go to the communities in which our students are in and eat in those communities, to go to church in those communities, whatever it may be, to build these meaningful connections we have to learn. It’s on us. We are constantly asking students to learn, and I think we have to flip that. I think our best teachers are learners themselves and are constantly learning about ways to do things for students.
So, what I want to close with is two examples of ways in which I believe schools have structured their environments in ways that allow for learning. The first is Social Justice Humanities Academy. This is a school right in the heart of South Central. A hundred percent of their students are on free and reduced lunch. Many of their students are undocumented. However, this school continues to defy the odds on numerous markers of educational achievement. I think for the fifth year in a row, a hundred percent of their students have gone on to four year colleges and universities. A hundred percent. I’ll go a step further. In the last six years, there hasn’t been a single fight on their campus. And I know you all are probably listening to this like, “Wow, this sounds amazing. What’s the secret? How do they do this?”
It is very simple, folks. It is the only public school I know of that allows students to evaluate their teachers. You all remember this. When we were in college, undergrad, graduate school, whatever may have been, at the end of a quarter or semester, you get the chance to give feedback to your educator on what you think went well, what didn’t go well, how you feel with classmates, whatever that may be. This school does that with their high schoolers — give them the opportunity to talk about whether they feel safe and accepted, whether they would recommend this school to someone else. This is such a valuable tool for this school because it gives them insights into what their students are asking for. The data they get from these surveys that they do multiple times throughout the year, they influence the PDs they do. They influence the spirit of events they do for students on campus to build a sense of community. It structures everything that they’re doing on a daily basis. And I know some of you are sitting here like, “Wow, this is a great idea. Why don’t more schools do this?” And the hypothesis I have is that more schools aren’t doing this because they’re scared to hear the answers. They don’t want to know what students really think. But this is the power of what’s possible and we take the time to understand what students are experiencing.
The next one I want to use, and I have to go through this somewhat quickly, is a curriculum example. Some fantastic teachers I worked with at UCLA are STEM teachers, and they were struggling to find ways to build relationships through curriculum with students. Because we talk about the fact there’s so much content I have to get to and not enough time. So, what she decided to do was structure an assignment that would allow her to get to know her students and their communities. And it started with a simple question, “Why are some places so much hotter than others?” What students went back and forth and the thing that they talked about was, after collecting data, is that, “Hmm. When we look at this, what we find is that there seems to be some type of correlation between heat and income, and that folks who have more money tend to be in cooler areas. Why is that?” And what they found is that, “Hmm, well, if I look at this map, there’s something that stands out a lot more in one versus the other. I see a lot of trees in this one where I don’t see that in the other.” Well, trees are typically found at parks, and students worked with their teachers to develop this graphic where they show median income and the amount of parks per people. And what they begin to figure out is that, hey, when people have more income, they have more parks, which also means that they have more trees, which also means that their environment is cooler than places in which there aren’t any.
So, students then had to question, “How many parks do you have in your community?” Students got to interrogate their own community, then come back and to report these things to their classrooms. They took pictures, they filmed videos, all these different things about their communities. Then this question was, “Well, what type of amenities and resources does your community have?” And students once again, went out into their community, took pictures, whatever that may be. And what this culminated in was students figuring out the social inequalities that existed within their spaces and they recognized that, “Well, you know what? We want to be a part of this.” So, then they worked with their teachers to write letters to their local city council members about why they need new parks and why parks need to be changed, this, that and the other.
I use this example because this was a teacher that found a way to structure an assignment that made students experts. When students were positioned as experts, then that learning takes place that we just talked about. Not just that, she’s able to build relationships with students by seeing their communities, seeing their parks, seeing what matters to them, but then also empowering them to become change agents of their own realities. So, in many ways, some essential questions you need to understand.
I’m going to have to go past this because I’m almost out of my time, but I want to talk about a mindset shift that is critical in education. When I first started teaching, I remember my teacher certification program talked about Bloom’s taxonomy, this progression of learning and in higher order thinking and things like that. That sounds great. However, something else I learned that has always made a bigger difference to me in education is Maslow’s motivational hierarchy — understanding that we don’t get folks to perform at their highest potential unless some basic things are taken care of, unless students feel safe, they feel belonging, they feel loved, they feel good about themselves. Once again, I’m going to end with this because I want us to think back to what those educators did for us in schools that made us still remember them all these years later. I think if we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, those teachers found a way to tap into these essential needs which allowed us to prosper on the backend. So, our job, I believe, as educators, is to constantly find ways to put Maslow’s before Bloom and find ways to build meaningful relationships with our students so that we can transform learning spaces to improve outcomes.
And with that, once again, I want to do some shameless promotion of our new book. If you want to hear more of this stuff about the importance of building relationships, here’s my contact info. And with that, I’m a minute over time, but I’m going to pass it over to Rebeca.
Thank you so much, Jaleel. And I think we could continue listening to you for another hour. That was just incredible. So, we thank you for the wisdom and for providing context. There was a note in the chat. I may be mispronouncing your name. Noah Vahar noted in the chat, “Thank you for providing real world connections.” And I think that that’s part of what you did for us during this session.
We have a couple of questions for you from the chat and from the Q&A. So, I think we have time for a couple of them. So, one of them was, you mentioned you highlighted that difference between race and culture, which is very essential and key in how we communicate with others. What is your thought about asking students or other folks that we work with how they might identify culturally?
Yes. So, I think number one, a lot of the PDs I do are related to that exactly. I don’t think culture is something that we should be afraid of or hide in any way, shape, or form. I think it’s something that we need to push to the forefront. I say this because what I often find in doing this work when we talk about culture is we frequently have more in common than we realize, far more in common than we realize, and we have these frank conversations. We start to understand why folks interact and perform the way they do. Zaretta Hammond has a fantastic book on culturally responsive teaching and the brain, and what she talks about is the fact that culture in many ways is the hardware that shapes the ways in which we understand the world. Therefore, if we don’t understand the culture of the people that we’re interacting with, we don’t understand the decisions they make, the rationale behind those decisions, what they value and things like that.
So, I believe in many ways we have to find ways to put culture on the forefront in our interaction with our colleagues and things like that. But I’ll double down with our students as well. It’s very important. What I often find is that students are proud to share their culture in the classroom. What I find is that in many ways we prevent students from sharing their culture in the classroom. So, I think really what it is, it’s a mindset shift for us as adults, for us as educators. We have to find the ways instead of asking students to shed certain parts of themselves to fit into this box that is being a good student, how do we expand that, this idea of what it means to be a good student and allow students to share the unique gifts and traits that they have of themselves that make them the unique people that they are?
Great. Thanks, Jaleel. A lot of what you also mentioned, Yolande Beckles noted that what you’re presenting also really connects to how we might connect with families, the families of students who you serve, who we all serve. And so, what are your thoughts on how to develop the relationships with family members of students?
Yes. So, I will say this. It has to start early and often. I always use a phrase that one of my former principals used to use is, “We need to fill their buckets,” saying at the beginning of the year, we need to establish early and positive. Let me say that again. Early and positive contact with our families about their kids. What we often find is that teachers aren’t calling home. Administrators aren’t calling home until something goes wrong, something bad has happened, so therefore I’m calling with bad news, and what we often find is that in many ways can structure the ways in which parents receive that call, caregivers receive that call. So, instead, what I like to think is how do we flip that and start to establish contact very early on? I’ve had teachers who just take those first couple weeks and just say, “I’m going to call every single caregiver on my roster just so they know who I am, and I can share one positive thing about their student.” And they talk about the fact that that can make a difference for them for the rest of the year.
I’ll also go a step further and say we, as educators, need to be comfortable meeting folks outside of the school environment. I don’t think we talk enough about the power that exists within schools when we ask caregivers to come and see us in these spaces in which we harbor titles and we’re comfortable and things like that. I think we have to find ways to go to people. And I’m not just saying that you show up at people’s houses and knocking. Please don’t do that. You need to find folks, whether that be, if folks are at a park and you have permission to come meet and interact with these folks there. If you can meet folks at a restaurant and you can sit down and talk, whatever that may be, we have to do something radically different. I think that’s the thing that I come to time and time again. As a teacher, I remember doing back to school nights where we’d get two parents to show up, yet the next year we do the same thing over and over again. And we continued to get a lack of (parents/caregivers) showing up unless individual teachers took it upon themselves to go above and beyond. I think we have to find ways to make that standard, where we’re constantly going out of our way to connect with people. Janice feels what I’m saying [based on comment in chat]. So, I’m going to double down on that. We have to radically imagine something different and it starts with doing something different.
Historically, we’ve done school in a way in which parent interaction is easy for White middle class ways of being. Meaning that you have one parent who can be at home all day and has time to come up to the school or has the privilege and flexibility to be a face in the classroom, whatever that may be. And that’s frankly not a reality for many of our families. Therefore, how do we find ways to meet folks where they’re at? How do we begin to, once again, expand this notion of connectedness to parents and families outside of what we’ve traditionally done?
Yes, I think that that’s so relevant in so many communities across the state and across the country. I think we have time for one final question, and this question might be a little bit more, we might need a whole hour for this one, but you talked about self-identity and how much it impacts and how we connect with others. And so, you shared some question prompts and there was a comment in the chat about the questions will only help if a teacher is listening and able to implement what students are saying. And so, the question is like, do you have any suggestions on how we can work through these challenges? And even an added layer of how do we really work through this when we’re engaging with partners who are part of unions? How do we think about all of these layers of potential barriers and challenges?
Yes. Rebeca, you’re accurate. We need a lot more time to back all of this. So, I’ll start with getting the connections to students first. I think we have to get imaginative in the ways in which we connect to students. I recently had the privilege of observing a teacher who does something very cool. She leaves a stack of sticky notes on every desk. And basically what students are allowed to do throughout the day is they can just grab a sticky note, write whatever their issue may be in class and just drop it on her desk. And that’s a discrete way in which she maintains communication with her students. Also, this is also just the way in which we do school differently now is she lets students email her in class because, students are one to one, they can email her about a query they have. So, in terms of just those connections and relationships between students and teachers, I think we have to get imaginative.
The union concerns are very real. Let me say that at the beginning. The union concerns are very real. What I will share in what I have found ways in which to navigate around this is, one, making sure that all information is anonymized to where individual teachers don’t feel as if they’re being attacked. So, these are general statements about the ways in which students are experiencing this school or classrooms, not that individual teacher. What I find is when teachers feel attacked, they don’t respond the best way. So, finding ways not to just call out teachers at the individual level, but two, I turn to our administrators here and my school leaders, I think we also have to find a way to get our teachers to reframe the ways in which they take this feedback and take this as a learning exercise, an empathy exercise, to learn to ways in which students are experiencing these learning environments. Because teachers will sometimes see this feedback and they’ll be irate and they’ll be upset and talk about, “Oh, I can’t believe this, that, and the other.” And what I like to do is ask those teachers, “Now, okay. If you are so upset reading feedback about how students feel, can you possibly imagine how students feel on a daily basis dealing with whatever they complained about in the first place? Can you imagine the discomfort and the anger and the fury that student must feel on a daily basis?” And they don’t have a union to go to. They are forced to constantly show up day in and day out and experience whatever that they’ve told you that they’re already unhappy with. So, therefore, I got to put it on those folks and say, “Well, hey, if we’re expecting students…expect someone… we say we expect students to react positively, then I’m going to say that same thing to you. If students are expected to have this growth mindset and to have grit and learn and this, that, and the other, I’m going to push that same thing on our teachers. You need to have this grit. You need to have a growth mindset and understand that students aren’t attacking you personally. What they’re saying is, “What happens in this classroom is not working for me.” Carla Shalaby has fantastic work, and one of my favorite books is her Troublemakers, where she talks about the canaries in the mine, that sometimes our most vocal students are the canaries in the mines telling us, “Something’s toxic here, something’s not working here.” And if teachers can’t take the time to get outside of their ego and get outside of themselves and see that our students are crying and asking for help, then shame on them.
Well, thank you, Jaleel. I mean, this was a really great session to be able to learn from you and thank you for providing context and space for allowing us to learn. I think that, by evidence, by folks being engaged in the chat, it was very thought-provoking for everyone. And again, thank you, Jaleel, and thank you everyone who joined for your commitment to the field and by attending the session to perhaps reinforce what you know or you were coming to learn something new.