Strategies for Building Educators’ Capacity to Understand and Be Responsive to Students’ Perspectives (Part 3 of 3)
The Student Experience Research Network convened nearly three dozen researchers, students, leaders of educational organizations, and university and school district administrators and educators together with representatives of education foundations at its annual funder briefing to discuss what the education system can do to create environments that signal to students that their voices are heard and that their perspectives matter. This is the final installment in a series of three blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from the event.
Our first two posts described how the environment shapes students’ perceptions of being heard and mattering, and outlined strategies to positively influence those perceptions. In this post, we explore the supports that educators and administrators need to begin and sustain this work.
While calling for the fundamental structures necessary for K-16 educators to do their jobs, including a livable salary and access to affordable housing, speakers focused on strategies for building educators’ skill, supporting educators’ personal and professional development, and increasing educators’ capacity through partnerships.
Practice and Feedback
A cycle of low-stakes, targeted practice and formative feedback is important for developing any new skill, including the set of skills required of an educator to signal to students that their perspectives matter.
In a session about new forms of feedback for educators, Niral Shah, professor of education at the University of Washington, described the difficult task of an educator and how implicit bias can creep in to interactions: “A whole class discussion is one of those spaces where a teacher has to […] decide really important, consequential things really fast. Am I going to call on this student? I’m going to call on that student. What am I going to ask them to do? If I call on that [student], are they going to totally disrupt my lesson plan? We know that the race, gender, language, all of the layers of the social markers that kind of structure society at large, those come into play in those moments.”
Small actions like the type of question an educator asks, who they call on to answer that question, and the amount of wait time they allow after posing a question can all affect students’ participation in ways that intersect with students’ identities. Fact-finding questions that educators already know the answer to may be used as behavior management strategy, while more open-ended questions may elicit deeper thinking and discussion.
“Authentic questions,” as Sidney D’Mello, professor of cognitive and computer science at the University of Colorado Boulder, called them, are “authentic in the sense that the teacher genuinely wants to know what the student wants to say” and have been shown to snowball into the type of complex classroom discourse that would indicate to students that their voices are valued.
Both Niral and Sidney have developed tools to help get this feedback into the hands of educators in a low-cost, timely, and accessible way.
In Niral’s web-based tool EQUIP, teachers code interactions with students based on the type of interaction and the students’ characteristics (or have a classroom observer help with coding). Both elements are highly customizable. The EQUIP team is using the tool in ongoing research to document, understand, and reduce inequity.
Sidney’s app uses natural language processing from a microphone in a classroom to update a dashboard about teachers’ authentic questioning patterns. Sidney’s team is also looking to use the tool to capture messages that communicate belonging and inclusion through research funded in part by the Student Experience Research Network.
Small actions like the type of question an educator asks, who they call on to answer that question, and the amount of wait time they allow after posing a question can all affect students’ participation.
Both of these tools show analysis of their classroom data over time, so that educators can practice different strategies and see how they are progressing on the metrics they’ve chosen. Carrie Straub, executive director of education programs and research at Mursion, explained how she and her team have created a new type of setting for practice and feedback.
Mursion is a virtual simulation platform through which educators can interact with avatars that are voiced by adult actors. These avatars provide the authenticity of humans within a low-stakes environment where educators can receive real-time feedback from a coach or peers and where mistakes do not negatively impact real students. The tool is currently used by pre-service educators during their postsecondary education and by several K-12 school districts and networks in a professional learning capacity.
Practicing in the virtual environment has proven highly effective. “The avatars are kind of like a digital veil,” Carrie said. “There’s something about this kind of playful, gamified space. There’s research to indicate people, they communicate more in a virtual setting than they do in a video conference or by phone in that you have more verbal and nonverbal communication.”
Niral, Sidney, and Carrie were careful to note that none of these platforms should be used to evaluate educators. Rather, they are tools for continuous improvement that rely on educators feeling safe to record their practices and try new strategies.
Targeted professional learning and support can also help equip educators to facilitate a sense of mattering and being heard among students.
Francesca López, professor of educational policy studies and practice at the University of Arizona, introduced the concepts of asset-based pedagogy and critical awareness.
For a recent study, she interviewed elementary school teachers to understand how these concepts show up in their thinking. Educators who hold asset-based views of emerging multilingual students, for example, would emphasize a students’ capability and resilience rather than focusing on the English skills that the student has yet to develop. Educators who bring critical awareness to their work would “put the onus on themselves, ‘I need to know more about my students,’” rather than attributing a lack of engagement to students’ laziness or home environments.
Francesca and her colleagues (including Mindset Scholar Jamaal Matthews) have found that the students of teachers who hold these asset-based, critically aware views had significantly higher grades in reading and mathematics.
Given that deficit-based narratives are so pervasive in our culture, asset-based, critically aware beliefs must be intentionally cultivated. “It’s very difficult to teach in a way differently than how we were taught to,” Francesca explained. “Giving student voice is incredibly difficult. It requires releasing the reigns and letting students really take ownership.”
The process can be even more difficult across lines of difference. Linda Tropp, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, presented research showing that “most white Americans report having close social networks that are entirely white. And for those who have limited experience in prior interracial contact, interracial contact can be quite anxiety-provoking. And the more anxious we feel, the more prone we are to stereotype other groups and to distance ourselves from other groups.” This is consequential in a K-12 education system in which more than 50% of students and less than 20% of teachers are people of color.
Rachel Godsil, co-founder and co-director of the Perception Institute, shared related research showing that educators’ racial anxiety was associated with worse outcomes for their students, including more frequent and harsh discipline citations for students of color.
What supports can help more educators reduce their anxiety and practice more asset-based, critically aware teaching? Several speakers pointed out that teachers are not a monolith; they all have different degrees of readiness to engage with these questions around identity and bias, so support must be differentiated as well.
When working with white teachers, Rachel leverages activities that reveal how the unconscious brain works as well as associated scientific research, to approach the issue with an objective, academic lens.
“We share studies from the context of healthcare, law, police enforcement, judges, and then we get to education. We actually start outside of education and work our way in so the teachers don’t feel like we’re coming in and shaming and blaming them. We’re saying this is something that societally we all have to deal with because of the structures of discrimination that we all grew up within and the toxic cultures that we’re all apprised to.”
From there, the Perception Institute partners with both K-12 districts and postsecondary education institutions to scaffold support, acknowledging that change cannot happen overnight.
Educators of color often have different perspectives on this work based on their lived experiences. Micia Mosely, director of the Black Teacher Project, explained her own experience as a black educator: “I found myself put in a position like many black teachers where I was expected to do everything. I was expected to be everyone’s mother, everyone’s disciplinarian. It’s like Scandal, I was going to be the fixer. Like, ‘End racism in school because you are a black teacher; you can do that.’”
“Black teachers will tell you what they need to stay.”
Micia’s goal at the Black Teacher Project is to transform education by sustaining, developing, and recruiting black teachers. Research shows that having even one black teacher increases a black student’s likelihood to graduate high school and go to college.
To support in-service black educators, the Black Teacher Project leads affinity work. Micia explained: “Greg Peters has a theory of transformation that says, ‘In order for us to do the transformative work that we want to do, we have to work alone, in affinity, and in alliance across difference.’ What we’re doing is being models for what that work means in affinity. Since Brown v. Board of Education—the [legal case] that single handedly got rid of all of the black teachers—we’ve been trying to jump to the ‘across difference’ work. Many of us have not done our alone work. I’m talking journaling, reading, watching videos, understanding who we are as racial beings.”
Micia told a story of an educator in Oakland whose students were experiencing tension between black and Latinx adults in their community. In her affinity group, the teacher had a safe space to explore how to broach the topic with students. When she did, she found that students were concerned about forming friendships across race in her mathematics class, and the students were able to ask for support in how to navigate that. The teacher was also able to process her own feelings about the situation in affinity with other black educators.
In this case, supporting the educator’s voice ultimately allowed space for students’ voices. Micia drew out other parallels as well: “Black teachers will tell you what they need to stay, not the least of which is a revamping of this credentialing process. All of the challenges that we know around testing for young people, we see this happen with adults.”
Community and intermediary organizations
Communities and intermediary organizations can also help support educators. Speakers argued that community engagement is necessary to build educators’ critical awareness of students’ cultures and lived experiences.
When asked about what advice she would give to educators and administrators to help students feel heard and valued, Izadora McGawley, a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, replied, “hiring more teachers of color; having more of those shared experiences within the community. Having those opportunities for the teachers, maybe if they don’t live in the community to learn more about… in our case, what is a border community? [If they] just moved here from Chicago for example, […] how is [San Diego] different? What does that look like?”
Similarly, Francesca López referenced Norma Gonzalez’s work, explaining a model in which “teachers were released half day, once a week to go visit the communities. That was incorporated into the school’s system, not ‘give up your evening with your family and do these things,’ [it] was made part of the expectation of the school day. I think to make it successful, we have to remember these are human beings with lives. They want to do what’s best, but we need to make sure we’re giving the infrastructure to make it possible.”
Elham Kazemi, professor of education at the University of Washington, described how she trains pre-service student teachers to engage families first by taking a baby step like writing a note home, then inviting families to an event.
“If you’re parents,” Elham explained, “your children are so different at home than they are at school. [When we ask] ‘what do you want for your kids?’ everyone says, ‘I just want my kid to be happy and successful.’ It’s not like, ‘Oh, I really want them to learn their whatever thing in math.’ And I think for young teachers or early career teachers to see that that’s the first thing that families say about their kids, and then how much they enjoy telling stories about their children too, it kind of changes… like what it is to meet and partner with families.”
Intermediary organizations can provide support too. DeLeon Gray, scholar in residence at Michigan State University, who leads a university-school partnership in North Carolina, explained that a partnership can emerge around something as simple as a university providing library access to students, so that they have access to higher quality databases for research projects.
Michelle Morales, president of the Woods Fund Chicago, echoed this sentiment: “Support simply can be making a phone call for a teacher, right? I want a guest speaker, but I don’t have the time to do the research and call someone to come into my classroom. Can you help me with that? I want to think through a field trip that ties my lesson in the classroom to the community. Can you help me through that? I want to think of how to construct a project that elevates youth voice. Can you help me through that?”
“[A partnership] doesn’t mean telling teachers what to do,” DeLeon said. “Sometimes it means getting behind the great things that teachers are already doing. Like this teacher [on screen], Mr. Bell, we collaborate together but he already has his own farm and so he brings students to his farm. I just have to open the doors at NC State on Saturday, meet with the students every once in a while. But he has his own initiative going. But by doing that, we began to put our heads together and develop curricular activities that fit my goals of supporting students’ motivation and his goals, connecting students to their ancestral heritage through agriculture.” The full video of DeLeon’s session on intermediary organizations is available here.
Speakers noted that the role of intermediaries extends beyond supporting individual educators; they can also support systems. Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University, for example, recently started an organization called Community Responsive Education that offers professional and curriculum development services to schools, districts, colleges, and universities.
Both districts at the event, Chicago Public Schools and Baltimore City Public Schools, highlighted the importance of intermediaries in supporting their civics and leadership work. They emphasized that these partnerships work best with agreement and planning on the front end to ensure a shared goal of students feeling heard and valued, and a shared understanding of the other responsibilities on educators’ plates in addition to the partnership.
Targeted practice and feedback, professional learning and affinity groups, and engagement with families and community partners are complementary tools that can support educators in developing a more asset-based and critically aware practice and improving and maintaining their own well-being. For administrators and systems, providing these supports is a critical step toward creating an environment in which students feel their voices are heard and their perspectives matter.