When I was eleven, my teacher divided our class into groups of four to complete a project on the United States Constitution. The three other members of my group, all Hispanic, had already gathered and I heard them talking about how excited they were. I was also ecstatic, and I ran over to my desk to gather my things.
As I approached the group, I saw them look over their shoulders at me, laugh, and then start speaking only in Spanish. I moved my chair away from the group, put my head down, and started to brainstorm alone. Our teacher walked past, gave us all a thumbs up and a smile, and continued to check on the other groups.
What my teacher didn’t know is that this scene was repeated often and intentionally to exclude me. As one of the few Black students in a predominately Hispanic school with white teachers, I began to master the art of hiding behind a smile and feeling like no one could see me.
This white teacher wasn’t the one who made me feel out of place, but she also didn’t address it because she didn’t see what was happening. If she were trained to recognize and bridge cultural differences, she could have intervened by modeling how to express empathy for one another. She could have been proactive about creating an environment of inclusion and respect for cultural differences. Kids will be kids—but I needed my teacher to be a teacher, and show them how to be better.
Illinois’ new Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards, approved in December by the State Board of Education, will equip new teachers with the tools they need to create an inclusive environment and support students as they navigate their daily academic and social lives in school.
Culturally responsive teaching could have helped me develop the confidence and assurance that all pre-teens need during a developmental stage where self-esteem can fluctuate and be easily influenced. Moreover, my classmates could have developed the empathy and social-emotional skills to see how isolated I felt and reach out to include me. Perhaps my group members would have invited me to take part in our Constitution project.
To end the cycle of Black students feeling unable to connect with the teachers they interact with daily, universities must provide future teachers with resources to support cultural responsiveness and meet the needs of diverse learners. The new standards will empower future teachers with the skills they need to reach and teach the whole child, and to create environments where students feel included, seen and connected. New teachers will be able to go beyond teaching content and focus on teaching students.
My teacher couldn’t do that for me, but these standards will prepare the next generation of teachers to do it for their students so that all students can have a sense of acceptance, belonging, and can look back on their academic career and know that they were made whole in their academic environment.
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