“Learn about who you’re teaching.”


During the 2009 Ross Institute Summer Academy, Dr. Pedro Noguera, distinguished professor of education at University of California, Los Angeles, and renowned education scholar and activist, spoke on the topic of school culture and how cultural differences should be acknowledged and addressed in the classroom. Ross School is proud to present a video and full transcription of his remarks below.




Table of Contents

  1. “The best teachers teach the way children learn.”

  2. “There’s always been only one purpose to education . . . to prepare young people to become responsible adults.”

  3. “Relationships are at the core of building successful schools.”

  4. “What are their academic, social, and emotional needs?”

  5. “All of us occupy numerous cultures simultaneously.”

  6. “We know how to take ideas and concepts and skills and make them relevant and meaningful.”

  7. “It’s often because they simply don’t know how to relate to those kids.”

  8. “Moral authority is not rooted in your title. It’s rooted in the relationship.”

  9. “A part of being in the minority means you have to learn to function like those in the majority.” 

  10. “Stereotypes are so powerful.”

  11. “All students referred to as ‘scholars.’”

  12. “Understanding what it takes to have access to opportunity is an important part of demystifying power and the way it works.”

  13. “Cultures are rooted in norms, in values, in practices, in rituals that reinforce the core values we believe in.”

  14. Creating [a] common culture means that we’ve got to work through our differences.”

  15. “If you’re having trouble with parents . . . they’re not part of this yet.”

  16. The goal of discipline should be to produce kids who become self-disciplined.”

  17. “Let me give you a few examples of schools that I know well that have adopted rituals and practice that reinforce their core values.”

  18. “We care about you. We value you. What we’re doing here is important.”

  19. “Culture is not static.”

  20. “Learn about who you’re teaching.”

  21. “You need a plan for engaging parents.”

  22. “If we’ve got the courage to talk to the kids, we’d learn so much about what’s happening in their lives.”


“The best teachers teach the way children learn.”

I’m going to talk with you today about culture, a concept and a topic which I will acknowledge from the very beginning is ambiguous and difficult to get your hands around because we use the term “culture” in so many different ways. Even during the course of my presentation, I’m going to use it in some different ways.

I have been a teacher and a policy maker myself, although we don’t often think of local school board members as policy makers. I served as president of the school board in Berkeley, California—and I have the scars to show for it—and that’s often where policy is made at the local level. I also do some of that work now at the state and national level. So I have a lot of different vantage points. And probably the one that’s the most humbling of all is that of a parent. I always say that the greatest challenge I face is raising my own children.

What I want to try to do is to address the issues that I think are most critical and most difficult in education. I framed this around what I think is a basic and fundamental question: What does it take to educate the children you serve? I would argue that if you can’t answer that question, you shouldn’t even be doing this work. But it’s not a simple question, because to answer the question, you actually have to know something about the children you serve.

I think that, so often, we make an assumption that we know, and our assumptions inform our actions in our practice. Consequently, there’s a lot of a disconnect between us as educators and the children we serve, because we really don’t understand who they are and what their needs are.

Let me start by saying that the best teachers—and I’ve had a chance to visit lots of schools throughout the country and throughout the world—consistently, the best teachers don’t expect children to learn the way they teach. The best teachers teach the way children learn. If you teach the way children learn, you recognize they don’t all learn in the same ways, and you don’t blame them when they don’t learn. Instead, you start to ask yourself, “What do I need to do differently? What’s not happening here for this child?” Because learning should come naturally for children. When it doesn’t, then we have to ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with the environment? What’s wrong with the way we’ve approached it that has prevented it from occurring?”

Too often, when that’s not happening, when the children are not learning, we say, “Well, what’s wrong with those kids? What’s wrong with that child? What’s wrong with their parents?” That tendency, I would argue, is one of the major obstacles to greater success in education today—the tendency to blame kids and, by extension, their parents.

Back to top


“There’s always been only one purpose to education . . . to prepare young people to become responsible adults.”

When I worked at Harvard, I collaborated with Ron Heifetz, who was part of the Kennedy School of Government with the Center for Public Leadership. He and I were asked to design a program to train superintendents around the country. Most of Ron’s work was with elected officials and business leaders, but I was familiar with his work within the context of education. I’m specifically referring to his book Leadership on the Line, which I think is directly relevant to the work we do in education, [in which he describes] the distinction he draws between what he calls “technical work” and “adaptive work.”

Technical work is the business of being in compliance with rules and procedures. If you are focused on assessment, it’s making sure that you assess those kids according to the law that states which standards need to be covered. If you’re in a leadership role, it’s important to make sure that there’s heat in the building, that the kids are fed, and that you have certified people in your classroom—if that’s what the law requires—because running a school is running a complex organization.

That’s the technical work. It’s the essential work, because without it, these complex organizations don’t function. But none of that work is about whether our kids are actually engaged in learning, whether or not they’re excited about being there, whether or not they’re stimulated, whether or not they’re motivated, whether or not they understand the larger purpose of education, or whether or not you know how to reach them.

My colleague, Debbie Meier, founded a school in Central Harlem called Central Park East, and although she’s 83 years old, she continues to be very active in the field. I asked her to come to visit and speak to my students one day, and one of the students asked a question: “What’s the purpose of education?” She very quickly said, “There’s always been only one purpose to education in all countries at all times, and that is to prepare young people to become responsible adults.”

If they get into the best colleges but they rob banks, we failed. Education, when successful, should teach people how to live, how to make responsible decisions—which means it’s not simply about how well they do academically by conventional measures, because the social and the emotional aspects of learning are also so essential.

My father, who was a cop in New York City for 27 years, liked to say, “Common sense really isn’t that common.” How do you educate people for common sense, for social and emotional intelligence, all of which are really important for being prepared for the world we live in?

The “adaptive work” that Heifetz talks about is the work that requires constant reflection, because it is work being done in a complex environment. It is the work the makes us ask ourselves questions about whether or not we’re meeting the needs of the children we work with, because preparing them for the world out there is not a simple task. You don’t achieve that simply by being in compliance with regulations and standards.

Back to top


“Relationships are at the core of building successful schools.”

Finding the right balance between the technical and adaptive work is, I would argue, the essential part of doing this work well. You’ve got to do the technical work or you get in trouble, but if you don’t do the adaptive work, you end up with kids who are bored, who are disengaged. You end up with classrooms that are out of control. You end up with teachers who are demoralized. You end up with schools that don’t function because they don’t understand how to meet the needs of the children they serve. It’s like the distinction between a functional and dysfunctional family. Most people don’t get married in order to pay bills with their partner, even though that’s an essential part of being a family, but if you’re not conscious of the relationships within that family, your family falls apart. Same thing is true with schools. Relationships are at the core of building successful schools.

All the research shows that the relationships between the children, between the children and the adults, and between the adults who work there and the parents they serve are the critical variables influencing the character of a school. When there are strains in those relationships, there’s breakdown and often dysfunction in the school. The dysfunction is manifested in a number of ways. It is manifested in high turnover of staff, in problematic behavior amongst the kids, and in conflict and tension within the building.

My colleague, Charles Payne, who teaches at the University Chicago, just wrote a book called So Much Reform, So Little Change. It asks the question, “Why is it that after 30 years of trying to reform schools in Chicago, schools aren’t getting better?” He says that when you go look into the schools that are consistently not performing, what you consistently find is a dysfunctional cultur

I would argue right now that if you change the curriculum, you change the organization, you bring in a new professional development. If you bring in new textbooks but don’t change the culture, nothing will change. I’ll come back in a moment to what I mean by “culture” in this sense, but that work is the adaptive work. Creating a culture that allows people to do their best work, that allows us to build these relationships, powerful relationships with children—that’s the adaptive challenge of the work. It’s harder to prepare you for that work.

My colleague, Jerry Murphy, from the Ed School at Harvard, who was formerly the Dean, was talking about preparing principals and how hard it is to prepare principals. He said, “Well, a principal is a lot like a sea captain. You can give them technical training, but how do you prepare them for when they’re out at sea and they have to figure out whether or not they should come in or go further out? Because they have to be able to read the seas. How do you prepare them to have good discretion? How do you prepare them to be wise?” I would say that principals need to be wise and have good discretion. Teachers need to be wise and have good discretion, because so many of the decisions you make, you can’t rely on a handbook to figure out the best way to resolve a particular problem or challenge you’re faced with. That’s the adaptive work that I want to talk to you about today.

Back to top


“What are their academic, social, and emotional needs?”

As I said already, the big question that I want to focus on today is “What does it take to educate the children you serve?” I think it’s the most basic and fundamental question to be addressed. As I pointed out already, embedded into that question are several subquestions. I’ve only enumerated a few of them, such as “What are their academic, social, and emotional needs?” They’re connected, aren’t they? Kids who are neglected at home, for example, will often have more trouble in the classroom. You can’t separate the intellectual from the emotional and the social within the same person.

“What are their strengths and weaknesses?” So often I go to schools, and all I can hear the educators talk about is the deficits in children, what’s wrong with them, what they don’t have, what they can’t do—which prevents them from seeing the strengths and all they bring. I have met kids who have memorized the lyrics to hundreds of songs but can’t seem to memorize anything in the classroom—not because they don’t have the ability to remember, but because we haven’t found a way to make what we want them to retain meaningful enough that they will decide, “Yes, I’ll hold on to this, too.”

Knowing about their interests, about their needs, is a big part of figuring out how to educate them. Knowing about the challenges they face outside of school—what’s going on in their lives, what’s happening with their families, knowing about their parents’ hopes and dreams, knowing about how they learn when they’re not with you. Because we don’t teach kids with empty heads. They come in with knowledge, skills, and experiences that they use to acquire new information.

All of that, I would argue—and there is much, much more I could add to that list—is an essential part of figuring out what it takes to educate the students you serve. But if you see this largely as a technical enterprise, that is, you’ve been trained, you’ve been provided a curriculum, and now you’re going to be dispatched to go teach those kids, it almost doesn’t matter who they put in front of you, now you’re ready. Well, guess what? Chances are you’re going to experience a lot of trouble.

I have a colleague. He’s the head of surgery at the University of Toronto Medical School, a Jamaican, trained at the University of the West Indies. I saw him and said, “You know, it’s amazing to me that a Jamaican comes to Toronto and rises to the top position at this very prestigious hospital in Canada. How did that happen?” He said, “Everybody wants to know that because all my colleagues have degrees from all these distinguished universities, but you know what happened when I got here? They quickly realized I had skills they didn’t have. You know what those were? I know how to talk to people

“Patients would come in with some condition that was not easily diagnosed. I talked to them and asked them questions about their background, and I would learn about them, and lo and behold, I became the best person in this hospital, widely recognized as diagnosing illness. And I learned that because I worked in conditions where I didn’t have all the techniques. I didn’t have all the latest equipment, so I had to just figure out how to talk to people to learn about their condition, and when I came here, they recognized that was an invaluable skill. So I rose to leadership in the hospital.”

A lot of these soft skills about how to relate to children, how to establish rapport with children, you can’t teach them so easily. But they’re so critical to whether or not you’re going to succeed in the classroom.

Herbert Kohl wrote a book in 1974 called I Won’t Learn from You. Sometimes, teachers see students who are engaged and on task in one class and not at all focused in another. Almost always what distinguishes the performance of one classroom from the other classroom is what? It’s the relationship that that teacher has managed to establish with the student, because students learn through relationships.

Back to top


“All of us occupy numerous cultures simultaneously.”

This question and this work, this adaptive work, I would argue, is right at the core of your work as educators. To understand adaptive work is an ever-evolving process, due to the fact that the nature of childhood has changed in the last 20 years. They know more about technology and are communicating in new ways. If the way children are learning today has changed, then the way we continue to teach them also has to change, has to stay relevant to who they are. This means that we’ve got to see this work as dynamic. We have to constantly reflect on the practice and ask ourselves whether or not we are succeeding at educating the children we serve.

With that in mind, I want you to now think about the children you serve and what the kind of assumptions we make about culture. I’m going to use culture now in a different way. Culture relates to your background, whether that has to do with ethnicity, national origin, or race. I want to start using a definition of culture that comes out of anthropology, which is really that it’s “a system of ideas that enables us to make meaning in the social world.” It is that system of meaning that gives meaning to our clothing, that gives meaning to our speech, that gives meaning to our taste. You usually only know when you’re in a different culture when you’re encountering and interacting with someone who’s different because there’s no shared understanding. That’s why, a lot of times, we think the other person has an accent.

At the same time, all of us occupy numerous cultures simultaneously. The culture of work, the culture of the family, the culture of your sexual orientation, the culture of your religion—all of us occupy numerous cultures. For many of us, this is not a problem. We navigate these almost seamlessly. But for some of us, it may be more of a difficulty, because when the cultures are more different, the strains and the stresses of transferring from one cultural setting to another can induce stress in a person.

For example, if you come from a home that’s very religious, when you go to school where there are different norms in place, then there can be tensions because what’s expected at home and what’s expected at school are so far apart. The greater the degree of cultural difference, often, the greater the degree of stress and strain on the person. Helping people to navigate these strains and stresses is very important because, again, we often are not even aware of what they’re going through because we see things from our cultural frame of reference. We can’t help but do that.

Back to top


“We know how to take ideas and concepts and skills and make them relevant and meaningful.”

Another thing we know is that we learn through shared cultural understandings. Vygotsky, a Russian linguist, talks about learning through the “zone of proximal development.” That is, it’s easier to learn something that if we can connect it to something that’s already familiar. One of the reasons why learning a language like Arabic or Mandarin is so difficult for you, if you speak a language [that uses the Latin alphabet], is because the alphabets for these languages are completely unfamiliar to us.

It’s also true that teaching is a cultural transaction, and that part of what makes the transaction work is the degree to which we know how to take ideas and concepts and skills and make them relevant and meaningful to the person at the other end.

Well, there are some kids in classrooms where they just can’t figure out what you’re saying, because the degree to which we’re able to communicate in ways that are meaningful to them are limited. But I just want to acknowledge that this is an important part of teaching, because it’s really the medium through which we learn. When there are cultural mismatches, when there’s a difference in culture between the person who’s teaching and the people who are learning, there are often tensions—often tensions to a large degree, because we tend to view differences in culture as a sign of deficiency. If you’re not like me, then you’re not quite as good.

That tendency to judge is a fairly common human tendency, but it has serious and often severe implications for teaching when we are teaching children who are from a different background than us. I’m not a cultural relativist. I know that we all have differences in how we do things. I think that’s a whole other topic we could debate about—whether or not there are certain cultural practices and traditions that are problematic and really should be changed. That’s another topic, but I just want to acknowledge here that when there’s a difference, it often affects our ability to teach and to communicate, because we don’t know how and our judgments and our tendency to make judgments based on those differences often kicks in.

Back to top


“It’s often because they simply don’t know how to relate to those kids.”

We also know that those differences, when they’re there, often become manifest in communication problems and behavior problems. Almost always when I find a classroom that’s out of control, where kids are acting out, what I almost always looked to is, how does that teacher communicate with the children? Not to say that I’m blaming the adult, because threre are challenging children out there who have special needs or who present particular challenges to us, but when you find consistently that this adult has trouble with a population of kids, it’s often because they simply don’t know how to relate to those kids.

I’ll give you one short story to illustrate the point. Working with a school in Oakland, California, they have a brand-new teacher from Teach for America. How many Teach for America graduates here? Okay. A couple. All right. Good to see you. You know the profile. They are young, they went to a good college, they’re idealistic, they’re very briefly trained, and then they’re sent to very difficult schools.

She’s working in a school in Oakland, and she comes to me one day and says, “You know, I’m having trouble with classroom management.” She said, “No one’s been wanting to help me. Could you give me some pointers? Come and observe me.” I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to come into your classroom.” So I sit in the classroom. After a few minutes, it’s clear. It’s far worse than what she described. Total chaos in the room. Kids are screaming, there’s yelling.

At the end of the period she turned to me and said, “See what I’m talking about?” I said, “Yeah, this is bad.” She says, “Well, I can’t take it anymore. I’m about to quit. I’m going home with migraines every day.” “Let’s go to see the principal. Let’s see if the principal can help.”

Together, we go see the principal, and she explains what’s happening in her classroom. The principal listens and at the end of the conversation says, “You’re a professional. Deal with it.” Then I speak up and I said, “Listen, if you don’t help her she’s going to quit. It’s March. She quits now, you’ll have to get a sub for the rest of the year.” That alarms him. “No, I don’t want that,” he says. He says, “I have an idea. We have a veteran teacher who’s just retired from the school. She’s great with kids and she’s available as a substitute now. I’m going to ask her to come back to take over your classroom for a few days. I can only afford a few days, but I think you might pick up some things from watching her.

Both the new teacher and I think, “Well, that’s the best idea we’ve heard, only it didn’t seem to make any sense. Let’s try it.” The next day, the veteran teacher shows up. There’s something about the walk, something about the look she gives that the kids can tell almost instantly the real thing is here today, so the classroom that was previously out of control is suddenly on task. Kids are working, normal classroom. They’re engaged. Math class, she’s there teaching. New teacher and I were in shock. We can’t believe this has happened so quickly. At one point during the lesson, though, she sees two girls talking, so she stops what she’s doing and says, “Young lady, when I’m speaking, I want you to be quiet.” She goes to write on the board and then under her breath the girl mutters, “Bitch.”

The veteran teacher stops what she’s doing. She says, “Young lady, do I look like your mother?” The girl reacts. She’s like, “No, you don’t look like my mother.” She says, “Whenever you speak to me, I want you to think of your mother,” and she goes back to the lesson, girl goes back to there, class does not miss a beat. New teacher turns to me and says, “How did she know that that would work?” My question to you is what does the veteran teacher know that the new teacher doesn’t? But she didn’t know those students. They weren’t her students.

She knows about the culture of that environment. She worked in that school, in that community. Do you think she might’ve got that technique in grad school? She pulled that out and said, “Remember, when they call you . . .”? What does she know about these kids that the new teacher doesn’t? Culture. But she also knew these kids know better. She knew that if she simply was comfortable with her own authority and reminded this girl that’s not happening here, the girl actually would go along and work with her.

The new teacher thought she was teaching wild children that needed Valium or some kind of drug to calm them down. The veteran teacher didn’t cite the rules. There must be a rule against bitch calling. Why not cite the rule? Why doesn’t she cite the rule? Do the kids know the rule? Is there any school in America where you can curse at teachers? No, but the children will push, they will test, they will challenge—because this was really a test. They wanted to know how she going to respond.

What I’m saying, and some people have spoken to this already, is that teaching is a lot like the martial arts. Think about the martial arts. You don’t get to be a black belt just because of seniority. I’ve been at this for 20 years, I should be a black belt by now. No, no, no. You could be a white belt after 20 years. You actually have to master techniques. Some people become a black belt in six years because they take time to master the craft.

Back to top


“Moral authority is not rooted in your title. It’s rooted in the relationship.”

Teaching is both art and skill. You can learn the skills; the art comes from character experience, personality, comes from what you’ve learned along the way through trial and error, comes from your ability to read the situation. Maybe some kids, if she had used that same technique, it could have gone differently. There’s no one way to handle a situation. But I give you the example because, to me, what it reflects is that we have people who’ve acquired a certain understanding about how to work with children that are often in our schools that we often don’t recognize. Some of those people might be a classroom aide, a librarian, or a custodian. They just know how to talk to kids because they have this ambiguous quality about them we call “moral authority

Moral authority is not rooted in your title. It’s rooted in the relationship. If you don’t have adults with moral authority in the school, you have a school that’s usually out of control, because the kids will respect adults that they know carry themselves in a way that suggests, “I’m to be respected.” They build those relationships that are so essential to learning [because they] are comfortable with their own sense of authority in relation to children. They are not authoritarian, but at the same time, not afraid to recognize they’re adults in the classroom and therefore have to be responsible for setting and creating a climate in which one can learn.

You don’t actually feel comforted to know that there’s an adult here who is comfortable with their own authority. A lot of that is about the culture we create in our classrooms and not so much about the culture or background of children.

You can have a diverse classroom of all kinds of kids and create a classroom where children learn the norms of that room, what’s expected of them, and learn to trust and feel confidence in that teacher. Because the good news is this: the children are less prejudiced than the adults. The children are less prejudiced than the adults. The adults have more hang-ups than the kids. When you ask the kids, “Who are the teachers you respect? Who are the teachers you learn from?” they will almost never talk about race or culture or language. They’ll talk about the character and the qualities of the person. The adults are hung up on race and culture and all these other issues. They have much more trouble with this. The kids see right through you. They know if you have biases. They know if you like certain people over other people. They know if you wore the same shirt two days in a row, don’t they? Or if you got a bad haircut. They’re watching you. They’re watching you.

There’s so much moral and ethical responsibility we invest in teachers that we don’t really train and prepare them for. I was talking with a friend last night about the fact that, in this country, we’ve started to confuse secularism or interpret it to mean amoralism. There’s no ethical or moral foundation to education, and that results in schools where the adults lose total authority because they no longer even teach kids basic right or wrong. They rely on the rules.

Lawrence Kohlberg, a former colleague, used to teach about moral development in children and remind us that teaching kids to do what’s right to avoid punishment is very low level of moral development. What we should be after is teaching kids to do what’s right even when we’re not looking. Even when we’re not looking, because they’ve developed their own internal sense of ethics so they can make good decisions on their own. That takes much more work, doesn’t it, than relying on a set of rules and procedures? That work is so essential to creating a classroom in which one can learn in a school where they can perform.

Back to top


“A part of being in the minority means you have to learn to function like those in the majority.”

The last thing I have up there is also part of the problem, which is that we—particularly in this country, but I imagine that this is not just true in this country, I imagine this is true in many countries—have often made assimilation a prerequisite for success. If you don’t assimilate into the dominant culture, then your ability to be successful is going to be more limited.

One of the ongoing debates in education and race in this country is this idea that black children interpret being successful with acting white. I often say, “Well, you know, in many schools, if you don’t act white, you’re not going to be successful.” If you don’t learn to speak the way white children might speak, standard English, say the way middle-class children speak, if you don’t learn to carry yourselves in a certain way, then you will be penalized. You will find that certain opportunities are not available for you.

Anybody who is from a different background gets it. They understand, yeah, a part of being in the minority means you have to learn to function like those in the majority, because if you don’t, you find opportunities denied.

Well, for some children, that transaction of understanding that they’ve got to give up their identity to be successful gets interpreted as, “I must lose connection to my community, my family, the people I’m a part of,” and they might also choose not to. While I understand that part of what education should do for kids is give them the ability to have skills to cross borders so they could become more powerful, so having more than one language is a good thing, having the ability to function in multiple environments is a good thing and education should do that for you. We call that “code switching.”

If you’re an educated person, you should be able to function in multiple environments and not feel inadequate. The question is, how do we teach kids to do that? I would argue, again, it comes back to relationships. If when we’re correcting their speech and correcting the behavior, they don’t know that the person is doing it because they care about me, the person doing is not putting me down, the person doing it is doing it because they want to make me more capable, stronger, better able to function, then often they will do the opposite of what you’ve asked them to.

They’re sagging, their pants are coming down. You can see the whole bottom. You say, “Pull up those pants.” They think you’re doing it to put them down. What do they do? They show you the whole thing now, right? They’re going to give you the whole bottom to see, because, again, it’s about the relationship.

Back to top


“Stereotypes are so powerful.”

The other reason why it’s problematic, of course, is because stereotypes are so powerful. We rely on stereotypes a lot to make judgments about people, and what we know about stereotypes is that they not only affect the way we see others but they also affect those who are seeing through the lens of the stereotype. They can be very limiting.

Claude Steele’s written a lot about stereotype threats and the ways they can impact your performance. Because we all know the script. How many of you have heard that “Asian kids are just naturally talented at math”? Or that “black people just good at dancing; it’s in their culture.” Or good at basketball. The hardest thing to beat is a tall black man who can play basketball. It’s in the culture. Well, how many of you know a black man who can’t play any basketball, can’t dance? Guess what? There are some Asian kids who are not good at math. But we rely on these stereotypes. There’s a school in San Francisco, Galileo High School, where 90% of the kids are Chinese. Fifty percent of them drop out before graduation. They don’t drop out because they’re not sufficiently Chinese. There’s more to their performance than their culture.

Because we often are using culture in ways to make these broad generalizations about people and groups, we often ignore individual differences and the other factors that contribute to academic success, such as the kind of school you go to.

Children from different backgrounds need to learn to become bicultural. They need to learn sometimes to be multicultural to function in multiple settings, and relationships will determine if they can do that. They also need to go to schools where it’s possible to go beyond stereotypes.

Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, and Asa Hilliard cowrote a book called Young, Gifted, and Black analyzing the schools and the conditions that produce high achievement amongst African-American students, because in this country, low achievement is the norm in so many places. What they consistently find is that when you look at those schools, what they have in place often is implicit—but sometimes it’s explicit as well—is a counternarrative. It’s telling these kids that while the rest of the society might tell you you’re not smart, the rest of society might tell you you’re better off playing sports than doing math and science, in this school, it’s a different message you’re getting about what it means to be black and what it means to be academically and intellectually successful. They argue that you need that powerful message because the effect of the environment is so powerful, so overwhelming, that if you don’t have it, kids will succumb to these stereotypes, because those stereotypes are powerful.

Back to top


“All students referred to as ‘scholars.’”

Part of what we’ve got to do is to figure out what it takes to create schools where kids can break out of stereotypes? I work with a school like that now, Excellence Charter School in Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn. They have some of the highest-performing fourth graders in the state of New York, all African-American, all male.

How do they do it? Well, they have a deliberate strategy of consciously telling these kids that they could be successful. All students are referred to as “scholars.” It seems a little arbitrary, but they want to get the message to them very early on: “You’re a scholar.” They also deliberately expose those kids to activities that they know are outside of their experience, like chess and robotics, because they know that part of breaking stereotypes is exposing them to new experiences. Education should do that.

John Ogbu, who’s had a lot of influence on the way, at least, Americans and even beyond this country think about cultural differences and race and performances, I think, made important contributions, but contributions that in some ways have limited our thinking about these issues. He uses two broad categories to talk about groups. One of the groups is voluntary minorities, immigrants who came here voluntarily—so Asian immigrants, for example—who, he argues, willingly accept cultural assimilation as the price of being in a new country.

Then he compares them to groups like African-Americans and Puerto Ricans and Native Americans and Inuits, who equate cultural assimilation with cultural domination and are more likely to be oppositional in the way they engage in school. Ogbu’s theories had a lot of influence on the way people think about why it is that certain kids are not performing in school. He does a lot of international comparisons, because he points out that this is true not just the United States, it’s true in other countries. If you’re a member of the subordinate group, with a history of looking at that group as inferior, it tends to have implications for how well that group does in schools.

If you are, for example, a young African-American or Latino boy, one of the things you have to learn very early is how to make people not be afraid of you. You don’t realize—you’re just a little 12-year-old, just like any other boy. Lots of energy, but you don’t realize that maybe it’s at a subliminal level or some other level that your very presence, your tone of voice, scares the hell out of some people. If you don’t learn how to smile, if you don’t learn how to read them and understand when they’re afraid, you will find that you will be shunned, you will be punished, you will not know how to engage a police officer. You could be in big trouble.

Yes, children of the majority also benefit from learning how to be multi- and bicultural and to function in multiple settings, but the consequence of not doing that is not as severe often. I agree with you, and I think that we should all strive. I think that what I really like about what you’re saying is that if we see this as value-added, that is, not as taking away their culture but adding to it so that now these kids become bilingual, multilingual, multicultural, then it’s adding to their strength rather than taking something away from them.

Back to top


“Understanding what it takes to have access to opportunity is an important part of demystifying power and the way it works.”

Often, we don’t understand what the children are going through when they have to make these changes and why it may be difficult for them, why they may sometimes resist even what we’re trying to teach them. Why they may want to hold on to that nonstandard English that their grandmother speaks to them. Lisa Delpit calls learning the “codes of power.” [What is important to recognize about that is that power is held by those who speak the standard language of the majority.]

Understanding what it takes to have access to opportunity is an important part of demystifying power and the way it works. It’s also about explaining to kids that life is sometimes not fair, and people will judge you based upon how you look. The reason why we want you to pull up your pants is we don’t want them to make assumptions about you because your pants are hanging down. When you wear that hood on your head, you might just think it’s a nice style, but guess what? Some people will think you’re in a gang now. That’s not fair, but that’s what’s happening.

If we can be open with our kids and explain this is what’s going on out there sometimes, and they believe that we really care about them—and that part is so essential—then maybe they’re going to be more open to learning it. The thing is, this is not on the same framework, teaching the kids these things. It’s not part of the curriculum, maybe, but it’s so essential to preparing them for life in the world they live in.

There are a lot of problems with our Ogbu’s approach. One is the fact that he treats culture as static. He doesn’t acknowledge that it’s constantly changing, evolving. Within groups, there are lots of differences. That not all immigrant groups in this country, even those we might call voluntary, are successful, because you’ve got to look at the class background of kids, you’ve got to look at the education level of their parents—all of that affects their performance. The schools they attend. You’ve got to look at deviations. Sometimes within the same family, you see deviations in performance—one sibling doing way better than another sibling—so these generalizations sometimes prevent us from recognizing and understanding the differences.

Back to top


“Cultures are rooted in norms, in values, in practices, in rituals that reinforce the core values we believe in.”

Cultures are rooted in norms, in values, in practices, in rituals that reinforce the core values we believe in. In a school setting, cultures send the message about what’s important. I want to say this now particularly to the folks in the school in New York, because you’re still a new school. How you create a culture, it’s going to be such an essential part of whether or not you’ll succeed with the children. That means how you work together, how you work with those children to a degree to which you can all be on the same page in reinforcing common themes.

Seymour Sarason, a Yale psychologist, argued that if you don’t change the culture of a school, nothing changes, and it’s helpful to at least understand what the signs are when there’s an unhealthy culture. When you hear them blaming the kids, blaming the parents, when the staff takes no responsibility for the learning because they see teaching and learning are disconnected—all of that’s a sign of a sick and unhealthy culture. The best schools take responsibility without blame. They don’t say, “I wish we had some new kids so we can be a better school.” They keep asking themselves, what could we do differently to meet the kids?

The best schools have a staff that’s willing to share and recognizes that staff morale, how you feel about your work, is such a critical part of all this, because the best schools are always places where people work harder. And they don’t work harder because someone makes them work hard, they work hard because they want to because they’re part of something collectively that’s important—they feel that collective spirit. The research is very inconclusive about whether or not it helps influencing achievement. That is, if you have someone of a similar background teaching a child, does that result in higher gains? There’s no evidence that that’s true. That’s good news; otherwise, we’d be in big trouble. But what the research does show is that when there’s diversity within the staff, the ability of that staff to problem solve, the ability of that staff to work together to figure out how to meet the needs of children, usually goes up. Diversity is often seen as an added value, but not necessarily showing up in terms of actual student achievement on a one-to-one level, but more of an aggregate level.

Back to top


“Creating [a] common culture means that we’ve got to work through our differences.”

Creating of the common culture means that we’ve got to work through our differences as adults to come to some agreements about how we’re going to do things. If I can eat in your classroom but I can’t eat in your classroom, what do I think about her? Not so good. That inconsistency in how we do things undermines the children, actually. Just like when the parents aren’t on the same page, usually the children suffer.

I would add here that it’s not just about what the teachers are doing, it’s about what the custodian does, it’s about what the receptionist does—everyone in the school has to understand we’re part of this together. It’s a common mission. If it’s a powerful culture, it not only influences the adults but also influences the students and the parents as well, because they understand they’re part of a common endeavor of educating children.

I’ll again acknowledge that doing this, achieving the buy-in that it takes to create this kind of powerful culture, is very, very hard because you can’t impose culture on people. You can’t say, “From now on, we will treat each other with respect. If you don’t, you’re fired.” That’s a culture of coercion and intimidation. It’s got to come more organically; it’s got to be more bottom-up. We’ve got to actually want to do this. And that’s why it’s hard, because people—especially Americans—they’re so individualistic, we’re so idiosyncratic, and in our classrooms, we often have the sense of our classroom, our kingdom. “My classroom. I do it my way here.” That gets in the way of creating a common culture in a school where the adults are all working together for common objectives. But when you can achieve that level of agreement, that level of buy-in, it’s a lot easier for the kids, because there’s so much more consistency there.

Back to top


“If you’re having trouble with parents . . . they’re not part of this yet.”

I would also add the signs of a dysfunctional culture. If you’re having trouble with parents, there’s a lot of conflict with your parents, signs something’s wrong, [that means] that they’re not part of this yet. A lot of teachers don’t even know how to conduct a parent-teacher conference. Don’t know how to conduct that conference so that the parent comes away with meaningful information, so they feel more able to support their child. And shouldn’t that be the goal of a parent-teacher conference? All the research shows that when parents are reinforcing education at home, children benefit. How do we build a partnership based upon mutual respect where it’s very clear to the parents that we care about their kids?

My colleague Bill Ayers was a kindergarten teacher. He says, “Start the parent-teacher conference like this: ‘You know more about your child than I do. What can you teach me about your child to make me a better teacher?’” Think about that as a parent. How does that make you feel? Even if you’re clueless, you say, “Well, God, this guy really thinks I could help.” We need to find ways to enlist our parents in this process, and we also need to make sure that we are not adopting rules and procedures—particularly related to discipline—that are at odds with our educational goals

Back to top


“The goal of discipline should be to produce kids who become self-disciplined.”

Discipline has to be connected to your education goals, and if you don’t start by asking why this child is acting out, what’s behind the behavior problem, because you’re only focusing on the behavior, then what you almost always will find is that the behavior will get worse. It’ll never get addressed. In American schools at least, we use two strategies to punish kids, typically. We start with humiliation, and we work our way to exclusion. Neither strategy is effective at changing behavior. The goal of discipline should be to produce kids who become self-disciplined. If you find you’re punishing the same kids over and over again, what does that suggest? It’s not working. If your discipline strategy doesn’t include a plan to get that kid reconnected to learning so they actually care about their own education, care about being there, then over time what you could find is that you have no ability at all to discipline that child, because a child who doesn’t care about learning is a child you can’t even discipline.

You tell them, “I’m going to fail you.” What do they say? “Fail me.” “I’m going to send you home.” “Send me home, please.” I was out in Cleveland, and they were about to give a boy three days’ suspension for truancy. He said, “Give me five days. I want five days.” They said, “Okay. We’ll do it.” He was ready to do it. Why would the principal give him five days for truancy knowing full well this would not stop the kid from not attending school? Why would he do it?

Because he was really trying to weed somebody out of the school, getting rid of a kid who was a problem. It was not about changing, getting at the root of why this kid is not coming to school. We have to ask ourselves, what are we doing with disciplining kids? Is it connected to our educational goals? Is it focused on developing character in children? It takes more work to do it that way, I’ll admit, but it’s far more effective.

Back to top


“Let me give you a few examples of schools that I know well that have adopted rituals and practice that reinforce their core values.”

Let me give you a few examples of schools that I know well that have adopted rituals and practice that reinforce their core values. Holland Elementary School in Virginia Beach, every morning when the children arrive, there’s a line of adults at the front door that welcome them and greet them, “Good morning.” “Hi, good to see you.” Those kids are there, and so they start the day happy, with adults happy to see them every day.

PS 138, I was there. This is a school in the South Bronx, the Morrisania section. If you saw that series, The Bronx Is Burning, this is the Bronx that burned in the ’70s. Totally looked like a war zone. Now it’s just looks like a lot of abandoned lots. I was given a tour of the school recently by a fourth grader. She’s showing me around the school. She’s very proud of the school because it was a high-performing high-poverty school.

We get to the second floor, and she said, “This is a special place in the school.” I said, “Why is it special?” She said, “Because we have the only museum dedicated to the Bronx in our school.” We walked through the hall, and there are antiques on the walls, there are LPs from groups that came from the Bronx, there are pictures of Joe Louis when he fought in the Bronx. And what I’m struck by is that all of it is within easy reach of children. They could easily touch it, they could break it, they could vandalize it. I asked the girl, “Aren’t they worried that kids will destroy this stuff?” She looks at me like I’m some kind of sicko. She says, “Why would someone want to destroy it? We’re really happy to have this here. I don’t know where you’re from.”

You know where I’m from? I’m from schools where they deny kids access to science equipment because they’re afraid they’ll break it. There’s a school like that in Oakland. Science class, no science equipment. It’s in the closet. I asked the teacher, “When do they get to use it?” She says, “If they’re good, I let them use it.” It’s like those people who cover their furniture waiting for special guests to come, then they take it off. If that’s covered, you know you’re not the special guest.

Why is it that the kids at PS 138 can be trusted not to break things in their environment? It’s all about the culture they’ve created. What about Excellence Charter School, which I mentioned already, where they call the kids scholars? They actually take breaks throughout the day and they say, “Act like animals. Act like animals.” Some kids will be a gorilla, some kid’s going to be a lion, and they’re growling through the hallway. Why? Because they want them to have time to be free and to and to make noise if they want to and to say, “That can be built into that time of day.” School shouldn’t have to be about regimentation, about a fixation on control, because we’ve got all these kids with all this energy, and they want to get out.

IS 228, they reward kids with currency in school. They get “school bucks.” If you have good behavior, good attendance, good performance, you get currency. At a store that’s run by kids, you can redeem your bucks for kickballs, for pens, pencils—because they want to give incentives for good behavior in the school. It’s another high-performing high-poverty school in the South Bronx. They also think that poor kids need music and art, and that they shouldn’t be given a quick and narrowly focused test preparation, because if the kids feel good about being in school, they’ll actually do better academically.

City on a Hill in Boston, a charter school. Every Friday there’s a town hall meeting run by the kids. Run by the kids, because they want the kids to practice democracy. They do it because they want the kids to have a role in leading their school, because they believe that cultivating leadership in kids means giving them the opportunity to lead with support from adults.

School of the Future, which my daughter attends, does what this school does with the exhibitions. My daughter last year spent her whole year working on a comparative research paper of the Inca and the Roman Empire—had to have multiple citations, had to not only present this 25-page paper at the end but had to also present it before a group of judges, because they believed that the state standards are not high enough. They want to go higher than state standards. They want to make sure the kids can actually read well, write well, speak well.

Landmark High School. A staff meeting, a faculty meeting ,every morning for 15 minutes. Every morning. One of my former students teaches there. I said, “Is this a good thing?” He said, “It’s the best part of the day.” I said, “Why?” He said, “It reminds me I’m part of a team, and together we talk about what’s going on in school that day, we check in with each other, and we go out to say, ‘We’re ready for the day because we’re together.’”

Back to top


“We care about you. We value you. What we’re doing here is important.”

Cultures are rooted in deliberate practices. Think about the practices you need to create that reinforce the core values of your school, that send the message to the kids, “We care about you. We value you. What we’re doing here is important.”

We’ve got to understand more about the cultural norms of the children we are working with. For example, most schools have a rule not to hit people. But many kids come from an environment where, if someone hits you, what do you do? You hit him back. We already have a setup where some kids have been given very explicit instruction at home about what to do when they’re attacked or when they’re assaulted that’s in conflict with what we do in school

I would add, we need to learn about the cultural norms that are out there in the community at the same time. We can say, “Okay. I understand that at home you hit when you were hit. When someone hits you here, we’re going to do it differently. I respect the fact that that might be the way you do it out there, but here, we’ve got to do it differently.” We’ve got to talk it through. We’ve got to. At least acknowledging that there’s a difference is an important part, teaching them there’s another way to do it.

You’ve got to start with the staff, and it’s got to start around a common shared vision of what we’re trying to do here, what we’re trying to accomplish. You have to now say, “Okay. We’ve got these concepts, we’ve got these ideas. How do we adapt it to our circumstances? How do we make it work for us with our children?” That’s going to be an ongoing process, but it starts with a common vision, and then from there, you need a common set of strategies. “This is how we’re going to do it. If this is what we agree we try to do, this is how we’re going to do it.” And you have to keep coming back to it and ask, “Are we actually fulfilling this vision that we laid out there?”

To influence the staff to step up and continue working toward that shared vision is a leadership challenge. But it’s not work for the leader, because that would be a lot of work for one person. It’s also a challenge to the colleagues to say, “You know what? This is what I think we need to do. This is what we agreed to and I think you need to do it, too.”

Back to top


“Culture is not static.”

Cultures change. Culture is not static. Even in a school, you can create and mold a culture that enables you to go beyond the dysfunction and unhealthy behaviors to adopt a climate that actually feels better to work in.

It feels so much better to be in a school where people are supportive of you. You want to work harder. You don’t mind staying late because you feel like you’re a part of something, that you’re doing something so important. It’s affirming to you and your spirit. But there are some schools, you see people they’re running out—teachers. They’re running out faster than the kids at the end of the day because it’s such a sick environment. This culture work is really essential, and I encourage you at some point during the year to bring in an outsider and ask that outsider to just walk through the halls and give you some feedback, listening on the lunchroom conversation—not just amongst the kids but amongst the teachers. Watch the kids in the nonformal settings: recess, break time. How do the kids carry themselves? How do they treat each other? If they have to be watched constantly, there’s a lot of yelling, screaming and policing of kids, you know that they haven’t really taken the time to create a culture where the kids actually know what’s expected of them. You need that feedback to know whether or not you’re getting there, and not to beat up on yourselves, but to know that’s what we need to work toward.

Back to top


“Learn about who you’re teaching.”

Well, a whole other presentation I do is about teachers as anthropologists. Where the teacher really has to spend time studying the culture, describing that a little bit with the experience of teaching in different settings with different norms. That’s why I started with this: learn about who you’re teaching. Learn about what’s going on with them. Listen. Be a good listener.

The essential ingredient here is the humility to recognize that you need to learn. You need to learn was it’s going to take to teach these kids. You might be well skilled. You might have gone to a great grad school, have a good education. But do you know what it’s going to take to teach those children? That’s not simply about how you’ve been trained, it’s also about your ability to learn from them, to build these relationships with them so that you can, in turn, figure out how to guide them and provide them with instructions.

It starts with, I think, an attitude of humility. It starts with the willingness to listen—to learn—to the children, to their parents, to your colleagues who might know more. A willingness to read, a willingness to even go out into the communities where the kids live and also learn from those experiences. To see this is an ongoing process. We have to see it as something we continue to do. We shouldn’t assume that, even if you have a similar racial background to the children, you know how to communicate with them.

I lived in the Bay Area for a long time. One of the things I was struck by was how different the culture of California was from New York. You can’t assume that just because you have a similar racial ethnic background that you know how to communicate, how to understand how they see things. I would spend the time doing that as an educator, really trying to learn, trying to understand. If you could just listen to the kids, the kids can tell you so much. It’s your ability to incorporate that into your teaching that’s going to help you feel how to better serve their needs.

We use these terms as shorthand—Latino, black, white—and there’s so much diversity within those categories. Americans especially are troubled by people we can’t categorize easily.

I had a friend from Fiji, and he was a grad student of Berkeley, and I said, “How do like America so far?” He says, “Well, I’m struck by the fact that every time I meet someone they want to know what am I. That’s one of the first questions that comes up.” I said, “Why does that bother you?” He says, “Because I know they want me to put me in a box, and I’m not easily put in a box because they don’t know what Fiji is.”

That desire to put people in boxes is so we can say, “Okay, you’re Latino? I know exactly how to deal with you now.” Because we use these boxes as shorthand for figuring out, “Okay. How do I engage? How do I interact?” That’s the tendency when I talked about the dangers of stereotypes that all of us have to be mindful of to avoid, because we’ve got individual differences. We’ve got so many layers to who we are that we should never allow these broad generalizations to serve as some information that we think we know now about a person. I agree entirely, and that’s true for lots of different groups.

Back to top


“You need a plan for engaging parents.”

You need a plan for engaging parents. A plan that starts with day one: how are we going to engage them? Because if you start at day one and you have activities throughout the year, it’s going to make it easy, because the parents start to get it: “Oh, this school requires me to do various kinds of things.” It’s built into the culture of how we do things here.

The first point of contact with the parent should not be a call about a problem with the kid. If we could start by having some way in which we get to meet them, get to know them so they understand who we are, what we expect. We learn about who they are, what they expect, because what we want is a real partnership. We want the same thing. You want to see your child succeed? I want to see your child succeed. How do we work together make that happen?

I also encourage you not to be fixated only on getting them to come to the school. Getting to the school is important, and it always helps to have kids performing, presenting, with food—that usually will get a lot of parents up, because parents like to see their kids presenting. But there are a lot of parents who are working so hard that their ability to come to school should not be held against them.

The most important parental environment is what they do at home. If they get the kids to school on time, to bed on time, turn off the TV, give them a place to work, you have a partner—even if it’s a partner you don’t see. The tendency is to judge parents that we don’t see and to think they don’t care about their kids because they don’t show. We need a higher degree of empathy here, and to recognize that not all parents can do it that way, and there’s got to be variety of ways. But if you build a variety of activities into the school year, you’ll get more parents coming than we often see in many schools, because many of these schools, even though they have parents that are impoverished, are getting a lot of involvement from their parents. It can happen.

Back to top


“If we’ve got the courage to talk to the kids, we’d learn so much about what’s happening in their lives.”

It’s a huge challenge. I only had one very brief visit to [a majority immigrant school in Sweden] but what I was struck by—again, I talked to the students while I was there—is many of them feel they will never become Swedish. That is, no matter how lovely the school is, and how great the environment you created, they feel their face was the fundamental problem. Sweden doesn’t want them.

That is an issue. I’d encourage to talk to them about it, to talk to them about how they are perceiving and what they are perceiving? Because—and I’d say this is across the board—if we got the courage to talk to the kids, we’d learn so much about what’s happening in their lives, about the challenges they’re facing, and about what we might do to better serve them.

I understand how difficult it is to work in the kind of school you’re in, because you’ve got children who—some of them have been traumatized by war, and they’re bringing that with them to school, and some of them don’t even live with their parents. There are numerous challenges these kids are facing.

If you can create an environment where they feel confident in you, that they can talk about it, then you can build those relationships and you can help them figure out, “Okay. Well, yeah, life is hard. Let’s figure out how to make it less hard. Let’s figure out how we are going to navigate it, because there’s no simple solution to this.” But I do believe—and part of this is why I stay in this field—is education is the source of so many answers. That is, by problem solving together and by working with our children, we can begin to find some strategies that make it possible to navigate that world more successfully.

I don’t want to pretend it’s easy, but I do encourage you to create a space where you can hear them and talk to them and learn about their experiences. That says a lot about the school, that you’ve been able to create that safe environment. I say the next step is for that environment to then help them and feel out the next steps. How to go out there and deal with the biases they’re going to encounter, the discrimination, to try to be as successful as they can be in life.

As I started with, the school should prepare us for the world we’re going to enter as adults. That’s when we know we’re succeeding, and that’s an ongoing reflection for you: “Okay. What is it going to take to really prepare them for a world that’s unjust and unequal and, in so many ways, unfair?”

Back to top


As always, contact the Ross Admissions team with any questions you have or to learn how Ross School will be a great fit for your child!