What I learned from Brandon about culturally responsive teaching

On the first day of Spanish for Heritage Speakers class, Brandon greeted me and Señorita Firman with more presence than most students. It was clear he was particularly kind, charismatic, and just cool. Despite having struggled in previous years with school, we didn’t let that inform our view of him. Both of us understand the impact of systemic racism in education.

And, we believed in Brandon and knew he was a leader.

One day he was goofing off instead of getting started on a project and none of my redirections were working. I knew he had a close relationship with his mom, so I started to write an email to her and told him I would keep writing it until he started working.

“Don’t be a snitch!” he joked.

“I’m a middle class, White lady. I can be a snitch,” I joked back.

He laughed. He knew very well the different social codes that race and class afforded people. All our jokes aside, he also knew I genuinely had his best interest in mind. He got to work rapidly, but at the end of class I asked him if he wanted to read the email and decide if I should still send it. The email described his capacity as a leader, kindness, and sense of humor and asked for suggestions of how I could support him better.

He told me to send it.

In moments like these, I am proud of how I showed up as a teacher. When I remember how often poor students and students of color are subjected to teachers and schools that expect little of them, stereotype them, and ignore their histories, I am able to view off-task behavior for what it is: a response to not having needs met.

Some days Brandon missed class or came late or put his head down or goofed off. I almost always reminded myself not to take it personally and, instead, to continue to provide rigorous, engaging lessons with scaffolds as well as respect for his emotions. Sometimes, however, I failed at this. I became worried about whether he would turn in significant assignments, whether he was learning enough, and got frustrated rather than feeling the pain of the unjust reality that was creating this difficult situation. Thoughts would pop into my head like, “I just don’t know what to do anymore” and “I don’t know how to make him care more” and “Why isn’t he using my scaffolds?”

These are the moments I am not proud of as a teacher.

This is how society socializes us to see student struggles; as motivation issues to be fixed within students; as a culture of poverty despite the research debunking this theory. Every time I lose sight of this, I remind myself, “Who do you think you are? Just because you scaffolded how to write an essay in a way you think is interesting, is that supposed to make up for everything overwhelming and unfair he sees in and outside of school?”

Brandon was never the problem. The system that oppresses poor people and people of color economically, politically, educationally, and psychologically was and still is the problem. Without naming that explicitly in the classroom and striving to make education a practice of freedom, we are not doing enough for our students. The moments when I faltered and took a deficit-view of Brandon were the moments where it was vital for me to remind my privileged-self of the systemic racism and classism that were working against him. And, I am grateful to have had a co-teacher in Señorita Firman who would call me on it as well.

In our final unit, a Mayan chief visited our class and chose Brandon to be the first student to lead a Mayan dance. He chose Brandon to be the chief, and Brandon stepped into the leadership role fearlessly, in a way that I could never have done as a student. In this space, Brandon was allowed to flourish as the leader he is.

Subsequently, Brandon spent ten days that summer at Aquetza, an incredible CU Boulder residential program for students with strong ties to Chicano/Latino communities. I was excited for Brandon to experience a space, in addition to my classroom, where his identity and ways of knowing were honored and harnessed. He came back from the experience full of critical consciousness and advanced critiques of political oppression. He excitedly told me how he learned “for the first time” about the Chicano movement in Colorado. I laughed bashfully at myself because the Chicano Movement was an entire unit that we had taught that spring. It was an important, humbling example for me as a White woman continuously trying to find my role in promoting social justice. I could network and support Brandon in applying to the Aquetza program, but I could not have impacted him the way the teachings of Priscilla Falcon, professor, Chicana political organizer and widow of murdered Chicano activist, Ricardo Falcon did.

In Brandon’s Spanish for Heritage Speakers class, I had created a culturally responsive, justice-oriented curriculum that made students feel seen and allowed many students to grow immensely. My co-teacher did the same and became an important role model for students as a Mexican-American woman. Still, classrooms that do not fully disrupt Eurocentric norms and create third spaces, like the Aquetza program did, will fall short of liberating education for incredible students like Brandon. As a White woman in education, I can and should implement culturally responsive teaching in all my classrooms and I must also know my limitations and connect students with social justice leaders of color who are creating new, liberating spaces for our future leaders.

Betsy Leach is an instructor in the Contemplative Education program at Naropa University specializing in Multicultural Education. She spent her first nine years as a teacher teaching Spanish and Spanish for Heritage Speakers K-12. As a consultant, she facilitates workshops on culturally and linguistically diverse education, responsive family engagement, and cultivating an awareness of implicit bias in order to create more equitable, inclusive organizations.


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