We Need Educators Skilled to Understand Our Students
By Maria Onaindia
In high school, Mykiah was a voracious reader with a talent for honest writing. She could always be depended upon for a sarcastic comment and the lyrics to the most recent Cardi B song. I taught her during her junior year and learned from my colleagues that in some classrooms she had an “attitude” that landed her in the principal’s office after being removed from class. This never happened in my classroom, and I wondered why. We always began with a check-in where Mykiah would let me know how she was feeling. Some mornings, she was bubbly and ready to learn, and others she needed a break or a few moments of alone time before she was ready to complete her work. Understanding her as a person allowed me to support her as a learner and ensure that she received the quality of education that she deserved.
One morning as I was getting my classroom ready, I heard a sharp “sit up” echo from the room next door and fill the hallway. A moment later, I heard Mykiah yelling back. The argument escalated and a minute later she was headed toward the office where she got a two-day suspension. Mykiah never came back to school again. She was on track to graduate that June, but she never did. Being suspended in May of her senior year sent a clear message to Mykiah that she was unwanted in the building and that her perspective wasn’t important.
What if that teacher had approached Mykiah differently? What if they had tried to de-escalate the argument instead of pointing Mykiah toward the office? Would the outcome have been different?
Mykiah’s story is similar to so many of our student’s, where those around them believe that no-nonsense policies and punishments are the answer. Instead, I believe we need loving, compassionate educators with the skills to understand our students’ culture, trauma, and whole selves. That is what culturally responsive teaching looks like in action, and I believe that all students across Illinois deserve teachers who can teach in this way. To do so, teachers like me will need to develop their skills and receive the kind of training that the Illinois State Board of Education doesn’t currently require or provide.
In March 2021, Illinois adopted the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards. The good news is that these research-based standards will be incorporated into pre-service teaching programs across the state. However, this will not happen until 2025. Right now, the standards do nothing to address the development of the 135,701 public school educators currently serving students and families in Illinois.
I am one of these teachers. I built a set of interview questions to interview Bryan, a Black student in my class who was then earning a D. During the interview, he shared, “I feel that you never give me a chance to try in class and are always hovering around me to help which makes me nervous.” After hearing this, I initially felt defensive: How could Bryan not understand that I was trying to support him? But then I realized that my way of offering help was communicating a lack of confidence and trust which was keeping Bryan from reaching his potential. We ended the interview with an agreement that Bryan and I would check in once a week outside of class and he would request assistance when he needed it either from me or a peer he felt more comfortable with.
There are several ways that the state could work to ensure all teachers have access to this professional development. While we wait for the standards to be adopted, Illinois should mandate training on culturally responsive teaching for all in-service teachers to help bridge this gap. Beyond this mandate, the Illinois State Board of Education has the opportunity to provide schools with grants to schools that opt-in to this type of staff development. The state could also choose to require culturally responsive professional development hours in order for teachers to be recertified. And districts have the ability to take action regardless of a state mandate. Districts can plan professional development, implement professional learning communities within their schools, and work to incorporate more diverse voices in leadership spaces. Whatever the method, the need for all teachers to develop these skills is obvious.
Across Illinois there are hundreds of Bryans and Mykiahs struggling to find comfort and safety in our classrooms. There are hundreds of teachers like me eager to do their best to serve all of their students without access to the resources they need to do so. We must ensure all educators implement these practices so we don’t lose another generation of Mykiahs and Bryans with endless promise and potential.
Maria Onaindia teaches 11th grade Honors Pre-calculus and Introduction to Computer Science at Rauner College Prep in Chicago. She is a 2021–2022 Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellow.