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Gaëtane Jean-Marie Talks Culturally Responsive Classroom Management

Teacher smiling to her multi ethnic elementary classroom.

In a recent interview with AACTE, Gaëtane Jean-Marie, dean and professor of educational leadership at the College of Education, Rowan University, discusses the importance of preparing teacher candidates to understand the cultural background of students in moving toward a more humanistic approach to see the learner as an individual. 

Why is it important to prepare teacher candidates in culturally responsive classroom management?

It is to really realize the belief that all children can learn. A while back when I was teaching as a faculty member, I remember DuFour’s comment that stayed and resonates with me; it is that, “if we truly believe that all children can learn, what then do we do when they can’t, when they are not learning?” It makes me ask: What is our responsibility to help bridge the cultural gap between teachers and students? As we continue to help diversify the teaching profession, it is still predominantly white teachers who are the educators, so how do we prepare them? What’s the responsibility of ensuring that our teacher candidates can really meet the needs of all learners?  Given the demographic shift, where more of our Black and Brown children are in schools and will be taught by teachers who are not of the same race. If we are recognizing that it starts with the belief that all children can learn, then our belief must also align with our practices as we continue to work hard to diversify the profession. We espouse the belief that all children can learn; now let’s realize that dream. 

What would you identify as the key principle of culturally responsive classroom management?

It is having the knowledge of students’ cultural background. Our students are resilient in the different contexts that they come from whether it is rural, urban, or suburban, and they come to school. Let’s build on their resilience. And part of that is really understanding who our students are, understanding that there are variations in their social and emotional needs before we can even talk about academics, teaching, and learning. 

It makes me also think about the literature that I’m familiar with and I draw on—the ethic of community that is premise around the ethic of care, the ethic of justice, the ethic of critique. Here is where we think about those tenets and apply them in the classroom. How do we get to know our students’ cultural background? That comes from a sense of care, understanding the differences about our learners, and to critique without judgment … asking what’s going on, what’s happening, and giving them an opportunity to teach us about who they are and how they learn best. Therefore, we can adapt our pedagogical practice to meet them where they are.

Oftentimes, we will say, “Johnny is misbehaving.” That is not the root. Give yourself time to get to the root cause and pause on the judgment. The judgment is Johnny is misbehaving because he doesn’t want to learn. But you don’t really know that. Johnny could be misbehaving because he is hungry. A child cannot always explain or articulate what is happening with them so there is an acting out. Pause on the judgment and probe: What’s going on? What are you learning about Johnny? What are the patterns? What conversation are you having with the student? Whether it is a teenager, high school student, or an elementary or middle school student, that is what it means to attend to their social and emotional needs and not shame the student in the classroom. See learners as human beings and take a more humanistic approach than pupil control. See students for who they are, not just the behavior of the learner. See the individual.

What does the research tell us about culturally responsive classroom management?

I think about the work of Weinstein, Thomlinson-Clark, and Curran. They draw upon the five tenants of cultural responsive classroom management, and one centers on what I referenced earlier about recognizing one’s own ethnocentrism—recognizing who you are and that there are differences. But don’t just stop there. What I’m referring to is to ask what is the knowledge of students’ cultural background that you will build on and how will you learn about your students? In my own research on how school leaders address meeting the needs of diverse students, they talk about their own self-knowledge to be able to serve as instructional leaders and what they are reading and drawing upon from other people’s work. Whether it is Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children or the work of Gloria Ladsen-Billings, it is really about understanding and being that leader who emphasizes the diverse needs of students and helping to meet those needs. It is also understanding the broader social, economic, and political context, as well as ensuring that we are able to provide culturally appropriate management strategies. That is what I was referring to earlier in using a more humanistic than pupil control approach. What is the classroom environment teachers will create that support a healthy learning context for students?

Many of our teachers are having success and others are struggling and this has implication for us as EPPs through the clinical field experience we provide for our students. We have to ensure not only that they are learning the theory, but they are also applying it and come back to reflect on it. 

What are some of the specific challenges educators face and how can they overcome these challenges?

We still have the backdrop of standardized testing and the pressure of all of those. And now with the pandemic, teachers are having to retool. The assumption is that all teachers can effectively use the technology as a medium to teach effectively. Some are struggling—not only teachers, but also students. There is great concern about the educational gap and the learning loss for students, mostly underserved students, and widening the achievement divide. The other part is providing professional development for teachers to support them and to enhance their knowledge and skills.

And we have to dive deep into realities of our students and their experiences to have meaningful conversation, looking at the data that they have about learners. What is the shift? What are those trends?

Other literature talks about positive behavior intervention. We have a faculty member right now who is integrating some of those tools to support teachers. There is also the equity audit that will help discern achievement paths across groups. They will discern to the extent we are tracking students into particular classes because they misbehave, and they never get off-track.

What have been some successful strategies based on personal experience?

It is learning together. Even as an educator myself, as a woman of color, I have to ask: How do I continue to learn, to retool  and enhance my knowledge? I’m currently part of a book study, which is a university endeavor. And what I so appreciate about the book that we are reading, How to Be An Anti-Racist? by Ibram X. Kendi is that it is a call to action for everyone, whether you are black or white, to do the self-introspection to discover to what extent you are perpetuating certain practices that are creating biases against others. I am always seeking to learn, to read,  and to enhance my knowledge and skills. It is important that we model that behavior, not only as leaders, but also for teachers.

The other piece I don’t want to miss is involving parents. They are part of the community. How are we connecting with the parent or the guardian to learn about the child? Some of the work that I did with a colleague years ago involved a shift from parent involvement to parent responsibility, which means different things. Responsibility means coming to PTA, coming to meetings. We are partnering together, not just picking up the phone to call when the child is misbehaving. How are you building partnerships with parents to help you understand how their child learns?

What are some of the most successful strategies for transforming the pedagogy and the curriculum?

I teach the candidates to really see and understand, to make connections. When I mentioned humanistic versus pupil control, these are technical language and concepts; but then, how do we make that come alive for our students? That is through case studies; students can do role play. What I appreciate about my EPP, and in another context too, is the integration of both our students being in the field learning and having the opportunity to engage and then coming back to the classroom to share and reflect what they are doing. In addition to creating a robust curriculum that incorporates culturally relevant pedagogy, we also have to give them the opportunity to experience it in diverse settings. 


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Katrina Norfleet

Content Strategist, AACTE