Respect called key to school safety

Professor urges teachers to understand students' culture

August 21, 2008|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

After several well-publicized violent incidents last school year, Baltimore's teachers got a lesson on how building stronger relationships with their students reduces the chance of classroom disruption and increases achievement.

"When students have positive caring, nurturing and supportive relationships with their teachers, classroom problems decrease," said Donna Ford, who holds the Betts Chair in education and human development at Vanderbilt University.

After attacks on teachers last year, including one at Reginald F. Lewis High School that was videotaped on a cell phone and replayed on national news, teachers told schools chief Andres Alonso and Mayor Sheila Dixon at a forum that they needed more professional training to help them deal with disruptive students. The school system brought Ford to Baltimore to instruct all 7,000 of its teachers. Sessions for those at the high-school level are being held today; while teachers of younger children gathered yesterday.

While Ford did not speak in depth about school violence, she linked teacher-student relationships to students' behavior in the classroom. In a 2 1/2 -hour presentation at Morgan State University, Ford explained some of the misconceptions that teachers have about their students and the effect on student achievement.

Blacks, particularly boys, are too often assigned to special-education classes and left out of gifted classes, Ford said, because their teachers have low expectations for them and misinterpret their behavior. Low expectations can be manifested in several ways. Most obviously it is not pushing them into advanced placement classes, and more subtly it is dumbing down language that teachers use in the classroom.

"Remind yourself to talk up to children," she said, adding that use of complex vocabulary should be standard no matter how young the children or how poor their backgrounds.

Often drawing on her experience growing up in an African-American family living in poverty on Cleveland's east side, Ford said she succeeded largely because of the expectations of her mother and her white teachers.

But she also said teachers can have misconceptions about families and black culture that alienate them from their students and make it more likely that those students will be turned off in the classroom.

Although most teachers want parents to be involved in their schools and to help their children, she said, her mother rarely set foot in school because she didn't have time. She came to the awards ceremonies and once when she was in trouble, but never helped her with her homework. Her mother believed that her job was to feed and nurture her daughter and keep her out of trouble, but not to teach her geometry.

She also said that African-American students do not revere teachers as Asian-American students do and that teachers must earn their respect.

"African-Americans have an attitude that says, 'When you respect me, I will respect you,' " Ford said. When teachers seem detached or uninterested in their students, black students see that as a sign of disrespect, she said. Students who don't feel the teacher likes or respects them are then more likely to talk back and be disruptive, leading to a classroom that can be more out of control.

It is up to teachers, she said, to get to know their students and the backgrounds they come from so that they do not fall back on preconceived notions of what it means to be poor or black. Baltimore schools are more than 90 percent African-American and have a high percentage of children who qualify for federally subsidized school meals.

"The less we know about each other, the more we make up," said Ford, who added that a teacher's race doesn't guarantee understanding of low-income students.

One teacher said the advice would be valuable in the classroom, particularly for young teachers fresh out of college who lack experience in the city.

"I believe if you don't know me, you can't teach me," said Anita Heath, a Moravia Park Elementary/Middle School instructional support teacher. Heath said the teacher attack that had been videotaped highlighted that there was more work that needed to be done to prevent similar situations. "We have to break down barriers," she said.

Ford recalled her first-grade teacher, Mrs. Green, who greeted her tardiness in the morning not with a rebuke but by telling her how happy she was to see her and that she felt she couldn't start the class until she got there. The effect on her, she said, was to make her hurry to class every morning so she wouldn't disappoint her teacher.

On the other hand, she said, when she was sent to a private school where she was one of a handful of black girls, teachers questioned whether those good papers she was turning in were her work. She gained 75 pounds, became depressed and began writing suicide notes.

In the black culture, Ford said, movement and activity are encouraged in children, so when a child enters school and is told to sit still, be quiet and not move for hours, he is getting opposing signals from home and school.

Teachers should be conscious of this style and involve students in more active learning, she said.

She also said that teachers should understand some of the blunt, emotional and dramatic emotions of black girls as expressions of what they have been taught at home.

Several teachers in the audience said the session would help them in their work. "It was relevant, and it covered a lot of territory," said Marsha Fair, a teacher at John Ruhrah Elementary/Middle.

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