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March 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 6

One to Grow On / The Caring Teacher's Manifesto

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I am a white, middle-class female. I grew up in midsize U.S. cities in the segregated South, in schools where all my classmates and nearly all my teachers mirrored my identity. (I recall two male teachers, which accounts for the "nearly.") My European heritage was reflected in the music, art, history, and literature that we studied. My schooling cemented my sense that all the world's people experienced the world as I did.
My first teaching job was in a rural and geographically isolated school during its first year of racial integration. The learning curve was steep. My students were my best teachers. In that place, I began a long journey of learning to see the world through the eyes of people whose cultural and racial experiences were unlike my own. I began to understand education's moral and ethical mandate for equity and social justice. And I grew.
In the remainder of my 21-year public school teaching career, however, my cultural frame was almost solely limited to black students and white students. With the exception of a year when I directed a child development center for preschoolers, I taught no one who spoke Spanish, Hmong, Farsi, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, or any of the other languages now common in many U.S. public schools.
My students at the University of Virginia are a more culturally diverse group than were those in my public school classrooms. Again, they've helped me see the world through others' eyes. After 40 years in education, what I know most clearly about my proficiency in culturally responsive teaching is that I am a novice—one who continues to learn eagerly, but a novice nonetheless. My life is still spent as a member of the culture of power and privilege, and it's very difficult to deeply grasp what the world looks like from the other side of that glass divide.

Caring About—and For—All Students

One of my "teachers" as I continue to observe, listen, and read about culture and teaching is Geneva Gay, who writes often on issues of diversity and education. Gay writes about culturally responsive teaching from a deep reservoir of scholarship and personal experience.
One insight that has been helpful as well as challenging for me is Gay's distinction between caring about students and caring for them. The former, she says, is manifest in a teacher's sensitivity to students, appreciation of them, and relationship building with them. The latter calls for active involvement in many aspects of students' lives. Caring for students implies the intent to see to each student's welfare and positive development. It calls for pedagogical action, for "doing."

What "Caring For" Means

The line of logic about teachers' responsibilities that, for me, derives from Gay's explanation of what it means to care for students from culturally diverse backgrounds goes something like this.
If I teach, I should care about the students who depend on me—and care about providing a quality education for all of them.
If I teach with the intent to provide equal access to quality learning to students from the broadest possible range of backgrounds, I need to care for each of them as individuals. That means that I will actively accept responsibility for each student's academic, social, psychological, and cultural well-being.
If I accept responsibility for a student's academic well-being, I will ground my teaching in hope. I will see promise in every student every day. And I will be an architect of students' academic self-efficacy by ensuring that each student consistently and vigorously makes visible progress as a learner, thinker, and creator of knowledge.
If I accept responsibility for each student's social and psychological well-being, I will ensure that each student is seen as a valuable resource in a community of achievers—a community in which every member supports the success of every other. I'll help students value and contribute to a classroom in which everyone works together responsibly with the goal of becoming more fully human together.
Nurturing kids' cultures must be part of caring for them. If I accept responsibility for a student's cultural well-being, I will see that student's culture, language, and race as central and valuable elements in that student's identity. I will be a student of that student's heritage, background experiences, and unique capacities so I know how best to connect him or her with the content I teach.
I will understand that an invitational learning environment is foundational to learning—and that what is invitational to one child may not be to another. I will eliminate barriers within schools that diminish any student's access to the richest learning opportunities possible.
To ensure that students who come at the curriculum from many directions all find meaning and inspiration from what they learn, I will teach to both the commonalities students share as human beings and the variability they bring with them as individuals.
I will also accept that no matter how hard I worked on today's lesson, it won't be effective for everyone—but I won't stop there. To prepare to make tomorrow's lesson a better fit for all, I'll continually assess student learning to understand each individual's learning trajectory.

Adapting—and Humbling—Ourselves

Caring for the students we teach means adapting our thinking and planning to their needs rather than expecting them to adapt to us. It also means pursuing the personal and professional skills we need to grow continually, to keep improving how well we face the responsibility inherent in teaching.
Caring for culturally diverse students is hard—and humbling. And each time I grow in that capacity, I become a better professional, a more effective teacher, and a more fully developed human being.
End Notes

1 Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (2nd. ed). New York: Teachers College Press.

Carol Ann Tomlinson is William Clay Parrish Jr. Professor Emeritus at the University of Virginia's School of Education and Human Development. The author of more than 300 publications, she works throughout the United States and internationally with educators who want to create classrooms that are more responsive to a broad range of learners.

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