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Opinion | Bill Curtin: Connecting with students isn’t political, it’s good teaching

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The students walking into my classroom at Carbondale High School came from all races and all walks of life, the sons and daughters of immigrants, professors, farmers, and professionals.

I observed as they settled into a discussion around "Kindred" and "A Raisin in the Sun," two texts that explore the experiences of Black Americans. The conversation started slowly, tentatively, as students offered surprising facts they’d researched or gentle counterpoints from their lived experiences. I smiled as they began to engage one another more deeply, and leaned in as one young Black man thoughtfully explained how carefully he managed his facial expressions when he met white people, keeping his eyebrows raised to appear nonthreatening. Then I laughed with the rest of the class as he demonstrated the opposite, because in addition to great analytical skills, he also possessed the theatrical gift of comic relief. I was proud of his courage in sharing his experience, and thankful I’d created an environment where he felt comfortable doing so.

Young people deserve to have rich, multicultural experiences like these that bridge divides and build empathy and understanding. And more students will, thanks to the Culturally Responsive Teacher and Leader Standards approved by the Illinois State Board of Education. These standards will require colleges of education to prepare future teachers to serve all students, giving them the tools to understand and connect with students from different backgrounds.

State Sen. Paul Schimpf criticized the standards in these pages as politicizing the classroom. But cultural responsiveness isn’t political; understanding students and helping them connect content to their experiences is just good teaching. That’s exactly what “co-creating” means, and in falsely labeling that term political, Sen. Schimpf reveals just how important it is for politicians to listen to the classroom expertise of accomplished educators like those who developed the standards.

These standards are a critical step toward understanding in a state where students of color make up more than half our student population, but more than 80% of our teachers are white. And because students of color are almost twice as likely to have an inexperienced teacher, ensuring educators are prepared to make those connections from day one could not be more important.

These standards would have helped me when I took over my first classroom on the south side of Chicago. Back then, I certainly wasn’t prepared to lead delicate conversations about race. I struggled just to connect the content I taught to the students in front of me, as their lived experiences were so different than mine. Worse, my lack of cross-cultural understanding sometimes led me to communicate the wrong messages to students or contribute to hostile learning environments.

In my second year there, Brandon came to class two minutes early and asked permission to use the restroom. I reminded him that he’d already been late twice, and according to school policy he’d be suspended if he was late again. He couldn’t take the risk.

After the bell, he asked again, and I reminded him that school policy forbade passes in the first 10 minutes of class. At five minutes he told me it was an emergency. Again I refused.

Precisely 10 minutes after the bell, I circled around to his seat in the back corner and dropped the pass on his desk. He mumbled, “Too late.”

I looked down with horror to see a puddle on the floor.

I’d been so concerned about following school policies and keeping my job that I ignored how those policies denied this young man’s very humanity, and how difficult racial dynamics made it for him to stand up for himself. In a school where the student body was 95% Black, those in charge saw students like Brandon as threats to be controlled, and discipline was harsh and unforgiving. I didn’t understand at the time how important it is for educators to be aware of these dynamics and stand up for our students.

It took me far too long to learn.

I’ve shared Brandon’s story with every class I’ve taught since then. I wanted them to know that I would always put their humanity first. And I share it again to illustrate the importance of preparing future teachers to understand, protect, nurture, and connect with students from all backgrounds. Culturally responsive teaching is not political; it’s simply good teaching, and we need to implement the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards before it’s “too late” for another generation of students.

Bill Curtin is a National Board Certified Teacher and policy manager with Teach Plus Illinois, which contributed to the development of the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards. He previously served on the State Educator Preparation and Licensure Board, and taught English at Carbondale High School from 2015 to 2019.


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