Lori Delale-O’Connor is learner and a teacher: a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and the Associate Director of Research and Development at its Center for Urban Education. She has spent years researching issues of urban education and racial equity. Delale-O’Connor spoke with Remake Learning about how educators can embed themselves within a community’s culture and partner with existing organizations for a more transformative impact.
While the conversation focused on these issues from the perspective of education, her suggestions are just as applicable for anyone planning or launching programs in urban communities.
What challenges do educators face when trying to help students in an urban environment?
One of the primary challenges is resource limitations—if your education funding is closely tied to your property taxes, you’re facing limits that your wealthier, suburban counterparts are not. Also, challenges associated with greater diversity, particularly if educators are not taught how to harness it as an asset. The majority—over 80%—of our teaching force is white, and our student population is increasingly diverse. Teachers aren’t necessarily taught how and why those differences matter, and how to best engage with students who don’t have the same socioeconomic backgrounds as them.
What key ingredients make a teacher more likely to succeed in an urban environment?
It matters that teachers understand how to engage with their students: from popular culture, to the ways they communicate at home, to the assets and elders in their community. These things take on particular value if the teacher is coming from a very different experience.
Part of this connects to teacher training: emphasizing it’s as important to know your students as your subject matter. This means courses focused on understanding student experiences, and, particularly for students of color, how they are impacted daily by systemic racism. And indeed, that the teacher may unwittingly be complicit in this—by engaging in white, middle-class norms in the classroom, by tone and behavior and how they get evaluated. And we see this happening not just to students, but to their families—particular ways of participating are valued: coming to the school, engaging in a particular type of meeting. Families may be unable to do that, or may support children in other ways.
How can educators identify different ways of engaging families?
Partly, it’s allowing families to answer how they support their child’s learning, rather than assuming there are only a few ways to do so. It’s also broadening opportunities, so engagement doesn’t just mean coming to the school. Try hosting some events at places families already feel comfortable—because, particularly for parents of color, they may have had negative experiences in schools, maybe even the same school that their child is attending now. It’s also making those engagements, when they’re expected, easier.
If you’re not seeing participation, the assumption shouldn’t be families don’t care, the question should be, “What are we doing that prevents them from coming?” Also, use your resources: for the parents that are coming, why are they coming, and what do they know about the ones that aren’t?
What are the “networks of trust” for families in urban environments, and how can educators tap into them?
Make connections with pastors or community organizations, and bring those folks in. Ask, “Are there things you want to do with our students? Are there things we can do as a school or a program to support you?”
Educators can also tap into other needs. I worked in the Boston public system, where we did the typical things like childcare and meals. But we had a lot of English language learners and one of our most effective ways of engaging parents was offering free classes. Another school had a health center. These provide a great opportunity for teachers to communicate with parents, and to establish their own networks of trust.
Some of these things seem to need the power of an entire school to implement them. What can an individual teacher do?
You always have the opportunity of getting to know students’ families, trying different modes of communication: what if instead of sending home a flier, I can get everybody’s number and send a text? Maybe I can get students’ addresses and do home visits—not because something’s wrong, but just to introduce myself. Or I can attend community events. Getting to know students’ families in a more holistic way also allows you not only to meet their needs, but to appreciate their experiences. If a child has been falling asleep in class, you may learn that they also have a job and it’s amazing they are managing both a job and school work.
Students can recognize when an educator isn’t as closely connected to their community. A definite first step could be incorporating project-based learning addressing a community issue. That’s a way for teachers to learn and to centralize students as experts. I believe Maxine Greene said, “We are all people in process.” We’re all learners, and we’re all teachers.
Humility seems like a central ingredient to success. How can educators balance this with projecting the authority necessary to be an effective leader?
It’s about getting away from the model of authority, recognizing there’s a shared power dynamic. And that is challenging, particularly in a classroom. It’s the vulnerability of being transparent: instead of building authority, building a relationship.
What should educators and program leaders consider when planning partnerships with veteran organizations?
The first step is never assuming that whatever you’re offering hasn’t been done before. Do your research. Figure out what other programs are operating successfully in the community and connect with them about how they built their program, how they engage with families.
Also, make sure there’s clear reciprocity. Likely, your program isn’t the first that’s approached them for help, and in some ways, it’s like asking, “Can I borrow your homework?” Examine what you can contribute that is valuable. Figure out what issues matter most to that community: housing, incarceration, access to food? It’s on you to see where your program can fit into the existing landscape, and to be open to adjusting that to meet the community’s needs.
What can Remake Learning do to contribute to this effort more productively?
Remake is this vast network, and it’s been touted in many positive and important ways. And because of that, it’s in a position to centralize issues of equity. It can really push people toward holding themselves and each other accountable: “When we say equity, what does that mean, and how does it appear in the work you do? If you’re doing a program in Oakland, is there a reason everyone is coming from Squirrel Hill and not the Hill District? And why is that?” Remake can say those words, and push program providers to think about them and measure them and address them. You can amplify the voices of people who are succeeding and support the people who are struggling. Remake can be part of the catalyst.