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Equity, Mindsets & Transformational Teaching

May 16th, 2018

One week before the 2016-17 school year ended, I conducted a professional development workshop at a public elementary school in California. This predominantly Latino school was located in the school district’s lowest-income neighborhood. At the beginning of the workshop, I asked the 26 teachers to tell me their names, how long they’d taught at the school, and to explain the one work-related accomplishment that they were most proud of for that school year.

The teachers shared many examples of their accomplishments, mostly pertaining to improvements in their students’ skills or test scores. However, when the meeting ended, a young teacher stayed behind to ask me for advice. After describing an incident involving a student who’d stolen an item from her desk, how the teacher had handled the situation, and the way in which the child’s mother had responded, the teacher burst into tears. The entire ordeal had taken a huge emotional toll on her, and she feared that she hadn’t handled it well.

I’ve had similar experiences during my travels conducting professional development workshops at conferences and in schools throughout the U.S. In the majority of cases, each teacher or school leader wanted advice about “student misbehavior,” and in every single case, the story involved a low-income student, or an African American or Latino student.

Student misbehavior and classroom management problems frustrate many educators and prevent them from focusing on instruction, especially in predominantly low-income and urban schools. Another huge consequence can be that students are pushed into the notorious “School-to-Prison Pipeline.” In fact, throughout the U.S. Public School System’s history, ineffective and biased school discipline policies and practices have pushed many students of color and low-income students into the prison pipeline. Research reveals two related facts:

  1. Many teachers and school leaders need advice, information, and strategies that will enable them to work more effectively with low-income, African American, and Latino students.
  2. Many teachers and school leaders are desperately in need of effective classroom management strategies.

These issues are the main reasons that district and school leaders invite me to conduct professional development workshops.

Transformational teaching is life-changing, empowering, and has long-term benefits for students and their teachers.” For teachers, the benefits include personalized professional growth, connecting with students in positive ways, learning from students, and the potential to impact society. Providing students with “a good education increases the likelihood that the students will grow up to become hard-working, law-abiding adults instead of becoming a financial drain on taxpayers by getting caught in the ‘prison pipeline’ or stuck in an endless cycle of poverty.” For students, the benefits include opportunities to develop skills and learn information that can position them to have a bright future.

The First Step in Becoming a Transformational Teacher

The fact that all children misbehave occasionally is something that most parents know, but educators, like the school leader who made the statement that troubled me, seem to forget. The good news is that student misbehavior is not a major problem for most teachers. Nevertheless, it’s a problem for a significant number of them. According to research, although most students are well-behaved at school most of the time, more than 40 percent of public school teachers report that student misbehavior is problematic for them.

Whether you’re among the teachers who struggle with student misbehavior and classroom management, the first step in becoming a transformational teacher requires that you adopt the “correct mindset” about yourself and your students. Let me illustrate this point by sharing two stories about the mindsets of school leaders.

A School Leader and Her Mindset About a Student

An elementary school principal recently told me that a certain student is “no angel.” The fifth grader to whom she was referring happened to be a “straight A student,” and the only African American male in his classroom. In response to the principal’s comment, I replied, “I’m not surprised, because no child is perfect, especially one who is a high achiever like that student.”

But I was really bothered by the fact that out of all of the things that the principal could’ve told me about this student, she chose to focus on a negative aspect rather than on his academic success. Over time, as I learned more about the school, I began to understand the main reasons why in a school that had only 40 African American students out of more than 600 students, the African Americans were more likely to be sent to the principal’s office than any other group of students. This is a common situation in schools throughout the nation because African American students are overrepresented among the students who are labeled as “discipline problems,” and suspended and expelled from school.

Another School Leader’s Mindset About Students

Several years ago, I was privileged to hear Tim King, a phenomenal school leader, give a keynote address at a conference in Iowa. King explained that he was so troubled by the fact that the majority of African American males in Chicago public schools were dropping out that he decided to do something about it. After many setbacks, King’s grant proposal to start an Urban Preparatory Academy was funded. This school, which targeted low-income African American males, became so successful that city leaders asked King to open additional schools for the same types of students who had historically dropped out.

Today, Chicago’s Urban Preparatory Academies have one of the nation’s highest graduation, college acceptance and college attendance rates for African American males. The secret to King’s success as a nationally renowned school leader is his mindset about students. He said, “We believe in students until they can believe in themselves. I’m filled with hope and excitement because I see what can happen when we believe. These young people are brilliant and resilient.”

Why Your Mindset About Students Matters

As King’s story illustrates, what you believe about yourself and your students is very important as your beliefs will translate into behaviors that determine how effective you will be as an educator. Your beliefs will drive the quality of instruction you provide, how you treat students, and the types of relationships you develop with students and their parents. This is why the first step in becoming a transformational teacher is making sure that you have the correct mindset about yourself and your students.

Components of the Correct Mindset

In a nutshell, the correct mindset consists of believing that all students have the potential to be successful in their academics, and that all students have the potential to turn out well in life. The following lists (adapted from “An Equity Affirmation for Educators”) summarize the core beliefs that you must have about yourself and your students in order to be a transformational teacher—one who uses their position as an educator to empower themselves and others.

Your Beliefs About Yourself

At the very least, your beliefs about yourself as an educator should include believing that:

  1. You have a professional obligation to provide all of your students with equal access to an outstanding education.
  2. You have a professional obligation to treat all students fairly.
  3. You have a professional obligation to treat all students humanely.
  4. You have a professional obligation to treat all students respectfully.

Your Beliefs About Your Students

At the very least, your beliefs about your students should include believing that:

  1. All students deserve to receive equal access to an outstanding education.
  2. All students deserve to be treated fairly.
  3. All students deserve to be treated humanely.
  4. All students deserve to be treated respectfully.

By using “An Equity Affirmation for Educators” on a regularly basis, you can increase your chances of having the powerful, life-changing positive impact that is needed for so many students who have historically been underserved by the U.S. Public School System, especially African American, Latino, and low-income students.

To access “An Equity Affirmation for Educators,” and other Illuminate equity resources, please visit our Equity Resources page.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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1 Comment

  1. Margaret K-J "Shantee" Baker on May 17, 2018 at 5:17 am

    I appreciate the positive advice.

    Thank you.

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