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'Multiplication is for White People': An Interview with Education Professor Lisa Delpit

In her new book, Delpit highlights 10 factors that foster excellence in urban schools, while exploring the connections between racism and special needs placement.

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And that is the way that we need to go to teach the small pieces like grammar, punctuation, capitalization, and spelling, rather than just keep those in isolation.

JS: How important is it to have a diversity of teachers in a school? How important is it for students to have a teacher who looks like them, who comes from their culture?

LD: I think what we need is people who represent the culture of the kids in the school, not necessarily in every classroom, because I think teachers of other cultures also have something to offer. However, I think that the piece that is often missing in our schools is the opportunity for professional learning communities where teachers can share what they know and collectively resolve issues relating to culture as well as other factors. If we can do that and ensure that the people who are most familiar with the culture of the children have the opportunity and the responsibility to share some of that knowledge with other teachers, then we will be doing OK. If the culture of the school is set up so that sharing is important and collaborating is important, the children will be the beneficiaries.

Jennifer Obidah and Karen Manheim Teel wrote a book, Because of the Kids: Facing Racial and Cultural Differences in Schools, about a white teacher who was having some difficulty in class and approached an African American teacher for help. The African American teacher spent some time in the classroom, they worked collaboratively and had some arguments about different kinds of things. At the end they were able to figure out what each could learn from the other and the culture piece came to the forefront. They were able to resolve the issues and create a better situation for the children. I don't want to make the claim that all black teachers are better or that every black teacher is good for every black child because, as I mentioned before, many of us have also internalized negative notions about black children. We really have to look at the specific teacher and what the teacher's beliefs are and how the teacher sees the culture of the children, regardless of the teacher's ethnicity. But black kids need black teachers' presence in the school, and white teachers need black teachers' presence in the school.

JS: You talk about the need to neutralize, educate, or get rid of bad teachers. Can we do that without standardized tests?

LD: There are a lot of pieces to that question. We do need to neutralize, educate, or get rid of bad teachers—that is true. But I think we need to take another look at assessment. If we can create professional learning communities where everyone is responsible to everyone else and we have a joint responsibility for these children in the school, then we can create a situation where teachers can do a lot of peer assessment of other teachers.

Many teachers are not using a quarter of what they know because the school environment is so foul. And we know that the culture of the school very much affects the teaching that goes on in classrooms. So my question becomes not so much whether the teachers at a specific school are good or bad but what is it in this setting that's not allowing them to teach to their full potential. And many times it is the question of trust.

Charles Payne has a great book, So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools. One of the things that he brings out is that the level of disorganization and mistrust in a school affects how well a teacher teaches. I don't think we can just look at the individual teaching level. We have to look at the school: What about the school is not allowing teachers to teach to their potential? So the problem may be the environment, or it may be some skills that teachers are lacking, or it may be that it's time for some teachers to look into other areas of work.