Tyrone C. Howard draws a line between sympathy and empathy for poor children and students of color.
Sympathy – feeling sorry for students – can mean teachers have lower expectations, settle for less and choose not to challenge students, he said. It can lead to a “pedagogy of poverty” that focuses on basic skills and denies children the rich opportunities offered to more advantaged peers.
Empathy, on the other hand, means listening to students, learning from them and understanding how their culture and life circumstances influence how they think and talk and behave in school.
“I’m asking you to be empathetic and to expect and demand excellence,” he told an audience of Monroe County Community School Corp. teachers this week.
Howard, a professor of education and director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA, spoke with teachers Tuesday during a professional development session on cultural competence. A renowned scholar of race and educational equity, he is the author of “Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools” and “Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males.”
Howard suggested it can be easy to fall into the sympathy trap. Take the nation’s 56 million public school students and compress them into one classroom of 30 students: 12 will live in poverty, and three in extreme poverty. Ten speak a primary language other than English. And one is homeless.
Seven will experience physical, emotional of sexual abuse during childhood. And perhaps that many more will experience abuse that goes unreported and undetected. No wonder some students are angry, some are sullen, and some act out in ways that adults consider inappropriate or disruptive.
“But just because students are poor does not mean they cannot be successful academically,” Howard said. “If anybody here believes that, you are in the wrong profession.”
Many poor children, he said, demonstrate “problem-solving skills that are incredible,” often feeding, clothing and caring for themselves and siblings when families lack the resources to do the job.
At the same time, the achievement gap is real. White students are more than twice as likely as black and Hispanic students to score as proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fourth-grade reading test, an important measure of learning.
Also real are various opportunity gaps. Children of color are underrepresented in Advanced Placement courses and gifted programs and vastly overrepresented among students who are suspended or expelled from school. A key factor in discipline disparities, Howard said, is that a narrow range of childhood behaviors are considered acceptable in school, with little allowance for cultural variance.
“You have well-intentioned teachers who are not attuned to the way some children think, how they talk, how they process and how they communicate,” he said.
Drawing on psychology, he said it is common for people to make excuses for their own shortcomings but to expect others – especially students – to overcome obstacles. Thus the current narrative that “grit” is what’s needed for other people’s children to succeed in school.
“When we say you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” he said, “we’re not acknowledging that some people don’t have boots and some don’t have straps.”
Howard said it’s essential for teachers and others to have honest, uncomfortable conversations about privilege and race and to understand the perspective and experience of their students.
“I’m always interested when white people say racism doesn’t exist,” he said, “because, how would you know? When we have students of color who say they experience schools differently, we should not tell them, ‘No you don’t.’”
Note: Thanks to Monroe County Community School Corp. officials for letting me sit in on and write about Howard’s presentation. More important, thanks to the MCCSC for arranging for him to talk with teachers.