Welcome to the Growth Over Grades Podcast where we talk about education ideas and topics that matter most to our Spaces Educator Community. Episode five involves a conversation with educator and leader, Stephanie Morgan-Harris, who has fulfilled many roles in education and life. Serving in her 20th year in education, her current role is principal and she is always a champion for all students! We recently met her at the Global IB Conference in San Diego. Leaders like Morgan-Harris inspire us to form stronger bonds and understand student learning profiles. If we don’t navigate this with cultural competence, we do more harm than good and big ideas such as the Portrait of a Learner won’t truly represent our students.
Not New to Trauma
The newest junior high principal in Kankakee, IL understands what it’s like to be taught with high standards from people who believed in her and knew she was going places in life. She also knows what it’s like to go to school each day and be traumatized by low expectations academically and high expectations of failure.
If you listen to her story, you will be blown away by how she beat the discriminatory assumptions put on her by the people who were supposed to be building her up. As a Person of Color, she attended a Black school from kindergarten through eighth grade. She was grown and encouraged, excelled and had a future. However, for high school, none of her teachers were like her and she found herself in the principal's office frequently enough to have her own seat. He was not afraid to share with her that he thought she would amount to very little.
The school leader was not worried that his student had become disengaged. He saw life through his own lens and had no idea that a promising, young woman, very capable of learning and leading was right in front of him. He failed her. It wasn’t the other way around. This is still happening in our system. It’s not always as blatant as it used to be, but low expectations for learners is a sure sign that trauma happening to our students, especially for those who are in our historically marginalized communities.
Most people might not be able to come back from that type of trauma. But Stephanie Morgan-Harris made it her life mission to excel and help students like her. Whether serving in the role as teacher or leader, she knows that building strong relationships with her students is the foundation of helping them excel academically. She has high expectations and seeks to know what helps each student learn. She knows that being culturally competent helps both teachers and students reach goals.
The Importance of Cultural Competencies
If you Google “Cultural Competencies” you will find this definition…
Cultural competence — loosely defined as the ability to understand, appreciate and interact with people from cultures or belief systems different from one's own — has been a key aspect of psychological thinking and practice for some 50 years.
Being culturally competent means you appreciate the diversity in people and are willing to do the work to make sure your own personal bias does not interfere with how you treat others who are not like you in race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. If you are accepting of the differences of the people around you and they feel comfortable to be their authentic selves in your presence, you are culturally competent. As an educator, you are also modeling this for your students. Knowing that we each bring our own lens with us, but knowing we can always strive to see others through their perspectives (and not just our own) keeps our minds open that life experiences from those around us don’t always match ours. Knowing this truth can be a welcome mat in helping our students share their stories and help us enrich their learning environment.
But the opposite is also true. When we don’t strive to overcome our personal bias, we often shut down others without even trying. Some of our students, and their parents, have been shut down so many times, they learn not to share anymore.
If you want to encourage and become partners with those around you, you must learn to accept that mindsets and learning experiences are not equal for all of us. We must accept that we can do and say things that are harmful. We must be intentional in showing inclusivity and allowing for representation. We must constantly seek truth even when it’s not readily available.
When done well, we are modeling this for our students. They may encounter prejudice and discrimination, but they will also be able to come back from it with the tools we give them in being culturally competent. Knowing who we are, who our students are, and what is important in their lives also gives us insight in how to teach in a way that is relevant.
The Learner Profile
To begin learning more about your students, start with relationships, don’t assume you know everything about a student. Morgan-Harris expresses in the podcast what it felt like to be on both sides of that. Her teacher, Mr. Sutton, who wanted to help her succeed, began with questions that helped her go deeper into her learning. Morgan-Harris excelled in math because of this kind of relationship building.
However, when she went to high school, no one asked why she was disengaged from learning and her principal told her she would only be a “welfare case.” The low expectations and the refusal to learn more about his student brought harm to Morgan-Harris and many others. Not all students are as resilient and can flip the script as she did. That’s what propelled her to go into education.
“Cultural competencies and identity, I call them mirrors and windows. When students are able to see themselves in the curriculum when they are able to see others in the curriculum, and they understand, not just in the time and space as it relates to right now in present time, but in the historical context of nature related to whatever subject matter, it helps them see themselves actually succeeding in that content area.”-Stephanie Morgan-Harris
Why does it matter for students to see themselves in relation to what they are learning? Morgan-Harris says this is pivotal in their personal decision-making that they can make a difference and grow in these different areas as well. She reminds us that it’s first about reaching our students before we can actually teach them.
As a classroom teacher, Morgan-Harris would bring the community into her classroom so her students felt like they could reach out and talk to these people and see themselves in the role as part of their futures. That’s also how she designed her field trips. She incorporated real life experiences and skills like reading bus schedules as well as curriculum standards and content. Everything she introduced them to was something they could use in their own life as citizens. Looking back, Morgan-Harris shares that her grown up students have never forgotten the learning that took place with her as their teacher.
It all begins with forming strong relationships. It also entails celebrating growth that is personal to each learner. Morgan-Harris shares that might include celebrating a student growing from a D to a C in grades. It also means questioning what we are actually grading and the impact those grades have on our students.
This was such a powerful conversation, and I am honored that I could be involved in it. There is healing that needs to take place in our school communities. The work in understanding our students on a deeper level, so we can reach and teach them, begins with our own personal work in learning where our bias may lead us. We may learn that we tend to assume when we should be seeking for truth, instead. As educators, we need to strive for representation and inclusivity. This will help our students see and believe in themselves, foster healing, and allow them to be the change-makers and innovators we know they can be.