The Teacher-Student Socio-Cultural Gap

Historically speaking there was a time when children walked into classrooms, sat quietly, folded their arms, and eagerly participated in the acquisition of information being dispensed by the teacher. They did this for each and every teacher, regardless of subject matter and regardless of delivery style. Without thoughtful and deliberate actions performed by the teacher, very few classrooms still function in this manner. In fact, the same child now reacts very differently from class to class; grade to grade; school to school; and most importantly, teacher to teacher. Today’s child is much more of a “critical consumer” of education. Today’s children, at all levels, no longer passively accept learning. They must be “convinced” that learning is the right thing to do.

In order to teach today’s child, one must possess the ability to “reach” today’s child. By “reach” I mean the teacher must be able to emotionally stimulate the child and then explicitly prove how subject-matter will help this child successfully negotiate life, as seen through the child’s eyes. Here is the crux of the challenge. There is a significant socio-cultural gap that exists between students and teachers. Teachers primarily come from, and live in, middle class America. Children who live in urban, poverty-stricken communities, with the associated value system, are exponentially increasing their presence in America’s schools. What, you ask, is the impact of this socio-cultural student-teacher gap? To illustrate the answer to this question, I wrote a story.

To understand my story, you are going to have to practice a high level of acceptance in the paragraphs to follow. I am going to attempt to place you in a contextual setting that I feel will be an optimal position to understand the socio-cultural forces that make public school education so very challenging. So, please comply with my requests and allow yourself to be placed in my context. You are going to be required to play an active role in this journey by assuming a character in my story as well as interacting with the other characters. Trust me… There is a point here!!

Self Reflection. First, let’s start with who you are. You are a veteran teacher with 20 years of classroom experience. You were born and raised in a traditional middle-class family. Your mother and father were both hard-working parents and your family consisted of a biological mother, a biological father, 2.5 children, and a dog. As a child, life for you was very simple; you assumed the norms and values that your parents demonstrated for you. As a matter of fact, they did such a good job raising you that you are now the mother or father in a family quite similar to the one in which you grew up in. Likewise, your 2.5 kids succumb to your will, and walk in your way. Life is grand. Life is grand until the first day of a new school year, and you sit at your desk as your students walk into your classroom for the very first time. Before I go any further, please reflect on who you are and what you bring into that classroom in terms of socio-cultural values and expectations. As your students come walking in, you develop an interest in two students in particular. I’ll call them Alex and Sidney. All you know about these students right now is what you can see by way of their appearance.

Meet Alex. At this point, I am going to do my best at giving you a head-to-toe description of Alex. Starting with the head, Alex’s hair is in braids that you can hardly see because of a blue bandana being worn. Alex is wearing a t-shirt that seems to be five sizes too large with a huge picture of a recently murdered rapper on the front of it. Alex’s neck has a gold chain around it with a pendant at the end of it that looks like a semi-automatic handgun. On Alex’s left forearm, you notice a tattoo that reads, “Thug 4-Life.” Moving on to Alex’s lower body, you notice that Alex is wearing blue jeans that seem 10 sizes too big. On the upper-right portion of these jeans you see a spray-painted picture of a slain civil rights leader. For some reason that you cannot imagine, Alex’s left pant leg is rolled up just above the knee. Alex is wearing what seems to be an expensive pair of Reebok tennis shoes. However, you do not understand what makes them so expensive because they do not even have the standard Reebok emblem on them. Instead Alex’s shoes have the number 50 inscribed on the side. Alex does not say much except to tell you that Alex is not the name this student prefers. Alex informs you that the name you are to use when communicating is “A-Dawg.” When Alex says this your eyes are drawn back to the facial area where you notice that Alex has strategically placed three gold caps over three different teeth. At this point your eyes have fixated themselves on Alex. That is, until Sidney walks in giving you a reason to look at someone else.

Meet Sidney. Let me describe the next 30 seconds of your life as you observe Sidney’s appearance from head-to-toe. Starting with the head, you notice that Sidney’s hair consists of a long black pony-tale. Sidney is wearing a chain, but not around the neck. Instead this chain connects the earring to the nose ring to the piece of metal that is sticking out of Sidney’s chin. You notice mascara on Sidney’s left eye, but none on the right eye. You also notice blush on Sidney’s right cheek, but none on the left cheek. Sidney is wearing a black t-shirt that seems to be one or two sizes too small. You really cannot make out the picture on the front of the t-shirt. For some reason, the picture looks like a bloody, gory crime scene. Under the picture are the words, “Rest in Peace.” On Sidney’s left forearm you see a tattoo of a tombstone that reads, “Sidney–01/13/2009.” You look down at your watch to notice today’s date, August 25, 2011. Sidney’s pants are all black and they too seem a couple of sizes too small and they only go down to the mid-calf area. These are cargo-style pants with bulging pockets. Sidney is wearing black stockings. In fact the only splash of color on this ensemble comes by way of the high-top, hot-pink Converse All-Star tennis shoes that Sidney is wearing. Because these are the same type of shoes you wore as a child, you begin to connect with Sidney. That is until Sidney opens the mouth in order to quietly utter the following words, “Don’t call me Sidney. I only answer to Marylyn.” This is when you notice that there is a huge chunk of shiny metal protruding from Sidney’s tongue.

Your Thoughts? At this point, what preconceived ideas do you have of these two students? I know we are only two minutes into the first time that you are meeting these two students, but you have made some judgments simply based on your observations of them. If you have not, may I suggest that you do not really know yourself, or you are lying? These ideas that you have of these students are going to impact your interaction with them. Do you know how? Do you know when? Before going on, I am going to ask you to go back and read the descriptions of Alex and Sidney again. After reading the descriptions again, what do you notice? Have I left anything out? Do you have any idea of the race, gender, or social class of Alex and Sidney? This is a trick question because I know you think, based on their descriptions, that you know their race, gender, and social class. Hold on tight to your computer mouse because I am going to give you some additional information on Alex and Sidney.

More on Alex. First of all Alex is short for Alexandria Goldman. She is a 15-year-old Caucasian female with one 8-year-old sibling. Alex lives in a middle-class neighborhood with her biological father, who owns a small accounting firm, and her biological stay-at-home mother. Both of her parents have tried desperately to get her to conform to their socio-cultural values that are entrenched in their strong Jewish faith.

More on Sidney. Sidney is not short for anything. He is a 15-year-old African American male with four older siblings whom he rarely sees because he lives with his maternal grandmother and an aunt in a small lower-income community on the edge of a large urban city. His siblings live with his paternal grandmother. Regardless of his grandmother’s attempts, he absolutely refuses to attend church with his grandmother. She was born and raised in the Pentecostal church.

Reactions. Let’s be honest, when these students first walked in you categorized these students as “abnormal,” right? As you learned more about their race, gender, and social class, you are thinking that they are not even “normally” abnormal. It seems like a lot doesn’t it? Let me remind you that you are only five minutes into a student-teacher relationship that is scheduled to last for 180 days. What are you thinking? Are you thinking? Are you thinking about how your preconceived ideas regarding their appearance were going to impact your interactions with them? Have you acknowledged that you actually have these preconceived ideas? Have you realized that these students are totally disconnected from their families, their peers, their communities? Are you thinking about ways to connect to these students? Are you wondering how you are going to manage the socio-cultural chaos that exists in your classroom? Or, did you just take attendance and jump right in to your attempt of forcing the state-mandated curriculum down their throats? If Alex or Sidney gets fed up with you as you present “rigorous and relevant curriculum” and stands up in the middle of your presentation and shouts out a profanity-laced expression of frustration, do you have him or her immediately removed from class and charged with defiance?

Disclaimer. The scenario that I described is being played out every day in every public school in America. I apologize for not offering any solutions. Right now, all I have are questions? I’ll end with the question with which I began this little scenario—What is the impact of socio-cultural factors on student achievement and school improvement?

The story above is merely an example of the complexities seen in schools around race, class, gender, and religion, just to name a few. There are far too many to give adequate attention to. In my development of Socio-Cultural Leadership, I sought to deal with social class primarily and focus on poverty’s impact in schools. In my travels as an educator and a researcher, I found poverty to be the most challenging factor in moving student achievement forward. Today’s school leader must know that the aforementioned socio-cultural chaos is alive and well in his/her building. The principal must assist teachers in “reaching” our children.

Dr. Desmond K. Blackburn has served one of the largest school districts in the nation as a Math Teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, Director of School Improvement, District Trainer, and Area Superintendent; all in addition to being an Adjunct Professor in Educational Leadership. His book, Socio-Cultural Leadership, provides principals and aspiring principals with specific strategies to lead school improvement efforts, especially for children living in poverty. Visit for more information.

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2 Responses to The Teacher-Student Socio-Cultural Gap

  1. William W Bosse' says:

    Interesting ! I would ask this principle to consider the importance of a middle class value system in overcoming the trap that poverty imposes. Empathy and sympathy on the part of the Educator in the classroom provide important insight and even motivation for providing the essential intellectual environment to assend, accomplish meaningful progress and ulimately move beyond the underclass mentality that will prevail if we allow these children to repeat the cycle of failure from which they come. This undertaking requires an energy and commitment far beyond the norm of the typical teacher, but also Educational Leadership beyond the norm of the typical Principle of a School, as well !
    Beyond a major policy change, which is problem # one in this case, it is an uphill battle that is required ! The educator in the classroom must be prepared to control their environment and demand that the children in their care perform to the highest standards possible. They must NOT allow these children to choose failure or bargain with their good behavior as a means to circumvent an academic standard which is essential for their ultimate assendence beyond the underclass trap. Simply said, failure is not an option and these children must not be permitted to use failure as a means of escaping the inevitable frustration they will experience as they face challenges and values that are unfamiliar to them.

  2. David Watkins says:

    It is critical that school leaders in lower socio-economic or urban schools create a culture of building relationships with students and the community they serve. The article is right about the fact that young people have to be sold on teachers. Teachers now have to prove to students they are trustworthy, caring, etc., Students in urban schools often will not “work” in classrooms where they don’t feel “safe.” Safe meaning emotionaly, educationally, physically in some cases, etc.

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