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Change in the Classroom: Training Teachers to Be Culturally Responsive

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Hosted by writer Emma Atkinson, RadioEd is a triweekly podcast created by the DU Newsroom that taps into the University of Denver’s deep pool of bright brains to explore the most compelling and interesting research coming out of DU. See below for a transcript of this episode.

Show Notes

The time that K-12 students spend with teachers is formative. It’s important. Some might say that a teacher can make or break a kid, especially kids from marginalized communities. There are systems in place to educate and evaluate teachers on best practices in the classroom—but are we doing enough to make sure teacher training is equitable and culturally sensitive?  

On this episode of RadioEd, Emma speaks with María del Carmen Salazar, associate dean of the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education, about her work with culturally responsive teacher evaluation.  

María del Carmen Salazar is associate dean for faculty affairs and DEIJ as well as a professor of curriculum & instruction and teacher education in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver. Salazar has authored 38 publications and given 155 scholarly local, national, and international presentations on a humanizing pedagogy, equitable teaching and culturally responsive teacher evaluation, and college access and success for Latinx youth. She is the author of “Teacher Evaluation as Culture: A Framework for Equitable and Excellent Teaching.”  

Salazar published a seminal article reframing Paulo Freire's conceptualization of humanizing pedagogy. She is the lead author on a research study detailing Community Views on Quality and Equity in Education. Dr. Salazar is the lead author on a briefing to the U.S. Congress related to the state of the Latinx community in the U.S. In 2018, she was the recipient of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Innovations in Research on Equity and Social Justice in Teacher Education Award. 

More Information: 

How do children spend their time? Time use and skill development in the PSID,” The Fed 

In the U.S., 180 days of school is most common, but length of school day varies by state,” Pew Research Center 

Average number of hours in the school day and average number of days in the school year for public schools, by state,” National Center for Education Statistics 

Teacher Education Program Student Handbook,” University of Denver Morgridge College of Education 

Critical Race Theory: A Brief History,” The New York Times 

Teacher Evaluation as Culture: A Framework for Equitable and Excellent Teaching,” María del Carmen Salazar 

"Dancing Towards 'Humanizing Pedagogy' With Dr. Maria del Carmen Salazar"

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Emma Atkinson (00:05): 

You're listening to RadioEd, the University of Denver podcast. I’m your host, Emma Atkinson. 

Let’s do some math.  

The state of Colorado requires that kids attend a minimum of 160 days of school per year. And on average, Colorado students spend about seven hours in school each day. That’s one thousand, one hundred and twenty hours per year. Multiply that by 13 years and you’ve got kids spending fourteen thousand, five hundred and sixty hours in the classroom—that’s nearly 86 weeks of K through 12 schooling. 

All this is to say—the time that young students spend with teachers is formative. It’s important. Teachers are there for every second of those 160 days, guiding students in learning both academic, emotional and social skills and exposing kids to the world around them. Some might say that a teacher can make or break a kid—especially kids from marginalized communities. 

Maria Salazar (01:02): 

That teacher never had to say anything to me. It was through her curriculum, instruction and assessment practices that she made sure that I was invisible. The curriculum did not include anyone who looked like me. And so it made me feel that people who look like me never accomplished anything, and therefore, how could I accomplish anything? So it made me feel very unworthy. 

Emma Atkinson (01:23): 

No kid should ever have to feel that way—undervalued and invisible. Theoretically, that’s why there are systems in place to educate and evaluate teachers on best practices in the classroom. And those kids from marginalized communities? Some teachers do have the training needed not only to teach them, but to make them feel welcome and valuable. 

Maria Salazar (01:43): 

My kindergarten teacher, he was very much the opposite of that in how he saw my full treasures and how my treasures—my language, my native language, my Mexican culture, who I was, my family – really shined bright in his classroom. And he thought I was so smart—I could learn in two languages, not just one. And you contrast that to then being immersed into an English-only classroom, from bilingual ed to English-only. And feeling that sense of loss, feeling that sense of being stripped of who I was. 

Emma Atkinson (02:13): 

So, listening to these two drastically different, formative experiences, one has to wonder: Are we teaching teachers the right things? Do teachers know how to teach all the students in their classrooms? Are we evaluating them on merits that actually matter to those students?  

Maria del Carmen Salazar shared her story with us. She thinks we can do better. 

Salazar is the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education. Her life’s work centers around equitable teaching and equitable evaluation.  

Maria Salazar (02:47): 

I'd say that our current standards are pretty low in terms of a focus on diversity. My work is really about centering diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, equity at the center of teacher evaluation, not at the margins. And I argue that teacher evaluation tools are often perceived as neutral, but what they really do is reinforce whiteness, and they continue to marginalize our children. So until we can be put at the center, we continue to be marginalized. 

Emma Atkinson (03:16): 

In her latest book, “Teacher Evaluation as Cultural Practice: A Framework for Equity and Excellence,” Salazar examines the existing state of teacher evaluations and recommends how things can be improved when it comes to all of the factors she just mentioned. It gets deeply personal at some points. 

So I'd love to talk about how you open your latest book with the sentence, ‘We remember feeling hope and despair when we were classroom teachers.’ Tell me about those feelings. 

Maria Salazar (03:44): 

In that book, I start by centering my own experience and my own dehumanizing experiences in public schools. I attended the Denver Public Schools here locally, and really feeling the sense of my humanity being stripped from me. And then as a teacher feeling the same thing, was I engaging in actions that were stripping my children of their humanity? How was I, especially through testing, for example, in assessments, how was I trying to uphold their humanity and bring their full humanity into the classroom?  

So I think that sentence is really to capture my own experience feeling dehumanized as a student, but also my own sense as a teacher of that's why I got into education – because I don't want to strip anyone of their humanity. I want to be able to pull the full humanity of every child and their family that I serve, and sometimes feeling that tension to do so in a system that makes it hard for you to do that. 

Emma Atkinson (04:43): 

In the book, Salazar and her co-author coin the term “culturally responsive teaching evaluation.” To really get into what this means, I want to explain what “teacher evaluation” represents. Salazar says, ideally, it’s not just a test that teachers have to pass, or a set of boxes they have to check every year.  

Maria Salazar (05:01): 

Teacher evaluation is really about teacher training and development, to really help guide them with a roadmap around what is culturally responsive education, because it can be very theoretical, but you put it on the ground with a teacher evaluation tool that is very much competency based, so that they know what it looks like, and that they can do it, and that they can improve toward it.  

It's a process of constant improvement. It's not a process of arrival; you don't become a culturally responsive teacher, you strive toward it, and you develop and you work hard toward it. Teacher evaluation really makes it explicit, so that teachers can engage in this space and in this practice, so that it then impacts children. 

Emma Atkinson (05:45): 

In your book, you talk about culturally responsive teacher evaluation. Give me some specifics on how that's different than regular teacher evaluation. 

Maria Salazar (05:53): 

That’s a really great question. We have our framework for equitable and excellent teaching, which we call the FEET, that we developed at the Morgridge College of Education in our teacher education program. And what we do is we have culturally responsive look fors. So it's very explicit, what we're looking for when we evaluate teachers, and also that's part of our training. That's how we develop our curriculum to make sure that they understand what they need to do in classrooms, not just learn about it in theory, but to do it. A perfect example here is an asset orientation towards students. Always looking at the treasures that they bring versus the challenges that they have or that they experience. That is really important in our program—to help our teachers see our children, the children at the margins, from their assets that they bring, from their treasures and their resources. And what does that look like in the classroom? That means that you're actively incorporating who they are into your curriculum, that children are reflected on your classroom wall so they feel welcome in a sense of belonging. And those are just a few examples of how explicit we are in the tool to make sure teachers understand: this is what you need to do not just what you need to think or say, but you need to do in the classroom to be culturally responsive.  

Emma Atkinson (07:15):  

In her book, Salazar asserts that a focus on culturally and linguistically diverse learners is absent from current teacher evaluation frameworks. That means, she writes, that existing teacher evaluation doesn’t account for or value the success of those students. So Salazar proposed a new framework, and culturally responsive teacher evaluation was born. 

The specific framework that Salazar mentioned earlier, FEET, is what professors at DU’s Morgridge College of Education use to educate and evaluate K through 12 teachers. The Morgridge student teachers are evaluated through this framework six times over their period of apprentice teaching.  

So culturally responsive teacher evaluation, like Salazar says, is a roadmap for teachers to learn how to educate based on principles of cultural diversity and equity.  

Here’s an example of what that looks like in the classroom. 

Maria Salazar (08:05): 

One of our teachers, Polina Lerma, who now has moved into an admin position, she was in a third grade classroom and moved from kindergarten through third grade. The community she would create in her classroom was phenomenal--and the student voice! She had a student council in her classroom, and the student council had a president and a vice president and leaders and they were in charge of creating policies for the classroom and upholding policies. They would create community-oriented policies versus discipline, they would hold each other accountable. They would learn concepts from politics, and they would use those concepts to help interrogate the systems they were creating in their own classrooms.  

And then she also asked every child to dream about where they would like to go to college. And she gave them a diploma from that university and said: bring it back to me when you graduate from this college. So she was teaching them even in kindergarten, that they could aim if they wanted to aim for higher education, that it was possible for them. So she was showing them the opportunities, she was showing them the reality. And she was using herself as a model of someone who had gone to higher ed, who was from their own community of Mexican descent. 

Emma Atkinson (09:24): 

Here’s another story of a teacher who applied culturally responsive teaching evaluation strategies. 

Maria Salazar (09:29): 

I’ve seen it in high school, too. A teacher who was teaching social studies through the law, he was a lawyer. This was a white teacher, pretty phenomenal, who was able to incorporate the law to teach history and had such incredible student engagement, would bring in music from the kids themselves, things they would engage with, and play it at the beginning of the class, and would bring in concepts all about inequality and civil rights into his classroom. And I have never seen the level of engagement from students from a preservice teacher was phenomenal.  

Emma Atkinson (10:02):  

Salazar says that Morgridge education students—who are all taught using that FEET framework—are really impacting the lives of Colorado students. 

Maria Salazar (10:10): 

We also know that our teacher-ed students are outperforming teachers in our state. They do outperform them on every measure of our quality teaching standards by the state, sometimes by double the percentage points. So it's pretty phenomenal in terms of: we know our students are making a difference in classrooms without question, and on children's lives. 

Emma Atkinson (interview audio, 10:32): 

So, you know, you came up with this framework, culturally responsive teaching evaluation. You've been teaching it. What is the biggest misconception about it? 

Maria Salazar (10:44): 

That’s a really great question. I think one of the biggest misconceptions about our framework, the framework for equitable and excellent teaching, is that it's only for students of color or students who are marginalized from marginalized communities. I would say that it amplifies the resources for all children. And so really, it is a tool to also help develop students so that they can become more culturally responsive. So it moves children all together. So it is a tool for all teachers to serve all students because it really is about: where's our endpoint? Where do we want to be? We want to be in a society where we really value one another and understand one another and not despite our differences, but because of our differences. I think ultimately, it is about creating a more culturally responsive community, and humanizing community. 

Emma Atkinson (11:40): 

I think someone looking at this space—looking at teacher evaluation—could easily say, the best way to go about this is to remove all biases, remove your background, remove everything you think, you know, remove everything you do know, and, and operate that way. And what you're saying is, let's do the opposite. 

Maria Salazar (12:01): 

Yeah, I think as critical race scholars, we know that that is not possible, right? That's impossible to remove yourself. And even from any scientific work that semblance of neutrality, you're still asking the questions and looking at particular aspects of the world, of life, because you value them or you're interested in them. And so it's never possible to be truly neutral. And that's what Critical Race scholars argue—that there is neutrality in this space. There's also a scholar, Milner, who argues that if you are not arguing and standing up for equity, that it's the opposite. That neutrality is basically silence. And neutrality is about reinforcing inequity. And so it's important to take a stand in our work. 

Emma Atkinson (12:48): 

When Salazar says, “critical race scholars,” she’s referencing Critical Race Theory, widely known as CRT. In an interview with the New York Times, University of Hawaii law professor Mari Matsuda offers one definition of CRT, which is used as a graduate level educational framework.  

“For me,” Matsuda says, “critical race theory is a method that takes the lived experience of racism seriously, using history and social reality to explain how racism operates in American law and culture, toward the end of eliminating the harmful effects of racism and bringing about a just and healthy world for all.” 

What's the biggest takeaway for families who are currently going through the educational system and might be affected by this? 

Maria Salazar (13:33): 

I would say to advocate for your child. Absolutely. And to advocate for all the children as well. I feel that even here at the University of Denver, my children are right now freshman and sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I hope there's a mom on that campus is advocating for them. And so for me, I feel that sense of advocacy for our children at the margins in particular, but for all our children around them having a humanizing education and All children are deserving of this because of their backgrounds, not in spite of them. So I would say advocacy is key, ask questions, read about culturally responsive evaluation and culturally responsive teaching and really ask your district and your teachers and your schools, school principals, to support this work because all of our children have value and they deserve to have a champion in their life. Like I try to champion on our campus for all of our children here at the margins, but also to really advocate in this space for what is right, and what is just. 

Emma Atkinson (14:39): 

A big thanks to our guest, Maria del Carmen Salazar, who is the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and DEIJ at the University of Denver’s Morgridge College of Education. More information on her work, including her keynote address all about humanizing education at DU’s last Provost Conference, is available in the show notes.  

If you enjoyed this episode, I encourage you to subscribe to the podcast on Apple Music or Spotify—and if you really liked it, leave us a review and rate our work. It really helps us reach a larger audience—and grow the pod.  

Joy Hamilton is our managing editor. Madeleine Lebovic is our production assistant and James Swearingen arranged our theme. I'm Emma Atkinson, and this is RadioEd. 

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