Culturally Responsive Recruiting Requires Woke and WORK. Are you ready?


TeachersWanted2The data, the research, the demographics are all staggering and compelling. But none more so than the actual experiences of teachers of color as they are sought after (and sometimes fought over) to come to every district in America to increase the diversity to reflect the population of students in the classroom. Sound familiar? It’s in almost every strategic diversity recruitment plan that I’ve reviewed in my 25+ years in education. But are school districts ready to rethink how they recruit teachers of color? I really like this quote from Steve Robbins’ book, What If?…”Taking steps to create a diverse workforce is one thing. Doing away with old structures and traditional methods so that a diverse workforce can excel is quite another”. Therein lies the issue: we want all the black and brown teachers we can get but we’re not willing to wake up and do the WORK necessary to create the space and change the institutional practices and traditions that have implicitly and sometimes explicitly marginalized teachers of color. Given the heavy lift of being woke and doing the WORK of culturally responsive recruiting, superintendents, executive, HR, and talent management staff, and institutions of higher education have to ask, are we ready?

Let’s talk about the concept of being ‘woke’. It’s a term that has been urbanized to mean being aware, and “knowing what’s going on in the community.”(Urban Dictionary). According to Merriam Webster, “Woke is increasingly used as a byword for social awareness”. To be ‘woke’ also means to have a clear, intuitive understanding of society from a racialized perspective. It’s recognizing that people of color are treated differently, marginalized, and are often viewed from a deficit perspective. So how does this impact recruiting teachers of color? WAKE UP!! (In my Dap from School Daze voice).  It means that HR professionals need to be very cognizant of how they engage candidates of color through social awareness, language, examples, strategies, and stories to attract them to a district. And it’s not just the teachers asking for the wokeness, it’s students too.  When providing advice to educators in Tennessee a group of students from Freedom Prep cited being human, expecting excellence, and being woke as keys to success for new teachers (Chalkbeat June 15, 2018).

Culturally responsive recruiting is recognizing that good is a relative term derived from and defined using a dominant (European American) cultural standard so what may be a good recruitment strategy for the 82% of white teachers in America does not work for the dwindling number of teachers of color especially when culture and heritage are not prioritized. Notice I did not say race but culture. This includes cultural orientations that account for things such as collectivism, the importance of relationships, spirituality, family, views of the world and society and certainly how these views impact people of color now more than ever (Hammond, 2015). It means being able and prepared to discuss your district’s position on immigration, racial equity, racial justice, structural racism, institutional racism, racial profiling, bullying, and white privilege, as well as how it addresses hate crimes, how families are defined ( i.e. multigenerational, same sex, non-related) and even how one’s locs, braids, or TWA (not the airlines)  might be perceived.

So next is the WORK Willingness, Opportunity, Relationship/Responsiveness and Knowledge.


  • Culturally responsive recruiting demands a willingness to create a district, school, and classroom climate that extends beyond tolerance and welcoming teachers of color but it recognizes and interrupts with intentionality the structures that have traditionally led teachers of color right out the door.  That being said, a school district, like Montgomery County Public Schools, MD with the resolve to have an Equity Initiatives Unit committed to advancing racial justice and interrupting systems of oppression should be elevated, touted, shouted, promoted, championed, Tweeted, you name it!


  • Teachers of color, as with students of color, want to know that they truly have a fair shot. The opportunities that are presented to both groups need to be authentic and they need to capitalize on the strengths of individuals of color. We often bring bilingualism, biculturalism, multiple worldviews and perspectives that benefit all students and staff. When advertising for diverse candidates be ready to engage, share and immersed in diverse racial and cultural experiences.

Relationship/Responsiveness (Both are essential so I’m doing a 2 for 1)

  • With relationships it’s simple – be responsive (i.e. quick and positive), from the get go. With culturally responsive recruiting you build relationships not just with the candidates but with the community or institution from which you are recruiting the candidates. If you’re participating in a recruitment fair at a minority serving institution (MSI), know the history of the institution. Most graduates of MSI’s take great pride in their schools. Study the alumni and student newsletters, follow the school and education departments on social media, be comfortable enough and confident enough to share how your district creates, nurtures, prioritizes, and sustains community for candidates of color through strong relationships and how you are intentional in allowing this type of community to flourish.


  • It’s said that “You can’t teach what you don’t know. And you can’t lead where you don’t go”. My spin on that Jesse Jackson quote is “You can’t recruit whom you don’t know and you can’t recruit them from where you won’t go”. There is much to be gained by learning more about the educators you are targeting in that strategic diversity recruitment plan. First, set those assumptions and biases aside and get to know from a racial, cultural, and personal perspective educators of color up close. With everything happening in our mixed up socio-political stuff, current and aspiring educators of color are ready for school districts, school leaders, human resource leaders, and other staff to have conversations that interrupt systems of bias, oppression, and inequities. Second, as you engage and sustain those conversations, be smart enough and sincere enough to use language that speaks to the value of the educators you are recruiting. I’m not talking about verbal language exclusively although that is critical. I’m also referring to the non-verbal language. When prospective educators follow your Twitter feed, FaceBook page, and other social media platforms is there clear evidence that the district is one that is welcoming? Are there affinity groups that provide support, professional learning, camaraderie, leadership development, and fellowship like the BOND Project in Montgomery County Public Schools and The Fellowship in Philadelphia? Does your district have a Board policy that focuses on racial equity as does Saint Paul Public Schools?  Finally, as I mentioned, people of color are relational. The professionals that you are trying to recruit want to be seen, respected and treated as smart, committed, innovative, caring, cultural and racial individuals. Again, “You can’t recruit whom you don’t know and you can’t recruit them from where you won’t go”. Teachers of color are out there ready to connect and make a difference in districts that are ready to know and go.

So if you’re ready, and I mean really ready, stay woke and get to WORK!Inger

Passionate about teaching and education, Dr. Inger Swimpson has been an educator for over 25 years with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). She has served in a number of capacities including middle school science teacher, team leader, and department chair. Her progressive leadership roles include: instructional specialist, equity specialist, Supervisor, Staff Development Programs, Director, Certification and Staffing, Director, Talent Acquisition. She currently serves as executive director in the Office of School Support and Improvement. One of Dr. Swimpson’s most gratifying professional accomplishment lies in the establishment of the BOND (Building Our Network of Diversity) Project, a networking, leadership, mentorship, and fellowship program created for African American and Latino male educators in MCPS.




Room 229: Intro to Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy. 


David (name has been changed) started running. Fast. He ran down the hall, down the stairs and stopped at the exit door. He paused, looked at the door and started running again down the hall. He had thrown objects at staff minutes beforehand. My limited Spanish did not break his stride. One of our paraeducators stopped David in his tracks with the soothing sounds of his native language, his mother’s language. After a few minutes of conversation, David took her hand and walked toward class. I thought about his story and how that story was becoming a common place narrative in our schools today.

Recent headlines from The Washington Post such as “Officials defend ICE raids that seized parents”  Friday, August 9, 2019 and “ICE raids target workers, but few companies are charged” Saturday, August 10, 2019 further underscore the urgency for professional educators to become versed in trauma sensitive pedagogy. These are the realities many of our students are living on a daily basis. We may read headlines and talk about their impact with our colleagues and loved ones, but for our families, these headlines are their kitchen table discussions every day and night. Bearing this emotional weight on their shoulders, our students come into our buildings every morning. How do we ensure we are meeting their needs, where they are, not where we think they are, based on our previous learning. Today’s political climate has forced these realities into our buildings vicariously through the families we serve. 

Bruce Lee, the martial artist/movie star/philosopher, was many things to a lot of people. He was always a student first. He was fond of re-telling the Buddist tale of The Empty Cup. The Empty Cup referred to one’s ability to learn. Long ago, a prospective Zen student asked a Zen master to teach him. As the Zen master started teaching, the student kept interrupting the Zen master with his own experiences and prior learning. Finally, the Zen master reached for the tea pot and offered to pour some tea. The Zen master kept pouring the tea until the student’s cup was overflowing. The student asked why he kept pouring even when there was no room left in the cup. The Zen master replied that the usefulness of a cup is in its emptiness. Only then can one fill their cup with new learning. One must empty their cup to be able to receive new learning. Trauma sensitive pedagogy was my new learning. 

Trauma sensitive pedagogy is an instructional framework for young students that is grounded in a developmental perspective that focuses on learning. Trauma sensitive pedagogy focuses on instructional strategies that seek to improve academic and social outcomes for children with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES). Children with an ACES background are not new to professional educators, however an organized framework of research based instructional practices developed for our most vulnerable learners is most certainly new learning for their cups. Trauma informed practitioners are attuned to the importance of a student’s social-emotional learning in addition to the academic learning. Sometimes, the former will outweigh the latter. 

Last summer, the University of Maryland, in partnership with Penn State University, partnered with a group of ten educators from New Hampshire Estates Elementary School to launch a trauma informed pedagogy pilot project. New Hampshire Estates Elementary School is a Title I primary school in the Montgomery County Public Schools system in Maryland. We serve about 475 students. We are about 75% Latino, 67% of our students are learning English as a second language (ESOL) and we are 90% free and reduced meals (FARMS). Ten staff members from New Hampshire Estates volunteered for this project. The staff members included in this pilot project were a diverse mix of ethnicities and job descriptions. We had a team of classroom teachers, ESOL teachers, counselors, paraeducators, administrators and a therapist from our Linkages to Learning program that comprised our cohort. 

Dr. Christy Tirell-Corbin, University of Maryland, Dr. Carlo Panillo (Pennsylvania State University) and their team of graduate assistants, led our learning in the summer of 2019. We began to learn about the effects of chronic and acute trauma and the differences between them. We discussed cases studies and we also talked about David’s story and how his trauma has prevented him from being available for learning. Corbin and Panillo instructed us to identify a problem of practice. Through their guidance, we identified our problem of practice and drilled down to an actionable goal. Our goal would be to increase access to high quality, trauma informed support structures for our students, families and staff. We identified a primary driver of building a supportive community and three secondary drivers of staff, students and families. In subsequent meetings, the team discussed models and programs that would act as change agents to reach our stated goal. Some of these identified changes were in place or in various phases of development. We identified the supports we currently have in place at NHE such as: Linkages to Learning, counseling lessons, mentor programs, Principal Parent Coffees, Family Learning Nights and our new Watch D.O.G.S. program. We also continued our commitment to provide a calm, caring and predictable environment for our students.

David and his family made the trek from El Salvador to the U.S.-Mexico border. The journey took five months across unforgiving desert and other unnamed traumas. They were detained at the border and David’s father was sent back. David and his mother were housed in a cage. They were released and struggled to find their footing in Houston, TX. It was here that David suffered a head injury when he was placed head first in a large trash bag, closed it and swept him up in a violent manner, making him hit his head on the concrete floor. David and his mother fled to New York and stayed for a few months until they moved again, this time to our school community. David is five years old. He is a bright and curious Kindergarten student. At first, he positively responded to only Spanish speaking staff. Presently, at times, he has responded to relationships before hearing his native language. However, he has also exhibited unsafe and violent behaviors that make him unavailable for any social or academic learning. He is constantly living in an amygdala hijack. Our trauma team leaned forward and emptied our cups.

We also learned about secondary trauma. According to the American Counseling Association,  “Teachers, who are directly exposed to a large number of young people with trauma in their work, a secondary type of trauma, known as vicarious trauma, is a big risk. Sometimes called the “cost of caring,” vicarious trauma can result from “hearing people’s trauma stories and becoming witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured”. (Christos, Immigration Concerns, presentation 8/27/19). Left unchecked, secondary trauma can adversely affect one’s work and home lives. School leadership would be well advised to build structures to support staff such as the Tap In/Tap Out strategy or staff social times. Tap In/Tap Out works when a staff member needs a few minutes in private before they return to their work. Staff have previously set up a Tap In/Tap Out buddy and use it when warranted. I talk to my staff constantly about the importance of self care. You can’t effectively build relationships and teach students if you haven’t taken care of your home life first. 

My learning about trauma sensitive pedagogy was made possible through our collaboration with each other. My writing is a product of those summer hours learning together in room 229. Our work will help us become trauma informed practitioners who will develop and implement research based instructional strategies in the classrooms. Staff members who are cognizant of the impact trauma has on our students and have a grounding in trauma sensitive pedagogy, are better equipped to support and teach our most vulnerable learners like David in our schools.


The 2019-2020 NHE Trauma Cohort: Jennifer Baah (ESOL), Vicky Christos (ESOL -team leader), Hannah Franklin-Gillette (Grade 2 teacher), Janel Frazier (Grade 1 teacher -team leader), Lillian Fulcher (Math Focus Paraeducator), Robert Geiger (Principal), Ellie Kleinman (Counselor), Jacquelin Marquez (Therapist), Alison Reside (Special Education teacher -team leader), Thomas Ryan (Assistant Principal)

Special Thanks to Dr. Christy Tirell-Corbin, University of Maryland and Dr. Carlo Panillo (Pennsylvania State University) for their leadership during this pilot project.


Thomas N. Ryan serves as an assistant principal in Montgomery County Public Schools and is a member of the BOND Leadership Team. He believes in equitable access for all students and fostering a culture of curiosity and respect. He is also a life-long learner. You can follow him on Twitter @ThomasNRyan



Do you have an Equity Mindset?

Screenshot_20190907-222548_Photo EditorAs educators, we approach every school year with the desire to be our very best. When thinking of our profession, we understand that it is never static and there are new experiences preparing to greet us daily.  As a new member of the Equity Initiatives Unit, I’m entering this school year with the same enthusiasm that I had while a counselor at Montgomery Blair High School. Although I will miss regularly seeing 3000 plus students, working in equity with the task of sharing this important work with others is equally exciting, dynamic, and rewarding. The quest for continual improvement in philosophy and practice around cultural awareness, human engagement, and most importantly, their impact on student’s social emotional learning is still at the forefront of my work.

This feeling of ambitious optimism reminds me of many conversations that I have had about growth mindsets. Just as we encourage students to have a growth mindset, what if educators headed into the year with an Equity Mindset?  I use this parallel because we love students who have a growth mindset. We appreciate those who are able to see failure as an opportunity to learn and develop new ways of doing things. In our eyes, these risk takers are all about growth and are the opposite of fixed mindset types that measure success by someone else’s standards or give up when they encounter obstacles or resistance. Just as we desire our students to constantly seek learning and development, I encourage us all to begin/continue a growth mindset around equity.

In its simplest form, equity is about fairness and is a practice where everyone’s contributions matter. We must engage our equity mindset when there are opportunities to counter and interrupt the bias that we all deal with. We must consider our equity journey as we explore new ways to be welcoming and innovative in the spaces where we work with students and families. We must also reflect on equity and stand courageous in disrupting institutional and curricular practices that don’t allow us to operate outside the status quo or bring in student voice and cultural experiences. 

I once heard someone say that education is a revolutionary act. I tend to agree. In order for us to help students to be the best, healthiest, and most curious critical thinkers they can be, our practice has to be equity centered and forward leaning. In the long run, our society will be better as a result of our individual equity journeys.


Daryl Howard, Ph.D. is an Equity Specialist and BOND Project Leadership Team member in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Howard’s academic interests include social emotional learning and the study of race equity in education. Howard’s book is entitled Complex People: Insights at the Intersection of Black Culture and American Social Life (HUE Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @darylhowardphd.

Creating a “Farm” System for Teachers of Color: Grow Your Own Program

IMG_20190406_133301Research has shown that a concerted effort to recruit teachers of color has been difficult nationwide (D’amico, Pawlewicz, Earley, & McGeehan, 2017). Some studies suggest that Black and Hispanic students have been turned off by entering the teaching profession due to the fact that many have had poor experiences in underperforming schools (Madkins, 2011). Those who do make their way to college look for careers that offer more money and prestige. District recruitment cycles are not enough to improve teacher diversity. An intervention has to be put in place that monitors the number of teachers of color (TOCs) that are being recruited, hired, retained, and that are leaving the profession. 

Based on a 2014 study by the Albert Shanker Institute (ASI), researchers found that TOCs work better with minority students. It was found that TOCs have higher expectations for minority students, and those students benefit from having teachers from their own racial group who understand their cultural backgrounds (ASI, 2014). The study also found that White students also benefit from having TOCs (ASI, 2014). The increase of minority students nationwide, has led to an increase in the number of minority teachers, but while the amount of Black and Hispanic teachers has grown over the last 25 years, the profession continues to remain predominantly White and female, regardless of whether the school is low-performing and high minority, or high-performing and low-minority (White, 2016). Unfortunately, one of the problems encountered is that there is an uneven distribution of TOCs across public schools (White, 2016). Most of these teachers can often be found in high-poverty, high-minority schools (ASI, 2016; White, 2016). The added stress placed on these low-performing schools to succeed, in many cases leads to these teachers, like all teachers, to have a higher rate of attrition due to a lack of professional autonomy, and lack of administrative support (ASI, 2016).

In Major League Baseball, teams have a system established to provide young players with training on how to properly play the game and learn the team’s philosophy and culture. The hope is that one day, these players will be “called up” to play and contribute to the parent team. In education, namely teacher preparation, there are similar programs and systems in place where high school students can learn the ins and outs of the teaching profession within the district they attend with the hopes of one day teaching in their home district.

Grow your Own (GYO) programs have been used to recruit future teachers in Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Washington, and Wisconsin. These program are not only important in addressing teacher turnover and attrition, but also the lack of diversity that exists in many school districts. Under the previous MCPS superintendent, Dr. Joshua Starr, it was suggested that MCPS create a teacher “pipeline program” in which the district can guide MCPS graduates into the teaching profession (Starr, 2014). These programs are instituted through university partnerships while students are still in high school, and for those who choose to major in education as undergraduates. Students take education courses in high school and are mentored by staff members.

Several universities and community colleges in Maryland teamed up to create the Teacher Academy of Maryland (TAM). TAM is a program to addresses the teacher shortage by creating a pipeline of teacher candidates from grades 6-12 through partnerships with those schools (Towson, 2009). In Howard County, Maryland, the district has an initiative with Howard Community College in which high school students can take the ParaPro exam, which qualifies them to be instructional assistants when they graduate high school. Baltimore County Public Schools, Charles County Public Schools, Carroll County Public Schools, and Frederick County Public Schools also have instituted the Teacher Academy of Maryland GYO program for their high school students.

With mentorships like the BOND project helping male TOCs in MCPS, the reach of the program would go even further when we are able to teach, mentor, and provide support to our own students of color to become future educators. The data shows that Black male teachers represent only 3.7 percent of teachers in Maryland public schools. Nationally, Black males make up less than 2 percent of the nation’s teacher workforce (Hawkins, 2015). A GYO program would give the district the opportunity to partner with local universities to train students while in high school and provide an opportunity to get college credits toward getting teacher certification. If implemented in all schools, but especially those with high minority populations, GYO programs can be a step to creating a foundation towards increasing the minority teacher recruiting process.

Over the last few years, I have had the opportunity to teach alongside former students and to support those students who are now teaching within the county and within the greater Washington DC area. With several high school in the district offering specialty programs, why not develop and offer a teacher training program to attract and retain our best and our brightest students? By instituting a GYO program, MCPS can create a “farm” system and a steady stream of TOC for years to come.


Albert Shanker Institute. (2016, January 16). The State of Teacher Diversity in American

Education (Rep.). Retrieved from

D’amico, D., Pawlewicz, R. J., Earley, P. M., & McGeehan, A. P. (2017). Where are all the black teachers? Discrimination in the teacher labor market. Harvard Educational Review, 87(1), 26-49. doi:10.17763/1943-5045-87.1.26

Gershenson, S., Lindsay, C. A., Hart, C. M., & Papageorge, N. W. (2017, March). The long-run impacts of same-race teachers (Working paper No. 10630). Retrieved

Hawkins, B. D. (2015). Where are all the black male teachers? NEA Today. Retrieved from

Madkins, T. C. (2011). The black teacher shortage: A literature review of historical and contemporary trends. Journal of Negro Education, 80(3), 417-420.

Starr, J. P. (2014, December 9). Teacher Workforce Diversity Strategic Plan (Rep.). Retrieved

Towson University. (2009). Teacher Academy of Maryland. Retrieved December 10, 2016, from

White, T. (2016). Teach for America’s paradoxical diversity initiative: Race, policy, and black teacher displacement in urban public schools. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 24(16), 1-41.


John Howard, Ed.D., is a Consulting Teacher and BOND Project member in Montgomery County, Maryland.  Dr. Howard is the former English department chair at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Howard has taught previously in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, and Durham County Public Schools in North Carolina. Dr. Howard’s academic interests include the value of teacher credentials in the screening and selection of teacher candidates. Follow him on twitter @Scribe616

Side by Side: The Power of Reading & Relationships for Latino Boys


In a hushed tone, I heard “Mr. Ryan, can I read this book again?” The junior from Montgomery Blair high school showed me a white hardcover book titled Guatemala. He had selected it from our elementary school library. The week before, he and his second grade mentee read it together.I noticed then the curiosity and questions coming from two male students of color while they read an informational text they had selected together. “Of course, learning about history is pretty cool,” I said. The high school junior sat next to his mentee, who was reading a different book this week, and they commenced reading silently, side by side in our media center.

Five years ago, a colleague presented an idea to me. She knew I was already running a mentoring program for our second grade boys. Her idea was to partner our students with high school mentors who looked like our students. The idea took off. I reached out to our neighborhood high school, Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Maryland. The NHE-Blair Mentoring Program was successful that year and in subsequent years has grown. The core of the program has stayed the same: Male students (mostly of color) reading together and learning through play.

Our student body at New Hampshire Estates elementary school is about 75% Latino with a Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) rate of 85%. We are an immigrant community where we are busy preparing our young scholars to be successful global citizens. Our student’s literacy data leads their peers in multiple measures around Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). However, our students are not always afforded favorable expectations from society due to what they look like or what zip code they come from. False assumptions are easily placed upon them such as ”This text may be too challenging for them,” or later in life when they are just walking home from the store wearing a hoodie.

MCPS superintendent, Dr. Jack Smith, is fond of saying “access precedes achievement”. Culturally responsive educators know this to be true. There has also been documented research that male students do not typically want to read for pleasure. Dr. Paula Schwanenflugel and Dr. Nancy Flanagan wrote in the April 2018 edition of Psychology Today

On Scholastic’s 2016 survey of over 2000 U.S. children, ages 6-17, only 52% of boys (versus 72% of girls) said they liked reading books over the summer, while only 27% of boys (versus 37% of girls) said they read books for fun at least 5 days a week.  Forty-five percent of boys (versus only 36% of girls) said they often have trouble finding books they like”. Both authors also cite the 2016 Pew Research Center survey of adult reading habits. This study concluded that “women are more likely to read books than men,” and noted that 32% of men (versus only 23% of women) surveyed said that they hadn’t read a single book in the past year. (Psychology Today, Schwanenflugel and Flanagan Knapp, April 2018.

The NHE-Blair Mentoring Program has two parts. The first part attempted to address the findings from Schwanenflugel and Flanagan’s research: getting our boys to want to read and to find pleasure in self-selecting what we call a just right book that is of interest to them. It does not matter if they wanted to read about ninjas, Batman, Cinderella or sharks. It did not matter if they read picture books, comic books or chapter books. We wanted our boys to find enjoyment in reading. The high school students would either read to their mentees or with them, side by side. Our thought was if our young male students saw high school male students who looked like them, reading with them or to them, reading overall might just secure a space in the childhood hall of fame. The high school students were not parents or teachers, they existed in that elementary stratosphere of older kid “coolness” that was bestowed upon them the minute you said “high school” to an eight year old. Even Christian, a second grader who had one of the toughest home lives I have seen in twenty three years in education, would eagerly await his high school mentor each week with a book he had already picked out for them to read together.

The second part of the NHE-Blair Mentoring Program centers on learning through play. It is not physical education class, a recreation league team or even a sports skills program. This part is more akin to playing in the park or backyard with an older brother or cousin. We usually play soccer or basketball. We start with practicing various skills with their mentor in a loose setting, then we usually run a backyard style pickup game with the mentors and mentees learning through play. As the adage goes,“You can learn more about a person’s character in an hour of play, than in a year of conversation”. Sportsmanship, teamwork and persistence are the common threads we emphasize during the athletic portion of our program.

Most of the male students in my program come recommended by staff as students who would benefit socially and/or academically from working with a positive male role model. This program also affords a positive school-based experience to our high school male students as well. Many of them have been or still are newcomers, an ESOL student or just a male student of color who needed positive school-based experiences. I smile every time I see the high school “cool” slip away as soon as a second grader runs up to them and they engage in their own special handshake. Phones rarely make an appearance.  

The high school student who had read Guatemala the previous week later told me he learned some new things about his country from that book. He even showed me a new book he picked out from the library on his own. It was another book about Guatemala. I remembered seeing the book full of maps. It struck me that the young man may have been born there, may have even been back, but he still wanted to learn about the landscape of his home country. The high schooler asked me if he could read that book with his mentee, even if it wasn’t from NHE’s media center. I smiled broadly recognizing that through reading and relationships we are deconstructing  a narrative that some may have for these young Latino scholars.


Thomas N. Ryan serves as an assistant principal in Montgomery County Public Schools and is a member of the BOND Leadership Team. He believes in equitable access for all students and fostering a culture of curiosity and respect. He is also a life-long learner. You can follow him on Twitter @ThomasNRyan


Pushed over The Edge: Maintaining One’s Motivation in the Craft of Teaching.


I’ve been in the classroom for 20 plus years and for much of that time I’ve been drowning in a sea of safety, comfort and familiarity.  Let me be clear, I’m passionate about education. Teaching is not just what I do but it’s who I am – to my core. However, this enduring love for my craft has led me to become complacent and quite frankly a little bored.  It’s like being in a long term relationship with someone you care for deeply, but you allow the fire and passion to die and begin taking that person for granted. This is never a good look for any type of relationship – particularly for an educator because so much depends on what we do. When we become stuck in our ways or unmotivated to innovate our pedagogy as the times and our students change, everyone pays the price. Our students disengage from the learning process because what and how we teach no longer applies to the way they live and learn outside of the classroom.  For us, contentment within the four walls of the classroom becomes tantamount to a slow and quiet professional death.

Within the last few years I’ve been gently nudged to expand my teaching and learning experiences beyond the classroom by a close network of my colleagues.  But it’s primarily my students that finally snuck up behind me and pushed me over the edge of complacency and out of my comfort zone. It was their boldness to challenge me to grow in ways that I had not imagined.   

It has always been important to me that students are able to apply the information that we learn in class to their lives outside of it.  Whenever possible, I try to make education “functional” for them. I’m cognizant that what we do in class should not always be an abstract intellectual exercise, prompting them to ask questions like, “why do I need to know this?” or “when will I ever use this stuff?” I’m not always successful, but the attempt is there.  I’ve worked hard over the years to strengthen my skills in developing a classroom culture where academic rigor, strong relationships and reflection are the norm. I encourage my students to find their voice and become agents in their lives in an effort to change society for the better, but more importantly, to not be afraid to change themselves.  The flip side of creating this type of environment is that students have become comfortable enough to ask me questions and challenge me about how I’m being a change agent outside of the four walls of my classroom. Their challenges are never hostile or confrontational, rather they’re more akin to encouragement and support, empowering me to share with the world what we do in the classroom. The practice of moving from theory to practical application, or like W.E.B Du Bois frames it – the theory of praxis, is so important in being an effective and accomplished educator.

As part of “escaping” the comfort of my classroom and taking on the challenges from my colleagues and students, I’ve delved into teacher leadership roles outside of the classroom and as a result I’ve not only deepened my understanding of the educational system but have had to reflect on my practices inside the classroom. For example, being a member of BOND to help recruit, develop and retain men of color in the classroom allows me to witness the systemic challenges institutions face to enhance their workforce.  Within the classroom I’ve designed and proposed new and innovative class offerings for our jurisdiction that is forcing me to reevaluate my pedagogy and the needs/interests of my students. Taking on these responsibilities in addition to my full-time teaching duties sounds like a heavy lift and it is. But I’ve never felt more alive in my professional life!

Teacher burnout is real and all the things that I’ve taken on sound like a recipe for disaster, but it’s the exact opposite.  These teacher leadership endeavors have ignited a renewed purpose as a professional educator and also provided me with an expanded vision of the possibilities that exist when I finally leave the classroom. I didn’t jump into these roles overnight.  I was thoughtful, intentional and patient as I entered each phase. I also connected with competent, passionate and supportive colleagues as I journeyed through each step. I can’t stress this enough, but finding and building your tribe is essential.    

Being a part of the leadership team of BOND is not only a part of my teacher leadership roles but they have also become part of my support network, my tribe.  There are other communities that I connect with that not only support my professional vision but that continue to challenge me to live beyond my comfort zone. Whenever I see signs of burnout in my talented colleagues, I encourage them to keep one foot in the classroom because our students deserve good teachers.  I also motivate them to become active members in the professional community and share their skills and experiences as teacher leaders in ways that will not only rejuvenate them but ultimately benefit their students.

For those of you that desire to remain in the classroom yet feel “stuck”, I challenge you to step to the outer limits of your comfort zone.  If someone from your tribe pushes you over the edge, trust that the net will appear. You will be all the better for it.

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Kenneth M. Smith  is a National Board Certified Teacher and a member of the BOND Project Leadership Team. Kenneth is passionate about inspiring students to become independent, lifelong learners as well as encouraging his fellow colleagues to engage in teacher leadership endeavors to impact change outside of the classroom. Follow Kenneth on Twitter @MrSmithInspires.

Back to the Fold: Re-engaging our most marginalized students.


Back to the Fold: Re-engaging our most marginalized students with culturally responsive and universally designed instruction.

“Mr. Culver, we like your class. You respect us. There’s really no excuse for failing your class. As long as you do the work, it’s easy.”

In a moment of uncharacteristic candor, one of my students — on this otherwise uneventful morning — took it upon herself to speak for her peers offering me some of the most insightful feedback of my teaching career. This particular student (while incredibly intelligent) has not demonstrated her academic prowess through the typical conventional measures. She is a student of color. Her attendance is inconsistent. She has repeated several courses due to failures. And let’s just say some staff in the building have not had the opportunity to experience the most pleasant aspects of her personality. All of these anecdotes paint a clear picture: she is one of the most promising students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching.

Our Students on the Margins

My time in the classroom has revealed several incontrovertible truths that I try to cherish as guiding principles. The one I that keep on the forefront of my mind the most? A student’s marginalization is neither a measure of his or her intelligence nor academic capability.  Further, for students who feel marginalized, we cannot help them unlock their full potential to achieve until we provide appropriate supports to address these feelings of alienation.

So what do we as teachers do to address this monumental challenge? How do we cut through all of the chatter regarding the supposed failure of public schools (and teachers) to equitably help all of our students? The data is clear. Students of color disproportionately perform lower on standardized measures of academic achievement. They also represent an uneven share of the chronic truancy, disciplinary interventions, and special education designations on record throughout public school systems across the nation. All of this data, of course, doesn’t reflect some innate difference in academic capability across different student demographic groups. Rather, these statistics reveal the results of decades of disenfranchisement and marginalization. Ultimately, it is an inconvenient truth that students of color comprise a disproportionate share of our most marginalized youth within our social institutions. Nonetheless, like my aforementioned student, when properly engaged these young prospects have the potential to display unique insight and leadership.

Our Role as Instructors and School Staff

While we as teachers, counselors, and administrators cannot single-handedly address the countless social conditions that sometimes drive our students to feel detached, there are certainly steps we can take within our classrooms and buildings to help our students feel less marginalized. For students to excel academically, they have to receive instruction and experiences that help them: (1) feel like they matter and (2) feel like they have tangible, sustained evidence of success. At a bare minimum, both of these needs must be sufficiently addressed to begin resolving our students’ feelings of estrangement. Culturally responsive teaching and universally designed instruction offer effective tools to address these student needs.

Creating a Culturally Relevant and Responsive Environment

I find that while the concept of culturally responsive teaching is one the most-circulated philosophies within urban public school settings in the past several years, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Undoubtedly, we need to create environments where our students feel seen and validated. However, our efforts at helping our students feel they are visible must extend beyond having ethnically diverse posters displayed in the classroom and non-Eurocentric names interspersed throughout our class assignments.

A truly culturally relevant and responsive classroom requires genuine fluency not just in the ethnic backgrounds of our students, but in youth culture more broadly. What topics are trending on Twitter this week? Who are the five top-charting musical artists this month? What movie trailers for upcoming releases are getting the most views? What YouTube personalities are receiving the most followers? While the thought of keeping up with such information — in addition to the ethnic practices, values, and cultural ways of our students’ families — may feel unnecessary to some of our colleagues, it is interest in these very details and their integration on a daily basis into the classroom that communicate “respect” to our students (and it is what drove my earlier mentioned student to feel comfortable sharing her impressions in class). Students who feel respected and validated will feel less withdrawn and take increased ownership in their learning.

Delivering Universally Designed Instruction

In all honesty, when we think about demonstrating mastery of state-mandated curricula on standardized assessments and understanding of core academic content, simply helping our students feel respected — in and of itself — isn’t going to get the job done. This is where universally designed instruction does the heavy lifting for motivating and engaging students. The philosophy of universal design has increasingly become a focus of specialized education pedagogy over the past two decades. However, it’s application is truly intended to apply to every classroom, regardless of student learning ability. In essence, every classroom should be universally designed so that any student, regardless of learning difference, may set foot in the room and receive all of the instructional differentiation, supports, and accommodations necessary to be successful. This approach not only allows students to receive instruction at a level where they can more readily see their own progress, but eliminates the need for tracking, which is one of the most transparent, marginalizing practices leaving our most vulnerable students feeling isolated. Students who receive instruction at a level that is individualized — and provides them with opportunities to demonstrate their learning in way that is tangible — will feel like there is a meaningful point to exerting effort in the classroom (and like my earlier mentioned student, will feel like as long as they apply themselves and “do the work” they will be successful).

Professional Development and Educational Leadership for the Future

So, yes let’s say for a moment that some of these interventions make sense and seem desirable in the classroom. How do teachers, who already feel like we have too much to do, actually go about infusing these practices in every classroom? Resources, professional development, and the space to experiment with these practices — backed by administrators and policymakers — offer a way forward. Teachers need sufficient professional development opportunities focused on culturally responsive teaching and universal design to master these new approaches. Additionally, instructional staff need opportunities to experiment with these practices without fear of criticism for not sufficiently delivering on learning objectives, progress checks, common writing/assessment tasks and the increasing myriad of evaluative tools mandated in the classroom. Such an approach will require a re-examination of priorities at the policy level that strikes a better balance between demonstrating effectiveness and building capacity. In the meantime, resources such as the Center for Applied Special Technology and the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning offer great supports for teachers looking for guidance. With the right priorities, we can transform our school buildings into places that pull our students back from the margins and help them see themselves as their own agents for change in their journeys toward success. I long for the day when all of our students feel the support and ownership to affirm that, when it comes to their success, there is “no excuse.”


Rahman A. Culver is a dual certified special education and secondary social studies teacher who also serves as a department chair at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County, MD. Culver has also worked as a teacher in Prince George’s County and as a manager in the DC nonprofit sector. Culver attended Montgomery County public schools for his entire childhood and is a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School.