William Anderson meets all the requirements of teaching each day but it’s the stuff that isn’t in the teaching handbook that makes the most difference.
Anderson says that to be a great teacher, one has to find out what is important to each student in their lives outside the classroom.
“A student whose mom or dad are addicted to drugs, a student who goes home and the lights are out or there’s no heat or there’s no food, they don’t care about high stakes testing, they don’t care about trying to get to college, they don’t care about the diploma,” Anderson says.
Anderson says that talking with a student about their issues makes all the difference. He likes to remind students they are strong, telling them “that you are standing here in front of me is a testament in itself to your strength.”
This method is called culturally-responsive teaching and is comprised of four elements: Building relationships, promoting resilience and making lessons rigorous and relevant.
A peek into Anderson’s classroom shows how he cultivates these tenets of culturally-responsive teaching.
He moves around a lot, makes the students laugh, asks the kids for their opinions.
Anderson is what researchers call a “warm demander” -- tough and disciplined but strongly identifying with his students.
Before even getting into academics, Anderson tells students about attending his great-grandfather’s funeral and lays out a visceral picture of the poverty in his hometown.
By sharing details about his own life, and asking them what is going on in theirs, he’s building relationships that researchers say are particularly important to students of color.
Anderson builds resilience by praising students for their work despite all of the challenges waiting for them at home.
Once students are engaged, Anderson demonstrates relevance and rigor by challenging the students to think deeply and showing them how subjects in school matter in their lives.
For example, in one lesson, Anderson played excerpts from a speech by Black Panther Huey Newton to get students talking about how they feel being black in America today.
“We see nobody who has a background similar to ours,” Anderson says. “And Huey [Newton] felt that same pressure, that same pain growing up. And I had that in me too growing up.”
Even though Anderson has such direct experience to talk to his students of color about, he insist it’s not because he black that he’s connecting to his students. He says the techniques he uses would work for any teacher, and to that end he trains his colleagues at Martin Luther King Jr. Early College High School in Denver.