Cultivating a Learning Culture: Investing in Students Means Investing in Teachers

Written By: Kerry Soo Von Esch, Ph.D.
Dr. Kerry Soo Von Esch is an Associate Professor in the College of Education at Seattle University. Both her teaching and research focus on (1) preparing culturally, linguistically, and socially just teachers for multilingual students; (2) school- and classroom-embedded professional learning; and (3) teacher education focused on critical, culturally sustaining and linguistically responsive pedagogies. Her work has been published in journals such as Journal of Teacher Education, The Elementary School Journal, and AERA Open.

When we reflect on our time in school, we often say things like, “I remember my first grade teacher made me feel I was an important part of the classroom;” “My third grade teacher really helped me love math because we did these fun math problems with my friends;” or “I remember my sixth grade teacher because she never gave up on me, and would always spend extra time helping me at recess and after school.” These memories are just a few of thousands, and more likely millions of stories of teachers creating belonging, building learning spaces that allow us to explore, and caring for everyone in the room. Our teachers are THE most pivotal part of our schooling experiences because they care about their students’ growth and development as whole human beings, and instill in them processes of lifelong learning. To invest in students, then, we must invest in teachers.

Centering students in their own learning

The number one reason that teachers say they go into (and stay in) education are students. In the Jesuit tradition that we draw upon at Seattle University, being “student-centered” means “educating the whole person” – attending to students’ identities and spiritual and emotional growth alongside knowledge and skills. Seattle University takes “educating the whole person” further in its mission with its goal of fostering a “more just and humane world.” These tenets align with what has been called culturally responsive (or sometimes called “sustaining”) instruction, a student-centered approach where education, curriculum, and pedagogy (1) reflect the cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity of the students; (2) attend to students’ identities and socio-emotional growth; (3) engage the students in learning activities and opportunities that are relevant to the students and how they learn; and (4) empower students with the skills and knowledge to challenge inequities and lead successful lives.

Jeff, one of the math fellows in the LEN, embodies a student-centered approach to teaching in his math instruction, beginning and ending with students’ ideas and reasoning. “[I] just listen to the kids and respond to what they’re saying and build on their responses. And not necessarily going with any sort of script but in knowing the trajectory of how to get the kids ready to go. I know some of the different paths we can take…You don’t want to do the work for the students, but you want to put them in position where they have access to do it themselves…it’s about how can you intentionally use your knowledge of the content to scaffold and to put the onus back on the students to put students in situations where they are learning from each other.” Jeff  addresses key elements of student-centered pedagogy: knowing who your students are, where they are in their learning, where they need to go, and using knowledge of content and pedagogy to build both students’ knowledge and skills to actively participate in their own learning. Jeff is careful here to structure math learning opportunities for students so that the students are engaging in the math work as opposed to being told “how to do it.”

Teachers, like Jeff skilled in culturally responsive, student-centered teaching and learning consistently engage questions when introducing or reinforcing math concepts like the ones below from Zavala and Aguirre’s Culturally Responsive Mathematics Teaching Tool & Rubric.

  • How does my lesson help students connect mathematics with relevant/authentic issues or situations in their lives?
  • How does my lesson create opportunities to elicit, express, and build on student mathematical thinking in multiple ways? (e.g., through gesture, pictures, words, etc)
  • How does my lesson enable all my students to closely explore and analyze math concepts(s), procedure(s), and problem-solving/reasoning strategies?
  • How does my lesson support student use of mathematics to analyze, critique, and address power relationships and injustice in their lives (economic, social, racial, environmental, legal, political, patriarchal)?

Engaging in these deep questions requires that we shift our thinking of teacher professional development from “giving knowledge” to teachers to engaging teachers in sustained, ongoing, and active learning work of teaching and learning mathematics embedded in the teachers’ classrooms and schools and centered on the students they are teaching in their classroom.

Reframing teacher “professional development:” Investing in teacher professional learning, not just curriculum

Teachers are, above all, knowledgeable and trained professionals who regularly navigate complex spaces while encouraging learning, regularly adapt their classroom based on current events and students, and serve as a communication hub to families. So, investing in their professional learning requires teacher training and opportunities that help strengthen and grow their practice not just how to implement a curriculum. The investment is in the professional knowledge, skills, and dispositions teachers need in order to adapt curriculum and pedagogy to the strengths and needs of their students. Jeff explains the difference between professional development focused on student-centered math instruction and professional development focused on teaching curriculum, “Math is all around us, it is in every moment of the school day. And if we as teachers can pluck out these moments of math better in the kids school day, and make it relevant [and] exciting for the students, that in itself will just go a long way. The first grade curriculum has me relying on a textbook where they (students) open up, and you know they show the idea of part part whole with…here are six flowers three are red and two or three are blue. [There are more] effective ways to bring up the idea that any whole can be broken into parts…And that’s not just rely on this little textbook – these flat images, with no relevancy.

Professional development becomes professional learning

Professional development becomes professional learning  where all educators and administrators engage in understanding their students holistically, where reflection and analysis happens regularly, and where, through highly collaborative spaces. A place where learning happens through trying out different ways to connect with and build on their students’ identities, experiences, cultures, and languages to further student learning and success. Jeff describes an example of effective professional learning and support that centers student learning, reflecting that it “wasn’t, ‘Here’s a script…It was very much intentional about – specific to the needs [of the students]…with some freedom and flexibility about how I wanted to present [the concepts to students]…Then every month, we had a math lab or literacy lab where we really delved into the upcoming unit to equip teachers with understanding the content versus giving them just a curriculum.

Developing a culture of learning, where teachers, administrators and staff share ideas and knowledge, however, takes time. We need to shift our stance from evaluating teaching to inquiry into what works for the students in the teachers’ classrooms. This culture shift requires trust among for teachers to open their classrooms to each other; ample time, structures, and supports for teachers to reflect on their instructional practice and deepen their pedagogical knowledge and skills; and empowering teachers to focus their collaboration time with each other on their work with their students.

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Jeff showing math
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