African American Classrooms: Leveraging Student Values in Creating a Positive Classroom Culture


We often impose classroom rules with the “why” steeped in productivity. For example, “You can’t listen to music during independent work time because it might distract you from your work”. However, our scholars bring values and beliefs to the classroom that impact how closely they adhere to those rules. Culturally relevant education takes those values and beliefs into consideration as instructional strategies and teaching practices are selected. We can and should use our scholars’  values and beliefs to create a classroom culture that is willingly supported by all students. When we have an understanding of what children value and believe to be good, we have a better chance of leveraging those beliefs to create welcoming spaces for our scholars. We can depend less on coercive and extrinsic ways of managing student behavior and engagement, and instead rely more heavily on shared agreements and mutual respect. For example, if we know that our students value supporting others with special needs as well as value contributing to the success of a group, we might get less pushback against the “no headphones rule” if we frame it by pointing out that, “Some of our classmates find it a challenge to focus when there is background noise and we want to make sure we have an environment that is conducive to learning for everyone, especially if we want to reach that collective goal of 100% of us meeting our Growth Goals.”  Attention to what matters to scholars moves us closer to reaching and engaging Every Student, Every Day.

According to the article Black Cultural Strengths and Psychosocial Well-Being: An Empirical Analysis With Black American Adults, African Americans have retained the values of their ancestors and have developed culturally-specific practices that support resilience and positive psycho-social health. A value that has the potential to have a very strong impact on classroom functioning is the common African American value of communalism, the belief that the fate of the collective is more important than the individual. This belief stems from a more ancient concept, ubuntu, which is an African term that means, “I am because we are”. Communalism includes the “sanctity of social bonds” and “sharing and contributing in support of the group” (Graymon & Simpson, 2017). In the case of the headphones, in an African American classroom, it might be very impactful to tie classroom volume to caring for one another and reaching a collective goal.

While hosting a No-Nonsense Nurturer Workshop, I shared with participants that CT3 Education promotes the use of group incentives. I explained that we start with class-wide incentives, not individual, because they give the group an opportunity to earn something together. I said that creating a team or family approach to goal attainment helps create a culture of belonging and purpose. One of the workshop participants offered pushback. She said that she has experienced a decrease in off-task behavior when she held the classroom to collective punishment instead. She noted that when she threatened the class with no recess if there was too much talking during the lesson, she noticed students correcting each others’ behavior and less talking. I asked her how fair she thought it would be, and what she thought the response would be from the faculty and staff, if administrators decided to dock the pay of everyone each time an employee was late. I also asked what impact she thought it would have on staff morale and the culture and climate of the school. I believe my point hit home.

There are a number of classroom practices promoted by CT3 Education that support values that researchers have identified as high-priorities of African Americans.  Among those practices are the use of group incentives and the regular provision of relationship building experiences:


Described as an alternative to rewards, which can be offered haphazardly and not stated beforehand, incentives are tied to academic and/or behavioral expectations that are pre-established with students.

It has been found that providing group incentives:

  • Improves our relationships with scholars
  • Builds classroom culture
  • Inspires positive choices 
  • Increases on task behavior
  • Deconstructs favoritism

Tips for implementation:

  • Keep it simple
  • Collaborate with scholars to choose the incentives
  • Keep it low or no cost: PBIS Rewards List
  • Teach beforehand
  • Make it point-based
  • Customize based on student interests and age
  • Be consistent
  • Be equitable


It has been found that when students and teachers have strong relationships the students are more likely to:

  •  Seek assistance when needed 
  • Behave better in class
  • Engage more deeply in learning 
  • Have higher achievement
  • Have a more enjoyable learning experience
  • Have teachers who know what motivates, concerns and is relevant to each student

Tips for implementation:

  • Find formal and informal ways of getting to know students
  • Make sure students can get in touch with you
  • Consider their personal needs
  • Apologize when you make a mistake
  • Take interest in their interests and activities
  • Build a relationship with the students’ family leaders
  • Share your interests and activities with your students


Engaging every student every day in meaningful experiences and in an environment that affirms their humanity has been proven possible time and again in schools across the country, from Oakland to Brooklyn, New Orleans to Chicago. Data shows that implementing CT3 Education strategies not only leads to increased student engagement, but also increased achievement. 

Check out CT3 Education programs such as the No-Nonsense Nurturer Workshop; Real Time Teacher Coaching; Real Time Leadership Coaching; and Online Learning to experience the growth our partner districts, schools, leaders and thereby students have experienced.

Johnson, V. E., & Carter, R. T. (2020). Black Cultural Strengths and Psychosocial Well-Being: An Empirical Analysis With Black American Adults. Journal of Black Psychology, 46(1), 55-89.

Grayman-Simpson, N. & Mattis, J. (2017). Communalism Scale Cultural Validity Study. Journal of Pan African Studies, 10, 127-135


By: Makita Kheperu, Ed.D, CT3 Associate