ASCD Express: Teaching Teachers to Change the Discourse

We’re thrilled that “Teaching Teachers to Change the Discourse” by CT3 Associate Vynesha Johnson was published in the November 23, 2016 issue of ASCD Express.

As a CT3 associate working with school leaders across the country, I recently spoke with a school principal who shared a theme for an upcoming professional development day: How well do you really know your students? In just a few heartbeats, I was transported back to my own upbringing, and I considered how things might have been different if my teachers had asked how well they really knew me.

“Black Men Can’t Do Math”

Growing up in Alaska, I was accustomed to being one of only a few black students in my class each year. I often found myself advocating for the awareness of injustices occurring and sharing these delicate and sensitive situations with anyone who would listen. Here are a few examples.

  • My brother’s teacher told him, “Hey, you know how they say white men can’t jump? Well, black men can’t do math.”
  • My band teacher told me in 4th grade that “my lips were too big to play the flute” and “I should consider the clarinet or saxophone instead.”
  • An administrator suggested that I “wash my hair every day like she does” when I had to take swimming every day for nine weeks.

My overwhelming cry for support set off an alarm so loud that the school district took action. Our district held town hall meetings and facilitated discussions to give students a voice. We shared specific experiences that occurred with our teachers and administrators who were often oblivious to the fact that their actions and conversations were impeding the progress of student learning. As a result of that dialogue, our school implemented a cultural diversity program in which every student and teacher had to participate. The program created an awareness of cultural differences and prompted courageous conversations among students and teachers. It gave us all a platform to “get real” with each other about our differences. That’s when the shift happened.

A mindset is a set of beliefs or a way of thinking that determines one’s behavior, outlook, and mental attitude. We discovered that when teachers and students acknowledged their mindsets, it opened the door for authentic communication, which made it possible to demonstrate care.

Shift Mindsets Through Relationships

It’s important to note that teachers may be genuinely unaware of the mindsets they have about students, particularly those of other cultures. However, whether they’re aware of it or not, educators with these mindsets can disempower youth. This is why uncovering and shifting mindsets is central to CT3’s Real Time Teacher Coaching®. We work with teachers to help them do the following.

  • Earnestly listen when a student feels disrespected and take steps to make sure the student feels heard. We coach teachers to have restorative conversations and problem-solving conferences and push them to value student voice in the classroom.
  • Intentionally spend 1:1 time to connect with students, especially those that they may have a difficult time building an authentic connection with. We encourage teachers to learn about the interests and goals of their students and articulate their belief that students can achieve their goals.
  • Have and communicate high expectations for all students by establishing a strong, no-nonsense—yet nurturing—classroom culture.
  • Send strong, authentic messages of care to students and their families.

There are many factors that make building relationships challenging: race, gender, culture, economic status, and so on. These factors can negatively affect our mindsets about students. The only way to overcome this influence is by building solid relationships with students. As educators, we have a responsibility to stay in the conversation about race, culture, and biases because the deeper we get into that work, the more we learn about ourselves and each other. It’s okay to be transparent, voice your resistance, or be frank about the fears you may have. Ultimately, you’ve got to get real and acknowledge your own mindset and how it may hinder you from connecting with your students and creating a strong classroom culture.

Equity in Education Is a Civil Right

Now, more than any other time in history, someone of a different culture or race is educating black students. In fact, according to recent figures, white educators make up 82 percent of the teaching force, while black teachers make up only 7 percent (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Historically, it has been difficult for teachers teaching in communities unlike their own to recognize mindsets they may have of children of a different race. Whether we acknowledge our mindsets or not, they show up in our actions. That’s why culturally relevant professional development is so important.

Educators need the tools to reflect and deeply connect with students and their families. Change requires critical conversations—like the conversation that finally disrupted the not-so-subtle biases I experienced in my youth and the conversations I see leaders orchestrating every day in my work with CT3. Culturally relevant professional development helps educators “get real” and intentionally address education iniquity from the inside out.


U.S. Department of Education. (2016). The state of racial diversity in the educator workforce. Retrieved from

Vynesha Johnson is an associate for CT3 Education, an organization dedicated to supporting teachers and school leaders to become culturally relevant and build life-altering relationships with their students. (To learn more about the work CT3 is doing in schools, including No-Nonsense Nurturer®, Real Time Teacher Coaching, Real Time Leadership Coaching, and Schoolwide Culture Planning, visit She earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in teaching from Hampton University, along with a master’s endorsement in building leadership and administration from Oakland City University.

ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 6. Copyright 2016 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit
Category: Change, Culture, Teaching