Cultural Competence and Teaching Diverse Student Groups with Dr. Lisa Delpit

Lisa Delpit, PhD; educational equity

Show Notes

Live at the 2019 SEL Exchange Conference in Chicago, we talk with Dr. Lisa Delpit, an award-winning author, American educationalist, and MacArthur award recipient. Dr. Delpit is executive director of the Center for Urban Educational Excellence in Miami and a distinguished professor at Southern University, Baton Rouge. As an African American researcher, she’s transformed the educational system for minority groups with her groundbreaking work in elementary education with a focus on language and literacy development.

On this special episode, Dr. Delpit talks with us about the current state of educational equity, her advice for teaching to diverse groups of students, and the importance of social-emotional learning in student voices.

Read Dr. Delpit’s book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom and her latest title, Teaching When the World Is on Fire, a collection of advice for K–12 teachers on engaging students around today’s toughest issues.



[00:00:02] ANNOUNCER: The Grow Kinder podcast features conversations with thought leaders in education, business, tech, and the arts who all share one thing in common: a dedication to growing kinder in their work and lives and helping others do the same. Brought to you by Committee for Children.

In this special episode, we caught up with Dr. Lisa Delpit at the Social-Emotional Learning Exchange in Chicago. Lisa is an educationalist and award-winning author and a MacArthur award recipient.
As an African American researcher, her emphasis has been elementary education with a focus on language and literacy development. She has worked diligently with educators in the public to transform the educational system for minority groups.

Lisa talks with us about the current state of educational equity, her advice for teaching to diverse groups of students, and the importance of SEL in student voices.
Here are your hosts, Mia and Andrea.


[0:00:59.0] AL: What you brought you to the CASEL conference?

[00:01:04] LD: Well, oddly enough, I didn’t know about the conference. I was in Baltimore and went to an event with a friend of mine that I assumed I would know no one at, because I wasn’t from Baltimore. After a little while, I heard someone say, “Lisa Delpit!” I looked around, and there was this guy standing there and introduced himself. He was Tim Shriver. He said, “I’ve used so much of your work in what I’ve been doing.” We started talking for a little bit. I knew of CASEL, and he told me about his work in it. I told him that I was doing some work in Baltimore. One of the issues that we were dealing with, with the schools there, was social and emotional learning. So then we talked for a little while after, said we’d stay in touch, and he wrote me, gave me an invitation to come to the conference.

[0:02:00.8] AL: That’s wonderful.

[0:02:01.7] LD: Yeah.

[0:02:03.0] AL: A lot of your work has focused in the area of literacy and linguistics. I found so much in your book, Other People’s Children, that related to social-emotional learning and the kind of cultural competence that teachers are needing to really serve all populations of students. I’m super interested in what sort of underpinnings you found around social-emotional learning. You, in your writing, have written about some character development and what schools are expected to do, versus what they’re actually doing. What are some of the connections that you’ve already drawn in your work?

[0:02:38.3] LD: Well, the thing that I’ve found is that there’s not a separation in any case; that when I talk about working with kids, what’s now called social-emotional learning is already embedded within it, because I don’t know how you interact with people without interacting socially and emotionally. If you don’t, then there’s no hope for academic learning. So you might want to ask me something more detailed. But to me it’s all one. I’ve never separated it.

[0:03:14.6] AL: That’s how I felt listening to the audiobook too. It’s like there’s so much here that connects to the work the organizations focused on social and emotional learning are doing to teaching in relationship. So I’m glad that that was a correct reading.

[0:03:29.7] LD: I think so. Yeah, that’s one of the things that Tim said to me, was that he thought that my work was in social and emotional and academic learning. I said, “Well, I’m glad you gave it a name.”

[0:03:45.0] MD: Yeah. Well, I’ll take it back just a little bit, because I wanted to have a chance to tell you even about how we knew you were going to be here. Committee for Children is one of the sponsors of this conference, and when we were preparing for it, we were given a list of all of the attendees of the conference. Because we’ve been in this field for a long time, I knew that I was going to look at that list and see all these colleagues that I’ve known for years and years. I thought, “Oh! This is just going to be such a fun conference. I’m going to see so many people I know.”

So I’m looking down the list, looking down the list, and I see the name Lisa Delpit. I take a double-take and I say, “Oh! That can’t be the same Lisa Delpit who I read in graduate school.” When I think back to the names of authors of any of the books that I read in graduate school, literally, there are two names that I can remember: yours and Bell Hooks.

So I thought, “Well, this is incredible,” and I said to our producer, Shauna, “If we’re going to do a podcast at the conference, please, can you please see if we can get Lisa Delpit to talk with us?” So we’re really excited to have you here today. Your work has been so impactful for so many people, for so many educators, and for people like me who have spent time in the classroom but then have gone on to do work that kind of spans lots of classrooms and to be involved in creating programs in social-emotional learning. I feel like I’ve taken the wisdom from your writing along with others along the way. That’s really made a really big difference.

There’s actually one thing that I would love to ask you about, specifically. You were just asking Andrea being a little more specific. Taking the philosophy behind literacy and teaching kids about literacy and teaching kids in different ways, you talk about process writing versus sort of more hard-skill kinds of approaches to teaching kids. I’m curious about, when we talk about teaching social-emotional learning, a lot of times people will say things like, “Well, social-emotional learning is just kind of like what you do.”

We also agree with that, and then we also take a stance that there are a set of skills—there’s like social-emotional literacy, if you will—that are important for kids to learn. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to think much about that or if you have an opinion upon certain skills that are universal that kids should know.

[0:06:16.8] LD: It’s more specific, but also a huge question.

[0:06:18.8] AL: It is. It’s a huge question specific, and if you wanted to think about it and come back later, that would be okay too.

[0:06:24.2] LD: Well, it’s hard for me to think about it as skills, because in the culture and community I grew up in, it was never taught separately from anything else. Things were certainly taught about how you treat people. You treat people right.

I was thinking about another teacher that I worked with, Paula White, who decided to do discipline in her room using the principles of Ma’at, which is– the kids were studying Egypt and the African continent, and there’s I think seven principles of Ma’at, and I’m not going to remember all of them right now: balance, reciprocity, and five others. They discussed each one of those and they made a quilt in the classroom out of paper and the children would pick two or three of the principles and do a picture of what that would really look like in real life.

So when anything happened in the classroom, the kids would respond with those principles: “Marley isn’t using the principle of reciprocity. She took my pencil,” and so forth. They would use that as a basis to discuss. So I think you could get at it any number of ways. I’m sure, yes, there are things that I want children to learn, and I know that adults have to have input into how they are presented to them.
I have not thought of it as skills, which isn’t to say I would disagree with them as skills. But it’s sort of like with the literacy issue, if something is embedded in your culture, for example, the children who are learning to read at home without even knowing they’re learning to read, because their parents have words everywhere—there are the letters on the refrigerator, there’s all of that—the children don’t have a sense that they’re learning skills. But if you haven’t learned that, then when you come to school, it’s something you have to be taught, perhaps in the way of skills. I suppose that that is true for social and emotional learning as well. But for kids who it is so much a part of what happens in their home culture, just like the kids who learned literacy at home, the teachers and the kids of that culture don’t get a sense as much that this is something foreign, to be learned.

For example, when I was working in Native Alaskan communities, the way that Native Alaskan teacher would discipline kids is to say, “What would your grandfather think?” The school run by outsiders, by white people from the lower 48, had all these series of things that if you do this, then this is the consequence. If you do that, that’s the consequence, et cetera.
So they thought of it as teaching kids behavior, but the teacher called on the kids’ own culture to say, “You know what you’re supposed to do in this situation and how you’re supposed to act.” I've seen, actually in Chicago a lot, some teachers use African American grandmothers in the same way. Again, I'm not the right person, I guess, to ask about what are the skills that need to be taught.

[0:10:16.3] MD: Asking about your grandparents. When I was first doing bullying prevention work—some of the work we do is around bullying prevention—internet behaviors were new, and problems on the internet were new. We were trying to think of a set of guidelines that we could help kids think about to help them think when they're posting things. That was one of the things that we came up with as well, is, “Would you be proud to show your grandmother this?” I think that spans cultures I think in a lot of ways.

[0:10:47.1] LD: Yeah. I think connecting to what is hopefully at the heart of many of our families might be the way for me to think about it anyway. Yeah. But I'm sure teachers need some guidance in that, and that would be why you all are working on this.

[0:11:04.2] MD: Exactly. Well, as I was reviewing your work I was thinking like, “Oh, right! I remember reading about this around literacy and kids needing certain kinds of skills.” Then I was thinking about how we really think about breaking down social-emotional learning into discrete skills that we teach kids. One of them is around being assertive. Of course, when people who are writing programs about social-emotional learning or writing about being assertive, they're typically writing it from like a power culture perspective, right? How do you need to be assertive in this culture to be effective, or in school, or- it's from a certain perspective.
In particular, it's often in opposition to being aggressive. So how are you assertive as supposed to being aggressive? That's always been something that we all talk a lot about, because there is just so much cultural context around what assertive is and what aggressive.

[0:12:05.2] AL: Also how assertiveness can be read as aggression in certain groups in context.

So I drew a lot of connections to your writing around kind of culture and power and how that influences, of course, systems in the classroom and the teacher-student dynamics and that sort of thing. But in particular, I just think about language is also really connected to social-emotional skills and growth. So I just felt there was a lot, in what you wrote, about literacy and language that could be applied to the field of social-emotional learning, and how programs are developed, and how teachers are trained, and that the same recognition of there being this dominant power culture, and how that influences student-teacher relationships and expectations of students needs to be applied across education, across many structures. So I just think there's more need to delve into that.

[0:13:02.1] LD: I guess as you were talking, I was thinking as well of a need to create language or create opportunities for the language that’s used in particular cultures to represent what you’re calling assertiveness, because I was thinking of some of the things that black grandmothers or others would tell black children sometimes: “Stand up tall. Put your shoulders back. Your crown cannot fall off.”

That is a way of saying to stand up for yourself and to be proud, and to say I'm teaching kids to be assertive or that the teacher should teach kids to be assertive might mean one thing for that teacher and another thing for that child in that child's family and culture. I think any of this that we’re working on, it has to be deeply embedded within the culture of the children, and that’s something you can only learn from adults from that culture.

I think discussions, before any curriculum is developed, with the adults of the culture that the children are and with the teachers, to say, “This is how you find out what it looks like. This is who you ask. This is how you ask,” to find out what it looks like for the kids in your class.

[0:14:38.0] AL: I also would love to hear, and for our audience I think it would be good for them to hear, a little bit about what led you into education and your particular focus area in your research and in your teaching of other educators. So how did it start for you?

[0:14:54.6] LD: Well, at birth. One of those people who was born I think to teach, and I started doing it at a very young age. Anything I learned, I would set up a class either with dolls or with people in the neighborhood to teach. I recall even in fourth grade having a class, I had gone to a little community ballet class. So I set up a class at recess, and I sent notes home to parents telling them what kinds of shoes that they should have, and they sent the shoes! I thought it was perfectly reasonable at the time. But in retrospect, I’m wondering, “Who did they think that note was from?”
Even in that school—it was a small all-black Catholic school—when the teacher was going to be out for a few hours, even from fourth grade up, they would call me to take the class.

[0:15:59.4] AL: That’s amazing.

[0:16:00.2] LD: Yes. I mean, it was not something that seemed at all odd to me. This is, “Of course!” So I've been teaching for a long time, and I’ve always had that identity. My mother was a teacher, an excellent teacher, both in the segregated South and in integrated schools. My sister was a teacher, and by the time I back to college, the notion was that I shouldn't be a teacher because young, bright black girls could have always been teachers. I needed to do something else. So I started in psychology and soon went back to teaching and got certified.

[0:16:43.2] AL: You had a real love there from the start.

[0:16:45.8] LD: Yeah. I mean, it was just my identity from as long as I can remember. I think that just looking around and watching about why I went into the direction I did. I have written about this in Philadelphia at Durham Child Development Center, which was what was then called an alternative school, which is not as it is now. Alternative, at that time just meant something that approached things a little differently.

Now of course it means kids who get in trouble go to alternative school. That wasn't the case with this. It was located on the borderline between Society Hill and South Philly. At the time, South Philly was all poor black people, and Society Hill speaks for itself. So it was designed to have, I believe, 40 percent kids from Society Hill and 60 percent from South Philly. The South Philly kids were there because it was their neighborhood school. The Society Hill kids were being – There was a waiting list for them to get into the school.

I could see the Society Hill kids were getting a much better education in the same school. Everybody had the same teachers. I began to learn from the few black teachers, older black teachers who were at the school. I sought them out, because I was 20, 21, to find out what is it that they knew that could help me be a better teacher for the black kids. They helped me. They shared that with me. So that was my beginning understanding of cultural difference, and when I went to grad school I put a name on it. I hadn't had a name previously, and I put a name on it: that it was culture that I was focused on. I ended up doing dissertation research in Papua New Guinea and learned even more about culture and cultural differences and culture changes.

That's where I think the work in research has stemmed from, from a few things. One, that that which is good for white middle-class kids is not always the best or may need to be modified to be good for African-American lower income children. That there were other things that needed to be focused upon, and eventually that racism was one of those things that was affecting how black kids performed. I think that was how – it was just through my own experiences and opportunities to see some of the same issues play out in different settings.

[0:19:44.1] AL: This conference in particular that we’re attending now, one of the goals was they wanted to really elevate groundbreaking work around social-emotional learning, and you yourself have written some groundbreaking pieces for education. In particular, The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People's Children, and moving into your books that you've published. I know that the more recent edition of
Other People's Children had a new foreword in it, following Hurricane Katrina. I'm curious now how much you feel things have changed since you even wrote that, or if they have.

[0:20:21.5] LD: Wrote the whole book or the new introduction? Wrote the foreword?

[0:20:26.9] AL: Because after Hurricane Katrina, you said this is really exposed.

[0:20:29.9] LD: Well, pretty much nothing’s changed since then.

[0:20:33.7] AL: I’d just like to hear your perspective about it, because I thought that was a really powerful addition to the book and it had me wondering how in the state of the world today—in particular because you're being still asked to consultant and to speak—what messages are you sharing about basically how our society is operating? What's been exposed around racism? How that's affecting educators and children? There's so much there, but are there particular bright spots? How do you feel about the state of things now post-Hurricane Katrina?

[0:21:05.6] LD: Well, I think the forces that attempted to fully privatize education in New Orleans have continued both in New Orleans and certainly in Louisiana and in other places as well. There have been a lot of reforms. Just recently – I spoke on this, so I just recently found the research to back this up. But the reforms in Louisiana have, statewide, increased children's performance. But they have increased the performance of white children considerably, and black children's performance has either stayed the same or become lower.

So the effect is, there is a greater achievement gap now than before any of the reforms started. The other factor that exist is there are – Compare 2002 and 2017. In 2002 there were 30 percent teachers of color, and in 2017 there were 22 percent. That number is dropping even faster because the superintendent of education has continued to raise the cutoff score for the Praxis test, which there is research that shows when you do that, the people who get excluded are teachers of color, and you don't get a better performing teacher.

So I don't see a lot happening policywide and nationally. Where I see bright spots are in particular schools. I do see Baltimore is really working – The city is working at trying to look much more broadly at education. I’ve been really impressed with their work, Superintendent Santelises, to make sure that the children are learning about Baltimore, learning about themselves in Baltimore, learning about their ethnicity, learning about the intellectual legacies that the people that they come from had. They’ve adopted, or are adopting CASEL. So they’re looking at social and emotional learning.

But for the most part, if I look nationally and look at legislative issues, I get very depressed. When I look at, again, what's going on in some particular schools and in at least that school district, I think there are moments of hope.

[0:23:47.4] MD: What are some of the characteristics of some of the schools that you think are succeeding that stand out and are common amongst those succeeding schools, and are any of those tied to the kinds of things that we’re talking about here at the conference around social-emotional competence?

[0:24:03.6] LD: I'm not sure quite frankly. I need to go to the conference before I could answer that.

[0:24:08.1] AL: It starts tomorrow. So then you’ll know –

[0:24:10.6] LD: To figure out exactly what you’re talking about. But I know that I’m in six schools in Baltimore and I am helping Kaiser Permanente figure out how to be helpful to those schools. Some of the things that they are looking at, they brought into the schools a very much culturally centered trauma program for children. The name of it is – One of them, they’re using is Roberta's House. Roberta was the wife of a funeral director. Whenever anybody would die, Roberta would bring them in and help them through their grief and their trauma, especially if it was violence involved.

Her daughter is now a professional in psychology, I believe, but she set up this organization, Roberta's House. As far as we know, it's the only trauma-centered program that is based within a black community and is by and for African Americans. So people with Roberta's House are going into the Baltimore schools. Again, Kaiser Permanente, which is a health organization, they're looking at health much more broadly. They are thinking of it as people’s opportunity to be successful in life, in their jobs, being able to get jobs, housing. They’re wonderful in that they’re thinking so broadly in this and they have brought in Roberta's House.

They also brought in a group called Womb Work. Womb Work, again, uses the culture of the children. They do drumming. They come in with kids writing. They journal. They do performances. They write about the issues that they’re being faced with. So I think I would say that in terms of SEL, they’re definitely doing it, and they're doing it in a way that is connected to the kids’ backgrounds and cultures.

[0:26:35.3] MD: We have some colleagues who are doing some interesting work in Baltimore in mindfulness. I wonder if they're doing any of that at the schools that you’re talking about.

[0:26:43.0] LD: They are doing mindfulness at the schools. Yeah, there's also a – Some people are calling it a mindfulness room, and the teachers and one second grader at one of the schools explained to me what mindfulness was and how one should approach it. She worked me through one of the exercises. I don't know if they’re the same schools. But yeah, that's definitely going on.

[0:27:10.0] AL: It seems to be emerging as the go-to for some schools. I know in Philadelphia they are bringing in mindfulness rooms in certain schools. It’s a growing area. I think when people talk about feeling more connected and present, you have to consider trauma when you approach mindfulness. So there's a lot of work being done there.

[0:27:28.6] LD: Yeah, I’m laughing because my daughter was at a middle school and it was unusual in this case, but there was a person who wanted to help teach the kids to meditate and it just got dropped on them. There was no precursor to it. The teacher got very upset and would start screaming at them that they weren’t meditating right. They needed to be quiet and close their eyes.

[0:27:59.6] MD: Yeah, that’s not the best-case scenario.

[0:28:01.4] LD: Right. But I do think we need to figure out how to do this for teachers though, because teachers are so beat up and they're trying to deal with the trauma of often 30 children while they are dealing with their own traumas, their own parents. A lot of them, their parents are elderly, and they’re caretakers for their parents, and then also for children. That was one of the things in Baltimore. I was able to talk to a few teachers and almost everyone was going through some very difficult times. I think we need to provide some support in this for teachers as well.

[0:28:41.3] AL: It does seem like many districts are taking that more to heart and recognizing that they need to focus on teacher well-being and giving them supports to address their own wellness. I feel like I see more of that than I used to in this work.

[0:28:54.2] LD: Where do you see it? Where else?

[0:28:55.8] AL: In particular, I'm thinking – I’m going to get the name of the district wrong, in California. I was talking to a superintendent about things they're doing not only around mindfulness for the teachers, but helping teachers assess their own well-being and their stress levels and thinking about coping strategies for that. My other vague memory is here in Chicago, that there is some of that work going on. So I feel there's buzz about it at education conferences. I don't know if there are really concrete things happening in a lot of districts, but at least it's in the conversation more.

[0:29:29.3] LD: That's good.

[0:29:31.4] AL: I remember in your book you talked about seeking out a school for your daughter that you felt would really help her be successful and that you could feel good in that school. You mentioned in your book finding that place and some of the characteristics about that school. If you were talking to a parent, sort of like how would I know if a school that my child was in was appropriately addressing the needs of my child and helping them be successful? What would be your advice for some things to look for?

[0:30:04.2] LD: Yeah, that's a really difficult one. I frequently, if I can, I talk to children and find out what they say about the schools that they're attending. I think asking “What is it that you're trying to accomplish? How do you know that you’ve been successful with my child or with any child? What's your philosophy on bullying?”
Well, I want to make sure they don't have a zero-tolerance policy, one thing, because that ends up being pretty bizarre. So I would try to get their discipline – know about their discipline policy. “What happens when kids fall behind?” “What kind of supports do you give to teachers to make sure they can reach all kids?” “What are your views on how you would like parents to be supportive?” I ask that, because there are schools who say they want parent participation. What they really want is you to come to the PTA meeting and donate your time to make brownies. They really don't want you to do anything else. So I might ask those kinds of questions.

[0:31:20.6] AL: These are some good guiding questions.

[0:31:22.3] LD: Yeah, a lot of it, I wasn't able to find until I kind of got in there with her. She is not a very school-friendly child.

[0:31:33.2] AL: Yeah, I myself struggled with that school environment. I think that for many parents, my guess would be, feel like you've given your child over to this institution and you have very little insight into anything that happens from then on. The schools try to communicate—they send out newsletters, they do things like that—but that doesn't really give you a sense of what your child’s day is like. It can be really hard to get information from your child or even to have the time to have those conversations. I think that’s such a challenge, for parents to get any insight into how school culture is developed or what their focus is, and if mainly what you get are prepared newsletters, how much insight is that?

[0:32:17.7] LD: How old is your child?

[0:32:19.3] AL: He’s just entered kindergarten.

[0:32:21.5] LD: I thought maybe. Yeah, it’s a hard time.

[0:32:25.1] AL: Yeah, it’s definitely a transition. You just sort of feel like, “I don't really know what's going on.” Then also I think being in education and working with educators a lot, there are so many questions that I would ask if I had the time to ask them that I can't ask and I think that experiences that many schools feel challenged or attacked when you ask those questions. I think there are so many parents that don't even know the questions to ask. So that's one of the reasons I brought it up.

[0:32:58.2] LD: Yeah, that's tough. Yeah, if you can get in to visit, it would be great to – And schools that say absolutely not can be problematic too. I mean, there is a rationale for not having too many visitors coming into often, but there should be, if a parent wants to see for some time, I think that would be important to be able to have.

[0:33:24.6] MD: Yeah, I think it's unfortunate when teachers feel that they don't want to have parents in the classroom or parent volunteers. I mean, I can understand not wanting to feel watched or criticized. But at the same time, it is a community. You have a community of people that have strengths that you can draw on. I have to say –
We were all talking about the educators in our family: my grandmother was a teacher, my mother was a teacher. One thing that my mother did that I didn't understand when I was a teenager and she was a teacher, but later I understood, was she had people come in all the time. She would find out what parents’ jobs were and what their skills were, and she had them come and do projects with kids all the time, sometimes related to what their skillsets were and sometimes just read with the kids. She taught first grade. When you have younger kids especially in the classroom, it's really enriching, I think, to have grandparents or parents come in and spend time with kids. It’s something she was really good at.

[0:34:28.7] LD: Yeah. I mean, as kids get older, I understand that some parents can be difficult, yes. Particularly as kids are older, but even sometimes when they're young and the teacher needs help in knowing how to manage that as well, because it can escalate quickly.

[0:34:49.6] MD: Sure. We’re very interested, you've written so much about equity and education. As you were thinking about coming to this conference, it sounds, from what you've told us, that thinking about the social-emotional learning, it’s in some ways like its own subject area. It's kind of a new way for people to think about it. Certainly in the last 10 years I would say it has really, really gained momentum from sort of like an extra, or maybe something that people should do at home, or any number of things the way people thought about it to now we’re really kind of facing an era in which people are starting to understand it as very critical to being a fully educated person as part of what's necessary for success.

I'm just curious, as you are coming into this, what are your thoughts about equity and a child's social and emotional education?

[0:35:46.0] LD: I certainly have mentioned the idea of needing to address those issues that many children, particularly poor children, might have: incarcerated parent, some violence in the community. We need to make sure that things are in place to help kids address those and to help teachers understand what that kind of trauma might look like in a classroom and how kids might be acting out.

Again, I don't think you can teach – My biggest issue is with children who have been often marginalized in school systems, and you can't make sure they learn without figuring out particularly how to build relationships. If you can't build relationships, particularly with African American children, you cannot teach them.

I think Geneva Gay says that black children don't learn from a teacher—they learn for teacher. So this whole idea – and it's not always being nice to kids, because being nice is not necessarily a marker of building a relationship and caring. Sometimes it is holding firm with some ideas that this child is going to have to do or think about.
Sometimes teachers might even yell, but you have to listen to what they’re yelling. The teacher who says, “You are too smart to be doing this kind of work. I know you can do better than this.” That’s a very different kind of yelling than, “You will never amount to anything.”

So I think we have to – Matter of fact, my little great-niece, when she was four or five, just out of the blue said to me, “So, when people’s mamas yell at them, that means they love them.” So I think, again, that culture comes into play there. But I think that regardless of what you call it, we have to have very caring kinds of communities within schools and you have to care enough so that the children feel that care and will do their homework for you, as kids will do.

[0:38:26.5] AL: You talked about – You can be nice and not build relationships, and niceness can cover all manner of things, really. I think sometimes, we talk about how kindness kind of gets a bad rep, that it’s seen as weakness, but you can be kind and generous in a very strong way.

[0:38:45.5] LD: Right. I think kindness is different from niceness.

[0:38:47.7] AL: Oh, I agree. Yeah. Even caring. I think there are words that are about relationship building that are given a tone of weakness that is, I think, unfortunate, because I've known some very strong caring people in my life, right?

[0:39:02.4] LD: Absolutely. The kids, we’re talking about they will not tolerate that kind of kindness. As a matter fact, I was asked to go look at a school in Chicago. I understand it doesn't exist anymore, but this was a few years ago. The kids talked about the young white teachers as like, “They’re just too young to teach. They just try to be like us. They need to –” The kids recognize that they would prefer somebody who had the strength of an adult and who had their best interests at heart and force them and others to take their best interests into consideration.

[0:39:46.1] AL: Is there an example of an act of kindness that you’ve witnessed recently that you would be willing to share?

[0:39:52.0] LD: I saw that that might be a question you’re going to ask, and at first I was going, “Oh gosh! Oh gosh!” Then of course hundreds started flooding in. But one with my own daughter who is struggling right now financially and some other ways, as I say, she's trying to find herself, and I'm trying to get off the search committee. But she’s an artist type, very creative type. I found out just recently that even though she had zero to no money, she was sharing money with this homeless woman who was near where she lived. Whenever she got food, she would always take some over to this lady. So I was both shocked and thrilled that this young person was doing that.

I also – This happened recently in Baton Rouge. It ended up being put on television, because the man who I'm about to describe had videotaped it. A man went into a grocery store with his young son who had a lot of mental challenges, and I didn't see how it happened, but there was a young African American guy working at the store and he was putting things on the shelves, and I guess the young man who came into the store was watching so intently. So the guy said, “Could you help me?”

So the young man who came into the store started helping and putting things on the shelves, and he went to every – He was so thrilled. He was almost nonverbal, but he told his father afterwards, he loved it. He was so excited. That was really kind and nice. I mean, very kind.

Then when this aunt, the young man's aunt called the news station to talk about it, some people saw the video and found the young African American man and gave him, I forget how much money – money because he really wanted to go to school but he couldn't afford to, and they gave him money to go to school. Then the store hired the young man who had come in and helped. So, just all of that –

[0:42:15.8] AL: It’s a lot of kindness in that story.

[0:42:17.8] LD: There was just such a lot of kindness in how this simple thing of giving this young man something to do made him feel important and useful, and so many other people responded to that kindness. I think that's how kindness works. When you see, it just kind of spreads like that, and that's what I loved about.

[0:42:40.0] MD: Wonderful. We talk a lot at Committee For Children about people who have influenced us along the way, along our own personal journeys. Just wondering if there is one or if there are a couple of people that have been really influential along your journey.

[0:42:58.3] LD: Well, certainly a lot. In childhood, my mom, who was this very elegant teacher. She was the kind of person as an adult, and I am going places with her and people who she taught 30 years before would stop her on the street. I always would have to say, “Okay, if I'm going anywhere with you, we have to put in about a half an hour more time to do it, because somebody's going to be coming up to talk about how they loved how you taught math.”

But then my grandmother who I think I got my willingness to push for change and my willingness to not accept things, my assertiveness. There’s a picture of her standing with her hands on her hips and me with me at four with my hands on my hips, and she would always say she was the big hussy and I was the little hussy.
So I think she taught me to push for what I needed. Then later on, three men: Asa Hilliard, Badi Foster. Well, those are the two major ones. Asa Hilliard was both a scholar and one of the kindest people I know. Badi Foster was the same. Worked a good bit in Chicago, and he recently died. So both of them embodied a kind of kindness and strength that I loved and a willingness to push for the truth, and I think that has inspired me to continue to try to push for truth and to share it if I think I found it.

[0:44:44.3] MD: I think that you have a lot of wisdom to share, and you were just speaking about the books. There are a lot of young white people going into education that are new teachers, and there are a lot of people doing like Teach for America, and they are being placed in schools that are very different than the environments that maybe they grew up in.

You go to a lot of schools, and you do a lot of observing. I'm just really curious, what you see sort of the top mistakes, the top couple of mistakes that you see young white educators making with children of color? Then following that up, what do you think they could do to start to change those things?

[0:45:28.1] LD: Well, I think one of the biggest mistakes they make is thinking they know what they're doing. Because a lot of these organizations have suggested this to them, that they are the saviors of these children. What I think they need to learn is they have some skills, but they're not going to know how to use them unless they connect with people who look like the children that they’re teaching. I've seen it in New Orleans. I've seen the unfairness of it as well for the young white people, but what happens with the young white people is a lot of them go in – They’re told that they’re – and they believe that they are the saviors. They go in, they fail. So then they began accusing the families and the children themselves or particularly the communities of doing things wrong, and that's why they failed. Then they leave. They say they're still in education, but they take some kind of position in some kind of more authoritative way.

In those positions, they end up pushing, very subtly often, this notion that it's something wrong with the community and it’s something wrong with the parents. Until they can understand and come in, and I say that to our teachers with a sense of humility, that there is so much there that you need to learn. I needed to learn it when I was in Alaska. I couldn't just go in and start telling people what to do and what would make sense. I learned from the people who lived in the villages. I went there. I asked them. I watched. I talked to the parents. It was really hard in Alaska, because parents are native Alaskan parents. They tell stories to give you the point, and they seldom will tell you directly, “You need to do this.”

So you have to be willing to hear this story and try to spend some time figuring it out. I was really dumb at that for a while, but I learned. So I think you have to figure out what people are telling you, whatever way they are telling you. Whatever they're saying to you, there's a message in it. Try to figure it out. So I think that's the big mistake. I think that in a classroom with older kids, you have to have a sense of authority, but you have to build a relationship.

They are taught—many of the young people from alternative certification programs—are taught strategies that are like, “Okay. Everybody sit in the star position. Legs crossed, hands crossed.” They will just continue to spend time trying to get everybody in that position, for example, or they are taught something that – I can't even remember what all the little strategies are that they're supposed to be following.
But none of that is going to make a difference unless they build relationships, and that's the other piece. Building relationships with the children and finding out who they are, finding from the parents who the parents are, connecting to parents. Even as a new teacher, I think I understood that one. Just being a part of a community that includes the community of the children and not think you can just stay in school and talk to each other and solve anything. Those are some of the problems.

[0:49:00.4] MD: Yeah.

[0:49:01.7] LD: Did you have a further question on that?

[0:49:03.4] MD: No.

[0:49:03.9] AL: That was a good question.

[0:49:03.6] AL: Yeah. No. Just to comment, because I remember reading something that I thought was really interesting that you wrote about when you were looking at the kids in the school where you’re teaching in Philadelphia and that you were doing like the same things, but the black kids were not learning at the same rate as the white kids. I remember specifically you saying something like, “And I really resisted the urge to be like, ‘Well, it must be their parent’s fault.’” Yeah. I think that that's something that happens a lot, because it's so hard.

[0:49:34.7] LD: Also, I’m doing what works for these kids. So why isn’t it working for you? It’s your parents, or is something wrong with you? Yeah, and that piece of having to learn that your teaching has to be context specific and different for these children perhaps, and that's with those black teachers taught me.

[0:49:57.4] MD: Yeah. There was something else about listening, about really listening and in some ways –

[0:50:04.2] AL: Curious.

[0:50:06.3] AL: Yeah, and actually hearing, right? That’s kind of reminding me when you're saying like, “Well, instead of just like hanging out with your little cohort, you need to go out and understand what's happening in the kids’ families, in the community.” That can be really hard if you’re a new person to a community.

[0:50:25.0] LD: Absolutely, and I think schools need to do that and allow that to happen for teachers so it’s not an individual teacher having to always do it. But what I do sometimes is when I'm going into work with a set of teachers I say, “Let’s say you were going to this foreign country, and this is a country but they don’t know, Irian Jaya, and it’s rural. It's in another very different place. What would you need to know in order to be a good teacher?”

Eventually, they talk about, “What are the attitudes people have about teachers? What is it the parents want their kids to learn? What do they think is important? What’s the music and art like?” They go on and on and on. I said, “Okay, and how would you learn that?” They said, well, they would try to maybe visit one of the churches. They would visit the market or where people traded. They would talk to some adults in the community. They would talk to some kids in the community and try to find out more about it. Then the next thing is, “Well, you are not a part of this community that you are teaching in. You've already told me what you need to know and how you would find it out. Let's try to set up something so that can happen.”

So I don't want it to be an individual teacher having – although individual teachers do do that. But hanging out and spending time where the kids do gives you a lot more information than hanging out just at the school.

[0:51:58.3] MD: Yeah. What do you think the principal's role is in all that? I was just having a conversation earlier today about how important the principal is to the success of a school. I know that you’ve talked to a lot of educators.

[0:52:10.4] LD: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. I mean, if there’s not a good principal, the good teachers will leave. That’s one thing. So you may as well focus on getting a good principal. Somebody who understands that teachers need support. Somebody who understands that they need to help teachers understand how to relate to parents and to the community. Somebody who can forge ways for teachers to find out more about the community that don’t feel so isolating and scary. Yeah, a principal sets the tone for everything. Those six schools I’m working with in Baltimore, that’s – Clearly those six principals are phenomenal and they do exactly what I'm talking about under some of the worst conditions I think in terms with stress.

[0:53:02.5] AL: Dr. Delpit, we so appreciate the time you spent with us today and your contributions to education. I wonder if folks wanted to learn more about you or your work, what you might recommend to them to –

[0:53:15.5] LD: Actually, I guess the books. I just did another one called Teaching When the World Is on Fire, and it’s an edited volume. So I have a lot of young teachers and colleagues who have contributed to it. I think Other People's Children has a good bit of an autobiography in the first part. But there've been others along the way. I don't have a webpage. I don’t have a Facebook account. Somebody has a Facebook account in my name, but it’s not me. I may try to put one up at some point. I remember telling someone when I was very young, if I ever became famous, it was going to be through word of mouth. So I guess sharing with other folk and just taking a look at those books that people might be interested in.

[0:54:10.8] AL: Thank you.

[0:54:11.5] LD: Yeah, thank you all.


[0:54:13.5] ANNOUNCER: Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Dr. Lisa Delpit. You can find more episodes at and make sure to rate and subscribe on Apple Podcast or Stitcher.