To my educator friends: Considering the different ways we worship can help us understand culturally-responsive instruction and equity in the classroom

By Erin Jones

To my educator friends...

I had a revelation this week in Texas about how to think differently about culturally-responsive instruction and equity...

I have struggled for years with trying to help educators figure out how to interrogate the practices in their classrooms and buildings, how to recognize the ways dominant culture drives all things education, determines which behaviors are “right” and which are “wrong” in ways that punish all those who don’t conform or assimilate.

Here is the revelation I had about my own process — how I learned (and continue to learn) to transform my expectations and practices in the classroom, as I moved from my first education experience in an all-Black school in North Philadelphia to a half Black and half White school in South Bend, Indiana, to a private predominantly white school to very diverse schools in Western Washington to the most diverse (and yet not so much) school in Spokane, Washington.

As most of you know, I was raised in The Netherlands by Scandinavian-Americans from Northern Minnesota. My mother had grown up Lutheran. My father had grown up Presbyterian. We attended the American Protestant Church. Although pastors were new about every three years and came from different mainline denominations, the practices in our church didn’t change and were very much like the traditions under which both my parents had grown up:

  • Girls were expected to wear a skirt and blouse or a dress and dress shoes. Boys wore dress pants, a dress shirt and dress shoes.

  • Paper programs were a necessity. They gave parishioners an agenda for the “event” and told us when to stand or sit, when to speak and what to say.

  • There was an expectation that when you sang, your voice would be just loud enough to blend with the others, never to stand out. No one moved. No one clapped, ever. It was understood that if there was special music, the appropriate response was to smile, nod, appreciate the beauty, quietly.

I came to the United States in 1989 for college. I arrived in a town that boasted a sign less than a mile from my college that read, “Bryn Mawr Cricket Club, no colors or Jews allowed here” (the sign would not come down until 2012). When I asked about attending a church in the community, I was told I would not be welcome at the Presbyterian Church down the street from the college (because I was Black). I didn’t question that as an 18 year old. I knew it was not a place I wanted to be, if others thought I might not belong.

As a freshman I worked in the on-campus restaurant. I had heard my boss talk about her church and asked her if I could come.

Let me clarify to give you context...

My boss was a Black woman who attended a church called Sharon Missionary Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, on the backside of the playground featured in the opening scene of the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Maybe you can imagine what I was about to experience.

I had NO idea.

I had never been exposed to anything but the church I had grown up in and the few visits we had made to the Presbyterian church of my father’s parents in Northern Minnesota, where we would visit summers or over winter break.

My first day at Sharon was both terrifying and life-changing. I learned quickly the rules were very different in this space:

  • Women were to wear their best suits or dresses and dress shoes. Men wore suits and ties and dress shoes. Everyone had hair freshly done.

  • There were no programs available. Everything seemed to happen according to unwritten rules. Everyone somehow knew the words to songs, even though there were no hymnals and no projectors or screens. People stood and clapped or danced in the aisles whenever they “felt the spirit.”

  • During the sermon and during special music, people shouted out and clapped, saying things like, “Preach it, Pastor!” “Sing it, Sister!” and “Go ahead!” When people were particularly excited, they even got up in the middle of a song or a sermon and began shouting and/or dancing.

I had grown up attending the American School of The Hague. Although the culture was one that embraced students from a variety of national and religious backgrounds, behavior expectations mirrored those with which I had grown up, very much like those I had also seen at church every Sunday. No one had to explain to me what it meant to “be good” in these spaces. Those expectations were everywhere for me.

I began to volunteer in an all-Black elementary school my junior year of college. At first, I was disturbed by the ways students behaved — blurting answers, getting up at “odd times” during class. It wasn’t until I married my husband, who had grown up in a culture very similar to the Black Baptist church, that I realized the ways he “operated” were more like my students in the Philadelphia elementary school than in my home or the school in which I had grown up.

Was his behavior “bad?” Or was it merely different?

Think about how schools typically function (whether in predominantly White communities, predominantly Black communities or very ethnically diverse communities). Are classroom expectations more broadly like Lutheran and Presbyterian churches or like the Black Baptist church I visited as a young college student?

I think we all know the answer to that question. Here is my suggestion...

I am not trying to say the ways of the Lutheran Church or the Presbyterian Church are wrong, but I would suggest they do not represent “THE right way.” I would suggest the Lutheran and Presbyterian “ways of doing business” are just ways of doing business, and there are other ways (many of them) that must also be considered and embraced if we are to engage ALL students in a process of schooling that allows them (and ALL those serving them) to THRIVE, not just survive.

I have some suggestions about next steps, but I don’t want to make those here... I want to encourage you to think about what it may be like in your school space for students who didn’t grow up in “Lutheran/Presbyterian spaces,” who may feel pressure to leave pieces of themselves and their experiences at the door or outside the building or who continue to be penalized for showing up in ways that do not align with the spoken and unspoken rules/expectations of school.

I do not believe most educators are trying to intentionally promote cultural norms in their classrooms and schools that oppress. I think too many only know what they know and what they experienced themselves as students. We have been given messages about how school “should” go and what “good students” should look like for a long time, and I am going to suggest we need to expand the walls to become “non-denominational” in our approach — to create spaces in which ALL students and ALL staff can thrive, not just survive.

My husband and I just celebrated 26 years of marriage. Those years were not always easy. Part of our struggle was figuring out a way to incorporate elements from both of our cultures into our collective culture. I was raised believing “my way” was the “right way,” and I had to come to the realization that we both brought really valuable perspectives and ways of being to our relationship. That realization is what has made us great together but also “bridge-builders.” We have been able to use all we have learned through our relationship to create spaces for others to learn to love and communicate effectively across difference.

We each have valuable qualities and perspectives to bring to the table, as do our students. I dare you to create spaces in your classrooms and schools and communities that invite others to bring their full selves. We will all be enriched by the outcome.