Imagine sitting in a local school where there are 30 native languages spoken by students whose origins and experiences can be traced around the globe. Now imagine being a teacher in that school standing before those students.

Dr. Bernard Hairston believes teachers’ cultural sensitivity and awareness significantly impacts student achievement. He has led Albemarle County Public Schools’ Culturally Responsive Teaching initiative, a professional development program geared toward holistic instruction which recently certified an inaugural class of four teachers.

The program is the result of about nine years of research conducted by Hairston and other teachers and staff from across the division, which included analysis of Bonnie M. Davis’s “How to Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You” and actual observation of the impact of culturally responsive strategies in the classroom.

“As a division we have been very consistent in personalizing the research to Albemarle County students and staff,” Hairston explained. “We have narrowed down our work around three characteristics, and everything we have done in terms of program design and evaluation has been around those characteristics.”

Those characteristics include examining the role of personal cultural heritage and students’ cultural backgrounds in classroom instruction, learning to make content and instructional style culturally relevant to students to capitalize on their innate strengths and building positive, individual relationships with students and families.

To be certified, a teacher must complete multiple rigorous professional development modules and ultimately demonstrate a deep understanding of how to apply the three central characteristics.

“I had separate sections of a journal that looked at who I was, and how my culture may have differences and similarities with the students’ cultures. And then, how that impacted the way I interpreted student behavior and student learning,” explained Leslie Wills-Taylor, a teacher at Woodbrook elementary school who was among the four teachers certified.

Wills-Taylor described how, through the self-reflective part of the first characteristic, she expanded her view of how her students learn and developed a more student-centered instructional approach.

“As I became more empowered and mindful as a teacher, my students became more empowered, and I offered them more choices,” said Wills-Taylor. “My instruction became more about bringing in the life experiences of the students. That just increased engagement, overall.”

A culturally responsive strategy employed by Mariel Mendez, a teacher at Stony Point Elementary School who was also certified this year, involved sitting down with her students one-on-one to create learning pacts. Mendez said having meaningful, personal conversations allowed students to really be honest about their academic preferences and needs and helped her understand what kinds of choices and support she could provide.

Mendez described another technique called “Give One, Get One” in which she has students walk around the room sharing any background knowledge about a new subject. This allows everyone to gain some context before instruction even begins.

“At the beginning, when I did [“Give One, Get One”], I would have students break down under the table crying because they didn’t know anything about ancient Mali,” Mendez said.

“I don’t blame you for not knowing about ancient Mali!” Mendez would tell the class. “By the end, after we did that strategy a few times, they were into it, they were talking, they were doing well.”

As a testament to these strategies’ impact, Mendez noted that 90 percent of her students passed their third grade reading Standards of Learning test this past year. In the 2014-15 school year, only 68 percent of third-graders at Stony Point and 73 percent of third-graders in the division passed the reading SOL, according to the Virginia Department of Education.

“There are some awesome teachers in ACPS who are very interested in the work and committed to self-reflection, varied instruction, and also working with finding innovative ways to work with families.”

Leslie Wills-Taylor

“We want our students to be independent learners, which means they need to take ownership of their work,” said Leilani Keys, a diversity resource teacher at Albemarle High School who has worked closely with Dr. Hairston. “When they’re doing parent conferences, a culturally responsive teacher will not dominate the conversation. They’ll allow the student to direct the conversation about his or her learning so that the parent can see that the student is actually learning.”

Wills-Taylor took this application of the third culturally responsive characteristic a step further, conducting home visits to get to know her students’ families and establish strong lines of communication. She also has organized an outreach event where all of the teachers from the school go into the community, to engage with families on their own terms where they feel most comfortable.

“Another thing I have done is inviting families to come in and share about their lives, to teach other students maybe even certain parts of their language, to share traditions. It builds cultural empathy and cultural understanding within the student community,” said Wills-Taylor. “I think that is so important: the more that students understand each other beyond the surface level, and the more that the teachers understand students beyond the surface level, the deeper learning occurs.”

Wills-Taylor was one of five teachers from around the country recently awarded the Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Teaching. The national organization recognizes outstanding teachers based on criteria similar to the CRT program.

Over 300 Albemarle teachers have participated in CRT professional development modules since they were first offered two years ago. This year six teachers were evaluated for full certification by a panel consisting of two current division principals, two professors from the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education, a University of Virginia doctoral student and former ACPS teacher, two ACPS employees with expertise in world languages, and two ACPS central office staff members. Four of the six teachers passed the rigorous evaluation.

“We have created a home-grown model [for certification] but it’s research-based, it’s evidence based, and it’s pretty phenomenal work we’ve done,” said Hairston. “I did not find any other school divisions, to my knowledge, who are doing this.”

Hairston has made himself available to educators from other areas who want to launch similar programs or incorporate elements of CRT into their schools. He emphasized that it is a learning process, and everyone involved contributes based on their own cultural backgrounds and classroom experiences.

Both Mendez and Wills-Taylor now help train other teachers, and they encouraged their colleagues to participate in the program.

“There are some awesome teachers in ACPS who are very interested in the work and committed to self-reflection, varied instruction, and also working with finding innovative ways to work with families,” said Wills-Taylor. “So this has really been a team approach.”

Keys said that next year the certification program is planned to expand, with cohorts of teachers being certified in both the fall and the spring.

“It’s a really good program, I really encourage other teachers to do it,” said Mendez. “It’s a hard process, it’s challenging, it’s time-consuming, but it’s really rewarding and worthwhile.”