Empowering Students of Color (Part 2 of 8)

Interview with authors Dr. Gail and Rufus Thompson reveals expert strategies.

Posted Aug 01, 2017

Vanessa Carroll, used with permission
Dr. Gail Thompson and Rufus Thompson at EY Awards Gala (June 16, 2017).
Source: Vanessa Carroll, used with permission

On June 12, 2017, I (JR) had the honor of sitting down with Dr. Gail Thompson (GT) and Rufus Thompson (RT) to discuss their book: Yes, You Can!: Advice for Teachers Who Want a Great Start and a Great Finish With Their Students of Color (Thompson & Thompson, 2014). Thompson and Thompson have won numerous awards in the field of education and are tireless advocates for students. Their extensive careers in education – including being teachers themselves – give them each the powerful perspective of both the educator and the researcher.

Their recent book offers too many strategies to fit within a single piece, but in this eight-part interview they offer a sampling that can be used to acquire added insight and start crucial conversations. See Part 1 of this interview for previous questions. Additional posts in this series will address additional questions.

Interview Part 2 of 8

(Question 3 of 10)

JR: Though the book’s title mentions students of color, the book is also a powerful tool for helping girls, low-income students, English language learners, and other students in a diverse classroom. What is the most powerful strategy a teacher can apply to help any student who doesn’t share the teacher’s own demographics? That’s a big one!

GT:

What I always tell teachers, especially if I’m doing classroom management workshops, is if you remember the Golden Rule to treat children and parents as you would want to be treated (if you were in that particular situation), then you are less likely to go wrong. So, when you don’t know what to do, if you’re treating people fairly, respectfully, humanely, and treating them with the dignity that you would want someone to show you, you’re less likely to go wrong. I always go back to that Golden Rule principal.

JR:

I like how you tie in other stakeholders, as well. Because how you treat people surrounding the students affects students, too.

RT:

I think understanding the culture of the child: One of the things that I always worked on as a teacher was making sure I said students’ names correctly, because we tend to pronounce European names just fine, but when there are other names that we don’t necessarily understand as a culture we mispronounce them or we use the stereotypical pronunciation that we hear on television and the media. So, I think understanding how to say their name is a simple way (by just asking them, “How do you say your name?”) because that gives the student a voice, and as many cases and opportunities as we can give students a voice empowers the student, and that all follows through in the total plan of making them feel better about themselves.

JR:

Gosh, that’s so important. I think especially in the secondary classroom, where the teacher might have over 200 students, I think that mispronunciation does happen a lot. I would say maybe 2 weeks ago (I might have read about it on NPR Ed), someone just published a study on mispronunciation of students’ names and the impact that has on kids. Like you said, it carries on to everything else we want to do to connect with students and help them succeed.

GT:

Can I ask him to add a story? [Turning to RT] You recently shared the story with some Illuminators at Illuminate Education about the time the counselor called you in. It wasn’t about mispronouncing the name, but was about the same point.

RT:

I always have trouble getting through this story, but I’ll try. When I was in high school, I got called to the office. Now, to preface this, I was the star athlete in this school, I was the one who had college scholarships, I was the one who was the first African American ASB on the executive board of the student council who managed all the ASB funds, and whenever I went to the office I went to the office to work or help in the office. So, I got a pass to go to the office and I went in to meet with my counselor. It’s my senior year in high school; it’s March, of my senior year in high school and she proceeds to tell me that I’m not doing well, she’s sick and tired of how much I get into trouble, and how I’ll never be anything, and how if I keep it up I’m not going to be beneficial to society. She goes on for about 20 minutes. When she finishes, she says, “Now Gregory, go back to class.” So, I very patiently and calmly say, “My name is not Gregory.” And she says, “Oh, well who are you?” I say, “I’m Rufus Thompson.” She says, “Why did you let me go on for so long?” and I say, “Because I was raised to respect my elders.”

At this point, it’s March of my senior year and she says, “Well, where are you going to go to school?” She had never called me in for any of the results of my test scores. I found something out from another African American (the only African American counselor in Fontana Unified in 1974). He called me out of her office and into his and said, “You can go to any school you want to in the country, but it’s too late. So, you’re either going to have to go to a private university, or you’re going to have to go to a community college,” and at that point it was Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, which actually changed my life.

JR:

Chaffey is where you set a record that has never been beat, even to this day!

RT:

Yes. They had architecture and they had a life-changing coach for me. So that’s a story I tell often, and I rarely get through it; this is probably the first time I’ve gotten through it without going into tears, because the reason I got into education was to make sure kids today don’t go through what I went through in that office. It doesn’t matter that I was the star of the high school and that area; what mattered is she thought I was another student. And I don’t know how. There’s questions as to whether it was just to put me in my place or not, because it’s obvious that Gregory and I didn’t even look alike other than skin color. So, I tell that story and I hope she hears it.

JR:

It’s heartbreaking on so many levels. It’s heartbreaking enough for you, but then imagine too if Gregory had been in there, even though he had been in trouble a lot those words would have been heartbreaking for him, too. Comments that he would never be anything and would not be beneficial to society—and Dr. G. has stories too that break my heart and what’s so sad is that it’s still happening today.

RT:

It’s still happening today. We hear these stories all the time.

JR:

It’s just chilling, it’s just chilling – makes me mad and sad at the same time.

RT:

I must add, a good point, is that in 1974 if you were a student of color in Fontana, you were expected to go to Kaiser Steel Mill. There was no college. That’s why it wasn’t offered to me, but because I was an athlete I had the opportunity. Otherwise there was no college: You finished high school and you went to the steel mill, because you could make a nice blue collar living at the steel mill. There were no university offerings.

JR:

And then even as a star athlete with scholarships, it seems you didn’t get the kind of guidance counseling you should have gotten to know where you could apply to college, what your options were…

RT:

She never talked to me until my senior year. And due to the courses that were given to me, I couldn’t have gone to college anyway because you had to have a second language and those courses were never offered to us.

JR:

Whereas if that course was offered to you, you would say, “OK, I’ll take that class, I’ll do well…” and off you would go, ready for a university. Wow.

What Next?

In my next post for this column (Part 3), Dr. Thompson and Thompson will answer more questions concerning how teachers can best support students of color.

References

Thompson, G. L., & Thompson, R. (2014). Yes, you can!: Advice for teachers who want a great start and a great finish with their students of color. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.