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Give teachers the skills to help students like me find their passion for learning

Most of my life, I hated school. Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards aim to increase the odds that all children feel welcomed and valued in school.

Pre-kindergarten teacher Angela Panush reads a story to her students at Dawes Elementary in Chicago on Jan 11.
AP Photos

I am a member of the network of educators and stakeholders who came together to draft Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards, which aim to help teachers and schools be more culturally responsive to students of all backgrounds. Regions throughout the country have already made this commitment. It is time for Illinois to meet the call.

I am a product of Chicago Public Schools and a former educator, and I lead teacher development strategy at Teach For America.

The opposition says the standards would create a liberal takeover of schooling. I have 11 years of experience in education, and I can confidently say if we are arguing politics, we are missing the point. Opponents don’t understand what these standards are designed to do.

Most of my life, I hated school. My mother instilled in me the importance of education, but school did not often reinforce that. I was capable, but almost flunked out of middle school because I felt aimless and unseen. Millions of kids deserve a school experience more deliberately designed to support and motivate them.

A new level of learning

Typically, the extent to which that experience is culturally affirming is left up to chance. The barriers (feeling marginalized, willed-unlearning caused by lack of interest, facing subconscious bias) are likewise left up to chance. What we aim to do with CRTL is increase the odds that all children feel seen, welcomed and valued at school.

Culturally Responsive Teaching is not about the de-prioritization of academic standards. It is about increasing the likelihood that today’s students will achieve those goals regardless of background. It is about equipping our teachers with practices that open a new level of learning — particularly among struggling students. Students are much more likely to achieve when they feel culturally affirmed. I saw it as a teacher. I felt it as a kid.

CRTL standards were created using the collective understanding, backed by research and brain science, of what excellent educators already do. Excellent educators set up an inclusive and co-created environment, seeing their students as individuals. They work to understand the links between identity, representation and achievement. They treat all students as capable and meld empathy with the will to achieve. This is not a radical idea.

I joined a diverse coalition of teachers, policymakers, school leaders and students grappling with the complexities of what school can be for all students. We had no agenda, no political plot, and we never let an idea make it to the page without interrogating it from every angle. Students have been our only priority.

I was a Puerto Rican kid who struggled to find his place in school. I had to find a passion for education as an adult. Culturally responsive teaching was my invitation. The CRTL standards are expected to pass on Feb. 16 unless members of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules oppose it.

I’m asking you to help ensure that more students like me find their passion through school because of the strength of what they experienced. This is a commitment to current students, future teachers and our profession, and one that we should honor.

Jason Dones is a managing director of Corps Member Leadership at Teach For America Chicago-NWI.

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