5 practices of highly-effective urban educators

While numerous ceremonies on Saturday commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, many news organizations latched onto a sobering reality: Educational inequality still persists in the United States. Articles cropped up across the Internet, highlighting everything from achievement gaps to punishment discrepancies, with a majority ultimately saying the fight for "equal education" has yet to be won.

But is "equal education" really the solution to persistently failing urban schools? San Francisco State University professor and researcher Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade would say "no."

In his seminal research paper "Gangstas, Wankstas and Ridas," Duncan-Andrade argues that, rather than chasing after the quantifiable "equal," we should be demanding a qualitative "equitable" — a model where students are encouraged to embrace where they come from instead of viewing it as an obstacle to overcome. He argues that the equal education model — and its failures — is exacerbated by the current makeup of urban schools, where educators fall into three categories:

  • Gangstas: A small but vocal portion of staff who often gripe about their jobs. Dissatisfied, they are "haters" who express disdain and distrust for the communities they work in. They often push for zero-tolerance punishments and other punitive practices.  
  • Wankstas: The majority of urban teachers, Duncan-Andrade says, fall into this category. Rapper 50 Cent originally coined the term "Wanksta" as someone who talks a big game but never follows through. In this case, the Wankstas are less complicit in their failures, and are rather the result of missing support systems. They are teachers who come into the classroom with aspirations of becoming highly effective but the realization of poor training combined with the lack of professional guidance quickly drains their hope. Over time, they detach from the school and their students, sticking to the status quo without much thought.
  • Ridas: Based off the popular rap expression "Ride or Die," Ridas are a small portion of urban teachers who are willing to take risks and build deep emotional connections with their students, even if they may be let down in the process. These are the highly-effective urban educators.

It is the unwavering balance of these three that has led to the current status quo and predictability of urban schools, according to Duncan-Andrade.

But not all hope is lost. In 2002, Duncan-Andrade embarked on a three-year research project where he shadowed four "Rida" teachers in South Los Angeles schools. From that period of intensive shadowing, he was able to gather qualitative narratives to help build a roadmap for equitable education and identify five pillars found in the classrooms of highly effective urban educators. 

1.  Critically conscious purpose 

In all four of the classrooms that Duncan-Andrade observed, the teachers believed that their low-income minority students were destined to be agents of change. The fact that the student body was largely disenfranchised from mainstream systems meant that it had the least to lose and was therefore most likely to stir things up. This thinking gave weight, seriousness, and purpose to the role of the educators who, in turn, treated every moment in the classroom as training time for future leaders and change-makers.  

An important note, however, is that these teachers were not driven by a romanticized vision of change, but rather the sobering reality that their students faced a difficult journey. As Duncan-Andrade pointed out, the teachers took time to research issues affecting the communities they worked in and set up their classrooms to address those needs, in part by not attempting to mirror a stereotypical middle-class classroom. This also meant teachers redefined what success meant in that environment, framing education as a way to return and help shape the community instead of as a means to escape it.  

Key Takeaways: 

  • Highly effective educators share with students their belief that those pupils will one day be agents of change.  
  • Creating meaningful, rigorous lessons allows students to critically think about issues and solutions affecting their lives.  

2.A sense of duty to students and the community

Instead of viewing themselves as "leaders in the community", Ridas viewed themselves as "servants of the community." This shift in thinking is attributed to humility, where these teachers work not out of empathy, but through solidarity. While not always possible, a key to making this happen naturally is by living in the community one serves. Duncan-Andrade noted that not all of the Ridas lived where they worked, but they all made themselves visible in the community by attending neighborhood events on weekends or staying after school so parents and students could have face time with them. A teacher who is able to show they too have a stake in the game will go far when trying to earn their students' trust and respect.  

Key Takeaways:

  • Highly effective educators view teaching in an urban school as a way of life and not just what they do.
  • They are not afraid of the community they teach in and can therefore build meaningful relationships with students and families.

3. Preparation

While teaching takes a lot of work and preparation in general, Duncan-Andrade found that Ridas took this to new heights. They were constantly reflecting upon and reworking their lesson plans to be better prepared. He attributes this attention to details to pillar No. 2, where teachers feel teaching is not just what they do, but who they are. Many of the teachers would find resources — a book, film, artifact — on their own time and later embed it into their lesson plans. Their classrooms, and what they could do with their students, were constantly on their minds.  

Key Takeaways:

  • Highly effective educators view their lesson plans as mutable and working documents. Even if they are teaching the same course or subject the next year, they go back and reflect on ways to improve.
  • They are constantly searching for new resources to bring into their classrooms.

4.Socratic Sensibility

The term 'Socratic Sensibility' was coined by American philosopher and academic Cornel West. It is an amalgamation of Socrates' belief that "the unexamined life is not worth living" and Malcom X's statement that "the examined life is painful." The idea is that we must examine all of life, as painful as it may be, and use the injustice and pain as a strength. Teachers who embody this pillar "understood their duty to connect their pedagogy to the harsh realities of poor, urban communities," Duncan-Andrade wrote. This also means that the teachers exuded a healthy balance of confidence and reflection when it came to their teaching skills.

Key Takeaways:

  • Highly effective educators have an open-door policy for their classrooms, believing that more visitors means a greater chance for improvement and perspective.
  • They teach students that "righteous indignation" is a strength and not a punishment.  

5. Trust

Trust is probably one of the most critical aspects of teaching in any environment, and it is also something that is earned and not demanded. Duncan-Andrade found that Ridas earned trust with students in two ways. On a macro level, they gained trust through awareness of where they fit into the bigger picture of their students' education. "These teachers understood that government institutions, such as schools, have a negative history in poor and non-white communities," he wrote. Being cognizant of their position as school "ambassadors," these teachers gained students' trust by fighting against school policies that could be viewed as oppressive.

On a micro level, the teachers gained trust through "positive harassment." By giving students rides, tutoring them after school, eating lunch with them, and calling their families, teachers were able to not only show they cared, but that they were there for students every step of the way as they worked to meet their academic goals.

Key Takeaways:

  • Highly effective educators don't just demand high expectations, but show true love and support as students worked to meet those expectations.
  • They feel frustrated and partially responsible when their students fail, but also hold students accountable for their work and effort.  

As Duncan-Andrade explains, and as is seen in the pillars he identified, positive self-identity and purpose are the key to achievement for urban educators, and it is nearly impossible for students to perform academically without covering these bases first.


This story is part of our newly expanding K12 coverage.  If you would like to subscribe to the Education Dive: K12 newsletter, click here. You may also want to read Education Dive's look at how 3 popular organizations try to teach students character.

Topic: K12