You Can’t Teach Who You Don’t Know

“They say you can’t teach what you don’t know,” quipped Dr. Gess LeBlanc, a professor at Hunter College School of Education in New York City. “But the truth is, you can’t teach who you don’t know.”

Dr. Le Blanc’s remarks were part of a panel discussion on “The Crisis of Urban Males” at The Children’s’ Storefront Annual Urban Education Symposium, a one-day event that brought together people from public, private, and charter schools and higher education to discuss how to maximize educational opportunity and outcomes for low income, urban youth.

Dr. Le Blanc was joined by Osei Owusu-Afriye, the turn-around principal of Frederick Douglass Academy II in New York City; and Thierry Cazeau, Deputy Director of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, a youth program that works out of public housing developments to support high school and college completion.

At its center, their collective advice focused not on cutting edge theory but on timeless truths about kids, schools, and teaching: for students to succeed, they must feel valued, understood, and connected.

Good schools and good teachers have always known this. But it is easier said than done.

Truly connecting with students requires much more than well-meaning, caring adults who “love kids,” the panelists emphasized. It requires adults with the ability to connect and the expertise to move student learning forward.

What does this “expertise” look like? Too often, teachers and schools see only their students’ deficits and view their communities as places to be escaped. In fact, the panel asserted, students’ lived experiences are rich sources of knowledge; in addition, there already exist resources of strength and resilience in their families and neighborhoods that are too often ignored or overlooked.

In essence, they said, we must listen, learn, honor, and invite into our school the totality of our students’ lives.

Osei Owusu-Afriye went on to offer additional strategies that are making a difference for the boys at Frederick Douglass Academy II:

  • Let boys take on challenges, like advanced studies; do not create artificial barriers to do so, like required grade point averages.
  • Link what students are learning to lived experience
  • Promote self-efficacy: reinforce the boys’ belief that they have the ability to be successful and give them the tools they need
  • Show boys a clear path to a goal
  • Embrace and channel their energy
  • Create “a culture of talk” as the best way to solve problems
  • Find ways for boys to engage in and encounter their future: put what they aspire to be, and what you aspire for them, right in front of them

The strategies shared by this panel of wise and experienced educators apply to all students. In the rush to high achievement at any cost, it is easy to lose sight of or diminish the value of fundamental truths.

“You can’t teach who you don’t know.” We ignore this particular truth at our peril—and at the peril of our students, especially those who need great schools and teachers the most.