Transcription of the episode “Kids learn through relationships: A conversation with Pedro Noguera about building a culture conducive to teaching and learning”

Amy H-L: 00:10 I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: 00:17 And I’m Jon Moscow. This is Ethical Schools podcast where we talk about how to create equitable and inclusive learning environments that support students in becoming capable of and committed to creating a more ethical world.

Amy H-L: 00:30 Our guest today is Dr. Pedro Noguera. Dr. Noguera is Distinguished Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Faculty Director for the Center for the Transformation of Schools at UCLA. His scholarship and research focuses on the ways in which schools are influenced by social and economic conditions and demographic trends. Dr. Noguera was a classroom teacher in public schools in Providence, Rhode Island, and Oakland, California, and continues to work with schools nationally and internationally as a researcher and advisor. He’s published over 200 research articles, monographs, and research reports, and is the author or co-author of several very influential books, including most recently, “Excellence Through Equity” and “Race, Equity and Education: The Pursuit of Equality in Education 60 Years After Brown.” You can learn more about Dr. Noguera on his website,, which we will link to ours, Dr. Noguera, we talk a lot about relationships in educational settings, relationships among faculty members, between teachers and their students and among students. How would you change the traditional hierarchical relationships in schools?

Pedro N: 01:58 Well, you can’t do that by fiat or by policy. You know, you have to do that one school at a time because you know, every school has a culture of its own and the culture is usually heavily influenced by the quality and the character, those relationships. But I do think that when educators understand the importance of building strong, positive relationships with students, that’s a starting point for creating an environment where kids feel respected, feel as though they’re going to be listened to by the adults. And also it’s a kind of [inaudible] where adults can work together, learn from each other. So when you place the importance of relationships at the center of the work of education, I think then addressing the need for good, strong, positive, constructive relationships is something that we can all prioritize and work toward.

Jon M: 02:47 You’ve talked about a mismatch between the learning needs of students and the skills or the lack thereof of the faculty who teach them. How do you build the professional capacity of teachers to strengthen those relationships and to have the focus be on what students need rather than necessarily simply whether the teacher is teaching.

Pedro N: 03:09 So it starts by knowing the students. And when I say knowing the students, I don’t just mean knowing their academic ability or test scores. Um, you know, you do need to know about their academic needs and gaps in learning, but you need to know who they are as people. You need to know how they learn. You need to know what interests them because it’s by knowing about how they learn and what interests them that you start to build connections between what we’re teaching, the curriculum, and what they need to learn. You also need to know about the challenges they face because those challenges often can become a barrier to learning. So the more we know about our students, the more we’ll know about how to teach them. The barrier to doing that is the stereotypes we have about kids. Uh, we make assumptions based on race, based on class, based on a neighborhood the kid is from or any other information that may inform, you know, what we think, our assumptions. And so, for example, I go to a lot of schools now where we think we know a student because of the labels that are put on them. They’re gifted or if they’re special ed or if they’re remedial. And these don’t tell us anything about that student and their interests or their strengths. And so, uh, once we really do know our students, then we have to make sure that we are preparing our teachers to address their needs. And that, that means that we’ve got to recognize that teaching is complex. So it’s not simply about instruction, although instructions and important part of it, pedagogical strategies for reaching a student. But it’s also about having strong content knowledge that you know how to meet those learning needs and again, how to build the relationships. So usually when I see, um, schools that have, you know, deep gaps in achievement and they’re often based on race or income, usually it’s a sign that the people teaching them don’t know how to reach those kids. Because when you put kids in a, in a setting where the adults have the skills and the know how to reach kids, then you’re going to see evidence that kids are learning over time. And so that’s why I say that we want to close that gap between the knowledge and skills of the staff and the needs of our students.

Amy H-L: 05:17 Well, as I understand it, I mean you’re not asking that teachers become kind of amateur social workers or psychologists, but to do the job of teaching in a different way. I think you’d probably agree that it’s very difficult for schools to sort of, or for teachers to be their best at teaching while all the institutions around them are failing. So, you know, here we have a tough situation where kids are experiencing trauma and, and especially in today’s environment, they, you know, they could have parents who are being deported, they could be homeless and all sorts of stuff is going on in their lives. So teachers are in kind of a tough spot.

Pedro N: 06:00 Yeah. Teachers are in a tough spot because, you know, we expect a lot of school and there are other, other institutions don’t step up to support them. So we’re not asking teachers to be social workers. We need social workers in school. We need counselors, we need therapists to work with kids. At the same time, we also need to make sure that we create schools where children are known. Some teachers don’t recognize that they need to know the kids. They think their job is simply to cover the material and leave it to the student to learn it. And that orientation towards teaching often leaves the teachers unable to reach the kids that need help. And so, you know, it starts from a recognition that in order to teach someone, you need to recognize their humanity. Uh, and you need to build a relationship because kids learn through relationships. We’ve all seen examples of kids who will work for one teacher and the same student with another teacher is not performing. And it’s usually because the lack of that relationship This is not to trivialize the nature of learning. It is to simply say that learning, there’s a social dimension to learning and understanding that is, I think, important part of creating schools that can be effective at reaching lots of different kinds of kids.

Jon M: 07:12 You’ve talked about the experience of Brockton High School in Massachusetts and in an article you did recently for The Nation where you are calling for a progressive education agenda, you mentioned Toronto in particular. And it’s interesting because I mean, we all know about individual schools where people have managed to go from a situation of not having those connections at all that you’re talking about and being considered a failing school to being one that’s successful. But Toronto, you know, has a population of over 500,000 people. Um, how did they, and I think you’ve called it, you know, possibly the highest performing urban public school system in America. What does Toronto do and how did they get there?

Pedro N: 07:56 So Toronto is an interesting case because what they focused on was building capacity in schools. And this is in contrast to what we’ve done in America. We, we use accountability, uh, to punish schools and sanction schools that are not performing. InToronto, if a school’s not performing, the Ministry of Education sends people in who, who work with that staff to meet the needs of the kids. So there’s a high level of trust. Um, there’s also a recognition that schools need support and need additional resources. And so you can look at the data that comes out of Toronto and over time what you’ve seen is steady improvement for all kinds of kids because Toronto is still a city with poverty. It has a large diverse population. But what you see is that across all groups, steady improvement. And it’s because of this willingness to really provide support rather than pressure and threats. But you know, some people say, well Canada is a very different of country. They have a healthcare system. We don’t have one. You know, they, they do have support systems that our schools don’t have. So I like to also point to examples in the United States. Um, we mentioned Brockton, but I have to admit that Brockton in recent years not been performing well. And that’s because [inaudible] noticed a change in direction in the district. But I was with a school today in Los Angeles, a social justice Humanitas high school. 100% of the kids are low income. Most of those kids are recent immigrants, English learners. It has the fourth highest graduation rate in Los Angeles. Um, this is the only school in Los Angeles where students evaluate their teachers and the evaluation is taken seriously. It’s feedback for teachers. It’s also a school where they spend the first three days building community, getting to know kids. Um, and they do that before school officially starts. And I asked the principal, how do you get kids to come? He said, we simply tell them we want to meet them and then we ask them to come and they come. So when you look at schools like these that are getting better results, what you find is they’re doing things differently and they’re building a culture that’s conducive to teaching and learning and that’s often what’s missing in many of our schools.

Jon M: 10:03 So how, I mean you mentioned that Brockton right now isn’t doing as well as it was, for example. And there are certainly lots of examples where there are changes in the superintendent changes or the principals change or something happens. What’s your sense of how to build the environment in which it’s taken for granted that schools and school districts would function in the kind of ways that you’re talking about that where they would recognize the centrality of relationships, the centrality of capacity building rather than pressure from above? Um, how do we change from this kind of ineffective command economy, if you will, to something that’s really based on what we know works?

Pedro N: 10:48 Well, you know, some of it is about the politics and the policies that have guided education, which have I think placed the emphasis on the wrong kinds of things. So schools have been under pressure since No Child Left Behind to raise test scores. And you know, I think initially that was um, it made sense cause we wanted evidence that kids were learning. And there’s a reason why many civil rights organizations across the country supported No Child Left Behind. But what ended up happening is that the test score became the only thing schools focused on. And we forgot about the other needs that kids bring, the social and emotional needs. And so what we’ve seen is that the kids with the greatest needs are always the kids who do this well. When you take the kind of approach that I described in Toronto or this school here in Los Angeles, and you start focusing, okay, how do we organize the school to meet the needs of particular communities and make sure the staff is supported in that work? Then you start to think about accountability very differently. There’s still accountability for learning, but it’s mutual accountability. Teachers are accountable to each other, they’re accountable to the parents they serve, students are accountable for what they do, their work, their performance. And when there’s mutual accountability. And if I, you know, ideally we want the politicians to be accountable for providing the kind of support schools need, including the financial resources. That’s what we see in Toronto is that kind of mutual accountability and that’s the, that’s the kind of support system that’s needed to see significant and steady improvements in education.

Amy H-L: 12:17 Well, I think we’ve all seen that kids are most successful when their families are involved. And I think you’ve spoken about treating parents as partners rather than consumers. What does that look like?

Pedro N: 12:31 You know, all you have to do is look at a school in an affluent community and you see what it looks like. Schools in affluent communities are typically very responsive to the parents they serve because the parents are very entitled. Um, they’ll let them know you work for us and they insist that their concerns, sometimes too much, are addressed. But you never, when you ask educators who work in an affluent community, who are you accountable to, they don’t say the state, they’ll let you know. We are accountable to the parents we serve. That’s certainly true at private schools. It’s when you’re in poor schools, the schools serving poor kids. Um, in not just urban but rural areas as well that you often see that the, uh, the concerns of parents are an oversight or an afterthought and that comes from this idea that we can do it in spite of the parents or without the parents. All the evidence shows that parents matter and what you want is reinforcement at home for the learning. And where parents are sending the message to their own children, that education is important, that they’re getting the kids to bed on time and getting them to take education seriously. That’s much more likely when there’s a partnership that’s rooted in respect and empathy with parents. And so, um, you know, we need to put much greater priority on these kinds of partnerships with parents. And the research has shown for many years that this is a critical factor affecting outcomes for kids.

Jon M: 13:53 And talking about parents and relationships to schools and how they’re very different in affluent communities and in low income communities. You know, it’s interesting cause you know, John Dewey talked a lot about the relationship between education and democracy and you know, the fight for educational equity was a mass movement during the civil rights movement. The 1964 School Boycott in New York city was the largest civil rights protest in American history up to that point. 460,000 students stayed home from school. What’s the relationship between an effective movement for making schools work for all students and the overall struggle for social justice in the United States?

Pedro N: 14:37 I’m glad you brought that up because I think in some ways the problem in education is a little bit like the problem in healthcare. We approach it as individuals. There’s a tendency to think, well, if my child’s needs are met that it’s, I don’t have a problem, that it might be other somebody else’s problem. Um, same thing happens with healthcare. You know that if you have health insurance, you don’t really think health care is that big of a deal. We don’t recognize that there’s a public issue at stake with respect to both health and education. And so when we see education as a civil right, as a human right, then we are as concerned about what’s happening with our kids as, as the kids across town or across the country. And so, you know, there was a movement, as you pointed out, in New York City that was triggered by the community control movement, but that movement wasn’t sustained. And, and what we see is that at various times there are movements. I was in Little Rock, Arkansas just a few months ago and there’s a movement to try to regain some public control over the schools there because they’ve been a subject of privatization. Um, but you know, it’s, it’s organizing people, getting them to understand what’s at stake, getting them to think about the, our collective interest. That’s the work that I don’t see happening in nearly enough places. Cause too often we see education as a private good, not a public good.

Jon M: 15:54 So when you call, for example, in the article you did in The Nation at the end of April, you called for a progressive education agenda to replace the so called perform agenda, you know, of high stakes testing and charter schools and school closures, you know, in poor neighborhoods. Do you, as you go around the country, do you get a sense that from the recent teacher strikes and so on and things that have happened, historically in Chicago and the relationship between the Chicago teachers union and parents, do you see signs that this kind of mass movement may be rebuilding, if you will, in a sense of collectivity as opposed to being a strictly individual issue?

Pedro N: 16:34 I do see some signs, but I don’t want to exaggerate them. I mean I, I think many of us were encouraged by the strikes by teachers in a place like Oklahoma and West Virginia, red states. We had a strike here in Los Angeles in January. Our teachers were out for eight days and there was enormous parental support. But then just last week we had a bond measure that would have brought funds into the schools in Los Angeles and was defeated, that we didn’t get, we needed to get two thirds of the vote. We didn’t get 50%. And so it lets me know that we’ve got a lot of work to do. And so I think it would be a mistake to say that there’s a movement building. I think there’s clear signs that people are not happy with the direction policy’s gone in, but I don’t think we yet have the kind of movement that will take us in the direction we need to go in public education. I think one of the problems is that, I don’t know if it’s social media, I’m not sure what it is, but we started this with the Occupy movement, for example, in New York City. Now with this big movement trying to address the issue of inequality, there were mass protests, you know, not just in New York, but in many parts of the world. And then it fizzled. And not because inequality went away, but because the movement wasn’t sustained. And I think it’s because there’s not enough education organizing that goes into these efforts. We did that in the back in the sixties and seventies. We understood that, you know, movements are, have to be rooted in organizing, not simply in social media. And so I think that needs to be a return to organizing. I was just listening to a Ted talk by Dolores Huerta, the farm worker organizer, and she was saying, um, it’s very inspiring. She said, but the biggest threat to our future is apathy, the fact that so many people, take the position that well, there might be a lot of problems but not much can be done about it. And that apathy, especially amongst people who are concerned, um, is a real, real threat. And in education, it results in people doing what they did in Los Angeles last week, voting for their self interest to keep their taxes lower than in terms of the public good.

Amy H-L: 18:37 Yeah, we see certainly an awful lot of people have not seen the connections between education and the other issues that they really care about. And I don’t know if that requires educating adults to understand that, but you know, even the Occupy movement, I mean, wealth inequality in and the 99% did at least become part of our vocabulary. I don’t think people have a sense of what’s really wrong with our schools. Not in an institutional sense. Right. Um, they might think that the schools need more money or just sort of more, you know, more of what they’re getting more of what they’re doing and they, they’re not talking about revamping from the bottom up that the way you’re talking about.

Pedro N: 19:26 Yeah. So, yeah, no, I think most people gone to school so they assume they understand schools, but there’s a lot they don’t typically understand. And that’s why there needs to be more work done educating the public. Now that’s started to happen. One of the things that happened, for example, we’ve seen, um, educators getting elected to public office. Massachusetts’ new congresswoman from Boston is a former teacher of the year. No, actually Connecticut. So we’re, we are seeing, um, teachers running for office and education being elevated in the, on the agenda. But I, I’d still say we got a lot of work to do. So if you go back to the example I was giving about the United Farm Workers. There was a time in this country when, um, and it took a long time to convince grape eaters not to eat grapes, right? Because it wasn’t enough to get the workers to go on strike because they did for a long time. You had to convince people who buy grapes that it was not right. It was not morally the thing to do because we were eating, uh, you know, farm workers were not paid adequately. They were exposed to very dangerous conditions and, but that took time and it was a protracted struggle. Um, and I would say that’s the way we have to look at this. This is not something that happens overnight. And I don’t know if we have, you know, I, I teach at the university and I talk to, you know, young people a lot and I don’t know if they are, they understand what it takes to shift the direction of policy and politics if you’re not happy with it. So we got a lot of work to do. And I, you know, I often think that older people who were in these movements or who did participate have responsibility. They can’t just leave it up to young people. They need to work with young people to get them to see that things won’t change by themselves.

Jon M: 21:10 And you know, it’s interesting because, and I say this as, as one of those older people who was very much involved in leafleting outside of Safeway in supportive of the grape strike and involved in, school movements in New York is I think that it’s possible that the next level of energy is actually going to come from the young people. I mean, you see it, I mean, the Parkland students of course have been doing it around guns. But for example, in New York City, there’s this whole Integrate NYC For Me movement and you have students on the steps of City Hall. I think it was, or the Department of Ed, whichever. It was demanding an end to essentially what I think is, is the most or one of the most segregated school systems in the country. And it may be that, you know, if the last time around it was parents that it may be this time around, it’ll be students. And I agree with you completely that they need the support of and the accumulated knowledge of older people. But I’m wondering whether the initial energy may not come from, you know, high school students who say, you’re, you’re failing us in this as you’re, as you’re failing us in so many other dimensions of our lives.

Pedro N: 22:28 Well, you know, I, I’m, I’m also encouraged by the Parkland students, too. And their efforts to try to challenge the gun lobby and to change the gun laws, you know, have made some inroads. Um, it’s a shame. It takes mass shootings to get people to move, but at least people are starting to move. We need to have a similar energy on the broader set of issues that perpetuate deep and gross inequities in education in this country, You know, we’re one of the few countries in the world that deliberately spends less money to educate poor kids than middle-class and affluent kids, and money matters. And that’s not going to change by itself. So yeah, we need to educate the public and hopefully there will be more young people get organized and we’ll take this on and, and stay involved, but we need to make sure that it’s not just left to the young people that they get some help.

Jon M: 23:16 Absolutely. Thank you so much for having joined us. And we also want to thank our listeners. Visit our website,, where you can check out our articles and episodes. We’re on Facebook, on Twitter @ethicalschools, on Instagram Ethical Schools podcast. Till next week. Thank you again.

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