Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Influence of Cultural Synchronization on a Teacher's Perceptions of Disruption: A Case Study of an African American Middle-School Classroom

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

The Influence of Cultural Synchronization on a Teacher's Perceptions of Disruption: A Case Study of an African American Middle-School Classroom

Article excerpt

It is a sunny fall day and a group of eighth-grade African American students in an urban metropolitan school are working diligently on an assignment provided by their teacher, Ms. Simpson. The students are quiet and on-task. For many teacher educators, both behaviors are strong indicators that Ms. Simpson has an effective style of classroom management. Yet as the period progresses, the quiet tranquility of the classroom is interrupted. Andrew, a student in the class, has stopped completing his assignment and is talking to another student who is seated beside him. As a "good" teacher, Ms. Simpson immediately addresses Andrew's off-task behavior with a quick "Andrew!" Initially, the admonishment serves to curtail his inappropriate behavior. However, after a few moments Andrew has again stopped working and is talking with another student. What is an "effective" teacher to do but address the repeated violation with a consequence? Ms. Simpson decides to assign a lunchtime detention with the words, "Andrew, I would like to have your tray on my lunch table."

However, as many educators are aware, student responses to teachers' disciplinary techniques can be unpredictable and require quick reactions on the part of the teacher. Such was the case in Ms. Simpson's class that day:

Allison: Andrew got a date with Miss Simpson!

Ms. Simpson: Yes, you have a date with me. You're going to continue to have a date with me until you follow my directions.

Allison: Andrew like Miss Simpson!

Michael: That's illegal!

Ms. Simpson: No illegal would be flat out killing you. That's illegal.

Michael: You ain't going to put no, you ain't going to put no date rape pill in our milk are you?

Ms. Simpson: Why would I want to date rape y'all?

Her incredulous tone elicits a burst of laughter from the students.

"'Cause I'm a man," Eddie playfully suggests.

"I'm not Stella and I am not looking to get my groove back," Ms. Simpson counters pointedly, and the students again laugh.

"I don't know what y'all be thinking about," she continues, beginning to incorporate dialectical and grammatical patterns common in many southern, low-income African American communities into her speech. "I don't know why y'all think a grown woman want a child."

Three to four boys respond, "I'm not a child. I'm a man."

"You ain't no man," Ms. Simpson replies, "Do you have a job? Do you pay bills? Do you pay rent? Do you pay a light bill? Gas bill?"

Several boys answer affirmatively to every question in chorus.

Ms. Simpson quickly retorts, "You can't even buy Frutopia [a soft drink sold in the school cafeteria]. You beg for it everyday at lunch."

The class again laughs as the boys jokingly protest her characterization. Finally, the teacher authoritatively states: "Hush. The more you talk the more you get yourself in trouble." The students comply with her instructions and the interlude ends.

In a few short minutes, Ms. Simpson's comments, undoubtedly, have altered her professional image from one of "effective educator" to "unprofessional teacher" in the eyes of many teacher educators. Disapproval of Ms. Simpson's actions rests on the conventional wisdom that students are likely to perceive such behaviors as sarcastic and insulting at worst. At best, her comments may be viewed as simply inappropriate. Unfortunately, conventional wisdom fails to account for the importance of cultural context when analyzing teacher behaviors.

Drawn from field notes collected during our case study of an African American middle-school classroom, the cited excerpt suggests that students do not always perceive nontraditional classroom management techniques negatively. Rather, the cultural context in which behaviors occur strongly mediates definitions of appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In this article we explore cultural components of a teacher's classroom disciplinary practices. …

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