Cultural Responsiveness Starts With Responsive Leaders
BY SAROJA R. WARNER/School Administrator, February 2020

WestEd’s Saroja Warner with Daman Harris, principal of Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Rockville, Md.
Daman Harris, principal of Wheaton Woods Elementary School in Rockville, Md., and I first became acquainted in my prior work as a teacher in Montgomery County, Md. He is leading a grassroots educator initiative to recruit, develop, retain and empower male educators of color, and over several years, we found we shared a commitment to this work.

Harris exhibits the fundamental characteristics and behaviors of the culturally responsive school leaders identified by Muhammad Khalifa, author of Culturally Responsive School Leadership.

These qualities include (1) routinely engaging in critical self-awareness of cultural identity and implicit bias; (2) intentionally recruiting, hiring and retaining culturally responsive teachers; (3) promoting a culturally responsive and inclusive school culture; (4) mentoring and modeling culturally responsive teaching; and (5) engaging with students, families and communities in culturally responsive ways.

An Asset Mindset
Harris is in his first year as principal in this Title I school but served as the assistant principal for three years prior. The school serves about 550 students in prekindergarten through 5th grade. The teaching staff is not diverse, and neither are the students. Most teachers are white women with the handful of men primarily teaching music and physical education. More than 60 percent of the students are Latinx, many of them English learners. Additionally, among the 27 percent of students who identify as black, almost 10 percent speak Amharic (tied to their Ethiopian and Eritrean backgrounds) as their first language. Fewer than 5 percent are white.

Harris carries high expectations for his students and teachers. He operates from an asset-based mindset and believes educators should “teach to standards in a way that is connected to kids’ cultures and contexts, and I don’t mean we have to speak Spanish, but at a minimum we should know their names and greet their families when we see them in and out of schools.”

Harris, who is black, recognizes his race does not make him immune to implicit bias. Given the demographics, he recognizes the need for self-awareness and interrogation of his attitudes.

For example, just because he is black there is not necessarily a magic connection in his relationships with black students and families from East Africa. He works intentionally to develop his cross-cultural competencies with students, their families and teachers.

His investments are evident in what parents have to say about him. One said: “We love Dr. Harris because he sees us and he sees our children. He knows my child’s name and he tells my child that he loves him. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

Despite having grown up poor, Harris recognizes his implicit biases impact judgments he makes about parents, reminding himself that “poverty affects choices parents have to make about spending money on field trips, lunch, or paying for a lost library book. I have to check myself on these things.”

Off-Site Observations
Harris creates professional learning experiences for teachers to help them build cultural competencies inside and outside the building. He accompanies teachers to local community centers and playgrounds where students play.

“The point is to give them an opportunity to observe our kids and pay attention to how they engage in a less-structured, comfortable environment,” he says. “Some of the teachers were not comfortable going, even some of our teachers of color. On one day, when the kids were playing board games and doing homework, one of my teachers said, ‘I didn’t know that they could be this focused.’ I asked, ‘Why do you think their behavior is different here than in your classroom?’ And she said, ‘I think I just wasn’t allowing it. I was not allowing them the freedom. I think I was afraid to let go of control.’ So these are things teachers thought they had to teach kids, how to sit and take turns and raise their hands and be respectful, when the reality is their families have already taught them that. They know how to do all those things.”

Harris is also intentional in his hiring practices. During candidate interviews, he listens for responses that demonstrate high expectations, asset-based perspectives of students and families, and examples of how they connect curriculum to students’ outside lives and interests.

While he always prioritizes strong content knowledge as a required qualification for elementary teachers he hires, he believes strongly that “it’s harder to change beliefs. Content can be developed.”

SAROJA WARNER is senior state technical assistance director at WestEd in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @SarojaWarner