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A Desire to Learn: African American Children’s Positive Attitudes Toward Learning Within School Cultures of Low Expectations

by Jeffrey L. Lewis & Eunhee Kim - 2008

Background: Scholars are bringing much-needed attention to the persistent problem of academic underachievement among African American children in the United States, who continue to lag behind White school children in all socioeconomic groups. This is especially true of impoverished African Americans. Although some link these outcomes to poor student attitudes, recent scholarship casts doubt on the prevalence and significance of the role of adversarial attitudes on school outcomes. In addition, most of the extant research of student attitudes among African American students reflects research with middle school and high school students. We know little about the attitudes of elementary-age African American children living in low-income neighborhoods.

Focus of Study: This qualitative study aims to address this gap in our knowledge by examining whether oppositional attitudes toward learning prevail among African American children attending two low-income urban elementary schools in California. We also examine how what African American children say they want in teachers relates to what we document as good teaching.

Research Design: This study used a qualitative design that included face-to-face interviews with children, participant observation in the school and after-school labs, and videotape of classroom interactions in after-school sites. We helped establish the after-school sites as pedagogical laboratories designed to examine how less skilled teachers learn to improve their practice and how children learn with an exemplary teacher.

Data Analysis: We content-analyzed interview data to examine how children defined and described effective and ineffective teaching. We also used content analysis of participant observations to assess school climate and institutional culture. We developed a code manual to content-analyze videotaped lab data to identify characteristics of the after-school lab that supported positive and productive classroom behaviors in the students.

Conclusions: We conclude that low-come urban children do want to learn, regardless of their actual demonstrated ability levels, and they appear to be resilient in this respect. We found that elementary school-age low-income African American children are aware of strengths and deficiencies in their teachers and can name each explicitly. Even within controlling or negative school environments that reflect a pervasive culture of low expectations, they overwhelmingly expressed a desire for teachers who treated them well, helped them learn, and who were fair and caring toward them. Moreover, given the opportunity to work with a teacher who worked with them in ways consistent with what they looked for in good teachers, the children in our study responded with productive classroom behaviors.


Scholars are bringing much-needed attention to the persistent and perplexing problem of academic underachievement among African American children in the United States. Despite a drop in African American poverty rates from 55.1% in 1959 to 24.7% in 2004 (Spriggs, 2006), the educational achievement of African American school children continues to lag behind that of White school children “on vocabulary, reading, and mathematics tests, as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence” (Jencks & Phillips, 1998, p. 1). In addition, there is some evidence of an increase in the achievement gap since the 1990s (Harris & Herrington, 2006). Although an achievement gap exists in all socioeconomic groups (Jencks & Phillips), low academic achievement has come to be expected in poorly resourced urban schools, where the problems associated with poverty create a developmental niche (Harkness & Super, 1983) that is commonly perceived as contributing to poor educational outcomes for urban children. Scholars partly link these outcomes to poor student attitudes (Ogbu, 2003; Portes, 1996). Studies of poor urban educational outcomes have tended to view African American children’s behaviors as adversarial and antiachievement (e.g., Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Ogbu).

Recent scholarship has cast serious doubt on the prevalence and significance of the role of adversarial attitudes on school outcomes (Cook & Ludwig, 1998; Fryer & Torelli, 2005; Tyson, 2002). Collectively, these scholars suggested that to the extent that such attitudes exist among African American children, they pertain to a minority of Black students. Moreover, there is some empirical evidence that African American children generally want to achieve and to be successful in school. For example, Wilson and Corbett (2001) found that middle school urban African American students possessed high achievement expectations even though they attended low-performing schools and, based on the previous achievement outcomes of their schools, were unlikely to graduate from high school. Fryer and Torelli, looking at adolescent African American students, and Tyson, looking at middle- and upper-income elementary-age African American students, provided empirical evidence that adversarial attitudes are not nearly as prevalent among African Americans as some scholars have suggested (e.g., Fordham & Ogbu, 1986; Ogbu, 2003). Studies such as these raise serious questions about the prevalence of oppositional attitudes among African American students in middle school and high school. They also raise questions about their relationship to poor educational outcomes in urban schools. The fact is, we know little about the attitudes and beliefs of elementary-age African American students.

Building on the insights from Tyson’s (2002), ethnographic study, the present study aims to examine the prevalence of oppositional attitudes toward learning among African American children attending two low-income urban elementary schools. This study extends Tyson’s work in two ways: first, by focusing on African American children in low-income communities, and second, through an analysis of how low-income African American children define and describe effective and ineffective teaching. We also discuss the persistence of these attitudes within what we identify as “school cultures of low expectations.” We conclude with a case study analysis of one after-school program to examine the relationship between what children in our study say they want in teachers, and characteristics of classrooms that we document in the after-school program.



Within psychological literatures (Masten, 2001) and educational literatures (Howard, Dryden, & Johnson, 1999), the construct “risk” has become a common framework for theorizing about and describing the social and educational outcomes of children from low-income urban environments. Risk has been “adapted from the medical field and used to predict vulnerability to a range of negative life outcomes including school failure” (Howard et al.,  p. 308). Ford, Harris, Tyson, and Trotman (2002) suggested that practitioners link the concept of risk to a deficit perspective of African Americans, thus obscuring the strengths of African American children. Masten referred to risk as “current or past hazards judged to have the potential to derail normative development” (p. 228).

However, in their critique of the construct of risk, Howard et al. (1999) argued that most models of risk suffer from three problems. First, they have an ethnocentric bias and tend to focus on children whose “appearance, language, culture, values, home communities, and family structures often do not match those of the dominant culture” (p. 308). Second, they largely focus on overt “antisocial”1 behaviors and do not adequately address less overt expressions of distress. Third, they generally view children’s experiences in terms of deficits. As a result, models of risk often fail to acknowledge that, or explain why, most children in presumably high-risk situations do not exhibit significant problems or antisocial behaviors, and many are reasonably successful within the limited opportunity structures afforded them.

Research on resilience in children developed in part to counter the deficit-oriented risk models. Citing Soodak and Podell (1994), Howard et al. (1999) noted that risk models can have “the effect of lowering teachers’ expectations of what students have the potential to achieve and often [place] them in the position of being blamed for poor school performance on the basis of characteristics over which they have no control” (p. 309). This problem can be particularly acute where there is a history or pattern of low performance.

Models of resilience focus on the qualities that some children possess that enable them to survive and even thrive under adverse conditions, thus focusing on the assets that children have that lead to positive outcomes. Rather than focus on deficiencies or deficits, resilience research focused on these questions: What is it about these children that enables them to survive? What makes them apparently immune to the factors that negatively affect others? However, some scholars view resilience models as problematic insofar as they tend to treat resilient children as unusual or exceptional. But Masten (2001) argued that resiliency “comes from ordinary, everyday human resources in the mind, brain, and bodies of children, in their families and relationships, and in their communities” (p. 235). Thus, resilience is a quality or capacity that all children may have to some degree. In using risk and resilience, scholars have focused on qualities of individual children and have underemphasized the role that sociocultural context plays as a coactive agent of children’s development.

Culture and context in education research

Our purpose in this study is to explore the school and classroom as cultural institutions and contexts, as developmental niches (Harkness & Super, 1983) in which children develop attitudes, behaviors, and capacities as learners. Culture, according to Geertz (1973), “is an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which (individuals) communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge and attitude toward life” (p. 89). Culture generally (1) is historically contingent, (2) involves patterns of meanings and behaviors, (3) is “transmitted” and “communicated,” and (4) is the basis for knowledge and attitudes. Moreover, as Lewis and Watson-Gegeo (2004) argued, human behaviors and development occur within and develop through the interactions of organisms with specific contexts. The study of learning and behavioral processes “must incorporate the person (however defined) and his/her cultural setting” (Lewis & Watson-Gegeo, p. 11).

Context is patterns through time rooted in sociocultural and sociohistorical processes of activity that constrain possibility in a given situation. Yet, context is also subject to sudden alterations through actions both deliberate and unintended by participants, including the sometimes radical and dramatic events that change history, whether at the familial, local, or societal level of social organization. The complexities of why sometimes sociohistorical patterns persist and other times they do not, or how people move from one set of assumptions to another, requires analysts to open out their linear models into a holistic, holographic representation of context. (pp. 10–11)

Harkness and Super (1983) defined developmental niche as “the physical and social settings which the [child] lives in, culturally regulated customs involved in care and rearing, and the psychology of the caretakers” (p. 222). This construct of developmental niche is relevant to our understanding of school culture that we suggest is deeply implicated in the developmental outcomes of school children, particularly as they relate to the “culturally shared expectations for behaviors by and toward individuals” (p. 223) and toward learning. We believe that schools function as cultural niches in which children develop dispositions2 toward learning and community. Schools have and maintain historical patterns of activities and roles, shared perceptions and values, behavioral expectations, and patterns of meaning that are communicated and transmitted through school structure and bureaucracy, pedagogical and disciplinary practices, and affiliative and hierarchical relationships. As such, schools function as cultural institutions and developmental niches for children; that is, schools have a formative influence on the development of children’s individual and social identities as learners, as well as their school attitudes and school behavior.


A number of scholars have suggested that negative attitudes toward academic achievement are pervasive among urban African American children (Ogbu, 2003; Portes, 1996; Portes & MacLeod, 1996; Portes & Zhou, 1993). Indeed, there remains in the United States a persistent belief that African American children develop and maintain oppositional attitudes because of beliefs and cultural practices. Some scholars view oppositional culture as an adaptive response to a shared history of slavery and racial discrimination (e.g., Ogbu). However, in recent years, there has been an increase in the number of critiques of this position, and there is now a small but growing literature documenting the positive orientation toward achievement held by urban and other low-income African American students.

In their three-year study, Wilson and Corbett (2001) found that all of the 250 urban middle school children interviewed in the first year of their study expected to attend and complete high school. Indeed, “most of them expected to go on to college; and nearly all of them anticipated finding employment in their preferred occupational fields” (p. 19). Students held these high aspirations although they “were among the lowest performing in the city” (p. 63). In their analysis of data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, Cook and Ludwig  found that hardworking and high-achieving Black students are no more likely to be unpopular than any other students and that there is no cultural sanction for this kind of success despite stereotypes to the contrary. They concluded that their “results do not support the belief that group differences in peer attitudes account for the black-white gap in educational achievement” (p. 392). Similarly, Sankofa, Hurley, Allen, and Boykin (2005) found support for their hypothesis that African American students generally identify with those Black high achievers who achieve their success “with an African American cultural orientation” (p. 9).

As Wilson (1996), Steele (1992), and others noted, surveys of low-income African Americans have shown that they possess values and aspirations very similar to those of the American middle class. Moreover, African Americans have historically valued education (Foster, 1997) without regard to social class status. Although there is little doubt that antischool attitudes exist among some African Americans—as they do for many middle class White students (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 1995)—they tend to be overgeneralized. Tyson (2002) suggested that, contrary to culture-based explanations of school attitudes, “the schooling experience, particularly achievement outcomes, plays a central role in at least the development of attitudes toward school” (p. 1184). The failure of teachers to develop sustained productive relationships with African American children likely contributes to the students’ low achievement, which may help to account for the emergence of negative attitudes toward school found among some African American students. In this study, we investigated whether the problem of underachievement lies primarily in the children and in their peer group norms or in the structure and culture of the schools in which they are developing their academic identities, attitudes, and dispositions toward learning.


There is growing acknowledgment of the importance of understanding children’s perspectives in the context of research (e.g., Christensen & James, 2000; Lewis & Lindsay, 2000). Wilson and Corbett (2001) suggested that students are “useful windows” (p. 8) and can be “sophisticated observers of school life” (p. 8), and that we should “recognize [students] as legitimate participants in educational debate rather than as mere beneficiaries of adults’ ministrations” (p. 9). Woodhead and Faulkner (2000) suggested that children, despite their subordinate status with respect to adults, are not necessarily passive in their social relations with adults; they participate in negotiating and making-meaning of their experiences. However, Lewis and Watson-Gegeo (2004) noted that “typically in school classrooms teachers unilaterally assign meanings and motivations to the behaviors of children with whom they do not share racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds; and invariably, teachers’ social and institutional power allows their meanings and interpretations to trump those of the child” (p. 6).

Nevertheless, all social actors, regardless of their status, have knowledge of, and are actively engaged in, processes of reproductive activities and ideas (Giddens, 1979). This includes children in schools. We cannot easily reduce adult-child relationships to equations of dominance and subordination. Teachers and their students express and negotiate their relationships within and through contexts of social power and affections that can both reinforce and subvert power relationships. Thus, children’s perspectives are important not only for understanding the social worlds in which they participate but also for informing how we theorize about their social and developmental experiences. Child study and education scholars must move beyond using children merely as informants and take seriously their agency in constructing theories, beliefs, and practices that pertain to and affect the social worlds they inhabit. We must investigate “children’s social understanding of their experiences from the perspectives of children” and “not just in respect to their social construction by adults” (James & Prout, 1997, p. 4).


In this study, we are concerned with proximal processes (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) that occur within classrooms. Foster, Lewis, and Onafowora (2003) argued that for anthropological constructs like culture to be useful to educational research,

the researcher must identify exactly what is shared about culture. A researcher will have to ascertain what things symbolize and how they become significant. A researcher will need to determine when, where, and by whom ideas are deemed significant, who contests assumptions about what is shared, and its significance and meaning. Finally, the researcher will have to decide whether to deal with the macro situated or the micro situated aspects of culture, although increasingly the challenge is to find ways to link the two.” (p. 263)

We argue that the academically low-performing urban K–5 schools in which this study takes place represent school cultures of low expectations. Indeed, teachers at both schools expressed attitudes that tended to view children negatively and in terms of deficits. Moreover, each school community reproduced these attitudes and their associated instructional and disciplinary practices through historically shared institutional and interpersonal practices and relationships.



We collected interview data as part of a larger study of effective urban teachers, Learning Through Teaching in an After-School Pedagogical Laboratory (L-TAPL). We collected these data at two L-TAPL sites between November 2001 and May 2003, one in Northern California and one in Southern California. The program, a 3-day-a-week, 2-hour after-school enrichment program, included language arts, math, and science. We conducted our study of children’s perspectives on teaching within this context.

Three types of data serve as the basis for this article: pretest and posttest semistructured interviews, participant observation, and videotape of after-school classroom teaching. Participants in our study included the teachers recruited to be master teachers and the children who participated in L-TAPL. Regular classroom teachers recommended most of the student participants, for whom we secured parental permission to participate in the program. We interviewed 72 students in the two after-school sites over a 2-year period between 2001 and 2003, and 45 (62.5%) of them responded to both pretest and posttest interviews. Videotaped data came from the first 3 weeks of the labs, during which time the teachers established routines and we observed changes in the children’s behaviors toward increasingly productive classroom attitudes and behaviors. The authors visited the sites one to two times per month, for 2–3 days at a time. We collected observational data at these times. We provide detailed descriptions of the participants in Appendix A.

We interviewed each child individually, in a private space at the schools serving as L-TAPL sites. We assured children that their responses were confidential and that we would not share their responses with anyone at school. We explained that they did not have to answer questions, and they could leave any time they wished. Interviews began with brief introductions and casual conversation to allow children to feel comfortable in the setting. Although some of the boys were quite wiggly, children consistently answered our questions thoughtfully, sometimes asking clarifying questions and frequently elaborating on their answers with examples.

We were interested in two broad aspects of students’ perspectives and experiences, including students’ perceptions and beliefs about schooling (including their beliefs about teacher and student roles) and students’ beliefs about and experiences of teaching (i.e., what, for the children, was the evidence of good teaching and what was the evidence of poor teaching). Our analysis of responses to the latter question serves as the core analysis for this article. We conducted pretest and posttest face-to-face interviews at the beginning and end of the after-school programs in each of the first 2 years of the study.  

Black children on teaching: Interview questions

To better understand how children perceive effective teaching and to generate student examples of effective and ineffective teaching, we asked children two open-ended questions: How do you know a teacher is a good teacher? and How do you know a teacher is not a good teacher? Given the power that teachers exercise over children’s lives at school, especially young children, we expected that the students we interviewed in Grades 1–4 would have internalized the overt and subtle negative messages and attitudes directed at them. Thus, we expected that children’s attitudes toward school and learning would reflect the messages of low expectations that they received. In addition, we expected that under these conditions, children would be primarily concerned with their socioemotional needs, thereby suppressing their concern with learning. Moreover, we reasoned that if students perceived and experienced school as a place where adults sought to control them because they had low expectations for the students (academically and behaviorally), this would be reflected in their responses to this question. Specifically, we expected students to answer questions about good and ineffective teaching in such a way as to reflect a concern with avoiding, resisting, or otherwise dealing with forms of teacher control. Thus, it was our expectation that a “good teacher,” from the perspectives of these children, would be defined as someone who, in some way or the other, treated them well, and an undesirable teacher one who treated them poorly.

To analyze the student interview data, we made a raw list of the responses grouped by research question. We then conducted a preliminary content analysis through which we developed six response categories that we used for the initial coding of the data. We trained two undergraduate researchers who, along with Kim (one of the authors), independently coded the data and conducted interrater reliability checks. This process continued until we agreed to reduce the number of categories from six to four, and we achieved interrater reliabilities between .68 and .90. The categories were (1) how teachers treat children (the expected response), (2) teachers’ teaching competency, (3) treatment of children and teaching competency combined, and (4) teacher character. We used the following preliminary definitions to establish the reliabilities of the categories.

We defined treatment as responses that reflected teachers’ attitudes, behaviors, and actions toward children that did not directly relate to learning; children’s general experience in school; and general quality of teachers’ interactions with students (e.g., “makes you stand in the corner when somebody else did wrong”). We defined teaching ability or competency as any response related to the learning process. Teacher competency, willingness to teach, and helping children learn were included in this category (e.g., “helps with math, reading, spelling and tests”).

Teaching and treatment responses combined treatment and teaching ability codes (e.g., “when they yell a lot and don’t teach right”). Finally, teacher character or disposition included responses with which coders were able to answer the question, “What kind of individual is the teacher?” We include fairness in this category (e.g., “listens to both stories and not just one side”).


We videotaped each session of the after-school program. Through an iterative process, we content-analyzed the first 3 weeks of the lab (a period in which we observed children developing consistent productive behaviors) until we reached consensus on themes that emerged from the video data. We developed preliminary codes, which we then applied to the 3-week data set. We content-analyzed the coded video data and identified an overarching construct “solidarity” made up of three subcodes: minimal social hierarchy, democratization of support and opportunity, and teaching with integrity. Further refining of codes and additional analyses are forthcoming. However, to test the consistency of our analyses, we will use the preliminary codes to compare our analysis of effective teaching with our analysis of what children say they want in good teachers.



Based on our interpretive analysis of field observations and teacher and student reports, we concluded that the general school climate and orientation toward students displayed low expectations. Despite the presence of positive school slogans and themes, the implicit and explicit messages that children received throughout the school day in their interactions with teachers and other staff were that they were not really expected to demonstrate engaged, self-regulated behaviors.

In general, we defined low expectations by teachers of students in our sample using two sources of data. First, there were widespread attempts by teachers to severely control children’s behavior with the use of threats and other forms of coercion. This occurred both in disciplinary and discursive practices toward students. For example, we commonly observed teachers making children stand in the hallway just after recess until all were absolutely still and quiet. At times, teachers also required children to stand on lines made by the cracks between floor tiles. Teachers were aware of their controlling and coercive practices, and the limited effects of such practices. For example, one teacher, describing how she and her colleagues were treating children in her school, commented, “The kids, people adapt to their environment, just like animals or anything else. If you treat a person like a criminal, they will act like a criminal. And a lot of kids here, they’ve been treated like criminals for so long. . . . Nothing you do, the punishment doesn’t faze them.”

Later, acknowledging the limits of such an approach and shifting her focus from the students and their behavior to herself and her practices, the same teacher commented,

This jailhouse mentality is not working here. Taking all their privileges doesn’t work. They just adapt to it. “Like okay, I’m [inaudible]. You took my recess,” and the kids tell you, “Why should I be good? You won’t let me do anything.” And seeing the kids in here today, that really brought something home for me. It’s like, okay, well maybe I need to go home and figure out a different way to present some [inaudible].

Having the opportunity to observe their children working with an effective teacher whose approach reflected a different set of assumptions, strategies, and values—particularly with respect to their perceptions of, and relationships with, the children—allowed these teachers to identify and reflect on the pervasively negative way that they defined and treated the children.

The second data source for defining a culture of low expectations centered on teachers allowing mediocre student work—work that was flawed and below the students’ abilities—to pass as exceptional. For example, during an after-school session, participant teachers praised one child for his writing ability, largely because the story that he had written was long. However, the master teacher intervened, pointing out to the child (and indirectly to the teachers) that although the story was long, it was lacking in quality, and that the child was capable of producing better work. She subsequently gave the paper back to the child to redo; after a brief period of resistance by the child, he produced a better paper. Without the intervention of the master teacher, the child (and other children) would have accepted mediocre work as worthy of praise. As we discuss later, in the children’s responses to our survey, they consistently expressed a desire to really learn (not just pass), and it was our observation that students responded to the higher expectations of the master teacher in part because of the supportive nature of classroom relationships.

At both sites, children’s achievement levels reflected the low expectations of the school culture—largely, we think, because of the lack of effective instruction and meaningful opportunities to learn. Indeed, our Northern California site was one of the lowest performing schools in the district and had recently undergone an overhaul of the administration in an attempt to control severe behavior problems at the school. Several teachers were without credentials and thus had little in the way of formal preparation, teaching experience, or job security. This added to their anxiety and distress; teachers struggled to effectively teach while living under the threat of losing their jobs if students’ test scores did not improve. This amplified the negative climate in which children and teachers attempted to work. In conversations with teachers, they spoke openly about being less patient and more controlling with students because of the pressures of standardized testing. This is consistent with our observations of the school climate just before spring testing.

Given the young ages of the children (most were only in second or third grade) and given the long-term, almost endemic nature of these problems, we argue that these conditions placed children’s desire and willingness to learn at risk. However, as we will demonstrate shortly, the children proved to possess resilient enthusiasm for learning, even given the controlling and negative climate and lack of effective teaching that pervaded their school lives.

Perceptions of teaching and learning

As we expected, in children’s responses to our survey questions, teacher treatment was salient, echoing the findings of Wilson and Corbett (2001). When we asked children about their perception of “a good teacher,” 24% of children’s responses mentioned only teacher treatment at pretest interview and 33% at posttest interview. Seventy-six percent and 67% of pretest and posttest responses included other characteristics. Similarly, when we asked children about their perception of “not so good teacher,” 34% of children’s responses mentioned only teacher treatment at pretest interview and 45% at posttest interview; 66% of pretest and 55% of posttest responses as included other characteristics.

Just as Wilson and Corbett (2001) found urban middle school children to possess an astute and critical awareness of classroom and school issues, we found that the elementary-grade students in our study were thoughtful and insightful regarding effective and ineffective teaching. More generally, our results indicate that African American children possess qualities and insights, both individually and as a group, that might serve as a solid foundation for their learning.

Even within schools with cultures of low expectations, the children consistently defined a good teacher as someone who teaches you things—someone who helps children to achieve, and not merely someone who treats you well or does good things for you. Indeed, 12% of pretest responses and 10% of posttest responses mentioned that ability to effectively teach as the only characteristic of good teachers. Teaching competence and character combined to account for 31% of responses to good teaching (with no mention of treatment) and for 26% of posttest responses. In general, we found that children provided responses that were complex, often clustering around multiple characteristics and concerns.

Many of the students’ responses reflected a concern with fair and unfair treatment. For example, one student viewed a bad teacher as someone who “makes you stand in the corner when somebody else did wrong.” Another student said that he knows a teacher is good when “We get to do good stuff and don’t have to sit on bench.” However, even within this response category, we see that issues related to learning emerge, as when one student described an ineffective teacher as someone who will “ignore you and don’t answer your questions.” The response suggests that the teacher is willful in her failure to acknowledge the student. However, this is not only about how the teacher treats the student; the teacher’s failure to answer the question is an equal concern in the response.

When we look at the responses in the other categories, we can see the complexity of children’s perspectives and their persistent concern with learning. This is most clear in the responses coded within the teacher competency category. In a number of ways, students expressed a concern for their teachers’ ability or willingness to teach. For example, one student described a bad teacher in this way: “She doesn’t teach you much.” However, other students provided more complex and nuanced responses. One student suggested an ineffective teacher is one who “don’t explain things; don’t take time to explain.” In a similar vein, another student suggested that an ineffective teacher is one who “don’t teach, and just gives answers.” Students also identified positive qualities of effective teachers, for example, “helps with math, reading, spelling and tests,” and “she tells me about school and how to do stuff.” Indeed, consistent with the findings of Wilson and Corbett (2001), helpfulness was a common response among our respondents. Twelve of 36 children mentioned helpfulness 16 times in the pretest, and 12 of 42 children mentioned helpfulness 18 times in the posttest questionnaire. Some examples include, “they are mean, unhelpful,” they “help you with your class work,” and finally, they “help me; no matter what, she will wait.”

In these examples, we see that the children in this study were not only concerned in a general way with having teachers who are able and willing to “teach you much,” but they also were concerned about specific teacher behaviors, including having patience, paying attention to students, and taking time to explain things. However, it is the final example that perhaps best reflects these students’ desire to learn. This student does not want a teacher who just gives answers (i.e., makes it easy), but who teaches, presumably so that the student can discover for himself or herself the answers to problems and questions.

The emergence of teacher character struck us as a particularly unexpected quality of good teachers for children. A number of students were concerned with the kind of person the teacher was—the teacher’s character. Children named character attributes in 19% of pretest and 16% of posttest questions about good teaching, and 16% of pretest and 10% posttest responses to the question about “not good teachers.” These kinds of responses included things like “being fair” but also included issues of integrity and “trying hard”—making an effort to learn what she doesn’t know so that she can teach it to children. (See Appendix B for children’s responses.)

The children in our study presented positive attitudes toward learning despite the adverse conditions that existed in each school and the history and patterns of low performance. They possessed largely positive attitudes toward school as well. Contrary to our expectations, rather than internalizing the persistent and pervasive negative messages about their abilities found in each of the school settings, and rather than developing adversarial stances, these children displayed insight into why they struggled and held complex and constructive beliefs and insights about the qualities of an effective teacher.


Thus far, we have argued that the children’s responses to what makes for good teaching and poor teaching point to a persistent desire to learn on their part, even within punitive school settings. We have shown that children from low-income urban neighborhoods have complex beliefs about and insights into what constitutes good teaching. We have documented and analyzed what children say they believe makes for good teaching and poor teaching. We have also argued that the teachers in the after-school program were good teachers by reputation and by their success with the children in the after-school program. In the following case study analysis of the Northern California after-school site, we examine how the children’s beliefs about good teaching map on what we document as effective teaching, to see whether what children say constitutes good teaching is consistent with what we claim to be good teaching.

In our analysis of children’s constructions of good teaching and not good teaching, we identified three basic kinds of responses: teacher treatment of children, teacher ability, and teacher character. Ladson-Billings (1995) defined culturally relevant teaching as “pedagogy of opposition” that is “committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment” (p. 160). Consistent with this definition, through our thematic content analysis of videotaped after-school sessions we identified solidarity, or “we-ness” (Rivers & Scanzoni, 1997), as a salient characteristic of the classrooms. Embedded within this construct are many of the teacher practices and characteristics that the students identified as good teaching and that students said they wanted in teachers.

Cultivating solidarity

The exemplary teacher in our study developed a classroom that supported children in developing positive individual and collective identities. We saw this in the positive, constructive incorporation of children’s knowledge and experience in classroom lessons. However, the general classroom relationships and interpersonal dynamics also supported children identifying with one another and feeling comfortable in the classroom. The after-school teacher not only created a learning community in her classroom, but she also engendered a sense of solidarity in community.

Solidarity, as we use the term, is a form of social cohesion that carries with it a sense of mutuality, reciprocity, commitment, connection, and responsibility. It simultaneously supports students’ developing a feeling of we-ness while at the same time promoting the well-being of individual members (Widegren, 1997). It also cultivates students’ sense of belonging and a positive sense of morale, necessary for promoting group goals (Bollen & Hoyle, 1997). Consequently, those students who might be viewed by other children as marginal (less than other children) are encouraged and supported. Although the after-school teacher maintained her authority in the classroom, she included herself in the sense of a shared condition, shared mission, and shared commitment to learning and to the learning community as a whole.

Although core values, dispositions, and practices were not negotiable, the teacher created opportunities for children to work out how to live up to her expectations, particularly with respect to regulating their behaviors in the classroom. The sense of solidarity nurtured through classroom interactions, combined with supportive opportunities, engendered mutual respect, cooperation, mutual encouragement, and patience, created safe classrooms where children could (and did) take risks. More specifically, the classroom had three characteristics that seemed particularly important to creating a safe and supportive learning environment: minimal social hierarchy and shared condition, democratization of support and opportunity, and teaching with integrity.

Minimal social hierarchy and shared condition

One of the most striking characteristics of the after-school lab was that it was not obvious which students were doing well or struggling academically just by observing the classroom or noting which students the teacher chose to call on or invite to participate. It was our observation that the case study teacher rarely isolated particular children for praise or for problems. She treated most situations as if all children could learn from whatever someone else was doing. Children identified with one another, and teachers encouraged them to help each other problem-solve. This had the effect of simultaneously encouraging solidarity and communicating to children that they were capable of, and indeed responsible for, maintaining the functioning of the classroom community. Thus, children had to trust one another; children also held each other accountable for their behaviors. Moreover, the teacher identified with the children by connecting her everyday self (not just her professional self) with the lives of the students without giving up her authority. For example, in the first week of the program, one of the teachers invited the class to correct her spelling if she should make a mistake while writing on the board: “If I made a mistake in my spelling, I think it is your job to tell me, okay?” Here, the teacher communicated her unqualified expectation that (all) the children are capable of identifying a mistake she might make and that she trusts them to help her to spell correctly.

What makes these common interactions significant is that they occurred with great regularity in the after-school classroom. They helped shape the children’s productive attitudes and behaviors and the expectation of meaningful participation in the classroom. The students came to identify and feel comfortable with their teacher. If the teacher had only occasionally interacted with children in this manner, we do not believe that the effect would have been significant, especially if she more commonly reinforced a sense of “teacher as other” and not teacher as authoritative community member. By using her own experiences as examples, she not only made herself accessible, but she also was able to model dispositions toward learning and community (i.e., it is okay to ask for help). This also made it easier for children to take risks and admit academic and social mistakes. In short, the teacher demonstrated respect for children and provided them the opportunity to show respect toward and support for one another. She also modeled the behavior for the children. These practices are consistent with a number of the characteristics of good teaching identified by the children, including fairness, helpfulness, and the opportunity to learn from their teachers. In this way, the teacher promoted the development of a positive group identity and a sense of we-ness through consistently connecting children to one another, and herself to the class.

Democratization of support and opportunity

Helpfulness was one of the most common characteristics that the children desired from good teachers in terms of their ability to teach. Children in our study desired the opportunity to do and learn new things in a supportive environment. As one child put it, good teachers are people who, “when they talk to you, help you; when you have problem, help you through everything.” Through our analysis of teacher behaviors, we identified what we call the democratization of support and opportunity as one of the salient features of solidarity in the classroom, and one of the primary mechanisms by which children achieved support for learning. The teacher provided opportunities for children to show that they can be trusted to be responsible for, and responsive to, one another. She also provided children with supported opportunities to develop and demonstrate emergent academic and social competencies. The teacher not only provided supported opportunities for children (and thus were helpful), but she also practiced what we call an “ethic of minimal intervention.” By this, we mean that teachers intervened in children’s activities only as much as necessary to support children’s autonomous, self-regulated behavior.

For example, during the first week of one after-school program, the teacher had an activity whereby she instructed children to come up to a table one at a time to write their names on a sheet under their proper grade.

At one point, several students were signing their names at the table. The teacher stopped the class and says to the child she put in charge of the activity, “There should be one child over there. . .  with you, G_____. Would you please ask the rest of children to please be seated? One child only write the name . . . one at the time.” The teacher then makes sure that the student in charged understands the instruction. “So, G_____, do you understand what I want, only one child at the time. Okay?”

In this example, rather than chastising the group for not following directions, she directed her attention primarily to the child she had left in charge. Using a tone of voice that was authoritative but not blaming or angry, she reminded the student that she was supposed to be in charge of the activity, and it was her job to remind the students that they were to come up only one at a time. The teacher then went back to her work.

What is significant is that she did not subvert the authority that she had given the child to oversee the project by addressing the group. She gave the responsible child and the other children an opportunity to practice and independently regulate the activity. She gave the child in charge an opportunity to use the authority that the teacher had transferred to her, and she gave the other children the opportunity to respect the child’s role. By addressing the child she put in charge rather than the group, she simultaneously encouraged the class to see the child in charge as someone whose authority they should respect, while indirectly communicating to the class that she believed them capable of helping to regulate the activity. Both teachers practiced this kind of restraint, usually intervening only as much was necessary to support autonomous behavior in children.

Good teachers, according to Palmer (1998), “stand where personal and public meet” (p. 17). Teaching is a public activity, and its public nature has implications for the kinds of social identities that children develop in school. Other students witness most teacher-student interactions in classrooms. Thus, how teachers interact with children has some implications for how children view each other. The ability of the teachers to find substantive ways to incorporate the knowledge and experiences of all children into their teaching help children form new, more positive social identities—even those identified by teachers and other children as problem children. Thus, the classroom becomes a familiar and comfortable place for all children—an extension or “artifact” (Eisenberg, 2003) of their lives and experiences.

Teaching with integrity

Parker Palmer (1998) argued for the importance of teachers bringing their whole selves to their work with children, to teach with “integrity.”

But by identity and integrity I do not mean only our noble features, or the good deeds we do, or the brave faces we wear to conceal our confusions, and complexities. Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials. (p. 13)

Although Palmer is talking about teachers’ “true self,” his insights apply equally to children. In our view, the integrity of the teachers with whom we worked played a key role in their ability to develop productive and caring relationships with the students. Each embodied the kind of character that the children said they desired. However, they were effective in part because they made a space and supported the integrity of children. Our master teacher not only encouraged and supported their “strengths and potentials,” but she also made a space for the children’s “shadows and limits [wounds] and fears” in the classroom (Palmer, 1998, p. 13). She allowed them to be whole people. The teachers’ integrity closely relates to children’s concerns about having respectful and loving teachers. The students we studied wanted teachers who were “nice and thoughtful,” and they judged teachers “by the way they look and act.” Moreover, they knew good teachers to be those who “can be nice when you are respecting [them], and they also [respect] students.” For, as one student put it, “Not all teachers love their students, if you are mean and nasty to your teacher, she can be mean and nasty back to you.”

“Good teachers,” according to Palmer (1998), “possess a capacity for connectedness (p. 11). These connections, he argued, are not so much a product of technique or methods as much as they are in the heart of the teacher. By this, he meant, “the place where intellect and emotion and spirit and will converge in the human self” (p. 11). Heart, in this sense, suffuses and shapes methods rather than the other way around. It is the holism of the teachers with whom we worked, their “integrity,” that we believe provided them more ways of connecting with children. It allowed them to connect with children who represented diverse needs, personalities, and abilities. It created a reciprocal classroom climate in which the integrity of each child could be encouraged, welcomed, and respected. We feel that this undoubtedly played a role in establishing trusting relationships with the children. The following example from one of our transcripts is illustrative of this point. The teacher asked the class, “How many kids like school?” All but one of the children raised their hands. Some of the children pointed at the child who did not raise his hand, saying he is the only one who does not like school. The teacher said, “He might,” and asked the child, “Do you like school sometimes? Never?” Then, speaking to the class, she said, “You know what, he’s here and even if he doesn’t like it, he may enjoy something while he’s here.”

In this example, the teacher not only allows space for the child to express his feelings toward school, but she also protects him from public humiliation as other children point and laugh at him for not liking school. Instead of probing the child further, leading him to an expected or desired answer, the teacher focuses on positive aspects of the situation; she points out that the child was attending the after-school program that day, seeding potential positive experiences in his mind and those of the other children. The teacher does not direct her attention to the child but to the entire class, taking pressure off the child so that he (and other children) might feel safe expressing a contrary opinion in the future. The teacher, through this public display, signals to children that they can be honest about their feelings and experiences—they do not have to pretend to be something that they are not, and thus, they can maintain a sense of integrity or wholeness.


Although there are important social and ecological differences between middle schools and elementary schools, we found that our children’s description of a “good teacher” intersected with what Wilson and Corbett (2001) reported that middle school children say they want in teachers. In particular, both elementary school children and middle school children want teachers who are caring, who help them to learn, and who focus in a serious manner on the task of teaching. Much in the way that middle school students described a good teacher as one who “go [es] out of his or her way to help” (Wilson & Corbett), “helpfulness” was also one of the most common responses from children in our study when they identified a specific aspect of teaching competency that they deemed important to good teaching. It was our impression that from the perspective of the children in our study, many of their teachers do not care about them or their work and do not give their best effort.

Consistent with Masten (2001), most of the children in our study expressed enthusiastic and positive attitudes toward learning, suggesting that the students’ attitudes are a product of their social and cultural experiences outside school. Overemphasizing and overstating the importance of “academic disengagement” (Ogbu, 2003), urban “social isolation” (Wilson, 1987), and “adversarial attitudes” (Zhou, 1997) obscure what Katz (1993) called the “rich array of people and association within even the most impoverished neighborhoods” (p. 21).  

The positive attitudes expressed by the children predisposed them to academic and social success but only in an educational and social environment that nurtured these attitudes and provided them with real opportunities to discover and engage their interests, and develop their budding competencies. Although the children in our study demonstrated a certain amount of resilience, they remained “at risk” for disappointment, frustration, and failure unless the school and teachers began to nurture their competencies and desire. This implies that teachers perceive and value the competencies of their children in whatever forms they take and treat children in ways that are consistent with perceived assets and competencies. They must also communicate their beliefs to children clearly and convincingly. Good teachers, according to Kozol (2000), “come not only to share that which they have gleaned from their education and experience” but also to “find the treasures that exist already in (low-income, urban) children” (pp. x–xi) and find ways of nurturing and supporting them.

The data from our study support Kozol’s (2000) assertion. It was within the context of supportive teacher-student relationships—in which teachers explicitly cared about, trusted, and believed in their students—that African American children developed positive individual and collective identities at school and responded to the challenge of rising expectations from their teachers with hard work and enthusiasm. We agree that good teachers can tap into, ignite, and support the desire to learn that is already present in African American children through the relationships they establish with those children, and the relationships that they encourage the children to establish with each other.


Taken together, our evidence suggests that low-come urban children do want to learn, regardless of their actual demonstrated ability levels, and they appear to be resilient in this respect. Our findings suggest that elementary school-age low-income African American children are aware of strengths and deficiencies in their teachers and can name each explicitly. Even within a punitive school environment and a pervasive culture of low expectations, these children overwhelmingly wanted teachers to treat them well, help them learn, and try to improve their own abilities to teach. Moreover, our analysis suggests that what children desire in teachers is consistent with what we document as effective teaching.

Consistent with the conclusions of Tyson (2002) and Fryer and Torelli (2005), our findings cast doubt on the validity of attributing the underachievement of low-income African American children to adversarial attitudes in the children. Underachievement may be a function of something that goes wrong for these children in the classroom. Our data show that children are insightful about what goes wrong and about how their schooling might be improved. The children’s responses suggest that the problem lies, in large part, in the quality of teacher-student relationships, the quality of teaching, and the character of their teachers. The positive attitudes toward learning that we documented and observed in children are consistent with the long tradition of valuing education within African American communities (Foster, 1997). Without a comparison sample, we cannot say whether these data are an effect of the lab, although we do know that children’s academic and social behaviors changed markedly over the course of the after-school program. Nevertheless, these findings compel us to focus less on perceived deficits of African American children and more on the importance of high-quality classroom settings and teachers to help improve their educational outcomes.


A subcontract with the Claremont Graduate School, part of a Field-Initiated Studies Grant from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (R-305T010585), made work on this manuscript possible. The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.

Appendix A:

Sample Description


Appendix B:

Children’s Responses on Their Perception of Teachers



1 The concept “antisocial” is itself problematic in that it reifies a construct that is a product of culture, context, and unequal power relationships. See Lewis and Watson-Gegeo (2004) for a more complete discussion of the reification of social and psychological constructs.

2 I thank Michèle Foster for pointing out that the teacher cultivates dispositions in the children lab. I define dispositions as beliefs and attitudes expressed through behaviors and/or practices.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 110 Number 6, 2008, p. 1304-1329
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14749, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:32:51 PM

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About the Author
  • Jeffrey L. Lewis
    University of Wisconsin
    E-mail Author
    JEFFREY L. LEWIS is an assistant professor in the department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is interested in the social and affective experiences of school-age African American children. His current study examines the structure and content of school-related social support networks for low-income African American boys in elementary school. His recent publications include “Fictions of Childhood: Toward a Sociohistorical Theory of Childhood” (2004), published in Ethos.
  • Eunhee Kim
    University of Wisconsin
    EUNHEE KIM is a project assistant and doctoral student in the Human Development and Family Studies department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is interested in how intercultural couples negotiate cultural differences and how this affects family relationships. Her current study examines conflict negotiation and marriage satisfaction within Korean-American intercultural marriages.
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