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W. E. B. Du Bois’s Concept of Sympathetic Touch as a Mediator of Teachers’ Expectations in an Urban School District

by Daniel D. Liou & Leticia Rojas - 2019

Background/Context: Research has shown teachers’ expectations of students to be a powerful predictor of the racial opportunity gap. Yet, many teachers continue to profile White students and Students of Color very differently in schools when it comes to intellectual capacity and motivation to learn. One of the major ethical challenges of teachers’ expectations is how sympathy is constructed in the classroom. Too often, teachers exhibit sympathy through feeling pity for the life challenges facing low-income Students of Color, a dynamic that can result in the lowering of expectations via anticipation of school failure.

Purpose/Objective: Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s (1935) concept of sympathetic touch, the purpose of this article is to introduce asset-based instructional practices rooted in sympathy as a method for confronting systemic problems of pity and deficit thinking which perpetuate low teachers’ expectations. There is a pressing need for an antiracist framework within which teachers can communicate sympathy in an appropriate manner that still hold students to high expectations for learning. This study intends to fill the gaps in the literatures of teachers’ expectations of students, social context of education, urban education, and teacher education by reenvisioning a way to effectively meet the needs of America’s diverse school populations.

Participants: The study was conducted with a sample of nine teachers from low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods in a large urban school district. These teachers were selected for the study based on the following criteria: (1) minimum of three years of teaching experience; (2) working with a majority of Students of Color; and (3) perceived by either their principals and/or counselors to have a positive impact in the classroom and positive relationships with their students. The participants were screened based on these criteria before their participation in the study. We then drew on the literature to inform the final selection of the teachers.

Research Design: This case study was conducted over the span of one year and included semistructured interviews, three rounds of teacher reflection prompts, informal observations, and a collection of archival data such as course syllabi, lesson plans, lists of ongoing activities related to content instruction, flyers or other materials related to these activities, examples of students’ assignments, and photographs of classroom activities.

Data Collection and Analysis: All the data from the interviews, journal responses, and documents were prepared, analyzed, and categorized into codes that were in alignment with the research questions. The coding process was done through both hand-coding techniques and the use of the NVivo qualitative data analysis software program. The codes were then analyzed for patterns and themes across the data to document the ways in which the teachers defined and fostered sympathy with students. In addition to using multiple sources of data for triangulation, we validated our findings by engaging teachers in continuous member-checking during the academic year and a debriefing session to enable them to provide feedback regarding the accuracy of the themes found in the data, as well as additional comments regarding their ethics of classroom expectations.

Findings/Results: Teachers reported that their expectations and awareness of Students of Color’s racialized contexts, as well as their position and responsibilities within those contexts, were important factors in their perceived effectiveness. The study discovered that the ethics and practices of sympathetic touch manifested in the forms of equitable student-teacher relationships, empowering curriculum, and the centrality of students’ voices in the construction of knowledge. Specifically, teachers’ sympathetic touch was found to be an important mediating factor in how their expectations were communicated to students in the classroom. In the context of this school district, these teachers reportedly fostered sympathetic practices through high expectations focused on equity, community, and students’ cultural wealth as the basis to generate knowledge in the classroom.

Conclusions: The results of the present study underscore the importance of asset-based conceptions of sympathy as a mediator of teachers’ expectations in the classroom. Teachers and school administrators’ ability to reframe and redefine sympathetic practices with students is a key factor in improving the educational experiences of diverse populations.

Decades of research have shown teachers expectations of students to be powerful predictors of the racial opportunity gap (Milner, 2010; Nash, 2012; Rist, 1970; Rubie-Davies, 2017; Weinstein, 2016). Yet almost two decades of federal interventions to raise expectations in the classroom, such as No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, have not resulted in educational justice across the educational pipeline (Baker et al., 2010). White students and Students of Color continue to be profiled very differently in schools when it comes to intellectual capacity and motivation to learn (Liou & Rotheram-Fuller, 2016). As a consequence, different students in the same classroom may experience differentiated expectations that dramatically alter the context and processes by which they experience learning. So far, educational policies that focus on standardized testing to hold schools accountable for these disparities have not effectively disrupted the differentiated expectations of learning (Lezotte & Snyder, 2010). The present political context shows that externally imposed educational standards are not the same as, nor do they fully address, teachers beliefs about race and the capacities of Students of Color to learn (Fairbrother, 2008).

Today, the United States continues to face a shortage of teachers who can actively contribute to an antiracist school culture with practices of justice, diversity, and excellence. One of the fundamental aspects of teaching to underscore these practices is teacher-student relationships (Kaur, 2012; Villegas, 2007). Teachers abilities to understand and sympathize with their students context are fundamental to developing their expectation regarding what students need to learn in order to succeed in life (Cherng, 2017; Gay, 2010; Howard, 2013). In addition, research has shown that low-income Students of Color continue to experience more difficulty accessing highly effective teachers than their White peers (Darling-Hammond, 2007). This includes access to teachers who are content experts and those who have the ability to appropriately care for students across multiple forms of diversity and life experiences (Talbert-Johnson, 2006). More important, preparing teachers who can instill confidence and who are capable of reaching the hearts and minds of diverse populations continues to be a fundamental challenge.

With these concerns in mind, Milner (2010) developed a list of concepts associated with diversity that teacher education programs should include in their curriculum. He calls these concepts repertoires of diversity, or tools such as ethics and practices that teachers can draw on to contribute to educational justice. Milner (2010) defined this collection of conceptual repertoires as teachers thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs, which inform their sensibility as they teach in and across various forms of diversity and racialized contexts. Among this list of perceptual frameworks, deficit conceptions and low expectations are presented as two fundamental challenges to positive teacher effects in the classroom (Holbrook, 2006; Valencia, 2010, 2012). Rubie-Davies (2017) referred to teacher expectation as the beliefs that teachers hold about the level of achievement students are likely to achieve in the future (p. 1). It has been argued that persistent low expectations are one of the worst forms of racism (Holbrook, 2006), wherein teachers beliefs about students racial backgrounds are consciously and/or subconsciously conflated with judgments about those students intellectual capacity (Liou & Rotheram-Fuller, 2016; Rist, 1970). The problems of deficit thinking and low expectations fundamentally shape the effects of the teacher when attempting to cultivate positive relationships with students through social capital and classroom curriculum (Rojas & Liou, 2018).

In response to these concerns, the purpose of this article is to introduce an asset-based instructional practice of sympathy as a method to confront the systemic problems of pity and deficit thinking that result in low teachers expectations. We consider teachers sympathetic practices to be one of the major ethical challenges to achieving antideficit perceptions and high expectations of students in the classroom. Educators have historically continued to use language of students academic failure as the point of emphasis to equity-oriented reform. These arguments may come from a place of benevolence, but they also inadvertently pathologize Students of Color from a perceptual standpoint of deficit, creating a false narrative of sympathy on the kinds of educational justice they need to grow and flourish. Later, in our review of the literature, we intend to draw on Du Boiss (1935) concept of sympathetic touch to reimagine teachers sympathetic practices in the classroom. Specifically, we are concerned about how teachers develop their sympathetic practices of students to contribute to positive teacher effect, and we believe it is a missing conversation that requires educators attention.

Too often, teachers exhibit sympathy through feeling pity for the life challenges facing low-income Students of Color, a dynamic that can result in the lowering of expectations via anticipation of scholarly failure (Graham & Barker, 1990). For example, we once heard a White high school teacher make the following statement as a method of showing sympathy when teaching in a predominantly African American classroom:

I wished there is more that I can do, but the lives of these kids are so challenging. They go through so much at a young age. How can I expect them to learn when they come to school with so many things that are going on at home and in their communities?

While this teacher voiced genuine concern for his students difficulties in life, he simultaneously limited his responsibility to teach. The perception of students home and community deficits often leads to negative assumptions about students social capital, which minimizes teachers beliefs about their abilities to make a difference, as well as their expectations of their students (Yosso, 2005).

This contemporary practice is not new, but a continuation of a problem discovered in Rosenthal and Jacobsons (1968) study that showed how teachers perceptions of students abilities could limit those teachers effort in the classroom. These problems profoundly restrict students opportunities to learn, especially teachers ability to harness social capital and develop the kind of curriculum that is relevant and challenging to prepare students for the future (Lynn, Jennings, & Hughes, 2013; Stovall, 2016). Such mistaken beliefs influence the ethics of how expectations are animated to impact students perceptions of their own intellectual worth (Graham & Taylor, 2016). Reconceptualizing teacher sympathy presents a new possibility for how social capital and classroom curriculum can be positively conceived to challenge the problems of deficit thinking and low teacher expectations.

This study confronts traditional notions of sympathy as a deficit and racist practice in the classroom by illuminating how sympathy can be practiced from social justice perspectives. Du Boiss work (1935) inspired us to reconsider sympathy as a foundational ethic in how teachers convey their antiracist expectations in the classroom. In a society where race matters (Allen, 2002; Leonardo, 2015), the contextual and relational influences of learning need to be taken into consideration when teachers develop educational expectations with students. There is a pressing need for an antiracist framework within which teachers can communicate sympathy in an appropriate manner that still hold students to high expectations for learning. This study intends to fill the gaps in the literatures of teachers expectations of students, social context of education, urban education, and teacher education by reenvisioning a way to effectively meet the needs of Americas diverse school populations. Using Du Boiss notion of sympathetic touch as a method to address Milners (2010) aforementioned concerns, we turned to teachers who are committed to social justice to learn how they foster sympathy with low-income Students of Color, guided by the following research questions: (1) How do teachers who reported commitments to social justice define sympathy in ways that hold low-income Students of Color to higher expectations for learning? (2) How do teachers who reported commitments to social justice foster sympathy with low-income Students of Color through social capital and classroom curriculum?


In the following, we use Milners (2010) research to describe the racialized context of education, and we then turn to Du Boiss (1935) conception of sympathy as a way to address the problems associated with teachers deficit conceptions and low expectations in the classroom. We reviewed how literature has historically discussed these problems and the ways they are related to teacher sympathy. We organized the literature review based on the following: (1) historical conceptions and debates about teacher sympathy as a mediator of classroom expectation, and (2) complexities between teacher sympathy and empathy in educational practices. Following the literature review, we describe the theoretical framework of sympathetic touch and ways it relates with teachers conceptions of social capital and curriculum.


Sympathy is broadly defined as a feeling and response to an apparent threat or obstacle to another individuals well-being (Darwall, 1998). It is also a method by which a teacher communicates care for and about a student (Darwall, 1998). These feelings can be communicated in conscious and unconscious ways for the purpose of offering emotional, social, and material support (Graham & Taylor, 2016). In cases in which someone is ill or experiencing challenging life circumstances, the expression of sympathy is seldomly expected to enable the person to opt out of getting better or to dehumanize her or his standing in society. Rather, the appropriate expression is intended to comfort and to offer encouragement, optimism, and support based on a sympathetic understanding of the situation. Even though the expression of sympathy is never intended to take away ones human capabilities, the way it has been practiced in many schools often results in lower expectations for teaching and learning across various forms of diversity. Teachers expectations of students are often mediated by how students are viewed and valued based on their presumed backgrounds (Hyland, 2005). The practice of sympathy, then, becomes problematic when it is rooted in deficit thinking, which conveys subtle messages for students to opt out of learning or to develop self-doubts (Graham & Taylor, 2016). Indeed, teachers interactions with students are racially constructed through these processes of expecting and anticipating (Hyland, 2005). Deficit-oriented sympathy can systematically exacerbate the unjust conditions for student learning (Dávila, 2015; Gillborn, 2005; Matias & Zembylas, 2014). Freire (1970) called these misguided practices false generosity because they help the teacher to perform a type of charity that actually causes long-term damage to students.

Similarly, deficit-oriented sympathy is incompatible with Du Boiss (1935) conception of sympathetic touch, which is based on equity, solidarity, and racial justice. In 1935, Du Bois contemplated the educational needs of African Americans in the era of forced racial segregation. Instead of advocating for integrated schools, Du Boiss essay points to the importance of having teachers who are sympathetic of African American students political struggles and material realities. He defined sympathetic touch as a state of emotional congruence between students and teachers to underpin ones expectancy practices:

The proper education of any people includes sympathetic touch between teacher and pupil; knowledge on the part of the teacher, not simply of the individual taught, but of his surroundings and background, and the history of his class and group; such contact between pupils, and between teacher and pupil, on the basis of perfect social equality, as will increase this sympathy and knowledge; facilities for education in equipment and housing, and the promotion of such extra-curricular activities as will tend to induct the child into life. (Du Bois, 1935, p. 328)

In the context of racial segregation of schools and public facilities, Du Bois (1935) believed that African American children needed teachers who were capable of understanding their racialized realities. Through this understanding, he intimated that the centrality of racial justice involves teachers with a sympathetic touch to foster student-teacher relationships that operate on the basis of equity and encompass intimate knowledge about the student, her/his history, and surrounding social milieus so that teachers can appropriately prepare students to work toward a justice-oriented future.

In the context of this study, sympathy is defined as educators willingness and abilities to: (1) acknowledge the centrality of students perspectives when shaping educational expectations, (2) center students racialized histories, voices, and life experiences to respond to their education, (3) pedagogically engage in the struggle against the system of white supremacy and other intersectional oppressions, and (4) work in solidarity with students to prepare them for what Du Bois (1935) called a perfect social equality. Du Bois pointed to this conception of sympathy as an ethical, spatial, and pedagogical imperative to a liberatory education (Terry, Flennaugh, Blackmon, & Howard, 2013). To this effect, students racialized context matters in teaching and learning, because teacher-student relationships operate in a system of race and power. Ladson-Billings (2014) emphasized the danger of pathologizing the achievement of African American and other Students of Color through deficit thinking. As a result, not only should teachers possess the abilities to be culturally responsive, but the ways in which their sympathy influences their perceptual framework and expectations of students also require our attention and deeper investigation into such practices.


Wispé (1986) argued that sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably in confused and ambiguous ways. These terms remain widely used in an oversimplistic fashion; as a result, further definitions of and explanations on the ways in which they are distinct and nuanced are required. Earlier, we explained that the term sympathy is often associated with the feeling of pity in education, which has provoked some to use empathy in order to avoid deficit orientations and perspectives. However, Wispé (1986) emphasized distinct differences between these two concepts, which have separate historical roots and psychological processes, and insisted that they do not hold the same exact meaning. We posit that these two terms are not necessarily the polar opposite, nor could one serve as a replacement for the other.

When misappropriated, teachers best intentions may still yield unintended consequences in expectations, interventions, and sense of responsibility for alleviating systemic inequities. To disentangle these two concepts, Wispé (1986) defined sympathy as

the heightened awareness of the suffering of another person as something to be alleviated. There are two aspects to this definition of sympathy. The first makes reference to the increased sensitivity to the emotions of the other person. Sympathy intensifies both the representation and the internal reaction to the other persons predicament. The second aspect involves the urge to take whatever mitigating actions are necessary; that is, in sympathy the suffering of the other person is experienced immediately as something to be alleviated. (p. 318)

In other words, sympathy is associated with ones ability to consider another persons context and life experiences through that persons history, epistemology, and ways of relating with the world. We posit that teachers willingness and ability to understand and center students experiences with race, racism, and other intersectional identities and oppressions should be an essential element of their expectancy practices in the classroom. We consider Du Boiss (1935) concept of sympathetic touch as a potential mediator to alleviate the practice of deficit thinking and low expectations for diverse populations.

This definition is fundamentally different from the feeling of empathy, which places ones own history and epistemology at the center to consider the experiences of another person. Wispé (1986) defined empathy as the process of one attempting to understand others and their situations, while maintaining the self at the center of that connection or comparison. She explained,

In empathy the self is the vehicle for understanding, and it never loses its own identity. . . . The object of empathy is to understand the other person. The object of sympathy is the other persons well-being. The most important problem for empathy is the problem of empathic accuracy. (p. 318)

That is, sympathy involves the teacher in developing cultural intuitions of the classroom through students frame of reference (see Calderón, Bernal, Huber, Malagón, & Vélez, 2012). Empathy, on the other hand, is much more detached as the teacher internally imagines and interprets students educational experiences in connection to her or his own. When used in deficit ways, the assumptions, images, and narratives that result from these subtle differences can have negative consequences for the expectations of students that teachers develop.

Given individuals identities and intersectional differences, the empathizer may hierarchically center her or his own epistemology, inadvertently erasing the distinctions between the self and the other. Such decentering and misappropriation of others life experiences can reinforce color blindness, or in a more inclusive and less ableist term, race denial and other biases as the normative center for understanding students experiences (Salazar, 2018; Solomona, Portelli, Daniel, & Campbell, 2005). These erroneous empathetic perspectives often fail to account for the conditions that underpin the systems of power, which can result in mitigating actions that do not address the existing power relationships between the empathizer and those who often become the objects of her or his intervention.

The failure to problematize racialized norms can lead to race denial, which some teachers argue as being fair and altruistic. Race denial has appeared to be a form of false empathy and a significant obstacle to the ways in which teachers develop and communicate effective expectations in the classroom (Liou, Leigh, Rotheram-Fuller, & Deits Cutler, 2019). As a method of defining equality in the classroom, race denial espouses evading and erasing the ideological and material realities of race by treating all students the exact same way. On paper, these perceptions of sameness may seem empathetic, fair, and benevolent (McAllister & Irvine, 2002; Rosenberg, 2004), but race denial often increases teachers implicit bias, misjudgments, and insensitivities to the complexities of students prior knowledge and life experiences (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008).

For example, a White English monolingual female teacher who seldom experiences race and language discrimination may not be able to fully empathize with what it means to be an immigrant Student of Color in an English-only classroom. When that teacher attempts to alleviate race and language discrimination based on her own world view, without fully understanding the complexities of being an immigrant in the United States, she may still operate with blind spots in how she pedagogically responds to students aspirations, concerns, and vision for the future. Although the teacher may find areas and situations to relate with students, such as their gender and other intersectional similarities, race denying empathy may still hinder the congruence in their educational expectations. As a result, many teachers misinterpret the social capital and educability of Students of Color, which often leads to the dynamics associated with self-fulfilling prophecy and low expectations. We posit that these distinct differences are not designed to create strict binaries between the two terms. However, their distinct psychological processes demonstrate a need for teachers to be intentional in how sympathy and empathy are practiced with students.

This is not to suggest that effective teaching comes from a complete match of life experiences between teachers and students. At the same time, having epistemic congruence in the classroom plays a role in how teachers and their students co-construct their collective educational expectations (Liou & Rojas, 2016). Thus, the significance of sympathetic touch is far more nuanced than a binary perspective of sympathy versus empathy. These ideas are not mutually exclusive, but they present a complex constellation of standpoints by which teachers are capable of relating with and responding to students knowledge systems, aspirations, and educational needs. The perceptual framework of sympathetic touch allows for a more nuanced and complicated understanding of students realities. Such a framework also leaves room for teachers to continuously reflect on their beliefs and practices and to contemplate additional strategies to respond to and engage with students changing context.

All of this influences how teachers use curriculum as a way to reinforce students life experiences and knowledge base, and it is consistent with practices associated with high expectations. Harding (2004) underscored the importance of how ones social context, life experiences, and position in society shape her or his production of knowledge and understanding of the world. Given that school curriculum is developed to privilege a particular knowledge system over others in a racially stratified society (Calderon, 2014), the role of teachers epistemic and sympathetic congruence with students is central to how teachers position themselves and interact with the students knowledge system (Bang, Warren, Rosebery, & Medin, 2012). These interactions shape the classroom dynamic in which educational expectations are understood between teachers and students. It is from these dynamics that teachers and students construct social capital and build knowledge for students to understand their place and future in the world.

Other researchers also have expanded on Du Boiss notions of sympathy in connection to empathy (Oakes, Lipton, Anderson, & Stillman, 2015), love and caring relationships (Crawford, Gyamfi, & McLaren, 2009), and ethics of educational expectations through antideficit school leadership (Liou, 2016). Further, the literature shows an emergence of scholarship on teacher empathy that critically engages with the issues of teacher disposition and liberatory practices (McAllister & Irvine, 2002; Warren, 2014, 2017). The centrality of race in this work has led us to delineate between sympathy and empathy because of their separate origins and utilities in the literature (Wispé, 1986).

Given the current accountability systems inability to provide this sympathetic touch to many low-income Students of Color, Du Boiss scholarship remains significant in pointing to one of the central problems in student-teacher relationships and school ineffectiveness. Liou (2016) explored how sympathetic touch can be operationalized in the context of school leadership and discovered the importance of (1) asset-based beliefs as a counter to pity-driven practices, (2) the ability to establish conditions of political solidarity, academic rigor, and positive expectations with the school community, and (3) drawing on students community cultural wealth as a method to elicit their intellectual capabilities. Despite these conceptual contributions to underscoring the importance of Du Boiss work, research has not yet fully captured concrete examples of how the concept of sympathetic touch relates to teachers expectations for students in the classroom. This study seeks to advance the theoretical development of this work from leadership into the classroom and to usher psychological studies of sympathy and expectations into the sociology of education.


For the purpose of this study, the sympathetic touch theoretical framework (see Figure 1) is intended to highlight the importance of teaching and learning through teacher knowledge in the forms of their repertoire of diversity. As Milner (2010) stated, teachers deficit thinking and low expectations of Students of Color are two significant inequities in the classroom. Deficit thinking can lead some pedagogy to be driven by the perceptions of students realities and by feeling sorry for their misfortunes in life and perceived lack of knowledge (Milner, 2010). Additionally, deficit perceptions of students often lead to lowered teachers expectations and curricular focuses that are limited to standardized tests, not the learning of important skills that will further prepare students for a liberatory future. Research has shown these challenges to lessen teachers efforts toward and sense of responsibility for student learning (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). Inspired by Milner's (2007; 2010) work, we designed the following sympathetic touch framework as a pedagogical response to his concerns regarding the problems associated with teachers deficit thinking and low educational expectations.

Figure 1. Theory of sympathetic touch


In this manner, sympathetic touch (Du Bois, 1935) operationalizes the relational aspects of the classroom to underscore the significance of teachers knowledge of students, from understanding to action, to work with students in antideficit ways. As a form of praxis, sympathetic touch serves as a vehicle through which teachers expectations are manifested. Freire (1970) defined praxis as an enactment of ones thinking and understanding to engage in the creation and co-creation of new knowledge and social action. According to Freire, praxis involves envisioning life beyond the limits of present circumstances, and the use of the classroom as a space to change thinking in order to engage in the work of communal social capital, community-driven social actions, and collectively reenvisioning society. Praxis prioritizes reciprocity between students and teachers based on the development and evolution of their epistemic congruence, as well as an equitable relationship that seeks to transform teaching and learning as a collective process of conscious raising and transformative actions. This study looked specifically into the role of teachers sympathetic actions that contribute to equitable learning conditions through (1) social capital and (2) curriculumtwo critical issues that are linked to the problems in diverse classrooms (Yosso, 2002, 2005). These issues are significant to teachers perceptual framework of students and how they practice and communicate their expectations in the classroom.


One major challenge in fostering equity within teacher-student relationships is the extent to which social capital is conceived hierarchically in the classroom. This hierarchical structure often accentuates the power of the teacher and the racially subordinated status of the student (Yosso, 2005). In the context of diversity, this conception of social capital can also perpetrate the superior status of the teachers race, beliefs, and values, thereby marginalizing the knowledge and skills that students bring with them to school (Liou, Antrop-González, & Cooper, 2009). Bourdieu (1985) defined social capital as the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance or recognition (p. 248). Even though Bourdieu (1985) has a class-based critique of the conception and reproduction of capital, his work fails to problematize white supremacy in influencing how people account for social capital through deficit thinking and racism.

This traditional conceptualization of social capital assumes that there are behaviors, knowledge, networks, resources, and dispositions associated with high-status versus low-status social capital, which determine ones status and trajectory in society. In schools, the hierarchical conceptualization of social capital can be especially problematic because of many teachers beliefs in white middle-class values that decenter those of Students of Color and contribute to the definition of whiteness as the standard of achievement and acceptable classroom behaviors (Allen & Liou, 2018). These beliefs influence how teachers view and interpret barriers to learning and how they respond to students with the appropriate expectations in the classroom (Banks & Banks, 2009; Irvine, 1990).

Yosso (2005) contended that hierarchical conceptions of social capital perpetuate deficit thinking by depicting low-income People of Color as socially deprived, without the networks, values, and resources to make sound life decisions (also see McQuillan, 1998). Yosso (2005) also problematized the paternalistic tendencies in the perceptions that, without white middle-class social capital, Students of Color do not have agency to act against oppressive life conditions. These perceptions centralize whiteness as the universal standard for academic achievement, rendering Students of Color to institutional othering when they do not meet these expectations. On the contrary, Families of Color have historically been able to forge their own networks, share information, and generate resources to support their students education (Rosales, 1997). In doing so, People of Color have been able to harness and use social capital to respond to racism and educational inequities (Rojas & Liou, 2018). The literature has illuminated the development of social capital among People of Color to be highly complicated, dynamic, and nuanced.

Furthermore, research has shown People of Color to have the ability to harness the type of social capital that institutions value. For example, Stanton-Salazar (2011) argued that working-class youth of color are just as capable of developing social capital to navigate different norms, rules, and expectations within and across familial, communal, and institutional spaces (Stanton-Salazar, 2011). Stanton-Salazars (2011) concept of empowerment social capital illuminates students abilities to raise consciousness, create alternative spaces to facilitate their support network, and further develop skill sets to disrupt and counter injustices. These asset based, horizontal conceptions of capital provide a broader view of students intellectual strengths and aspirations outside of White middle-class norms. Additionally, Stanton-Salazar (2011) suggested that when students are taught to use existing capital in concert with that of White social institutions, they become more resourceful, with opportunities to further raise consciousness regarding their position and responsibility as change agents.

Our discussion of social capital creates new possibilities for how it can be conceived between students and teachers through sympathetic touch. From this vantage point, Du Boiss (1935) justice-driven sympathy provides us a different pathway to reconceptualize social capital between teachers and students. Social capital theory has emphasized social ties that lead to the exchange of resources and knowledge to enable a network of individuals to gain social mobility (Lin, Cook, & Burt, 2001). Implicit in this conception is the extent to which social actions and behaviors are dependent on a rational payoff and personal gain (Lin et al., 2001). Because many aspects of social capital in communities of color have long been delegitimized in the context of white supremacy (Yosso, 2005), from a material standpoint, Whites may not consider such capital worthy of exchange unless they can exploit and benefit from it politically and economically (see Bell, 1980, 2004). In Du Boiss writing, teachers sympathetic touch should occur based on an equitable relationship with students.

Given that schools operate in the context of capitalism and white supremacy (Leonardo, 2007), social capital relies on Milners (2010) illumination of equity and diversity, as well as teachers ability to harness a sympathetic touch for the purpose of racial justice. Thus, the ways in which capital is defined must go beyond its acquisition or exchange features and reject personal advancement and the exploitation of People of Color. To enable teachers to communicate sympathy withand not forstudents, the reconceptualization of social capital requires a repositioning of knowledge and membership status on the part of teachers and students in the classroom. It requires a different use of social capital that is not conceived by hierarchical race relations or the transferability of racialized privileges. Instead, it comes from a liberatory, collectivist framework of political empowerment that is a manifestation of sympathy between students and teachers (Enriquez, 2011).


Given that teachers expectations of students are one of the most important predictors for effective teaching (Milner, 2010), teachers ability to communicate the appropriate forms of sympathy should also include a curriculum for student empowerment. We draw on Milners (2007) five curricular teaching ethics as a method to rearticulate a knowledge-building curriculum for the classroom. These ethics require teachers and students to (a) envision life beyond their present situations, (b) come to know themselves in relation to others, (c) speak possibility and not destruction, (d) care and demonstrate that care, and (e) change their thinking to change their actions. Milner (2007) affirmed that teachers need to start creating conditions of high expectations and help students to see their own intellectual promise. Building on the rearticulated notions of social capital, we view these classroom ethics and practices as the moral imperatives for a curriculum that prepares students for the future.

The role of curriculum is to develop students knowledge, skill sets, and attributes such that they can harness the tools and capacities to become confident, empowered, and effective contributors to society (Sleeter, 1991). This form of curricular empowerment allows for teachers and students to see that learning and, by extension, freedom, are attainable goals. These pursuits also require teachers to believe in their students skill sets and intellectual well-beings beyond the present time and to have a greater vision wherein students are expected to work toward justice. Du Bois (1935) envisioned teachers preparing students for the future by understanding their history, strengths, aspirations, and racialized contexts. As such, education should also be about instilling confidence in students to become self-reliant creators of knowledge through that collective process of learning, sharing, and teaching (Lukacs & Galluzzo, 2014; Yosso, 2005).

From this ethical standpoint, Milner (2007) emphasized that teachers and students need to know themselves in relation to others. This includes understanding racism, their roles in the project of emancipation, and their own socialization as racialized beings in the context of white supremacy (Rojas & Liou, 2018). Furthermore, teachers must also develop a deep personal understanding of what it is like to live withand how they might contribute to or benefit fromracism, racial microaggressions, and systems of white supremacy. When teachers are able to relate to others, they are also more capable of deeply sympathizing with students on the basis of equity instead of the basis of deficits in their humanity (McAllister & Irvine, 2002; Raible & Irizarry, 2007). By developing these ethics, teachers are predisposed to initiating opportunities to embrace diversity (Milner, 2007). In doing so, teachers show the ability to use both their and their students collective social capital to foster equity in the classroom (McAllister & Irvine, 2002; Milner, 2007). To achieve this goal, teachers must care and demonstrate that care with and for all students. De Jesús and Antrop-González (2006) observed the interrelatedness between caring and high expectations, two essential practices to supporting student resiliency (Benard, 1993). Du Boiss (1935) sympathetic touch suggests that teachers must not simply care about students; these sentiments must also accompany an understanding about how to appropriately demonstrate that care in a way that actively contributes to students opportunities to learn (Delpit, 2006).

As an ethic of teaching, Milner (2007) argued that teachers also need to change their thinking in order to change their actions to foster the appropriate sympathetic touch with students. An empowering curriculum requires teachers to model that change with and for the students. Drawing on Freire (1970) regarding the importance of being reflective and reflexive about ones own actions and relationship with the world, teachers need to actively engage in self-reflection and group discussions pertaining to deficit thinking and low expectations of students. Teachers also need to discuss how their belief systems contribute to the structuring and distribution of learning opportunities across their school. For a school to pursue equity, it must first interrogate the collective purpose and beliefs of its educators, ensuring that each teacher has the appropriate skill set to support students in meeting their collective expectations for academic success. With compassion and desire for students to be successful in life, teachers academic expectations should reflect how they reenvision their collective future with students, build social capital collectively, and communicate that care through the curriculum.

Du Boiss (1935) vision of teaching is associated with conditions of possibility, so that students know that their education and future are being valued, cared for, and nurtured. These curricular ethics and sensibilities underscore Du Boiss notions of sympathetic touch and should be the premise on which educators construct their expectations in all classrooms. We posit that these conceptions of diversity are able to provide teachers with the tools and perceptual frameworks to develop appropriate expectations for students, repurposing deficit thinking and low expectations to manifest a different type of practice to prepare young people for an antioppressive future.


This study design uses a case study approach to explore, describe, and explain events and phenomena in the everyday contexts of exceptional teachers (Yin, 2009). The case study approach allows us to focus on a single phenomenonthat being sympathetic touchand the ways the research participants see themselves enacting sympathetic practices within the realities of urban schools (Yin, 2009). This study took place in one large urban school district in California, where the school system is highly segregated by race and social class. Table 1 highlights the demographics of the teachers and students in the district.

Table 1. District Demographics of Students and Teachers (District Information)


Asian American

African American


Native American


Did Not Report


(N = 646,683)








(N = 31,901)







The school district had a mission to achieve 100% proficiency, attendance, graduation, parent engagement, and school safety. The school district had a stated belief in diversity as a strength, noting success in the classroom and effective teaching, leadership, and accountability as the keys to its success. Our teacher participants taught in neighborhoods with a long history of political activism fighting against their subordinated status, including the Chicana/o movement of the 1960s (Bernal, 1998; Muñoz, 1989).

In the beginning of the recruitment process, we approached the school and district leaders to recruit classroom teachers who met the following criteria: (1) having a minimum of three years of teaching experience; (2) working with a majority of Students of Color; and (3) perceived by their principals and/or counselors to have exceptional impact in the classroom and positive relationships with their students. We intended to recruit exceptional teachers from all core content areas (English, math, history, and science). However, the teachers who met these criteria and were most interested in the study taught English and history. The initial screening process included phone and email correspondence to verify that the teachers met all the stated criteria. To screen these participants to ensure that they were the appropriate sample for the study, we then drew on the literature to inform the final selection of teachers (Milner, 2010; Stanton-Salazar, 2011). Those teachers who stated explicitly that they had a social justice commitment were then selected for the purpose of this article.

Table 2. Demographics of Teacher Participants (Self-Reported)




Years of Teaching

Content Area



Filipina American





Korean American










Mexican American and White















Declined to state













The nine teacher participants who were eventually selected for the study were all teaching in high schools in low-income neighborhoods in predominantly communities of color within the same school district. The participants in our study were five females and four males who had taught for a significant number of years, ranging from seven to 15 years in a high school classroom. Three of these teachers taught history, and six were teaching English. All but one were teachers of color, and one opted to decline to state her race/ethnicity.

The data for this study were collected over the span of one school year. The study used one-on-one semistructured interviews to understand teachers perceptions of their practices, and journal prompts to provide the teachers with the opportunities to privately reflect and elaborate on particular practices that they may not have mentioned in the interviews. The study also collected artifacts from teachers to allow us to have examples of their curriculum and instructional activities. Research participants were asked to complete a general demographic and background questionnaire. The 30 interview questions were semistructured. The development of these questions was informed by the literature and explored issues such as teachers purpose and self-perceptions of their roles and responsibilities in the classroom, their relationships with students, examples of their expectation practices with diverse populations, the development of social networks between teachers and students, and approaches to curriculum development. These questions asked teachers to reflect on their current and previous effective practices throughout their careers. The interview topics and discussions provided us the teachers current and retrospective perceptions and expectations of students, and ways they went about enacting their expectations through their curriculum, classroom practices, and understanding of their relationships with students. The interviews lasted approximately one hour per teacher and were audio-recorded and professionally transcribed.

In addition, participants responded to a total of three journal prompts in which they were able to reflect on their current and previous practices. These journal prompts were submitted to us at a timeline that worked for the participants. In these journal responses, the teachers were able to (1) reflect on their perceptions of themselves as teachers, the students, and the classrooms; (2) provide detailed descriptions of their practices; and (3) provide explanations on ways they were able or not able to accomplish their instructional objectives. When the journal responses were submitted, they were typed and averaged about two pages per submission. To confirm teachers perceptions, the study also requested access to documents related to their teaching, which included, but were not limited to, course syllabi, lesson plans, lists of ongoing activities related to content instruction, flyers or other materials related to these activities, examples of students assignments, and photographs of classroom activities.

Once the data were collected, all teachers were assigned a pseudonym of their choice. All data from the interviews, journal responses, and documents were prepared, analyzed, and categorized into codes that were in alignment with the research questions. The coding process was done through both hand-coding techniques and the use of the NVivo qualitative data analysis software program. These codes, which were identified based on the frequency with which teachers described their sympathetic practices, included, but were not limited to, words and ideas such as equity, educational expectations, teacher knowledge, student knowledge-base, empowerment, social network, social capital, care, and self-care. Based on each of these words and ideas, teachers described their abilities to deeply understand students racialized context of learning as central to developing their classroom expectations. Through iterative (hand coding) and deductive (comparisons to the literature) cycles of analysis, these characterizations of teaching illuminated the ways in which teachers were using students race and other intersectional experiences to prepare them for the future. We drew on Du Boiss (1935) conception of sympathy as an analytical lens in the next data analysis stage to understand teachers use of sympathetic practices with Students of Color, including their use of social capital and empowering curriculum in the classroom.

Several of the emerging patterns and themes included teachers perceived awareness and understanding of students racialized context, commitment to high expectations for Youth of Color, social and educational equity, communal and reciprocal social capital, and student-centered curriculum for the purpose of youth empowerment. In addition to using multiple sources of data for triangulation, we validated our findings by engaging teachers in continuous member-checking during the academic year and a debriefing session to enable them to provide feedback regarding the accuracy of the themes found in the data, as well as additional comments regarding their ethics of classroom expectations (Clark & Creswell, 2010).


The first author in this study grew up in a single parent, low-income immigrant family. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school and to attend college. His commitment to this research stemmed from his observations and participations in an inequitable, highly tracked educational system as a student. As an immigrant from Taiwan who identifies as a heterosexual Asian American male, he personally experienced issues of racism, English monolingualism, and low expectations in remedial classrooms in K-12 education, which eventually informed his practice as a bilingual administrator seeking to disrupt educational inequities. For more than 24 years, he has worked and researched in low-income, urban high schools examining the stratifying effects of educators expectations and sympathetic practices of Students of Color. Informed by the work of Malcolm X early on in his life, the first authors experiences as a student and educator of color led him to draw on the traditions of ethnic studies to identify ways to address structural inequities associated with educators low expectations of students at multiple intersections of life experiences.

The second author was also the first in her family to graduate from a four-year college. As a Queer Chicana and the child of immigrant parents, she experienced firsthand the challenges of educational inequities in her various communities. As a result of the second authors own learning and unlearning through ethnic studies courses in her undergraduate education, as well as participation in political organizations, she made the decision to become an educator and work primarily with communities of color. For nine years, she taught high school English in the same working-class neighborhood as some of the research participants and was familiar with their reputation for having high expectations and strong relationships with diverse populations. The second authors current work in teacher education and research focuses on exploring the dispositions and practices of educators working to provide empowering spaces for Youth of Color in and outside their classrooms.


In the following section, we highlight some of the major findings pertaining to our research questions. The findings start with an illustration of teachers understanding of racialized contexts of Students of Color as a method to develop their asset-based practices and higher educational expectations. Next, we draw on the data to describe how teachers perceive their asset-driven sympathetic practices are enacted through social capital and curriculum. In the findings, we explain how these sympathetic practices act as strong mediators in the ways teacher communicate positive expectations with and for students. The intent of the findings is to give a snapshot to describe teachers mindsets and skill sets, and the ways they establish equitable classroom through structures underpinning the practices of sympathetic touch. The data presented in this article is representative of the majority of teachers accounts, with concrete exemplars selected from the major themes that were the most salient to the study.


In this first section of the findings, one of the major themes that resulted from the data analysis showed that our teacher participants constructed a sympathetic understanding (mindset, knowledge, and dispositions) with students differently than those in deficit models of education. These findings are followed by a second major theme that underscores the ways these sympathetic understandings of students inform our participants perceptions of their expectations and sympathetic practices.

Within deficit models of education, teachers often report using students grades and other performance data to negatively inform their judgment about and expectations of students (Marsh, Farrell, & Bertrand, 2014). Within this deficit model, teachers sympathy is informed by the perception that grades or life circumstances of Students of Color are obstacles to their ability to learn, resulting in lowered expectations and predictions about what students can achieve (Graham & Taylor, 2016). However, the justice-driven consciousness of the participants in the study allows them to identify the inequitable conditions faced by students and to use this sympathetic understanding to construct positive expectations in the classroom. By grounding this sensibility of justice in the local context, these teachers report cultivating educational expectations within antiracist, antideficit frameworks.

For example, our teacher participants reported that using student data to inform their social justice context was a source of motivation to teach against the self-fulfilling prophecy of white supremacy. In her interview, Maricela, a Latina history teacher, refers to students low graduation rates as a starting point to co-construct higher level expectations with her students. She explains,

Unfortunately, among Latinos theres a low graduation rate and even a smaller rate of them going to college and then we could just go down the pipeline how it keeps narrowing down and theres less in higher education, but I think its just telling kids about statistics and I think that I do like sharing information with my kids. Usually when I teach economics, I usually always [show] my kids educational pipeline for Latinos, how we start out 100 in the classroom and then as it narrows it down, and I think for some of the kids very eye-opening and just kind of hearing their responses when I ask, Why do you think thats the case? Theyre like, Oh, because were not smart. I mean, you think thats really the reason?

Based on one of the codes that led to our analysis, we found that teachers understanding of their students knowledge base informs how they think about their abilities to establish a responsive classroom environment. Maricela demonstrates her understanding of the students learning context by infusing these statistics in her curriculum as a method to raise questions about the mechanisms that are in place in society to bring about these outcomes. By using the educational pipeline as an example, she points to the importance of a problem-posing pedagogy to help her students examine school structures that influence their educational trajectory and to create conditions for students to further develop consciousness about their future (Freire, 1970). By encouraging students to examine their own educational conditions, Maricela has created an asset-based environment where students become the producers of knowledge, and the realities of the P20 educational pipeline are not static or permanent.

By positioning her students knowledge at the center of their learning, Maricela also aligns her knowledge base with those of her students to change their thinking about their own intellectual promise and to speak of possibilities, not destruction. Through this process of co-constructing knowledge in the classroom, Maricelas account of her practices also demonstrates a sense of knowledge and disposition in her students intellectual capacity, transcending the existing statistics that may inadvertently overemphasize students deficits along the P20 educational pipeline. To organize her students to act on their understanding of the educational pipeline, Maricela requires them to attend college workshops and Back to School Night, where college is further discussed and encouraged.

Maricelas perceptions of her practices led us to further our investigation into the role of teachers mindset, knowledge, and dispositions in the development of their sympathetic touch in the classroom. Maricelas accounts of her own standpoint as a first-generation female college student and having a history with strong Latina role models informed her repertoire of diversity in the classroom. She recalls,

I grew up in [a highly racialized community] and I remember having teachers that did not look like me, and definitely the few that I did have, I felt had a big impact in my life, and I can recall their names and I can still recall activities that we did in the class.

Maricela reports that she draws on her life experiences to inform her purpose as a Latina teacher and her understanding of students who are mostly Latina/o with first-generation backgrounds. In similar ways, this understanding allows Maricela to draw on the life experiences of her students to create opportunities for them to co-construct their educational expectations with her, with the collective goal of increasing Latina/o educational attainment. Maricela illuminates,

The fact [was] that there were Latinx [teachers] who had a big impact on me, so the fact that I can share that with the kids, that theres not a lot of Latinx in education, and then the fact that they can relate, I think that makes a big difference.

The positive images of highly educated and professionally successful Latinx teachers provided Maricela with a sense of hope and possibilities. In turn, she aspires to make a difference with and for others through positive lenses of herself and people who look like her. By examining students experiential knowledge in connection with her own upbringing as a Latina, Maricela uses students positive self-conception and existing knowledge base as foundations to co-construct learning in the classroom. Through problem-posing methods of teaching, she scaffolds knowledge such that students can develop the consciousness to question deficit beliefs about their chances of success. As a Latina educator, Maricelas understanding of the social justice context allows her to create conditions for students to think critically and analytically about themselves and to be concerned about their status in the educational pipeline. In this model of education, students are no longer passive receivers of information but have the tools to question the normalization of low expectations in many urban schools (Freire, 1970).

Cammarota and Romero (2006) described the context in which Students of Color experience low expectations and are intellectually and systemically silenced, with negative images of racial inferiority forced on them through racist conditioning in the classroom (Fanon, 1963). Based on one of the codes that led to our analysis, these teachers report that listening to students voices matters in the co-construction of positive expectations with students. Importantly, we found this process of co-construction to include both the teachers inward expectations of self as an educator, and ways these expectations are manifested externally into sympathetic practices with and for students. Ally, a Korean American English teacher, shares her intentions for teaching in her school, her expectations for herself as a teacher, and how she harnesses a sympathetic understanding with students:

The reason that Im choosing to teach at this school is to make changes in the way our society is unfairly divided. And believing that its not that these students arent smart enough to do it. Its that they havent been given the right opportunity and the right place to flourish. I think it is knowing that youre not teaching just to give them knowledge, but you are teaching to have students kind of realize how important they are in this world and that their voice matters and that they are intelligent beings, and that they have a story that they need to tell. I think its those things that make you a social justice educator.

As a response to the racist conditions that her students report experiencing, Ally perceives her role as someone who can create the appropriate classroom structure for Students of Color to flourish academically. The interview with Ally reveals that a teacher needs to have expectations for herself and high expectations for her context of teaching. She perceives these expectations as prerequisites for student empowerment in diverse contexts. Our teacher participants also understand the social construction of intelligence and assume responsibility for fostering structures and curriculum to promote high expectations. From our archival analysis of her curriculum, Ally centers and reinforces the intellectual assets and life experiences of her Students of Color through narrative writing, allowing students to examine and describe their community as a form of counternarrative to negative images. This asset-oriented approach to the classroom runs counter to those of low expectations through banking methods of education. Here, sympathetic understanding is constructed through a process of discovery that explores the ways the teacher and students see themselves and each other.

Through intentional practices, these teachers debunk racist rationales that justify deficit notions of sympathy and low expectations, which they believe are a problem in their schools. Tonatiuh, a Latino history teacher, shares his observations of educational injustice in his school and how he goes about counteracting a school culture of low expectations, which he believes was alienating his students:

I still believe that there are people that have no business being in front of students. . . I was like, There is an injustice here. Theres something going on that is not [right] . . . it shouldnt be happening. So definitely thats immediate, I think connection to that whole idea of social justice, about trying to change something that is just really, really unfair.

Interestingly, most of our teacher participants perceive low expectations as a social injustice. To place his expectations in context, Tonatiuh grew up in the same neighborhood as his students, so his expectations for teaching are informed by his insider knowledge of the community and his sympathetic understanding of the educational injustices experienced by his students. He sees that his responsibility as a teacher is to implement an antiracist teaching pedagogy to debunk racist conditionings associated with low expectations. In his interview, Tonatiuh uses the term soldier to describe himself, because of years of political battles he had to wage against inequitable systems and structures. He reflects,

So when I said that I felt like I was a soldier, being their boots on the ground, was like I saw myself as Im going to do things differently. Im going to be culturally relevant. Im going to model things, not only with what Im teaching, my discipline, but Im just going to be a model of success for my students. Im from where theyre from. I come from the same family. My parents are identical to their parents.

Tonatiuhs sympathetic understanding of the local context allows him to reject the business as usual model of racism (Gillborn & Youdell, 2009). By knowing himself and seeing his own community attacked by educational injustices, Tonatiuh has particular affinity with his students, which contributes to his repertoire of diversity to teach effectively with sympathetic touch.


In this second section of the findings, we discuss that for teachers to foster sympathetic touch with students from social justice perspectives, equity was a major theme, which must be central to the construction of social capital in the classroom (Du Bois, 1935). As our teacher participants create conditions for students to co-construct their equitable expectations, the ways in which students social capital is perceived and harnessed through teaching and learning should be treated with respect. This conception of equity is informed by teachers creating conditions for students to have voices in the learning process and using those voices to further develop their social capital and collectively recognize that the human condition is not a fixed reality, but a reality waiting to be transformed (Freire, 1970). Furthermore, our teacher participants indicate that equity also must translate to respecting all students ability to learn, such that the co-construction of educational expectations and how the classroom elicits social capital when those expectations are acted on is not limited to those who are the most skilled and able. Rather, the expectations to foster social capital are community driven, extending students consciousness into social action to reenvision society.

One major theme across our data is the role of college-going expectations in the nurturing of social capital from an equity perspective. In her journal, Ana describes the challenges and possibilities of fostering equity in the classroom and the ways expectations manifest in her relationships with students and their learning context:

A student I had my second year teaching had a particularly difficult time in high school with reading and writing. As a ninth grader he came in with about a third grade reading level. When he wrote, his ideas were simplistic. His grammar and spelling needed a lot of improvement. He also had an IEP [individualized education program]. Despite all of that, he was an incredibly dedicated student. He attended tutoring and I was able to coach him in developing and organizing his ideas. I also helped him find books he thought were interesting to read. At that time, I did not focus too much on helping him improve his grammar and spelling. I figured that he would learn that with time. Mostly I showed him that his hard work in the form of revising, editing, being persistent and fostering relationships with adult mentors would pay off. A couple of years ago, he invited me to his college graduation. It took him six or seven years to get his Bachelors degree, but he finished!

Instead of feeling sorry for her student, Anas journal shows that her sympathetic touch involves the ability to recognize her students agency. Despite the stigmatizing IEP label that often activates deficit notions of sympathy and low expectations, she is able and willing to personalize her teaching in ways that build on her students aspirations for college. This form of sympathetic practice is an example of asset-based instruction. These learning conditions elicit the students self-expectations and foster social capital through coaching and reciprocal teacher-student relationships. In turn, this process of reciprocity helps Ana to develop her expectations for herself as a teacher. These mutual relationships help Ana and her students to resist deficit notions of sympathy that appear in many underresourced schools.

Based on one of the codes that led to our analysis, we find that teachers perceive their facilitative role in steering students to particular social networks to be effective in helping students to recognize, accumulate, and apply their social capital for themselves. This facilitative role is not limited to the dissemination of college information, but it places a focus on creating multiple pathways for students to act on their expectations for academic success. To Ally, one of these strategies is to infuse community-based social capital into the classroom. For example, Ally is able to invite members of the local community to share their journeys of graduating from high school and being the first in the family to go to college:

I guess my feelers are always out. I remember one year, there was this guy. He works with a college application consulting firm or something. He works with kids who are applying to colleges. He gets paid to go through personal statements with them and stuff. I got his info and I made sure that he knew who I was. I contact him when I have seniors and say, Please come in. You are the best speaker I have heard on personal statements. I dont know anyone who can make it as interesting as you. I will invite him in. One year, I invited all of the seniors from our school.

Ally shares that these efforts contribute to students understanding of the extensive knowledge and expertise available to them in the form of community cultural wealth. She reports that these role-modeling activities inspire many students to think about how to write their personal statements for college, leading to corresponding writing assignments that ask students to describe the world that shaped their aspirations after high school. These shared experiences reinforce the idea of equity in teacher-student relationships, a sense of equity further manifested by Allys decision to facilitate conditions for her students to see the relevance of college and to use their learning to act on their own expectations to prepare for the future. By creating a learning context that students can relate to and giving them the opportunity to accumulate new knowledge and networks to expand on their community cultural wealth, Ally turns social capital into a shared, equitable experience between her and her students (Enriquez, 2011; Holland, 2017).

The majority of our teacher participants report using similar strategies to foster social capital in the classroom. For example, Laura is able to connect students to the alumni network as a way for former students to share their college journeys and their lessons learned that might help Lauras current students. Laura explains,

We bring in former students [to] come in and speak about their experiences as college students. So, thats been really transformative for them to see people who were in high school just like them but now who are in college and giving them advice. Weve done that school-wide through advisories. I have a Facebook page, which is small alumni and then I also have one since Ive been at other schools. Its called [name of page], where Ill just post up like I need five students to come and talk about college. So, weve had students come through there. Thats been really good.

Laura elaborates that the presence of former students who were successful at the high school helps to instill a sense of optimism that college is attainable, counteracting cultures of low expectations. Furthermore, by drawing on these former students social capital, she creates an expectation that such information and resources are meant to be shared, modeling for students how to take interest in each others academic success. This communal approach to fostering social capital with students permits them to make connections with networks of support that care and understand what it is like to be a Person of Color from the same community who moves forward in the educational pipeline. Whereas many urban schools are attempting to disrupt the self-fulfilling prophecies associated with low expectations (Merton, 1948; Rist, 1970), these teachers are able to develop a network of support to fulfill students college-going potential.


In the third and final section of the findings, our teacher participants construct curriculum in ways that are reflective of their understanding of the students needs based on their racialized context. They are able to integrate these understandings into the curriculum in ways that assist students in performing to a higher level of expectations. Milner (2007) emphasized that curriculum and instruction must be intentional so that young people can be empowered to counteract deficit thinking through positive self-concepts and to embody the ideas of self-care and self-respect to collectively contribute to their communities. Additionally, Sleeter (1991) illuminated the role of knowledge and power in informing students capacities to act. The role of students knowledge about their race and class struggles in the context of schooling allows both teachers and students to recognize possibilities when limitations are more readily apparent. The construction of an empowering curriculum, then, provides the classroom with the analytic tools to question the norms and complacencies around such limitations and to imagine a future that builds on students knowledge and power to pursue broader social justice goals (Sleeter, 1991).

Teachers voices continue to be significant in informing our understanding of their pedagogy. We also relied heavily on our archival data, including teachers lesson plans and student assignments, to demonstrate the relationships between an empowering curriculum and teachers sympathetic touch. Through eliciting students voices in the classroom as a method to co-construct knowledge, Laura facilitates links between students knowledge bases and historical figures. The purpose of her youth development approach to the curriculum is to provide examples for her students to come to know themselves in relation to others (Milner, 2007) and to apply that knowledge to social action (Ginwright & Cammarota, 2002). Laura states,

A lot of the time well actually study people through curriculum. I also am really intentional about what messages translate through my curriculum. So, we have three units senior year. One is called here I stand. So, we look at what people stand for. That helps cultivate purpose. Also well look at them within those lenses a lot of the time. What happens when they didnt make it? What happens over time? We will look at the stories of individuals. You can see up there, the individuals that we study, on the side where it says individuals, like RFK, MLK, Elie Wiesel. We read a piece from the NPR This I Believe series. We read a piece from Katie Courics The Best Advice I Ever Got. In The Kite Runner we looked at what happens when the main character makes a bad decision and is there coming back from that. And Resilience Games, the Dali Lama. We read some stuff from a website called Speak Truth to Power thats been really powerful about individuals. The Barefoot Artist, theyre a really cool organization that does work in Rwanda and helping to build resilience with people there. We read a song by Macklemore about gay rights and President Obamas speeches. We read three of his, one on his back to school speech, one on Syria, and we read his college affordability plan. So, theyve been also looking at policy.

In these lesson plans, Laura holds critical discussions to engage students in thinking about themselves in relation to the global context of social injustices (Milner, 2007). By examining the commonalities between political struggles, Laura envisions her students as further defining their purpose for learning and their responsibility to actively contribute to addressing global issues that are significant for them. By using the curriculum to nurture students agency through the inclusion of explicit models of resistance to injustices throughout history, Laura and other teacher participants create conditions wherein students feelings about these issues are directed to applied projects in their own communities to enrich their experiences with the curriculum.

Ally provides us an example of her curriculum that uses applied projects to link students voices to their engagement in real-world problems. In her classroom, Ally assigns a book project where every senior contributes to the editorial decisions, content, and publication process. Ally uses an asset-based approach to nurturing students to identify the strengths and resources within their communities and to critically examine the structural injustices that promulgate the race and class struggles associated with those communities. She described the published book as follows:


[The book] emerged due to the seniors appreciation for their community and its vibrant uniqueness. The book enables individual readers to determine for themselves what it means to be an active member of the community. Through their chapters and photos, the students tackle the much-needed examination of culture and ethnicity within [this community of color]. Above all, their culture and their experiences are acknowledged, valued, and used as important sources of their educational journey.

The content of the book also discusses community attributes, such as oral histories of community leaders, murals and historical landmarks, family traditions, and youth culture in the forms of music and entertainment. According to Ally, students also seize the moment by calling attention to issues such as gentrification, redlining, systemic violence, the income gap and economic exploitation, and racial profiling of immigrants and other People of Color that corresponds with their negative treatment and learning conditions in the school. Ally reports that these opportunities allow students to envision life beyond their present situations and to learn to speak of possibilities, not destruction (Milner, 2007). In the last two pages of the book, students are able to reflect on their social context and their aspirations and dreams for themselves and their community. This approach empowers students to care about and for their community and to demonstrate that care (Milner, 2007). Ally uses this particular curriculum to elicit students voices to tell their own stories and to put their hopes and concerns into action. From the perspective of building knowledge, Ally aspires to foster students collective positive self-concept, respect for their untold history and the community, and capacity to connect their local organizing efforts with global struggles against racism.

Our archival analysis also shows that participant teachers create conditions that expect students to build communities through collaboration and cooperation across race, class, and gender lines. Our data show that as students develop a method for naming the sources of structural oppression, their sense of agency is further cultivated by a curriculum that positions them to act on this new understanding. In this process of teaching and learning, our teacher participants facilitate curriculum through which personal transformation is possible, changing students thinking about themselves, the community, and their engagement in the world in antiracist ways (Milner, 2007). For example, Tonatiuh reports that he partners with a local organization that works with youth from the surrounding areas to organize three-day camps focused on increasing young peoples knowledge about inequities within their schools, communities, and families. During these camps, students discuss racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other intersectional injustices, as well as learning strategies for building broad and strategic coalitions across communities of color to seek solutions in their local and global contexts. This particular example shows the potential for teachers and students to engage with curriculum in an empowering manner with greater purpose to transform oppressive structures. By integrating an asset-based perspective into the curriculum, our teacher participants ability to seek the expertise of community members also provides a community-organizing model for students to consider for the future (Yosso, 2005).


In an effort to illuminate antiracist practices of sympathy as a newly discovered repertoire of diversity, our study resulted in several critical findings; one was the importance of teachers expectations and awareness of the racialized contexts of Students of Color, as well as their position and responsibilities within those contexts. Additionally, we found teachers sympathetic touch to be an important mediating factor in how their expectations are communicated to students in the classroom. The teachers in the study were able to act on a perceptual framework and facilitate students social capital and classroom curriculum to meet students needs and challenge white supremacist ideologies that often predict student achievement based on race and other visual markers. In the context of this school district, these teachers were able to foster sympathy through high expectations by focusing on equity, community, and students community cultural wealth. These ethics and practices of sympathetic touch translated shared equity in the forms of student-teacher relationships, curriculum, and the centrality of students voices in the construction of knowledge.

Our study has several implications for teaching and leadership. While teachers are faced with increasingly stringent parameters of teaching, which often include prescripted curriculum and an overemphasis on standardized tests (Dover, Henning, & Agarwal-Rangnath, 2016), our findings discussed the importance of teachers understanding of the lived experiences of their students and their ability and willingness to use that knowledge to facilitate teaching and learning. The current teacher preparation climate, in California specifically, is in the midst of large-scale changes with the implementation of new standards, including Common Core State Standards, Next Generation Science Standards, a new English Language Development framework, and newly revised Teacher Performance Expectations. While teacher education programs are trying to best prepare teachers for these new standards, these processes often fail to provide teacher candidates with the tools to better understand and navigate their local contexts, which can inadvertently add to educational inequities by encouraging expectations and curriculum that are inappropriate for or irrelevant to students and their racialized context. The literature shows that teachers committed to social justice do indeed require the skill sets to negotiate the curricular, pedagogical, and political dimensions of CCSS and related educational reform traditions (Dover et al., 2016, p. 460).

The question remains, then, how teacher education programs can reframe conversations on standards or provide opportunities for teacher candidates to explore how their expectations can be more aligned with a co-constructed understanding of students educational needs by treating them with equity and not as depositories of standardization and reform. Through the research data that described how teachers responded to students racialized contexts without lowering expectations, we argue that teacher education should start with the opportunities for candidates to be self-critical and to reposition their epistemologies in ways that will place the local communities at the center of their practice. These types of teacher knowledge run counter to the expectations and sympathetic practices that are based on race denial.

This work also breaks new ground for urban education and urban educational leadership and preparation. This work is especially significant given the current race denial approach to national standards for how to best prepare school and district leaders for social justice (Davis, Gooden, & Micheaux, 2015). Equipping communities of color with the types of teachers who are capable of teaching Students of Color and whose knowledge and expectations match those of the community is, then, of critical importance. This requires district and school leadership to make concerted efforts to reshape their school structure to one that emphasizes a sympathetic culture responsive to students epistemologies, that holds high expectations for all students, and that is committed to social justice. By holding high expectations for their teaching staff and providing opportunities for teachers to learn about and from the communities they serve, school leaders can model sympathetic practices and lead with a strong sense of equity and solidarity. That is, leadership programs should provide their candidates with opportunities to make both sympathetic touch and repertoires of diversity a programmatic and analytic framework within which to develop new tools and practices of leadership for educational justice. In doing so, school leaders thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs can be self-interrogated and predisposed to support social justice teaching in and across various forms of diversity and racialized contexts (Boske, Osanloo, & Newcomb, 2017).

To further add to the literature on teacher expectations, because race and expectation are mediating factors in students experiences in schools, this study underscores the importance of teachers sympathetic touch as a strategy to counteract racism associated with deficit conceptions and low expectations for learning and teaching. Du Boiss (1935) conception of sympathy as an ethical and pedagogical imperative to a liberatory education makes it clear that high expectations for learning must take into account students histories, social contexts, and network and knowledge base. This work has allowed us to appreciate that having expectations for students requires teachers to have expectations for themselves and be willing and able to use their sympathetic touch to elicit learning and to co-construct knowledge with students through antiracist curricular expectations.

Therefore, when examining the social context of schooling, the ways in which race and racism are operative in the process and context of urban schooling must be central to the teachers understanding of their role in the classroom. Du Boiss (1935) sympathetic touch is a reference to this accord between students and teachers, a common understanding of love and respect for students histories, voices, and acts of resistance against white supremacy. Given the current accountability systems inability to empower both students and teachers in the classroom, Du Boiss essay is significant in illuminating currently undervalued practices that teachers can use to be effective in todays test-prep educational climate.


The authors thank Dr. Daniel G. Solórzano for his mentorship and Dr. Raquel Fong for assistance with the diagram that greatly contributed to the development of this research.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 121 Number 7, 2019, p. 1-38
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22690, Date Accessed: 2/19/2022 12:36:35 PM

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    About the Author
    • Daniel Liou
      Arizona State University
      E-mail Author
      DANIEL D. LIOU is an assistant professor at the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. His research examines the sociology of expectations in fostering conditions to support equity and school reform at different stages in the prekindergarten-to-university educational pipeline. His recent publications (both with Leticia Rojas) include “Social Justice Teaching Through the Sympathetic Touch of Caring and High Expectations for Students of Color” (Journal of Teacher Education) and “The Significance of the Racial Contract in Teachers’ College Expectancies for Students of Color” (Race Ethnicity and Education).
    • Leticia Rojas
      Brandman University
      E-mail Author
      LETICIA ROJAS is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Brandman University. Her research areas focus on exploring the dispositions, practices, and challenges of teachers committed to social justice who are working to increase college-going and life opportunities for Students of Color. Before this, Leticia was an English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District for nine years, where she worked to facilitate student-centered learning spaces focused on critical literacy and the histories and experiences of communities of color. She is a first-generation college student and a proud daughter of Mexican immigrant parents.
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