Bronzeville Classical Golden Apple 2021

Golden Apple’s Alan Mather: Excellent Teaching Is Culturally Responsive

It’s that time of year–Golden Apple Awards season. This year, Golden Apple recognized two principals and 10 primary teachers from around the state of Illinois. Since 1986, Golden Apple has been showcasing outstanding educators. Honorees stay connected and continue to innovate through the Golden Apple Academy, where past winners help cultivate the next generation of outstanding Illinois educators through the Golden Apple Scholars and Accelerators programs.

Recently, Golden Apple President Alan Mather–himself a Golden Apple winner for principal leadership–spoke with Chicago Unheard about what excellent teaching looks like in the doubly-challenged moment where the global pandemic meets the nation’s racial reckoning. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Chicago Unheard: What does excellent teaching look like in 2021? How has it changed due to the pandemic?

Mather: The pandemic has changed things pretty dramatically in terms of how teachers had to embrace new ways to engage. That’s part of what we looked for in this year’s winners, in talking with parents, teachers and students—how did they reach out to you?

There are many things in education that have diminished teaching as a profession, but there’s a newfound respect for what teachers do, based on parents seeing what teachers were doing every day while their children were learning from home.

Being in the room and kneeling down to talk with a student is different from connecting on line when you want to allow them to have their cameras off because they live in conditions they don’t want everyone to see.

While I think understanding around SEL and trauma-informed practices was certainly growing, [now there’s greater]  focus on trauma and what best practices are when you don’t have a student sitting in front of you and you don’t have them have their camera on all the time. 

Mather’s circus talents are known to his former students as well as the Golden Apple community. Photo courtesy Golden Apple.

Chicago Unheard: Has our understanding of what good teaching is changed over a longer timeframe?

Mather: I do think this has changed pretty dramatically over time. Elizabeth Green’s book, Building a Better Teacher, gives great history on how this has changed. It’s a great history of teacher education.

For a long time, I think we saw great teachers as incredible performers—those on whom every eye was fixed. We’ve shifted pretty dramatically on that. Now we focus on how we are engaging students in their learning. How are we helping students move forward in their learning and how are we connecting to their interests?

In a world where so much content is at student’s fingertips, how do you help them learn those concepts and skills—less so the information—in a really engaging way?

We look at cultural competence—that  teachers understand a students’ background, that they elevate students’ backgrounds, that they provide windows and mirrors.  We also look at civic engagement, the application of learning. How do we help students understand how their learning can be applied to serve the broader community?

When I was a principal, I wanted teachers who knew their content, who could engage students for 100 minutes and who liked children. When I asked, “Why did you go into teaching?” some candidates talked about their own success in school or their love of a content area. Uh, no. They have to love kids.

Chicago Unheard: What are your thoughts on the current controversy over “teaching critical race theory in schools?”

Mather: There’s an effort to start a culture war about things that most educators would agree are good things. In Illinois this has been a super-hot topic, in response to the state’s new Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading Standards. I think this has become a flashpoint, but not from a deep understanding. 

Students perform better when they see themselves in their teachers, and seeing themselves in their teachers increases the chances they too might become teachers.

I often get pushback—“race shouldn’t matter”—but if we have the data to back up that it does matter, why would you not bring it forward?

Students want to be able to see themselves. A lot of people like me—a white man—saw ourselves in history and literature growing up. That is affirming. Why would we not want to affirm our students? Why would we not want to affirm the strengths our students bring?

It’s a weird, weird thing that there is such antipathy directed here. Dig in a little bit on what culturally responsive teaching is, and it’s all practices we want teachers to be doing with their students.

History is written by the victors, sure. And it’s important to know the history of those who have challenged the system. If we don’t understand that, we’re doomed to repeat it.

Top photo: Reginald Spears, music teacher at Bronzeville Classical, receives a 2021 Golden Apple Award. Photo courtesy of Golden Apple Foundation.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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