Educator Gail Thompson has written numerous books, including the book Up Where We Belong, on the challenges faced by what she calls “America’s stepchildren” — black, Latino, Southeast Asian, Native American, and white, low-income students. Instructor talked with Thompson about what teachers can do to improve their own practice.

1. Be honest with yourself
Admit that you are not color blind. Practically no one is. “There are various common mind-sets that teachers aren’t even aware of, which are rooted in biased beliefs,” says Thompson. So she prescribes what she calls a “checkup from the neck up.”

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I truly believe that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic background, are capable of being academically successful?
  • Do I have beliefs about their home lives or community that prevent me from seeing their academic potential?
  • Do I treat students how I want my own children to be treated by their teacher?

2. Show that you care
When Thompson surveyed an underperforming school in California, black students were twice as likely as white students to believe that “most of their teachers didn’t like them,” even though nearly all the teachers answered that they cared about their students’ welfare. Clearly, teachers’ caring doesn’t always get communicated effectively. Remember to ask how your students are doing, listen to their answers, learn about their distinct cultures and interests, and show patience and kindness, Thompson suggests.

3. Treat students their age
According to several studies, white adults tend to engage in “adultification” of black children, especially of boys. “Instead of viewing black students’ behavior as that of children,” Thompson explains, “they viewed the boys as if they were adults”—and ratcheted up punishment accordingly. Remember to grant all of your students the same status as children, and recognize the innocence and vulnerability that status entails.

4. Don’t judge parents too quickly
Thompson notes that some teachers may blame students’ academic problems on bad parenting. “Most African-American parents do care about their children’s education,” Thompson writes, “but they may express caring differently from how white middle-class and upper-class parents do.” Black parents, Thompson found, ask about school, listen to their children read, and express interest in grades, but are less likely to help with homework. Working-class parents and single parents may also be less likely to attend parents’ nights and parent-teacher conferences, not because they care less about education, but because to attend might present a major inconvenience or financial hardship.

5. Don’t tolerate racism from your students
It is important to set strict classroom rules on teasing and the use of racist or other derogatory comments: “Leadership sets the tone — be it the teacher, the principal, or the parent — about what’s acceptable and what’s not,” explains Thompson. “And when the leader sets a tone that says, ‘We’re not going to condone certain behaviors, and every child is going to be treated fairly,’ it works.”

6. Maintain expectations
At a recent workshop, says Thompson, “a black principal at a school that is 76 percent black told me his biggest battle was getting teachers to raise their expectations. And that’s not uncommon. Sometimes teachers assume that black students can’t do the work that kids in white, affluent, and middle-class communities can do, and so they lower the expectations. The result? Standards are very low.”

7. Take testing seriously
“Although I have problems with the current high-stakes testing movement,” says Thompson, “it’s important that teachers take it seriously. Students often feel that because they are not spending time preparing, the tests must not be that important. I hear high school students, particularly African-American boys, say, ‘The tests don’t matter.’”

8. Treat your problem child as a “star pupil”
Thompson challenges teachers to “select a student about whom you’ve formed a negative opinion,” and for 21 consecutive school days, force yourself to view and treat this student as if he or she were the brightest student in your class. “If you actually try this experiment, even once,” says Thompson, “it just might change your teaching forever.”