“Start where you are, but don’t stay there”

Five strategies important to improving teaching and learning for diverse, young people.

“Start where you are, but don’t stay there.” That’s the strong recommendation offered by teacher, social scientist and researcher, H. Richard Milner to those who are concerned about inequities in educational achievement among diverse young people. In his book, Start Where You Are, But Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps, and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms, Milner urges educators to embrace a lifelong cognitive, social and emotional journey of learning and growth to improve their teaching practices and other work in schools and classrooms.

Part of that process is moving away from a focus on “achievement gaps” toward a focus on “opportunity gaps” which helps us to zero in on important issues that can make a positive difference in the lives of kids when addressed effectively. With the goal of improving teaching and learning for all students – particularly youth of color and those living in poverty – Milner offers five important strategies for educators to consider:

  1. Reject “color blindness”: Pretending that race and racism don’t exist is not helpful to addressing issues that impact the lives of both white students and students of color. When educators ignore race they reject important dimensions of their students which negatively impacts teaching and learning processes. In his book, Milner quotes University of Washington, College of Education professor, James Banks, “A statement such as ‘I don’t see color’ reveals a privileged position that refuses to legitimize racial identifications that are very important to people of color and that are often used to justify inaction and perpetuation of the status quo.” We cannot address racism by ignoring it. The bottom line is that race matters – and racism is not just about individual acts of prejudice. Commit to learning more about how racism operates at the personal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural levels.
  2. Develop skills in understanding and facilitating cultural conflicts: Because many teachers and educational approaches are grounded in Eurocentric cultural perspectives, misunderstandings and conflicts are bound to happen between and among diverse groups of teachers, students and families. Don’t let your own fears stand in the way of addressing these issues. Become mindful and skilled at transcending and facilitating these kinds of inevitable cultural misunderstandings and conflicts.
  3. Learn how “meritocracy” operates: Many of us have been taught that all it takes to succeed in school and other life endeavors is hard work, ability, intelligence and persistence. Sometimes called the “myth of meritocracy” this thinking ignores and minimizes the impact of situations that are far beyond the control of diverse youth and adults. Learn more about how meritocracy works and shift your thinking away from the belief that people deserve and have earned all their successes and failures.
  4. Shift away from low-expectations and deficits mindsets: Notice if you’re in a pattern of having lower expectations for some kids than for others – which research shows is often based on differences such as race, income level, language, gender and other areas of difference. Low expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and too often propositions students to fail. Practice focusing on and drawing out the assets, wisdom and strengths that diverse young people bring to the table rather than focusing on what you see as their “deficits.”
  5. Reject context-neutral mindsets: Research shows that social contexts have a huge impact on human development and the opportunities (or lack thereof) available to young people and adults. Context-neutral mindsets block our ability to recognize and understand the realities impacting everyone involved within a school and community. Commit to learning more about the lived experiences and realities of diverse young people, teachers, staff, parents and family members. Change policies, procedures and practices as needed to reflect the assets and needs of your particular school and community context.

Michigan State University Extension provides education and other resources for schools and other community organizations focused on issues of diversity, cultural competency, equity and social justice. For more information, visit MSU Extension’s Diversity and Multiculturalism web page.