The Cult of Pedagogy Podcast

Transcript of Episode 64

Jennifer Gonzalez, host


In 2014, a report was issued by the National Center for Education Statistics that projected what education would look like through the year 2022. One of the things this report said is that starting right around 2014, for the first time in history, the majority of kids in American schools would be students of color. And in every year after that, the percentages would continue to shift ever so slightly in the same direction, with the white population shrinking to a smaller and smaller proportion of the whole, and the combined populations of of students from other ethnic groups increasing so that together, they make up the majority.

By contrast, the population of teachers in the U.S. is overwhelmingly white. What that tells me is that the life experiences of most of the people in charge of our classrooms have been pretty different from the experiences of most of their students.

And that matters. It matters because our work is not strictly academic. Not by a long shot. The relationships we build with our students have a profound influence on their success in school. In order for our students to perform well academically, they need to feel safe, both physically and psychologically. They need to feel a sense of belonging. They need to feel seen and valued for who they are. For our students of color, finding this safe, accepting place is rare, especially if most of their teachers have a dramatically different background from their own. This problem can be even more pronounced for students of color who attend schools where their peers are also mostly white.

I’m not saying that all white teachers are racists or that they are overtly and deliberately doing things to discriminate against their students of color. What’s happening is that teachers are doing things that harm these students’ self-perception without even realizing it. Or let’s put it another way: Teachers could be doing a much better job of nurturing these students than they’re currently doing. But this is a fixable problem. By making a few changes, they could be doing an incredible job.

My guest today, Dena Simmons, understands this issue from both sides. In her 2015 TED talk, “How Students of Color Confront Impostor Syndrome,” she tells the story of how, as a young black girl, she left the Bronx neighborhood where she lived with her single mother and two sisters to attend a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut. Although she got an excellent education there and followed that up with a series of impressive academic and professional accomplishments, she always felt out of place, torn between the world she’d grown up in and her identity as an accomplished scholar. “Eternal imposter syndrome,” she calls it. And this struggle was made much harder by many of her teachers, in the things they said to her and the messages they sent, messages that basically told Dena that who she was was not okay.

Later in life Dena became a middle school teacher, right back in the Bronx, and she was determined to create the kind of atmosphere she wished she’d had, one that values each student’s unique identity and history. In her TED talk, she gives us a quick glimpse of how that worked. In this interview, we pick up where that TED talk left off, with a discussion of exactly what all teachers can do to help their students of color not just survive, but thrive in the classroom, with a fully developed, strong sense of pride in who they are, where they came from, and what they are capable of.

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Now here’s my interview with Dena Simmons.

GONZALEZ: Dena, welcome to the podcast.

SIMMONS: Thank you.

GONZALEZ: And Dena contacted me a few months ago to just see if we could talk a little bit about how teachers, and in particular, how white teachers, are relating to their students of color. That was actually one of the first things I wanted to ask you when we talked about this was what sort of lens we were going to be looking through. Is our target audience here primarily white teachers, or is this how any teacher could support students of color?

SIMMONS: So I see it as something that’s more universal. I think that it’s something … I think the ways that we sort of invite students’ experiences to the classroom is something that all teachers can benefit from, when we’re talking about particularly students of color who have white teachers, I think there’s a particular sort of work that needs to be done on the part of the white teacher to sort of … it takes a little bit more work. And so I would say for the white teachers out there, I invite them to take these practices and bring them to the classrooms and find ways to teach students to love themselves and to question the curricular, to question sort of biases or their own power and privilege to ensure that they’re not abusing or causing violence in the classroom inadvertently.

So I would say that those apply to everyone, because the invitation of the students’ lives into the classroom could be for the students who are on the gender spectrum, right? Who we have a very heteronormative way of learning and way of speaking, you know, “Boys get in this line, girls get in this line.” So how do we invite those students with those experience into the classroom as well. So I think it’s a universal sort of push for everyone to see the people who are sitting in front of them every single day.

GONZALEZ: So before we start to get into any of the specifics, let’s just tell everybody a little bit about who you are, a little bit about your background as a student and as an educator, and then just a quick, brief look at what you’re doing right now, because the work that you’re doing kind of relates to this, but we’re kind of drilling down on a more specific topic. Let’s just give this an introduction to who you are.

SIMMONS: OK. So my name, I’ll start with that. My name is Dena Simmons, and when I introduce myself, I always say where I’m from, which is the Bronx. And the reason why I say I’m from the Bronx is because I think that it’s a political reason. Usually when people think of the Bronx, they think of all the things that are going wrong in the Bronx. And so part of me, being proud of being from the Bronx and going out and saying I’m from the Bronx is to sort of shift that narrative and to say that, you know, while it may be difficult in the Bronx, there is so much hope and promise there, let’s not forget that. So there are students there and people there who deserve to be seen. Anyway, so that’s my little side note.

I would say that I’m a lifelong learner, and I’m an activist and educator, and being from the Bronx, I attended school in the Bronx from Head Start, you know, to eighth grade. And then I had the opportunity to go to boarding school in Connecticut for high school, and for college I went to college in New England as well. And I then went on to the Dominican Republic with a Fulbright to do research on teenage pregnancy and the relationship between education and socioeconomic status and just to get a better idea of what it was like to be a teenage mother, given how often they’re left out of discourse about education.

And then I came back to be a teacher in the Bronx, because I knew that I wanted to return to the streets that raised me. I knew that I had something to offer, and so I went back home. When I was a teacher, I returned to the middle school, a middle school, and I absolutely loved, loved teaching, and I loved my students, and I’m still in touch with many of them.

While I was teaching, there was just one thing that kept nagging me, which was, how do we ensure that our students are safe? Particularly I would see like a lot of fighting and a lot of sort of just antisocial behaviors. And I had not learned in my teacher education courses how to do anything about that and how to create safe spaces for all students. It seems like many of my colleagues didn’t either. So sort of that sort of nagging and wanting to do more to ensure safe spaces for our students, I decided to apply, and I got into a doctoral program at Teachers College to do research on assessing teacher preparedness to address bullying in the middle school context. And so again, sort of what the driving force was was how do we ensure our students feel safe to be themselves without ridicule, without being bullied, without sort of fear. So that’s what led me to my doctoral program.

And now I work as the director of education at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where I have the awesome opportunity to work with educators throughout the nation to help them develop their emotional intelligence as a way to use the power of emotions to create a more, to create more compassionate, equitable and safe communities. So it all comes back together to sort of this desire I have for ensuring safe spaces. And you know, it stems back from the Bronx, where I never really felt safe, and then in boarding school where I didn’t feel safe in other ways. So it’s really all tied by this sort of obsession I have to create safe spaces.

GONZALEZ: And really the sort of touchstone to our meeting and talking was this TED talk that you did called “How Students of Color Confront Imposter Syndrome,” which is wonderful, and for anybody listening, I’m going to embed that in the blog post that goes with this episode. And so in that TED talk, you know, you talk about the interactions between students of color and their teachers, and just sort of these dynamics of what does it mean to have your own identity and to really be proud of who you are and how the teacher’s behavior really has an impact on that. What do you currently see right now as the problem that we’re having in schools, and that would be the problem that we’re going to address here today some four suggestions that we have for teachers to really make some changes in their classrooms. So what is the problem right now for students of color?

SIMMONS: So thanks for mentioning my TED talk. That was a, you know, it was both a very vulnerable thing to go up on stage and talk about my own sort of imposter syndrome and how I often feel like I have to police myself in order to be in spaces, particularly mostly white spaces. And if we think about our current education system and our current education reform system, we think about who the leaders are pushing our reform efforts. We think about who the predominantly portion of our teachers are pushing in the classrooms. And, you know, despite good intentions, and I think good intentions are great, but we don’t often think about that good intentions don’t always necessarily mean good results. In many ways, if we think about what our curriculum looks like, and we think about sort of the larger context in general or the sort of implicit bias in teachers, we see students of color continuously showing up, getting suspended, getting kicked out. You know, if you look at any of the rates, you know, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the rates of black and brown students getting expelled and pushed out of schools in ways that white students aren’t, you know, you sort of think, “Oh, that’s a problem.”

And then when you look at sort of the curriculum, the curriculum throughout, you see how few students of color learn about other people of color. We see, sort of, I’m sure if we did an analysis of the books that we read, they’re mostly sort of focused on Eurocentric people. And now if you even look at sort of the context that we’re in now, who’s running our Department of Education, and we think about we’re in this space, we’re in a time of immigration bans, building walls and alternative facts. And we think about what that means for our marginalized populations, I mean … I mean I guess I’m saying many, many problems, but that all comes to this idea of belonging and am I welcomed here, do I have a space here, and am I safe to be my authentic self? So I would … you know, in my talk, I really talked about … I gave one example of a teacher correcting the way I said the word “ask,” where I usually say “a-x-i-n-g,” axing, because that’s how we say it in the Bronx, and she corrected me in front of everyone, and I was so mortified. But that was just one instance of many, many, many instances. I could have told a different story there of a message that was sent to me that I didn’t belong, that nothing about me was right, and that I needed to learn another way in order to be accepted. So I would say that what the problem is is that our students of color and other marginalized populations do not have the space to be their authentic selves.

GONZALEZ: And then this has an impact on their psychological well-being, it can impact their academic performance. One of the studies that you sent me was about black students in traditionally white colleges, and how their need to fit in and the impression that they get from their surroundings that they are not necessarily welcome there in terms of fitting in, that this can create so much psychological stress that it manifests itself physically, and it has just a lot of long-term effects.

SIMMONS: Yes, yes. So the paper was by Ebony McGee and David Stovall. It’s called “Reimagining Critical Race Theory in Education: Mental Health, Healing, and the Pathway to Liberatory Praxis.” And so yeah, they were talking about talented black students on majority white campuses, and basically how they question their abilities and essentially sort of the mental wear and tear of that, again, manifests physically and psychologically. And that’s just one example that I’m sure we can see many of the fear that a lot of our students who have immigrant backgrounds are feeling right now in another way. Obviously it’s so new to have done a study on that, but I’m sure a similar sort of manifestations of psychological and physical ailments would be found. And that’s just a hunch, a hypothesis, but one could assume that that might be the case. So, you know, and you know, I think I also sent you a teacher from Arizona who basically replied to a tweet that Ann Coulter wrote about immigrants, about deporting them, and essentially she basically suggested killing immigrants.

So we have people, and this is not to pathologize all teachers. Again, there are good cookies and bad cookies everywhere you go, but this teacher who’s in the classroom in Arizona, you know, where there’s a huge population of people from the First Nation, Latino populations, etc., and you think, “This is the person who’s in front of the class. What damage has she created if this is what she believes?” And to berate, you know … Jennifer, I actually had to … One of my middle school gym teachers were Facebook friends, and he was talking about, you know, saying bad things about the Obamas, and I just said, you know, see it was basically racist and bigoted, expressing bigotry, and I was like, “I can’t believe you were in front of black teacher, black and brown students, and this is what you believe,” and then he went on about, like, all the bad things about black people, and I was like, “This is someone who was in front of my classroom.” So we think about, well the importance of teachers recognizing their biases, if they’re going to be working with students, so that they don’t create violent spaces for students.

GONZALEZ: Say a little bit more about the violent spaces, because I’m always trying to listen to these conversations as if I’m a listener too, and I think that that last part, I can see somebody being like, “Well how does that translate to a violent space?”

SIMMONS: So there’s a ton of research on sort of the health effects of racism. So when you think about the study that I sent, which is like the psychological and physical ailments that students are experiencing because they’re in a space that constantly tells them, “You don’t belong, you don’t belong, you’re not welcome, you’re not smart enough.” To me, those are assaults, those are violent. So when I say violence, and you go into a space, they can open the door, but that doesn’t mean they want you there, and that feeling of knowing that and the feeling of constant microaggressions and constant microassaults happening, that’s violence. It still impacts you similarly. And so when I say “violent spaces,” I mean spaces where you’re never welcomed, where you never belong. Those manifest as violence for me.

GONZALEZ: I wanted to just make sure we were really clear on that one, so that we didn’t have somebody sort of, you know, accusing us of taking a leap that was untenable or whatever. I think understanding the concept of microaggression is really important for people who might be listening to this.

SIMMONS: Sure, but you know honestly, when you speak about issues of students of color or race, people sort of want to jump to conclusions anyway, so I understand that that may be the case, and I open up the dialogue to sort of push beyond that, so that … Because, again, the goal is is for us not to create us and them, but to sort of not to be divisive but for us to, you know, for people of color, for students of color, just to share their experiences so that we … there’s more empathy and humanity, so that we can begin to see each other.

GONZALEZ: Let’s get into these specific behaviors then. We’ve got four sort of separate areas that you’re advising teachers to really consider when they’re interacting with students. And this is everything that comes from sort of one-on-one interactions to even how you choose and plan out your instruction on a more macro level. What would be the first thing that teachers can do to support their students of color?

1. Teach Them to Love Themselves

SIMMONS: I think teaching our students of color to love themselves. I think there’s nothing more revolutionary than teaching our young people in general to love themselves. And particularly young people of color, because they don’t have to look too far to see negative images of themselves displayed throughout the media, displayed in the news. So what’s particularly important is to think about how we can teach our young people to love themselves by centering our instruction on their lives, their realities and their experiences, and using their lives as cultural reference to our instruction.

I think it’s also important to provide opportunities for them to celebrate, you know, their unique identity and also the identities of their classrooms, so that it’s like that celebratory, like, “I see you, I see you. And I, you know, and I appreciate you and I celebrate you.” I think a lot of times we don’t do that enough. School becomes very competitive, but how do we create communities of love where people sort of really support each other and want to do that? And I think as educators, we could teach with love, and there’s a lot of teachers out there teaching with love. And so I’m not saying, any of these suggestions, there’s tens and thousands of teachers who are already doing this, but for those who aren’t, teaching our students to love themselves is so key.

And I think when we do this, you know, when I was in the classroom, I actually had, like, posters that would say, “Ms. Simmons loves you.” and it wasn’t uncommon to walk into my classroom and for me and a student to share, I love you’s with each other. That’s exactly why we’re there. “I love you too. Thank you.” You know? And it was sort of that teaching in that space of love, and I think when we do that, we create a space for our students of color to know that their school, that their schooling values their experiences, and it values who they are: their strengths, their assets and their areas of growth. So to me I just think that’s super revolutionary, and there’s … and I think that’s the first place to start.

GONZALEZ: Let’s dig into this a little bit, because I have a feeling that there are a lot of teachers that would say, “Yes, I love all of my students, and I value them, and they know that I love them,” but might still be missing the first two things, actually maybe even the first three things that you sort of listed as examples, using their lives and realities and experiences as reference in the instruction, and especially doing it in a way that actually recognizes who those kids really are as opposed to tokenizing or using stereotypes, or just throwing in that sort of like, “Hey, I’m going to turn our study guide into a rap today, and that’s me connecting with my kids.” So how does a teacher really do what you’re saying? I think the love piece, there are probably a lot of teachers who are very loving and are still missing the connection with who those kids actually are.

SIMMONS: Exactly. So yeah. Love is key, so get in there and bring your love in like you do every day. However, really what I’m talking about is how are we culturally responsive, and how do we sustain students’ cultures into the classrooms?

And so, you know, when I was a teacher, one of the first things that I did at the beginning of the year was just a simple survey. I would ask them questions about what they loved, when they were upset, what made them feel better. You know, really honing in on how to support them emotionally, also kind of honing in on their emotional intelligence. And I would ask them, you know, what their lives were like, who they lived with, you know, who was their favorite person, who would they list as the person that they want to get to know more in the classroom? And I would do that throughout the year for multiple reasons. One was just to get an idea of the social networks in the classroom and who was being left out, so that I made a concerted effort to be inclusive to those students who didn’t get listed on those surveys as the person who you’d invite to a party, etc. So those are just things that I did randomly to get an idea of that. So just surveys, right? Asking students questions. It doesn’t have to be surveys, but it was sort of creating opportunities to get to know students. So that was one thing I did, I had surveys.

Two, I went to gym with them. Some schools don’t have gym, but I would go out there, short little me, and I’ll play basketball with my students, get to know them, and like when they’re playing, right? A lot of times we sent out to recess, and we send them to play, and we … They’re different people when they’re playing, so I would go play with them. I’d also take them out to lunch. So take them out to lunch during lunchtime and how exciting not to eat the school lunch, and we’d go nearby, and then we’d just have a conversation, or I would also invite their parents to come to some of our coffee houses that we had, which is when they would like show and share their work. Let’s see, something else, some other things I did …

GONZALEZ: I was going to ask … you talked about, you know, once you … I love this list of things that you do to get to know them. I think it’s really, it’s sort of global, it’s very comprehensive, because some of it’s really formalized, where you’re specifically asking for information, and then there’s other opportunities to just socialize with them and get to know them. And then once you’ve learned more stuff about them, then how do you turn that into opportunities to celebrate their unique identity? What does that actually look like in the classroom?

SIMMONS: Sure, sure. So a lot of my students were from the Dominican Republic, so during a break, or they just all had their own sort of music sense. And so they would each get an opportunity to sort of make a playlist of the music they wanted to listen to. Of course, it had to be, you know, OK for a school setting.

So I would also incorporate, like, their personalities and their … what they were experiencing at the moment into my weekly quizzes. And my students will tell you about this, but I kind of made them cats. So I started out with, like, … it’s kind of crazy. So I started out with two cats that I personalized, and I was like, “These are the drama that these cats are going through,” and then I started to introduce different cat characters, which were kind of named similarly to the students that I had. So, like, I had a Michele in my class, but the character was called Catchele. And everyone knew who Catchele was, and so every week, a different student was based on what they were experiencing in the classroom with having some cat drama with Frisky, who was actually a cat. But it was like … I don’t even know how to explain it, but like I did this. I had my students for three years, and I did this series for three years where they would actually look forward to reading about themselves. I mean it makes me sound so quirky but …

GONZALEZ: No, I bet they loved this though!

SIMMONS: They loved it, and in fact … I actually taught one of my students and am teaching one of my students in a college course who goes to my alma mater, and she would say, “I loved when you did those cat stories,” because they would see themselves. So also, you know, just knowing sort of what their strengths are so that you could know, like, giving students different ways to demonstrate understanding. So some students are just visual learners, some students are more sort of … they can write a great paper. So I would give my students sometimes options to display understanding of … depending on what our standards were or our objectives were.

GONZALEZ: Let’s talk for just a minute, because you know, I’m looking at this list, I’m thinking about your story, about being corrected by your teacher in your pronunciation, and I think that that fits into this block. I mean, that is probably a story that has played out every, you know, couple of days all over the country for years and years and years. So just talk for a little bit about language, and how is it that a teacher who has students who come in speaking in the style of their neighborhood and wanting to teach kids sort of more “academic speak.” What’s the best way of handling that while you still are honoring who these kids are?

SIMMONS: So one of the, I would say, perks of being from the Bronx is that I can really relate to my students in a way to say, “Me too, me too. I’ve been there, done that.” And that really made a difference, because it wasn’t like I was just coming like, “This is what they say.” I was like, “I know, because I experienced this.” So, and that sort of knowledge really added a layer and gave me an advantage working with my students from the Bronx. In other places, it is a disadvantage in this world, but in the Bronx, teaching in the Bronx, teaching students that look like me was an advantage. So I basically would, it’s about the framing of it. When, for me, the way I learned it was like, there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way, and that’s actually not true. There’s a right way, and there’s a right way, and there’s a place for each of them, and each place is valued. And an important thing is to frame it, like, where is this value? Sometimes in my class, we would keep it real, and we would just speak the way we speak. But my students also needed to know that unfortunately in this country there is a box that you need to fit into, a way you need to speak in order for people to want to listen to you. And, you know, I would constantly say, “We’re brown, and we’re from the Bronx, and we need to show the world differently what they think of us.” And they knew that. We were like, “We gotta show the world that what they think of us is not true. Let’s constantly defy the stereotypes.” And so one way that, you know, I would do that is I would just talk about … have an honest conversation about how we speak when we are outside is how we speak. It’s totally fine. And sometimes it sneaks into our writing. Sometimes it sneaks into our vernacular, and then there’s a way we speak in the classroom, and that just makes us bilingual as opposed to right and wrong. So how do we show value added to both of them? Like, “You’re learning a new language,” as opposed to, “This is wrong, and that’s right. Cut it out.” And when you say to someone, “Cut it out,” you’re saying, “Cut out who you are,” and we don’t want to do that.

GONZALEZ: See, the thing is, the way you could lay that out as a teacher of color, it’s lovely. I can see the kids being like, “Yes.” I would think that a white teacher needs to handle that in a different way, or at least in a slightly different way, because that person can’t say “we.”


GONZALEZ: And so they have to be able to say, you know, in certain situations, you need to basically use a slightly different language in order to get people to listen to you. I just think you have to handle it more carefully, so that you don’t sound like you’re being insulting.

SIMMONS: Exactly. But it’s also again, it’s the framing. So, you know, a teacher who’s not a “we” with the students simply says, you know, “This is how it is. I want you to know that you all are becoming bilingual. You all have an awesome way of … ” Just as long as the message isn’t that the way you’re doing it there is wrong. Because again, the part is to invite the community, invite the students’ lives into the classrooms, and sometimes there are spaces for students to bring the way they speak into the classroom. If you look at Junot Diaz, the way Junot Diaz writes, is like he writes in a vernacular. As a matter of fact, when I first read him, I was surprised, and I was actually, I just loved it. So there is a space for that vernacular in literature, and sort of like one way to do that is like bring in Junot Diaz for students to read, so that they see the way they speak is valued in press. So there’s different things that white teachers can do to sort of have these honest conversations about injustice, about spaces where, you know, where this way of speaking is welcomed and not and what that means, and what it means is that all are valued.

2. Invite Families and Community Members to Become Partners in Educating Students

GONZALEZ: OK. Let’s move to the second one. This is about inviting families, because you actually just started to touch on that anyway, inviting the community.

SIMMONS: Right, so I think another thing, a second thing, so the first thing I said was, you know, teach with love, right? And the second thing is to really invite families and the communities to be partners in educating students, particularly students of color. And I think one way I would recommend is using a community development approach called asset mapping. And I learned about asset mapping when I was getting my doctorate. I took a class in the public health school, at Mailman Columbia University, and it was essentially, basically a way to do an assessment of an area by figuring out where the assets are and what they are, so looking at, for example, you know, looking at is the YMCA an asset, a cultural institution that’s an asset to the community? How can they be a partner into the classroom? Looking at the neighborhood church or synagogue or mosque or whatever religious institution is there. How do we partner with that community institution? Looking at businesses, economic institutions, looking at different ways, sort of the gatekeepers, the people in the community as well and how they can come into our classroom and be partners in the classroom.

And I’ll just give some examples from my class. When I was a teacher, I invited someone who worked in Wall Street to come to do a course on financial literacy with my students one Friday a month for two years. So that was like my students would get to go to Wall Street, they would get to go get outside of the Bronx, and they would also get to learn about financial literacy.

I partnered with Columbia University. I invited Columbia to do African dance with my students. We didn’t have a dance program, so I brought that in to sort of fill in that gap. And they also did an environmental action, like, you know, club after school where students got to learn in their community like in the Bronx where we are, there’s a Grand Concourse, so they would count how many cars passed by to get an idea of sort of how much exhaust was coming out, and then they connected it to the asthma rates in the Bronx, so that they were learning about their community, but they were also learning good skills in life, academic skills.

I invited … We were close to a hospital on the Grand Concourse, I don’t know why I’m blanking on the hospital’s name, but we actually invited some people to come several times to do stuff on health education and health promotion. So they did some sex ed, they did some, like, some other health promoting activities with students, drug abuse and all that stuff. I actually also invited people from City Hall to come to my classroom. I was an intern there. I invited the deputy mayor of education who ended up being the chancellor, Dennis Walcott, to my classroom. I thought it was important for them to see a man of color in a position of power in our city. So he came, and he spoke and kept it real with my students. So those are some ways that I invited the communities into the classroom.

But in terms of parenting, the parents, when we had events, parents were invited. When we had trips, parents were invited as well, so that the parents felt sort of connected to me, but connected to our students who were learning. I also had a blog where teachers, where I put my lessons online, so like if students missed it, they can go. But also if parents wanted to help their students, they can also go online to see what their child had for homework, to see if they didn’t know something how they can teach them, and I would link it to other resources. And, you know, during parent teacher conference, and I would call them. So there are different ways that I sort of wanted to keep them included in the process of what was happening in their children’s lives. And parents, when I say parents, I mean families, like expansive view of who is taking care of children.

GONZALEZ: The message that this sends to kids is that your family and your community and all of the people around you in your day-to-day life outside of school are really important, valuable parts of your education too. What kind of an impact does that have on just their psyche and their confidence?

SIMMONS: Yeah, so I mean I think when you partner with communities, when you partner with families, you know, students really internalize that they matter. They internalize that their communities matter, and they also begin to understand that they have a role in developing and engaging in their communities. For me, what I learned when I had to leave the Bronx to go to boarding school was that the Bronx had nothing to offer me, and I learned that that was bad, and where I am now is good, and how painful that was to think of the place that raised me, the place that I called home was actually not good, and that that’s the message that I had. And so I had to spend some time reshifting and reframing how I thought about the Bronx, that the Bronx was something to return to as opposed to something to leave. And I think educators in the process of seeing their communities and their families as assets, you know, they begin to shift from deficit-based mindset to an asset-based mindset. Oftentimes it’s just the nature of working with … being a teacher you want to save, you want to contribute, you want to do all of these things. Many times, implicit is a deficit-based mindset, but if we actively go out and walk around the community and talk to people before we go into our community and get to know who’s there and who can partner with us, we can really begin to shift our mindsets and really shift the way students and families think about where they call home.

GONZALEZ: That’s fantastic. I love that. OK. Let’s move on to No. 3.

3. Expose Students to Role Models of Color

SIMMONS: I think I was sort of alluding to this when I was talking about ways to partner with different people in the community, which was exposing students to role models of color, for students of color. And I think that also applies to white students, that it’s important to see a diverse set of people who can be role models. I know for me the only role models I had as a kid growing up in the 80s were all white role models. So in many ways, I would say implicitly I learned to favor whiteness. I learned to think that everything white was better, and I think that’s not true … I think that is true for many people of color. You see the study, you know, when you put a black kid, and you ask them to pick a doll, and which one they think is better, they pick the white doll. I mean, there’s numerous messages that tell us that whiteness is better. So for me I think it’s exposing students that there’s a realm of what could be better, that there is space for everyone.

And so, again, how do you … when we begin to make partnerships with communities and family members, are there role models that we can bring to the classroom? Do you have role models in your array of friends that can come to your classroom and speak about what they do? And we also think about who’s in front of the classroom every day in front of our students? I think part of exposing students to role models of color is to increase the number of teachers of color in the classrooms. I mean, currently there’s a shortage. I talked about this in my TED talk, you know, how few teachers of color there are and how our student demographic is increasingly becoming more diverse. And also, if we’re exposing role models of color, are there mentor, mentors-mentee relationships that we can arrange for our students as well? So I mean I think there’s just so much beauty for students of color to see someone like them be successful, someone like them be in a position of power. And for students who are not of color, it’s also important for them to expand also the possibility of what they see other people can do, because if they have any bias, it really sort of goes against whatever bias they have. And I’m not saying that they do. It’s conditional if they have that bias.

GONZALEZ: And I would imagine too that if a person’s resources were not great in terms of bringing in actual people into the classroom, then in some ways these role models could be brought in more virtually, whether it’s through having Skype conversations with them or even just in choosing the texts and the films that you show in class.

SIMMONS: Yep. So like, you know, like I said, Junot Diaz would be in my class. Julia Alvarez is a Dominican writer, Walter D. Myers, Jacqueline Woodson. They all made it in my classroom. These were all writers of color. It’s harder to find writers of color, because they’re not as published as white writers. But, you know, I found them, and they were in my class. The students were reading about them. I mean we were always … Interestingly, when you read a book, sometimes you don’t read the biography of the person who wrote the book, and I would make sure that my students read the biography of the people who were writing the book. Because sometimes we just see the writer doesn’t mean anything. But yes, also sometimes … I would say most easiest is to have the virtual sort of Skype calls, Skype conversations or some other way that you can get those role models into your class. Again, the filming, also showing documentaries. It’s just like … it goes to the first point as like, how do you insert difference? How do you insert people of color, voices of color into your curriculum? But also, how do you connect them to the students as well? So by exposing them to role models of color.

GONZALEZ: I want to just add two little side notes to this too, just thoughts I’m having while I’m listening to you. One, I think it really does, for some teachers, it doesn’t come naturally to be actively looking for stuff like this. And I think a lot of teachers think that they’re doing this already, because maybe they’ve got like one book that they read, that’s their “diverse” book for the year. And I do think that if a teacher makes a deliberate effort to build up more of those voices of color in what they’re doing, it really can make a big difference, but it takes a conscious effort, and a conscious sort of reminding yourself, like, at several times in the year, how am I doing? How am I doing on this? You know? It’s not just a check it, and it’s a one and done thing. I think it’s something that requires a regular check-in.

And then I guess the other thing is, and I’m sort of speaking right now to teachers who are in more of the rural areas of the country where, I’ve seen this when I worked with student teachers, and one of the questions on one of their lesson plans was how are you bringing more diversity or diverse texts into your classroom? And I cannot tell you the number of times they would say, “All of my students are white, so this is not a concern.” They would just literally say that, and I remember thinking, well we need to be teaching these teachers better, that this is maybe more of a need in your all-white community to be bringing in more diverse voices.

SIMMONS: Well, you know what? Actually, maybe you can link, there’s a site called We Need Diverse Books. And so that’s maybe something that people could look at for books. Also, a good friend of mine, Mia Birdsong, also started a list of books as well on a website. I cannot think of the name on the top of my head right now, but I’ll totally look for it and send it to you so that you can share it with your people who are listening, so that, you know what? As one thing teachers don’t have is time, and if there’s anything I can do that could allow teachers to bring this work to students without having to feel like, “Oh no, it’s another thing,” then I totally would support that they do that.

GONZALEZ: Absolutely. Fantastic. Yes, we’ll put those in there.


GONZALEZ: OK. So we’ve gone through these first three things, and so we’ve got the very last now, the last way that teachers can do a better job of supporting their students of color, and what is that?

4. Disrupt the Single Narrative of Students of Color

SIMMONS: I think it’s important for us to begin to disrupt the single narratives of students of color. And what do I mean by that? You know, I can’t help but think of a TED talk that I saw by Chimamanda Adichie, which is called “The Danger of a Single Story” in which she talks about, you know, these flat stories of people, these incomplete stories of people, and I think a lot of times when teachers go back home, and they talk to their friends, and sort of the stories that they tell about their students only perpetuate these, like, the status quo, what it means to be a kid of color or what does it mean to be a kid from the Bronx? So these single narratives that are perpetuated, and in many ways, I think are problematic because they’re incomplete and they’re flat, flatten sort of the wholeness of our students.

And so a lot of times when we hear about students of color, it’s someone else telling us about their stories, so I think it’s important for us to teach our students how to tell their own stories, so equip them with the skills to tell their own stories, so that they have a voice. I think also that one thing that teachers might need to do is really reflect and ask themselves a set of questions when they’re telling a story. Like when I tell this story about my students, is it a stereotype, is it perpetuating a stereotype? Is it disempowering them? Is it dehumanizing them? Does it perpetuate one flat story of them? And if it does, then maybe shift a way that you can tell a story. So instead of starting a story with, like, “Oh, my students behave so poorly.” You know, put it in context. Talk about the strengths of your students, and then talk about some of their challenges, but don’t flatten their characters, don’t flatten their lives, because in many ways, that just perpetuates a problematic status quo. I mean, we don’t have to look very far to see the image of what it means to be a black or brown kid in this country, you know? We saw the cop who pulled out a gun with, like, middle school students. Where was this…? I mean, it’s just sort of like that’s the image. That’s a quick image, that bias that goes into your head. There’s a danger in that single narrative, and I think … I had mentioned another study that happened at the Yale Child Study Center, which … it was in preschool, and it explored the role of preschoolers’ teachers implicit bias with regard to behavior expectations for their students. And one of the findings demonstrated that preschool teachers tended to observe black students, and particularly black boys, that when there was difficult behavior expected, that’s where the teachers were looking, so it was this implicit bias. And so when we continued to send these false narratives, we perpetuate these behaviors, we perpetuate these beliefs about our students of color. And another way to disrupt it is if when you hear it is ask someone else those questions. Is that true with us? What are some of the strengths of your students? So that we begin to see the strengths of our students of color, we get to see their beauty, and we get to talk about them with love.

GONZALEZ: Let’s look at a situation, because I really would like teachers to see themselves a little more clearly in this example. So what would be a place or a time where a teacher might be telling one of these stories? And if you can, think of one of the more common narratives that you hear teachers passing along to each other.

SIMMONS: How poorly behaved their students are. “Oh my God. They never sit down. They talk when I’m talking. They’re just so disrespectful. And I really try my best, and I really try hard, but I can’t reach them, and they just don’t want to learn.” I’ve heard that many times.

GONZALEZ: Are there any sort of like … I don’t know, does the term “dog whistle” mean anything to you? Are there any sort of terms that they use where it’s like almost a signal that what they’re actually saying is, “These students of color are doing this”?

SIMMONS: Well, because it’s usually me, that I know the context where the students are coming from, they are talking about students of color. A lot of times I’m not sure they would talk about … The thing is, I know they’re students of color so I’m not sure …

GONZALEZ: Right, right.

SIMMONS: … if that dog whistle is applicable here. But I’m sure that … It’s just like, it means more when you say it about brown kids and black kids.


SIMMONS: Because you see it on TV. If you take a look at any of the newspaper articles about ed reform or about inner cities, they all just talk about single narratives of students of color in these inner cities, students who need saving, students who don’t have anything, students who don’t have any agency, and we need to come up there, and we need to come with our reforms and charter schools and save the day. That’s a single narrative, and we see that over and over again in the media, in newspapers, on TV. And what that does is say, “These kids need saving,” and exactly what I said, “these kids.” And when you talk about “these kids” as “these kids” instead of “our kids,” you separate yourself from them. That’s how we talk about students of color. We say “these kids.” We separate ourselves from them.

SIMMONS: And it happens over and over again, and when we separate ourselves from them, we see ourselves as perhaps saviors, and there’s a danger in that. So that’s really kind of what I’m talking about, is how do we make “these kids” and transform them to “our kids,” kids that we care about, kids that I said we need to teach with love. All kids deserve love, but, you know, when we talk about “these kids” and not “our kids,” that’s what we say, we say they’re different than us, you know? How different they are. And so they’re just like even “these kids,” shifting the way we talk about “these kids” and saying “our kids,” “my students,” “I love my students,” instead of saying, “Oh god. These kids are so loud.” It’s just like, I don’t know, I don’t know if that’s enough of an example.

GONZALEZ: It’s an important shift though, yeah. I mean, I’ve sat in many a lunch room with lots and lots of white teachers talking about their diverse students, and it’s very clear that this is something … I had a blog post a little while ago called “The Danger of Teacher Nostalgia,” where they just sit around and talk about the way kids used to be and how they are now, and how dangerous that is.

SIMMONS: Yeah. It’s similar to that, right? It’s that narrative, right? It’s a perpetuation of a false narrative. So how do we shift that? Teachers don’t always stay teachers. Teachers work in journalism. Teachers go on to be professors. Teachers go on to do a host of amazing things, some in education, some in medicine, some in law. But when they go out into the world, how do they begin to disrupt the single narrative of students of color in their work as a teacher and beyond? Because it perpetuates a problematic status quo. And part of that comes with really sitting down with oneself and recognizing, “Sh**, am I biased?” and that’s the hardest thing, we all have bias, you know?


SIMMONS: I as a black woman, I have biases too. In just acknowledging that and knowing and being vigilant about that so that I don’t create abuses with my lack of understanding. How do I ask the right questions? How do I engage in curiosity to invite different experiences in? I mean we all have to do that vigilant and that work. And it takes time, and we have to be compassionate with ourselves. We have to understand that it’s a process, and it’s a difficult process, but it’s important. And I think part of that is also understanding our power and the privileges that come with our power as well in disrupting the single narrative, because if we think about it, power has a lot to do with how we tell stories, who gets to tell stories, when they’re told, how they’re told, etc. So those are all very important.

GONZALEZ: This is almost a sort of a two-pronged thing. It’s looking at the way you tell these stories, and it’s also giving students just more voice in general to tell their own?

SIMMONS: Exactly, yes.

GONZALEZ: I feel like we could probably talk about this for a little longer, and I know you’ve got to go, and I’ve got to go, so we’re going to have to wrap up. But tell us where can people find you online.

SIMMONS: So I’m on Instagram and on Twitter @denasimmons. I totally need to get my life together and get a website, but I actually bought the URL, It does not have anything right now, but maybe if I say it out there, maybe somebody will hold me accountable. And also, I have two TEDx talks, one is called “What to Do if a Student Comes at You with Scissors.” I have another one that’s called “It’s 10 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” The recent one, and the reason why we’re talking is because of my TED talk “How Students of Color Confront Imposter Syndrome,” which can be found on It can also be found on YouTube, but there’s a ton of hateful comments from mostly white men telling me to go back to Africa and that my race card will expire on Jan. 20th. So yeah, that’s real.

GONZALEZ: Wow, wow, wow. OK. I will send people to the TED site for that one.

SIMMONS: Yeah. It’s all good, you know what? I actually read those hateful comments, really because it gives me an idea of the realm of humanity, and it allows me to one, craft my argument better, but also it allows me to see, you know, what they think and what other people see, so that I can just continue to have the impetus to do this work in the world for justice.

GONZALEZ: Dena, thank you so much for spending all this time. I know we had a messy start here with the tech not working for us, so I appreciate all the time that you’re giving, and I don’t know, just thanks so much for the work you’re doing.

SIMMONS: Oh, no worries. And I’m happy to be a resource to folks out there, so they can contact me. I’m also at the … I have a bio on my worksite, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, and in my bio, they can kind of contact me as well.

GONZALEZ: OK, good. Well, we’ll put links on the blog for all of those things so people can reach out to you in whatever way works for them.

SIMMONS: Awesome. Take care.

I’d like to thank Dena again for the work she does and for spending this time talking with me.


For links to all the resources mentioned in this episode, including Dena’s TED talk, visit and click on Episode 64. To get weekly updates on all my newest blog posts, podcast episodes, and products, sign up for my mailing list at Thanks so much for listening, and have a great day.

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