Richard Milner IV is a Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Professor of Education in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development. He has secondary appointments in Peabody’s Department of Leadership, Policy and Organizations and the Department of Sociology in Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science.

Milner is a researcher, scholar and leader of urban education and teacher education. Centering on equity and diversity, he has spent hundreds of hours observing teachers’ practices and interviewing educators and students in urban schools about micro-level policies that shape students’ opportunities to learn. He examines the social context of classrooms and schools and looks at ways in which teachers talk (particularly about race) influences student learning, identity and development.

Daniel: What it was like when you were teaching. And if I asked you to remember that one class. The one class that was just such a challenge to connect with. You have that class in mind? What if we inserted as well, a story of the turning point of when you figured it out, maybe it was intentional. Maybe it's just something that happened, but there was a spark of a connection. It's that story where we start with my guest today, Rich Milner. Hey, it's Daniel. Welcome to the better leaders, better schools, podcast, a show for Ruckus Makers, those out of the box leaders making change happen in education. We'll be right back after these messages from our show's sponsors.

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Daniel: Hello, Ruckus Makers. I'm here today with H. Richard Milner, IV, also known as Rich Cornelius Vanderbilt distinguished professor and chair of education and professor of education in the department of teaching and learning at Peabody college of Vanderbilt University. His research in teaching and policy interest concerning urban education, teacher education, African-American literature, and the social context of education. Professor Milner's research examines practices and policies that support teacher effectiveness in urban schools. Professor Milner's work has appeared in numerous journals and he has published seven books. His most recent are Start Where You are, but Don't Stay There, Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps and Teaching in today's Classrooms, Racing to Class, Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, and These Kids are out of Control: Why we must re-imagine classroom management for Equity. Rich, welcome to the show.

Rich: Thank you so much, Dan, for having me.

Daniel: I'd love for you to bring us to English II, back when you were a teacher and you shared with me that there was a pretty vulnerable moment that you experienced with your students. Tell us that story.

Rich: Absolutely. One of the things that I think is important to remember as I contextualize that story a bit is I was a first year teacher, very early in my career and I was doing everything in my power just to keep my head above water. I'll never forget the day that the administrator, this was one of my classes that I struggled to connect with, And this was on one of those days when things were not going that great. And to add to that, the administrative associate at our school knocked on the door and I taught in a mobile. I remember stepping out on the porch area there and the administrative assistant told me that my grandmother had passed, had transitioned and I thanked her and this was pre everyone having a cell phone on the desk.

Rich: I remember stepping back in the classroom and I started back teaching, right. I started back teaching and I didn't think a lot about it and I broke down and I started crying and it was in that moment that it was almost like walls came tumbling down. It was a way for my young people, the young people with whom I was working to connect with me. And that was a powerful moment for me, Dan, because what I came to understand in that moment was even though the students sometimes gave me a tough time. Some days they wouldn't do any work, let's just be Frank. I could pretend like I was all outstanding but there were days when they said, "Nope, I'm not going to bother anybody, but I'm not doing any work today, Dr or Mr. Milner. At that point and in that moment it felt like students saw me as a real person. They saw me as a real person.

Daniel: Yeah. I can only imagine breaking down in front of the class. I don't know that I ever experienced that as a teacher, as a principal. We had a staff member who lost her daughter to suicide and I didn't tell him that, but just to say that we lost her and being able to share that message right. Was just so, so powerful. I think we connected as well. So thank you for sharing about that. I don't know can you dig a bit more in like, just about those barriers coming down and the relationships being built and why that's so important?

Rich: Yeah, absolutely. What I found was that students saw me as a mentor, even though again, they may never expressed it overtly though. They saw me as someone who they looked up to. I always say, if a student sees you in a supermarket they lose their minds. Right. When students see you in a restaurant, they really lose their minds. Like, "Oh, he goes out to eat." And for me, I think it provided a space for me to realize and recognize that I'm one of these folks who will stay up late, get things done. It just demonstrated in that moment that students needed to see me as a real person and I'm reminded of a story about Nick Saban, who was the football coach at Alabama. And let's just say, he's a pretty darn good football coach. He's had some success.

: You're in Tennessee. So you can't tell this story!

Rich: My wife is a Tennessee alum. She really will be upset if she heard me tell a story, but they were interviewing the players and they asked the players, It's like, you wake up early, you do this PT for Nick, you go to class and you engage. And a reporter said something like, it's almost like you'll walk through a wall for Nick and those young people didn't miss a beat. And they said, yes, because we believe he will walk through a wall for us. That was an illuminating. Again, there are these moments in our lives. That was a powerful moment for me as an educator because it's not only about developing relationships to get through the day. Young people need educators. They need adults. They need people in their lives. From my view, based on what I've come to understand from about 20 years of studying these interactions and these practices, they need adults in their lives, who they believe will walk through a wall. So it's not only about how do I get through the day, a cordial interaction with my students. It is not, I'm going to get to know you because I'm going to advocate for you. I'm going to get to know you because I'm going to knock down walls for you on your behalf to make sure you get the education that you deserve.

Rich: When I think about relationships, we often talk about them in this sort of a conversational way, but we know from good science from great research, that relationships acute. What I took from that moment was that the relationship building and the relationship sustaining and the relationship cultivation has to be essential throughout the teaching and learning exchange. What we often teach in teacher ed is get to know your students on the first day of class, or you might even spend all week designing and developing tools or mechanisms to learn. But the teachers who are most effective tend to be those folks who understand that this relational work, the relationship work is essential every single day, every single day. And they also understand that if I'm not addressing and responding to the relational aspect of the work, the academic piece can't happen. So in other words, the educators will say, I have a real curriculum that I have to teach. I don't have time for that stuff. The relational work is the work.

Daniel: Yeah, it is. When I was in school leadership at a local school, we'd say that first week, right? Not even the first day, don't get into class, like stop with the books and the academics. There's going to be plenty of time for that. It's one of those go slow to go fast. If you don't build a solid foundation and it's just that quote, right. I don't care how much, until I know how much he cared, that's it. I was the type of teacher that I would call a kid if they were absent and if they weren't sick, right. They're just like, I didn't have a way to school. I go pick them up and bring them to school. There were a lot of things that I did to build relationships, but I love to hear from you, Too. Some interesting ideas over the years and your experience and expertise with that relationship building leader, to staff, or even staff to student. Let me throw in the wrinkle too, especially in situations where the educator might not look like his or her staff or his, or her kids, any, any points on that where you can help.

Rich: Absolutely. I think it's so important to remember, and this is the body of research that talks about the link or the connection between teacher and student is that work is called ethnic matching, right? When you think about the ways, and there are some compelling research that suggests that there are some huge benefits. What I showcase and start where you are is it is the relationship piece. That's more important. So in other words, I have observed some outstanding white teachers of students of color. I have observed some outstanding teachers of color with majority white students and then that's it. You just nailed it. What's somewhat compelling about start where you are compelling about the book. Because what I try to do is showcase these differences that make a difference, right?

Rich: But how teachers are able to sort of build their toolkit their repository to be responsive in those spaces. We have to as educators, we have to be our authentic selves. Young people don't need you to be more of who they are. They need you to be the best of who you are in order to compliment and advance their identity spaces, their exposure to different kinds of things. They need you to be anti-racist. They need you to be pro people, pro equity, pro justice. Those are the things that matter to young people, more than the other pieces. When you don't come from the same community, when you don't share the same background there are concrete really transformative ways to build those links, to build those relationships.

Rich: I talked very explicitly in the book about four areas. One is what I call community immersion. The community immersion experiences occur when you actually live in the community with your students. We found prior to Brown vs the board of education that teachers tended to live in the same community as their students. I'll never forget as a student, myself, my teacher, my second grade teacher, Louise Britt. Mrs. Louise Britt would take me, my mother was a beautician ,and every other Thursday, every two weeks, she goes to my mom's beauty salon. All those days I got to ride in the car with Mrs. Britt. Now, let me tell you, Mrs. Britt, was not one of those teachers who was touchy feely, who was overly kind or gracious.

Rich: She was what they called a warm demander. She would show up and we would be like, she is mean, right. We thought she was the meanest person, but she committed to our learning. She was committed to our learning and development. She said, you're not going out for recess. You're going to have this work done before you leave school today. If you don't have it done, if you don't have your homework. She epitomized the kind of relational capacity, a repertoire that shows up in different kinds of ways. What's my point. My point is, each of us is different. That worked for Louise Britt. Right. It wouldn't necessarily work for me.

Rich: I couldn't. Understanding who you are working with and what those levels of need are is essential. So at the time I couldn't stand her. I was like, this is the meanest person but now I'm so glad I had Mrs Britt. She was the best of the best, as I reflect that. Back to the story on Thursday, I road to the beauty salon with Louise Britt because my mom was going to do her hair. On those Thursdays, she was stop, there was a restaurant in the south called Hardee's, I don't know if you have them anymore. It's a hamburger. It's like a McDonald's. On Thursday she would take me through the drive through on the way to the beauty salon and she'd buy me a hamburger and French fries.

Rich: And I could even get a soda pop. And that, to me, I started to see her and she would walk into the beauty salon and she would become this different person. She was laughing and engaging with the other patrons in the salon. I was thinking, who is this person? Who is this person? She smiled, like you could actually feel. But my point is, we take the best of what we have. Take the best of what we know in the interest of the young people with whom we working and we merge, we respond to the needs of the young people in those spaces. I went to a title one elementary school. Which means there were lots of needs, lots of challenges in that space. We're it not for Louis Britt. I probably would not be sitting here today. So that's the power of who teachers are. That's what motivates me to want to study and want to document. Really what she was doing was providing opportunities. She was an opportunity center teacher.

Daniel: Right. I heard the community immersion because there she is in the beauty salon. You guys are going to Hardee's and I'm hearing the authentic. She was being herself, which you realize that's not necessarily how you would be able to effectively teach. My funny story with that is my first year teaching, let's go to East Cobb Middle ,Marietta, Georgia, sixth grade English language arts class. It was such a bizarre schedule in the middle of the class period. We would go to lunch, imagine that like teaching for half a period, then going to lunch and then coming back and finishing. But that was a result of how big the school was and just getting creative with the schedule. So I take my rowdy sixth grade. My classroom and how I authentically show up it's creative. I want kids to talk to each other and collaborate.

Daniel: I want them to sit together. We play music that they listened to so that they feel seen and heard and experienced. The room is somewhere that recognizes who they are. So anyways, so that's that room. I'm a first year teacher and don't have all the confidence yet. I walk by this eighth grade social studies teacher who is ex-military. This guy could get eight grade students, the Kings and Queens of this school to line up on these taped parts outside of his class, single file, completely silent. When he said, go into class, you may go in, they go in. Yes, sir. And they go in, they would sit down rows of desks. They would do their worksheets to me, it's terrible teaching, looking back, right. Just worksheets, completely quiet. But I looked at that and I said, wow, he has control.

Daniel: That's effective teaching. I'm thinking, I'm going to try it. And Rich, I'm telling you when I tried to get my kids to lineup in a single file. Walk in. Yes, sir. And put the desks in rows it was terrible. In two days I knew that wasn't me. And I had to be like, there's no way I could continue showing up that way. That's not authentic. So I love this discussion. You've told two great stories, Ms. Britt, and then, English two. I want to continue the discussion about opportunity centered teaching in just a sec, but we're going to pause here for a moment for a message from our sponsors.

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Daniel: Alright, and we're back with Rich Milner professor, author. We've been talking about Start Where You Are, but Don't Stay There, but he has some other great books. You should check out Racing to Class, Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms, and These Kids are Out of Control. We'll link up all that stuff for you within the show notes. Rich, we were just talking about, opportunity centered connections and centered teaching. Let's go back to that immersion and let's go back to those community connections.

Rich: Well, thank you. I really appreciate it. I was derailed just a bit, but I got so excited. I talk about this idea of I've come to understand these ways of learning from and learning with the community. I talked about community immersion and I would sort of classify that as like the ideal of ways to build knowledge, to build insights about young people, about the folks with whom you're working. If you can't live in a community of young people, there's another layer that I call community engagement and community engagement shows up when you actually engage with education counselors, or you go to school board meetings and so forth again, that layer of learning provides you with insights about ways to transform the curriculum insights about how policies are made. You can make recommendations, you're able to build relationships with people outside of the classroom. I think that's another layer of what's important to think about as you try to figure out ways to build those relationships. A third layer is what I call community attendance. Community attendance is what happens when you show up at a bar mitzvah or a dance or a football game or basketball game or soccer or black church.

Daniel: Andre invited me to a Sunday worship experience. I went on time, right? He told him to be there at 10, whatever he's singing in the choir. So I go there at 10, sorry to interrupt. I got, I got 10 o'clock. It's awesome. Music's great. Somebody shared a word, amazing Andre sings. This is cool. This is amazing and it's been like an hour and I'm about to leave and then all these other people start coming and the pastor shows up and church begins. Whoa, four hours later. That was a test of endurance for me, but I loved it. I'll tell you, like, the pastor picked me out of the crowd and he had me come up to the alter and we had an exchange, which it was a unique cultural experience. It was one of those things where I looked, I was like me, is he pointing to me? He was pointing and me.

Rich: Not only did it provide a space for you to understand that community and the worship experience it's a powerful way to demonstrate to students that you see them beyond the walls of the space, right. And those students will, from what I've come to understand and we know this right, students will jump over the moon for, and with you when they know you have their best, when you show up when you're not on duty as well. It's one thing to show up for that basketball game when you're on duty, right. It's a whole and these are examples of show up that manifest in the book. I talk about Mr. Hall. Who's a white science teacher who has been teaching for about three years and he he's one of the most reflective teachers.

Rich: And so far he has been able to sort of build these tools right. To connect with young people who never saw themselves as science people. He's in this middle school and he shared this example about how one of the students in the class, and he and I are about the same height. He's about five foot, six, five foot seven. He said, one of his students shows about six feet and felt like the student was always sort of testing him or whatever. They've had these conflicts and these conflicts and he said, one day the student got up and was in his face and they were going back and forth and a student walked out of the classroom, slammed the door. Right.

Rich: He said, after school the same day, he said, he went up and we saw the student was practicing basketball. The student assume that Mr. Hall had come up to tell him or get him out of the practice. Mr. Hall went up and started playing one-on-one with him, started playing basketball with him. That level and he was like Rich, I can't play basketball as well as a two year old. But the point was he was able to go. He said, the next day the student walked in and said, we cool. He didn't know what it was that, and sometimes, as we know, as students, there's adolescents and growing and developing and so forth, we're coming into the places, educators with our own set of issues that were real people, right?

Rich: So to our students, so to our students, I remember doing a session with some young people. I was invited to a community college to talk to some young people who are getting ready to graduate from high school and go into the community college. I thought the session were designed for me to kind of talk to them about what they should do in terms of transitioning and so forth. I had my PowerPoint ready to go through the slides and I realized I wasn't that engaging. So I stopped, just started having a conversation with them. I started asking them about their experiences and so forth. The one football player said to me, I feel sad and I don't know why.

Rich: It wasn't the powerful moment for me was not so much of a student saying that I felt that he felt sad. The powerful moment was his trying to understand why he was feeling sad. These young people are grappling with changes in their body and changes in friendship circles and trying to negotiate conflicts with parents and dating and all of these areas. Great. There are days when I want to walk out and slam the door and so what Mr. Hall did was not say, I'm going to write a referral, did not say I'm going to hold it against you. Mr. Hall's position was every day is a new slate. I see you as a developing being, I get it wrong. Sometimes you're going to get it wrong sometimes, but we're in this thing together.

Daniel: You're giving kids a chance and you're giving everyone a chance to succeed and be themselves.That's so important. Wow. Rich, this has been great. I don't know if I missed, I think we got through three of the four parts of opportunities centered teaching, but I'm just gonna encourage the Ruckus Maker, listening to definitely go out and get, Start Where You Are, but Don't Stay There and we'll link up your other books in the show notes as well. So I'd love to ask you two questions I ask all my guests. The first one has to do with the marquee. So if you could put a message on all marquees around the world, just for a day, what would you put on it?

Rich: Young people need to know, you hear them and you see them every single day.

Daniel: And then you're building a school from the ground up. You're not limited by any resources, you're only limitation is your imagination. How would you build your dream school and what would be your top three priorities?

Rich: Wow. The first thing I would do is we'd have to make sure that every young person experiences some form of joy every single day, and that joy would emerge at the very beginning of the day. It will show up and manifest in different ways throughout the day. They will be joyful. There'll be excited about not only engaging with what's happening in the place, but also thinking about their role and responsibilities also. So the joy piece will be one of the things I would share. I think, secondly, it would be a school where there would be no standardized tests. We would, assessments would be formative. They would be, they would be narrative in nature and guided by a conversation and communication. It would be a space where any, and every person in that community would be able to frequent and access. 24 hours a day was state of the art technology, state-of-the-art curriculum and it would be a place almost like a 24 hour gym. If you would a place with lots of what I call it would be an intellectual candy store filled to the brim with great way possible.

Daniel: That'd be a place I'd like to stick around. So thank you for painting that picture. Well, Rich, thanks again for being a guest here on the better leaders, better schools podcast. We talked about a lot, but of all the things we talked about today, what's the one thing you want a Ruckus Maker to remember.

Rich: So remember your why. Remember your, why and returned to that when things get tough, this is a challenging time for all of us. I salute educators. I often think, wow, what would I do if I sat in the shoes of some of the folks who are teaching in the midst of policies that don't make sense who get up and teach anyway, when they're being beaten down in the media. Who get up and teach anyway, when students don't show up, who get up and teach anyway, when funding and resources are not where they need to be. So remember the why in the midst of all of the challenges we faced with COVID with black lives matter, remember that? Why? Because, and especially to teachers who are newer to the profession, like identify that, why write it down, tell it to your colleagues, right. Tell it to someone you trust and when things get tough, like I need you, we need, we need to get back to that why, and to not quit to maintain that resilience and to maintain that stick to it because the students, although they may not say it right, they see you as real people who can potentially transform and make a difference.

Daniel: Thanks for listening to the better leaders, better schools podcast for Ruckus Maker. If you have a question or would like to connect my email, Daniel F better leaders, better schools.com or hit me up on Twitter at alien earbud. If the better leaders better schools, podcast is helping you grow as a school leader, then please help us serve more Ruckus Makers like you. You can subscribe, leave an honest rating and review or share on social media with your biggest takeaway. From the episode, extra credit for tagging me on Twitter at alien earbud and using the hashtag #BLBS to level up your leadership at better leaders, better schools.com and talk to you next time until then class dismissed.

Show Highlights

  • Authentic vulnerable moment break barriers 
  • Will you knock down walls so students get the education they deserve? 
  • Relationship building and cultivation has to be essential throughout  for sustainability
  • Ethnic matching-showcase the differences that make a difference
  • Help teachers build their toolkit, their repository to be responsive in all spaces
  • Opportunity centered connections and teaching. See them beyond the walls
Rich Milner: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity gaps, and Teaching in today’s Classrooms

“We have to as educators, we have to be our authentic selves. Young people don’t need you to be more of who they are. They need you to be the best of who you are in order to compliment and advance their identity spaces, their exposure to different kinds of things. They need you to be anti-racist. They need you to be pro people, pro equity, projustice. Those are the things that matter to young people, more than the other pieces. When you don’t come from the same community, when you don’t share the same background there are concrete, really transformative ways to build those links, to build those relationships.”

Rich Milner

Bringing together leading scholars of urban education in the edited volume, “Handbook of Urban Education” (2014), Milner and co-editor Kofi Lomotey have attempted to describe and discuss what urban education is, what we know about it (empirically and theoretically), how we know what we know about urban education, and what other knowledge, as a field, is important for us to study in order to advance policy, research, theory and practice in urban education.



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School leaders know that productive student talk drives student learning, but the average teacher talks 75% of class time! TeachFX is changing that with a “Fitbit for teachers” that automatically measures student engagement and gives teachers feedback about what they could do differently. 

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