Empower Q&A: Robert Jackson on Erasing Culture Gaps


As ASCD gears up for Empower20: The Conference for Learning, Teaching, and Leading Together March 13-16 in Los Angeles, Inservice is publishing a series of Q&As to preview the wide range of featured speakers presenting.

By Kate Stoltzfus

Featured Session: Becoming the Educator They Need: Strategies for Supporting Black and Latino Males

Session time: Saturday, March 14, 2020 8:45–9:45 a.m.

Session description: Black and Latino males lead the nation in many negative statistical categories. Some educators have grown frustrated with these students — who are suspended, expelled, and incarcerated more than any other group of students — without taking the time to fully understand how to educate, activate, and motivate them. This interactive session will show participants how to support these young men and become the educators they need. Participants will walk away with a deeper understanding of Black and Latino male students and will learn strategies to foster healthier environments in their buildings and districts.

As a longtime teacher turned educational consultant and motivational speaker, Robert Jackson is passionate about sharing how his experiences as a student, an educator, and school leader shaped his current work to bridge what he calls “culture gaps” between a majority white teaching force and the students of color they serve. Jackson spoke to ASCD by phone about what drives his philosophies and what Empower20 attendees can expect from his session.

Tell us a little bit about what to expect from your session.

Robert Jackson: During my session, I want to help educators and administrators become the educators our students need, especially for young men who look like me. That means teaching teachers how to control their biases and speaking our students where we want them to go. I’m going to be talking about strategies and beliefs that educators have about Black and Latino male students and what they can do to counter those beliefs. I believe there are strategies educators and administrators will be able to take away and use right away from my session: how young men think and what’s brought them here to this point and how we can help our students become successful in and out of school.

You’re well-known for your work on supporting Black and Latino students. What do you think are some of the biggest gaps schools have around that?

RJ: The biggest gap is a lack of understanding of each other. Most teachers are young or middle-aged white women. I believe there’s some severe culture gaps between educators, parents, and students, and we need to bridge them in order for students to be successful. But we can’t expect students to learn if biases are in the way (for example, if you think because [a kid is] coming from poverty or trauma, [they’re] not capable of learning).

I started my teaching career almost 25 years ago in Indianapolis Public Schools. I was also a public school student. I grew up in poverty, I never met my father, both of my best friends were murdered. At times, educators didn’t understand me or my potential. They said, “You’re not going to be successful. You’re not college material. You’re going to end up dead or in prison.” These were educators, not just people on the street, telling me that they didn’t believe I had the potential to learn—not based on my work ethic or test scores, but based on where I came from.

I got suspended because I thought, “This teacher doesn’t care about me, so I might as well act up.” You’re young and don’t always have control of your emotions. I’m dealing with my home situation, we don’t have a lot of food to eat, sometimes the lights get cut off, and then on top of that I come to school and don’t have teachers believe in me. It’s a double-edged sword. The reason why I do this work today and the reason why I’m so passionate about it is because I lived it.

There were a few educators who spoke me here. My high school teacher Ms. Ellis told me I was a great writer. I needed those positive reinforcements to combat the 75 percent of my teachers who didn’t believe I could do it. I want to make sure 100 percent of our teachers are supporting kids. Imagine where we’d be today.

What is one book that has inspired you in your work (and why)?

RJ: The Autobiography of Malcom X. He overcame obstacles to become one of the most prolific leaders in history. I also admire Pedro Noguera. I’ve always looked up to him and his work and his work ethic. He wrote a book called Trouble with Black Boys and spoke about the social and cultural forces that affect the relationships between black boys and teachers. We can come up with all the rules and mandates but until we listen to kids, we’re not being successful. We need to listen to what is important to them.

Why should people attend Empower20?

RJ: I think the biggest reason to attend is the diversity of speakers, which means you get a diversity of different opinions and you get to hear perspectives from people all over the world. It’s an eye-opening experience to be in one place with so many powerful thought leaders. I’ve been to a lot of conferences around the country, and there is nothing like ASCD out there. If you are on the fence, I would be willing to bet this would be the best investment you ever make as an educator.

Robert Jackson (@RJMotivates) is an educational consultant and the author of several books, including Becoming the Educator They Need: Strategies, Mindsets and Beliefs for Supporting Male Black and Latino Student (ASCD, 2019).