You Can't Teach Us if You Don't Know Us and Care About Us

Becoming an Ubuntu, Responsive and Responsible Urban Teacher

by Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu (Author)
©2016 Textbook XXVI, 240 Pages


This book addresses the needs of diverse urban students for a new kind of teacher, classroom learning context, curriculum, and pedagogy in order to effectively learn, perform, and achieve. Drawing on the African concept of Ubuntu as a fundamental framework for enacting a humanizing pedagogy, the text invites teachers, students, and families to enter into an interdependent and interconnected relationship for education. This book is uniquely transformative as it elevates the centrality of student humanity and models the integration of emergent theories and practices, utilizing real-life stories to enlighten and illuminate. Emphasis is placed on Ubuntu pedagogy as a model to emulate, anchored on five ethical dimensions: humanism and Ubuntu competence, relationship and learning community, humanism in the curriculum, pedagogical and instructional excellence, and collaboration and partnership. Particularly valuable for teachers learning to cultivate the spirit of Ubuntu that undergirds their ability to be humane, responsive, socially- just, efficacious, and resilient, this book is a cutting-edge resource for effectively addressing the persistent academic achievement of diverse urban students.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Foreword
  • Introduction: The Transforming Power of Education
  • Part I: Toward an Ubuntu Education and Pedagogy for Urban Students
  • Chapter 1. Educating Urban Students for a Multicultural Democracy
  • Chapter Overview
  • Educating for Democratic Citizenship
  • Demographics, Urban Students, and Achievement Realities
  • Definitions
  • Urban
  • Urban Schools
  • Urban Students
  • Urban Students, Challenges, and Academic Walk
  • Societal Attitude
  • Students’ Home Background and Poverty
  • Inadequate Teacher Preparation
  • Bureaucracy and Corruption
  • Curriculum, Standardization, and High-Stakes Testing
  • Inequitable Policies and Practices
  • Micro (In-Class) Factors
  • Teacher Disposition and Unresponsive Pedagogy
  • Unresponsive Classroom Environment
  • Lack of Sociopolitical Consciousness and Agency
  • Urban Students Are Capable and Resilient
  • What Urban Students Want and Need
  • Ubuntu-Oriented Education
  • Summary
  • Self-Reflection and Activities
  • Chapter 2. Ethic of Humanism and Ubuntu Competency
  • Chapter Overview
  • Teachers in Urban Schools
  • European American (White) Teachers
  • Teachers of Color
  • Cultural Competence
  • Ubuntu Competence
  • Culture, Socialization, and Worldview
  • Understanding Microcultural Student Groups’ Worldviews
  • African American Students and Families
  • Arab American Students and Families
  • Asian American Students and Families
  • European/Anglo (White) Americans
  • Latino American Students and Families
  • Native Americans
  • Summary
  • Self-Reflection and Activities
  • Part II: Enacting Ubuntu Pedagogy: Relationship and Community
  • Chapter 3. Ethic of Relationship and Learning Community
  • Chapter Overview
  • Relationship Matters
  • Understanding Relationships in Teaching and Learning
  • Ubuntu and the Ethic of Care
  • Ubuntu Classroom Community
  • A Teacher’s Love: Acceptance
  • A Teacher’s Love: Affirmation
  • A Teacher’s Love: Authority
  • A Teacher’s Love: Accountability
  • Enacting Ubuntu Relationships and Classroom Community
  • Acquire Knowledge of Microcultural Groups
  • Communicate Desire to Know Students
  • Students Write Self-Narrative
  • Ask Others about Students
  • Get into Students’ Lives by Being a Detective
  • Visit Students’ in-and out of School Contexts
  • Shadow a Culturally Different “Other”
  • Share Personal Life Stories
  • Recognize Students’ Humanity
  • Be Proactive with Students’ Names
  • Humble Yourself to Be Taught
  • Teachable Moment
  • Recognize the Uniqueness of Students and Their Cultures
  • Teacher Self-Examination and Reflection
  • Teach Humane Values and the Common Good
  • Establish Class Meetings
  • Discipline and Consequences
  • Teach Constructive and Healing Words
  • Monitor the Learning Community
  • Summary
  • Self-Reflection and Activity
  • Chapter 4. Ethic of Curriculum Humanization
  • Chapter Overview
  • Curriculum and Educational Inequality
  • Understanding Curriculum in U.S. Schools
  • Urban Students’ Need for a Different Curriculum
  • Humanizing Students through the Curriculum
  • Cultural Relevance
  • Social Justice
  • Characteristics of a Humanizing Curriculum
  • Student-Centeredness
  • Draws on Students’ Cultural Capital/Funds of Knowledge
  • Inclusiveness
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Pervasiveness and Permeability
  • Rigor and Relevance
  • Untracked and Accessible to All
  • Uses a Variety of Bias-Free Resources and Materials
  • Embeds Social Issues and Activism
  • Fair and Equitable Assessment System
  • Curriculum Humanization across Content Areas
  • Humanizing Urban Students’ Language Arts/Literacy Learning
  • Humanizing Urban Students’ Mathematics Learning
  • Humanizing Urban Students’ Science Learning
  • Humanizing Urban Students’ Social Studies and Learning
  • Assessment and Humanizing Practices
  • Humanizing Assessment Practices
  • Openness to Multiple Ways of Knowing and Solving Problems
  • Use a Variety of Assessment Measures
  • Break with Convention and Build Learning Success
  • Monitor Student Learning
  • Navigating and Negotiating Mandated Curriculum and High-Stakes Assessment
  • Summary
  • Self-Reflection and Activities
  • Chapter 5. Ethic of Instructional/Pedagogical Excellence
  • Chapter Overview
  • Value of Theory
  • Behaviorism
  • Constructivism
  • Socioculturalism
  • Critical Theory
  • Critical Race Theory
  • Ethic of Pedagogical Excellence
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching/Pedagogy
  • Social Justice Teaching/Pedagogy
  • Equity Pedagogy
  • Ubuntu Pedagogy
  • Academic Excellence
  • The Learning Context
  • Students and Ways of Learning/Styles
  • Humanizing Instructional Practices and Strategies
  • Direct Instruction
  • Cooperative Learning
  • High Expectation
  • Scaffolding
  • Activating Prior Knowledge (APK)
  • Strategic Teaching
  • Nonlinguistic Representation
  • Discussion/Dialogue
  • Differentiated Instruction
  • Urban Students and Motivation
  • Working with English Language Learners (ELL) and Newcomer Immigrants
  • Summary
  • Self-Reflection and Activities
  • Chapter 6. Ethic of Collaboration and Partnership
  • Chapter Overview
  • African Perspective on Teacher and Parent/Family Relationship
  • Understanding Urban Parents/Families
  • Teachers’ Concerns
  • Perspectives on Parental/Family Involvement
  • Barriers to Urban Parental Involvement
  • Ethic of Ubuntu Partnership and Collaboration
  • Relationship Matters
  • Trust
  • Action
  • Debunk Myths about Urban Parents/Families
  • Be Proactive
  • Utilize Alternative Communication
  • Enact Homeside Activities/Projects
  • Resolve Conflict Humanely
  • Collaboration with Colleagues
  • Collaboration with Community
  • Summary
  • Self-Reflection and Activities
  • Chapter 7. Conclusion: On Being an Ubuntu Urban Teacher
  • Chapter Overview
  • Concluding Thoughts
  • Purpose-Driven Teaching
  • Internalize the Larger Role of Teaching
  • Be a Compassionate Intellectual
  • You Can’t Be Colorblind
  • Be a Community Teacher
  • Learn to Listen
  • Final Words of Wisdom
  • Don’t Teach against Your Conscience
  • Leave a Proud Legacy
  • A Wish for Our Urban Students
  • References
  • Series index


The moment I began working on the manuscript I quickly learned that writing a book is not just one person’s work—it is collaborative. Many people have made this book possible, including many urban students, teachers, and teacher candidates who directly or indirectly provided the motivation for the book. In particular, I am grateful to Jennifer Bingham-Gawin, my former student, for allowing me to be a part of her teaching journey, to come into her urban classrooms, and, most importantly, for her professional collaboration.

My deepest gratitude also goes to my “sheroes”—my mother (mama), grandmother (Uwhewhe), and my mother-in-law (Yeye)—who taught me about the values of Ubuntu and the love for one’s work.

My deep appreciation also goes to Christine Sleeter and Kevin Kumashiro for their friendship and incredible support of this work. My thanks also go to Erdem Demiroz, my graduate research assistant for his technical assistance and my long-time friend and collaborator, Debra Doyle.

I am most grateful to my husband, Peter Ukpokodu, for his relentless moral support throughout the writing of the book. I deeply appreciate his diligent reading, excellent editing, and guidance of the manuscript. Thanks to my chil ← xi | xii dren, and especially my granddaughter, who have inspired me and contributed to the ideas that enriched the book.

Finally, thanks to Rochelle Brock, Peter Lang’s Black Studies and Critical Thinking series editor, for the opportunity to publish the book. ← xii | xiii →


Christine Sleeter

Ubuntu. A word, as Omiunota Ukpokodu teaches us, that centers the work of urban teachers in the common humanity we share with our students, expressed through relationships we build with them. As she explains in this excellent book, Ukpokodu grew up in Nigeria. It was there that she first experienced powerful and loving teaching; students excelled academically despite the paucity of resources. Ubuntu grounds how the best teachers approach the rest of their work—the curriculum they teach, the instructional strategies they choose, their approach to discipline, how they assess learning, how they relate to students’ families. Urban educators in the U.S. can benefit greatly from what this book teaches, because its central concept—Ubuntu—puts urban teachers’ work into a balanced and holistic framework that is supported by research.

As a novice urban teacher decades ago, I recall grasping intuitively the importance of relationships, but I lacked the pedagogical guidance this book offers. My first experience with urban teaching took place in a working-class, racially diverse high school in Seattle. Having grown up in a small rural town, I was quite unprepared for urban schools, but open to learning. I probably experienced some degree of cultural shock, but do not remember. What I remember vividly was my desire to know the students, and their interest in ← xiii | xiv being known. Over the eight months I spent in that school, my students and I engaged in many conversations, particularly outside the classroom. As students got to know me, they would tell me stories about their lives, their hopes, their families. Sometimes these conversations prompted me to support them in unexpected ways, such as when I volunteered to supervise boys playing basketball in the gym during the lunch hour (without a teacher there, the gym would be closed), even though I knew nothing about basketball.

Because of these relationships, I stayed in urban teaching despite the paucity of jobs at the time. But my relationships with students initially did not lead me to rethink my own taken-for-granted low expectations of their academic learning; that would come later. I had recognized the students as culturally diverse, interesting human beings, and I recognized gaps between what they seemed to want and what I saw teachers doing. But I did not know what to do differently that would be acceptable within schools as I knew and had experienced them. I had figured out only part of the puzzle of teaching.

We often hear that urban kids do not care about education, and that they need to be motivated. As Ukpokodu makes clear, however, while urban students (like everyone else) tell us what works for them and what does not, too often they are misread or simply not heard. When students put their heads on their desks or refuse to go to class, the message is not that they do not want to learn, but rather that what their teachers are offering is painful, irrelevant, or insulting. When young urban children ask questions (“Can we learn about xyz?” “Teacher, are you racist?”), they want us to take their questions seriously; they stop asking them when they learn that teachers do not want them. Urban youth sometimes take to the streets demanding a relevant education, such as Chicago students protesting closures of their neighborhood schools, and Tucson students protesting closure of Mexican American Studies classes. It is no accident that Luis Valdez’s “In Lak’Ech: You Are My Other Me” became a powerful affirmation of humanity in Tucson’s Mexican American Studies classes, and a call to action in support of a humanizing education (Dos Vatos Productions, 2011).

Such actions by urban youth represent attempts to disrupt systems that offer too little. They represent loud messages that urban youth desire a meaningful education, a conclusion validated by a recent survey of more than 1,700 black and Latino youth in five urban areas (Chiles, 2013). The very title of this book—“You Can’t Teach Us If You Don’t Know Us and Care about Us”—came from the mouths of urban youth.

We often hear that teachers in urban schools can do little—that their work is constrained by bureaucracies, lack of resources, mandated testing, ad ← xiv | xv → ministrators, apathetic parents, neighborhood violence, and on and on. In a study of teacher recruits into urban teaching, Castro (2012) found several he identified as opportunists—teachers who did not believe they could accomplish much but viewed teaching as a relatively easy way to earn a paycheck. Conversely, we sometimes hear that teachers can “save” urban children. Some of the teachers Castro studied described themselves as saviors of students from dysfunctional home environments or dangerous neighborhoods that would victimize young people unless someone (like themselves) intervened.

Ukpokodu deftly dismantles these perspectives. Using a blend of storytelling and comprehensive syntheses of research, she portrays what strong urban teaching looks like, and what novice urban teachers can do. Her use of Ubuntu as an organizing framework enables her to connect research findings and theoretical underpinnings of powerful teaching. Each chapter offers tools beginning teachers can use to get started, and reflection questions to guide thinking and discussion.

As a former urban teacher, although my intuitions guided me fairly well up to a point, I was not able to offer my students the quality of teaching they deserved because there were too many holes in my own knowledge. Novice urban teachers today are in a much better position. “You Can’t Teach Us If You Don’t Know Us and Care about Us” is an important book that must be taken seriously. ← xv | xvi← xvi | xvii →


The Transforming Power of Education

As I have always done in my works (see Ukpokodu, 2010, 2012, & 2016), I begin this introduction with the story of my childhood beginnings.

As a child growing up in Africa, I quickly learned about the promise of education as “the great equalizer” and the passport to upward social mobility. As I entered the world of education, this belief was reinforced by historical and political figures, such as Benjamin Franklin (1749), Horace Mann (1848), Carter G. Woodson (1933), Lyndon B. Johnson (1966), Nelson Mandela (2003) and many others, who espoused that education was not only the “great equalizer” but a force of transformation and social change for individuals, families, nations and the world. As President Johnson (1966) wrote, “I know education is the only valid passport from poverty.” I was privileged to have a firsthand experience of education as a leveling and transforming force. I had a humble beginning. I grew up in Nigeria, where I lived in a compound with a large extended family—grandmother, eight uncles, five aunts, their individual families, numerous cousins, and two adopted families with their own individual families. In the compound, each individual family had a room that was shared among their immediate family members—wife/wives and children. I lived in a 20- by 30-square-foot bedroom with my mother and four siblings. The room was where we slept, kept our belongings, had the drinking water ← xvii | xviii pot, kitchen utensils, and food. My siblings and I slept on a mat on the floor, which, depending on the season, was either too cold or too hot. I was stung twice by a scorpion while I slept at night. Ants, especially during the rainy season, were constant visitors; they crawled on us while we slept. Mosquitoes were an ever-present menace that buzzed in our ears and sucked our blood, making us susceptible to malaria. I suffered from malaria frequently and was very sickly. We had no running water. We always had to walk five miles each way every day to get to the stream to fetch water for cooking and drinking, and before and after school each day. We had an outdoor kitchen. We cooked our food on open flames. As children, our chores included going into the forest and farm areas to fetch firewood to create the flame. We did not have electricity. We used kerosene-lit lamps for studying or doing homework. This was my lived reality for the first 12 years of my life.

Like my home, the schools I attended (elementary and secondary schools) were underresourced, compared to schools in the U.S., including those in urban schools. In comparison to my schools and others in many African countries, schools in the U.S. that are often classified as poor will be considered rich and well-resourced. We had no textbooks and our classrooms were bare. All we had were our teachers. Despite these limited resources, we had a quality, foundational education that allowed us to perform well on high-stakes matriculating examinations for earning the London General Certificate of Education and the West African Senior School Certificate. We were able to successfully compete in entrance examinations for admission into higher education. I grew up learning that schools were wonderful places and spaces where a child was exposed to endless possibilities of dreams, hopes, and success. This was what I remembered about growing up and schooling in my homeland, before I immigrated to the U.S., three decades ago. Schools and classrooms were exciting places. Friday was always a sad day because it meant the weekend was near and the school would be closed. But Sunday was a happy day as school would be the next day. For many Africans, formal, Western education was fondly revered. Its importance and rewards were easily observable to all, whether educated or uneducated. The late, eminent African novelist, and author of Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe, put it so well when he said that “education was the white man’s knowledge and was a collective aspiration of the entire community” (2012, p. 16). Recently, I co-edited a book titled Contemporary Voices from the Margin: African Educators on African and American Education. Contributing authors wrote passionately about hailing from underresourced homes and yet were able to beat the odds of poverty and achieve ← xviii | xix → academic success. At the 2013 American Education Research Association (AERA) conference, several of the book contributors participated in a symposium entitled “Education, Poverty and the African Paradox.” The symposium addressed this question: Why do students in African countries who come from poor and underresourced families and communities defy the odds of poverty and thrive academically; and why does the U.S., arguably the wealthiest and well-resourced country in the world, struggle to adequately educate all its children, especially those in urban communities? In my recollection of growing up and schooling in my homeland, every child who entered the schoolhouse had the same opportunity for educational success and social upward mobility. Amobi (2007) notes a similar experience in which “education constituted a sort of equalizer for those born into wealth, those in the middle … and the children of poverty” (p. 347). [...]

Today, as a teacher-educator, and as I look back, I have come to realize why and how my African teachers were able to teach us well and transform our lives. In modern-day education language, they were humanizing educators who were intimately invested in our success and in our community; teachers who internalized teaching as a community service. They believed and committed to collective responsibility toward educating the child and held high expectations for students and self. In our secondary education, although we read books by prominent African authors, such as Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, to mention a few, our teachers also exposed us to Western literature that broadened our knowledge and stimulated our imagination. We were exposed to classical books, such as William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and others; Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, and Oliver Twist; Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre; Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and many others. These books were transforming, stirred my imagination, and helped me dream of a world beyond my little African “village.”

As a teacher educator in the U.S. academy, I have read and known about educators who, like my homeland teachers, have been successful in transforming the lives of minoritized students in U.S. urban schools. The success story of Marva Collins, a renowned educator who successfully educated children from impoverished backgrounds, some of whom had been labeled as learning disabled and unteachable, is well documented. Films such as Stand and Deliver, Dangerous Minds, Lean on Me, and Freedom Writers, among others, depict the stories of real teachers in U.S. urban schools and their success in working with ← xix | xx → students. However, these teachers are the exception rather than the norm. Many students in urban schools experience impoverished and second-class education that in turn keeps them and their families and community inescapably poor. Urban students are “tired” of the second-class education they experience, and they are crying out for an end to it.


XXVI, 240
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Ubuntu Ubuntu-oriented education urban pedagogy Ubuntu competence cultural competence cultural relevance social justice pedagogy of excellence cultural diversity curriculum humanization differentiated instruction urban students sustainable relationship parent-teacher partnership family-teacher partnership teacher candidates humanizing pedagogy change agency transformative teaching community teachers
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XXVI, 240 pp.

Biographical notes

Omiunota Nelly Ukpokodu (Author)

Omiunota N. Ukpokodu received her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from Kansas University and is a Professor of Teacher Education and Curriculum Studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Her teaching and research focus on multicultural teacher education, transformative/equity/social justice pedagogy, social studies, and immigrant education. She is the recipient of the 2011 NAME Equity and Social Justice Advocacy Award and the Fulbright-Hays Scholar (South Africa) Award.


Title: You Can't Teach Us if You Don't Know Us and Care About Us
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