New York City

What This Barber Can Teach You About Cultural Competency in the Classroom

Of Barbers and Beauty Shops

On a beautiful fall afternoon at the end of October, a group of scholars sat around a magnificently decorated table in a grand room in the Faculty House at one of the most esteemed universities in the world. Their eyes, ears, and spirits were open and eager to hear from the guest of the day—a prolific rapper from Queens, New York, who proclaimed proudly early in his career that he was a “school dropout [who] never liked that shit from day one.” Around the table, there were two college professors, three gentlemen who worked in the music industry, the rapper, and a group of brilliant Harvard undergraduate students.
Excerpted from For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
As we all sat at the table, we mentally prepared for an amazing intellectual discussion. Unfortunately, no one seemed able to spark the conversation. In a room filled with degrees and awards, high grade-point averages, and magazine covers, there was no teacher in the room to set the context for learning. With no teacher to guide us, we sat in awkward silence looking up at each other every few seconds and exchanging head nods and empty smiles.

Enter the Teacher

Before long, we were interrupted by an announcement inviting us to help ourselves to some food set out at a buffet table across the room. Relief filled every face as we used this moment to break the silence and make small talk about the weather and what was being served. However, before long, our empty chatter was once again replaced by the quiet murmur of an old heating system, awkward whispers among groups of two or three, and the occasional sound of silverware on plates. The impasse persisted until from somewhere in that room, among the many brilliant people assembled, a teacher finally emerged. The teacher happened to be the most unassuming person in the room. He sat at the side of the table that was farthest away from the rapper. As it turns out, he was the rapper’s barber and had traveled to the event with him. He observed us curiously as we struggled to start the conversation, and calmly enjoyed his meal as we spoke quietly among ourselves. Then he pushed his plate aside and joked about how good the food was as indicated by his empty plate. Everyone laughed. [aesop_quote type="block" background="#282828" text="#ffffff" align="right" size="1" quote="The teacher happened to be the most unassuming person in the room. As it turns out, he was the rapper’s barber." parallax="on" direction="left"] Having broken the ice, he then posed a question to the entire room. In a strong voice that pierced the silence, he asked, “What music are you listening to?” Answers came quickly from all around the room. Some mentioned specific artists, others mentioned genres, and eventually the rapper spoke about the current artists he was listening to. The people around the table commented on the performers he mentioned, and before long a conversation was taking place. By asking the question, the teacher (not by profession, but embodying what it means to be a teacher) opened up the space for dialogue that gave everyone an entry point into the discussion. He started with a joke that made everyone comfortable, and then asked a question that everyone could answer. When one person named an artist who no one else knew, that person shared song titles and encouraged the group to check them out. Someone else mentioned a favorite song and two or three others excitedly affirmed it. A discussion started about what certain artists represented to the hip-hop community. As the level of engagement grew, Marcus (the barber) facilitated conversations about philosophy and sociology, history and music. He opened up a space for our guest to share much about his art, and the significance of his being invited to the university that day. A few times, Marcus would model for us how to engage the rapper, asking him a question and then slightly nodding to us encouragingly. That day, the teacher was not the brilliant rapper or the accomplished professors, it was Marcus, who was there that day because he was a great barber, but ended up showing us how to be a good teacher. After that meeting, I kept in contact with Marcus, and later had an opportunity to further discover his giftedness. [aesop_parallax img="https://educationpost.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/Emdinclassroom3-1048.jpg" parallaxbg="on" caption="Emdin was honored as a STEM Access Champion of Change by the White House." captionposition="bottom-left" lightbox="off" floater="off" floaterposition="left" floaterdirection="up"]

Bringing the Teacher to the Classroom

Every academic year, I teach a class on urban and multicultural education that focuses on innovative ways to connect to neoindigenous populations (a term I use to describe urban youth of color based on the similarities in experience between indigenous people and urban youth). The students who enroll in the class are aspiring and in-service teachers who are taking the class in pursuit of an advanced degree in education, and/or interested in teaching or conducting research in urban education. In previous semesters, I had invited a number of well-known professors/educators to deliver guest lectures. One semester, during the final five minutes of class, I announced, “Marcus Harvey will be our guest lecturer next week.” Students immediately reached for their iPads, laptops and cell phones, excited to look up this name on the Internet. Over the course of the week, I got a number of emails from students who asked me to repeat the name of the prospective visiting professor. Many others sent notes informing me that they were unable to find any information on an expert in teaching named Marcus Harvey. I responded by assuring them that they did not have to worry about doing any research in preparation for the lecture, but should just come prepared to listen and ready to ask questions. The next week, in a packed class with students and their guests filling every seat, I described the need for reimagining teaching, and then introduced Marcus Harvey and two other barbers who accompanied him. Marcus stood up and walked to the center of the room, introduced his two fellow barbers, and began to hold court. He started by mentioning that he was not exactly sure why he was invited to address them, or how qualified he was to deliver a lecture in front of a room of educators, but that he was happy to talk to them about his barbershop and clients. The students looked around at each other with confused smiles on their faces, but gave their full attention to the lecturer. [aesop_quote type="block" background="#282828" text="#ffffff" align="right" size="1" quote="“It’s bigger than just a haircut.”" cite="Marcus Harvey" parallax="on" direction="left"] Marcus spoke about what a client expects when they go to a barber, and what he believes his moral responsibility to his craft requires when they sit in his chair. He said, “Clients walk into my shop to get a haircut, but as a master of my craft, my responsibility is to ensure that the client leaves the barbershop having had a personal experience with me that makes them want to come back. It’s bigger than just a haircut.” As Marcus described the difference between giving a haircut and creating a context where a person has a personal experience, the connections between what he was saying and previous discussions the class had had about teaching content versus connecting to students began to emerge. I would excitedly interrupt him at times to make these connections explicit to the students. I would tell students to play a scenario Marcus described out in their heads but replace the word barber with teacher, and client with student. Before long, students were making the connections on their own, and I watched from the back of the classroom in awe as my graduate school students got a very similar experience to the one I had been a part of a few months before. As Marcus spoke, students began to ask questions about what they should do when a client/student comes in with a bad attitude, how to keep their sanity when the pressure of the work gets to be too much, and perhaps most importantly, what happens when your client/student comes from an ethnic background that is different from your own. Marcus talked about defusing a client’s negativity or anxiety through humor and story, addressing the larger circle around the client to create an inclusive space for people to voice their frustrations and concerns and release tensions, having other employees interact with the client, and most importantly, understanding that “cutting a white dude’s hair is different than cutting a Black dude’s hair. I had to take time out to learn how to cut white hair. I needed to get new tools to give haircuts to people who weren’t Black because the texture of their hair was different. I really had to go practice a new approach.”

Barbershop Pedagogy

After the lecture, the entire class seemed to have made the connection between what Marcus does in his barbershop and teaching. Perhaps the most important lesson they learned was that urban education requires a different approach from that taken in traditional classrooms. Teaching in the hood requires a very different skill set that those coming into the hood must first recognize they lack, and then train to develop. The strategies that Marcus employs with his clients issue from Pentecostal pedagogy (an approach to teaching that gleans practices from the Black church and is a necessary model for teachers charged with engaging urban youth of color in classrooms). Infusing humor and story into the instruction, allowing the space for the release of tensions and frustrations, and welcoming the voices of the people you are sharing information with or providing a service to—these are tools used on the pulpit and in the barbershop, and should be used in the classroom as well. Marcus effortlessly created a space that allowed my graduate students to ask questions, but he also modeled how to engage an audience. He walked around the room confidently, validated each question before responding, and transformed the lecture into a conversation. Educators who may not be comfortable visiting a place of worship can find in barbershops and beauty salons many of the same lessons from Pentecostal pedagogy. If the barbershop or salon that the teacher visits is within the neighborhood of the school or the community that the students are from, the teacher not only learns how to engage with students by observing the ways that barbers and hairdressers interact with their clients, but also has the opportunity to learn about the neighborhood, community events, and students’ parents, siblings, and extended families. [aesop_quote type="block" background="#282828" text="#ffffff" align="left" size="2" quote="By accepting student voice in the classroom, the teacher must be prepared for a number of possible scenarios that may be uncomfortable." parallax="on" direction="right"] By studying Pentecostal pedagogy and the ways it is expressed in places like barbershops and beauty salons, the educator learns how to value voice and foster family within the classroom. If one feels like what they have to say is of value in a particular place, they are more apt to transform the place into a community and partake in the activities that are valued within it. Within the urban classroom, valuing voice means providing students with an opportunity to have their thoughts, words, and ideas about the classroom and the world beyond it heard and incorporated into the approach to instruction. By accepting that student voice will be a major part of the structure of the classroom, the teacher must be prepared for a number of possible scenarios that may initially be uncomfortable for the teacher, will challenge both the structure of the traditional classroom and the teacher’s authority, but will ultimately positively affect the teacher’s instruction, and the students’ learning. Once the students’ voice is valued, the educator can work toward fostering family—crucial for the neoindigenous. Within urban communities, particularly within socioeconomically deprived places, those who do not have traditional family structures often create their own with other members of their community. Consequently, the same social and emotional ties that exist within traditional families exist in neoindigenous communities among the wide range of people within these communities. This is seen in the “church family,” “family gatherings” at barber shops and beauty salons, and many other complex variations of family that exist within these communities. These families may not share biological bonds but they do share values, language, and experiences (often around negative encounters with authority figures) that forge bonds as strong as or stronger than blood connections. For the educator, knowledge of the process by which these familial bonds are created, and a command of the tools that support their creation, is integral to being effective. The best classroom teachers develop ways to make the classroom feel like a family that has its own distinct rules, ways of speaking, and power dynamics. Pentecostal pedagogy teaches us that once student voice is prominent in the classroom, and a classroom family structure has been established, issues that traditionally plague urban classrooms, like poor management and low participation, are quickly addressed or even self-corrected. Students with behavior management issues begin to self-manage and may even facilitate classroom discussions when there is a space for voice within the classroom family.   Excerpted from For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education by Christopher Emdin (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
First photo of Marcus Harvey by Michael Alvins. Second photo of Chris Emdin with high school students in a science lab, courtesy of Chris Emdin.
Chris Emdin
Christopher Emdin is an associate professor in the Department of Mathematics, Science, and Technology at Teachers College, Columbia University, where he also serves as associate director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education. The creator of the #HipHopEd social media movement and Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., Emdin was named the ...

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