Wednesday / April 24

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: An Interview With Zaretta Hammond

On Monday, May 1, Corwin hosted a webinar with Zaretta Hammond on “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.” Hammond’s unique approach examines the neuroscience behind culturally responsive teaching practices and how teachers can use that understanding to build rapport and classroom community with diverse students. You can watch a recording of the webinar here.


We interviewed Zaretta after the webinar to find out more about the connection between culturally responsive teaching and brain-compatible teaching.

Q: In your book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, you talk about how one of the first things teachers need to do is to build trust and rapport with students. This seems like something teachers should do with all students, but why is it especially important for students of color or students of poverty?

Yes, it is important to build rapport with every student, but it is particularly important in this case because trust is broken with many communities of color because of past inequities in society and from on-going implicit bias and micro-aggressions students and their families experience in schools. A consequence is that the brain’s amygdala is on high alert in what it believes is a hostile environment.

Q: You discuss the effect of the amygdala on students’ emotional state and readiness to learn. What are some things teachers can do to calm the amygdala and encourage a state of relaxed alertness? 

The first thing is for the teacher to calm her amygdala and be centered. So, teachers should practice mindfulness techniques to reduce their own stress first. Our brains can detect another person’s high stress level, and it triggers our own fight or flight response. Once the teacher is calm and centered, she can show how to help students practice breathing and mindfulness techniques. Another strategy is to have students engage in community building activities that help generate trust and reduce stress, such as coloring. A principal at the middle school in San Francisco that I was supporting started using coloring books, cute cat videos, and other things to get students to laugh when they were sent to his office because of routine.

Q: How do you build authentic rapport with students if you don’t share the same cultural background? 

A key point of culturally responsive teaching is to leverage the neuroscience of trust – increasing oxytocin and reducing cortisol through a more communal approach to connecting. So, while you may not share the same racial, ethnic, or cultural background of a student, if you practice simple aspects of collectivist culture like sharing a meal together, or finding shared hobbies or likes, you can help increase the oxytocin in the student’s brain. Raising oxytocin increases our sense of connection with others.

A: What if you have students from many different backgrounds in your class? 

A common red thread among a number of different racial and ethnic background is the cultural orientation toward collectivism. So rather than trying to learn the nuances of a number of different backgrounds, teachers can begin with a foundation of collectivist practices.

Thank you, Zaretta, for taking the time to answer our questions!

Learn More

To learn more about mindfulness practices, collectivist teaching strategies, and more of the techniques mentioned in this interview, check out Zaretta’s best-selling book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

        About Zaretta Hammond

Zaretta Hammond is an educational consultant focused on equity, literacy and culturally responsive instruction.  She supports school teams, instructional coaches and district leaders,  across the country. Her experience includes lecturer at St. Mary’s teacher preparation program, curriculum and program design with the National Equity Project and other education reform organizations. Her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, is a Corwin bestseller.

Written by

Charline is the Marketing Manager for Equity and Professional Learning at Corwin.

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