The Top 3 Rules for Teaching in the “Hood” Rule 2  Consider the culture.

If you thought it was hard to adjust to driving on the left-hand side in countries like Japan – try moving from Chicago to Memphis and teaching 5th grade students!

Everything I did was backwards and here I was thinking I was revolutionary!

Teaching 5th graders in Memphis meant:

-          I had a prefix to my name. “Mane, Ms. Little…”

-          I had to change the response to attendance to “Present” from “Here” (Huure)

-          Not one student laughed at my jokes about the snow or the winter.

In addition to making sure I talked slower (because Chicagoans talk really fast), I also noticed my students didn’t look me in my eyes.

The demographics of the students I served were similar on paper. In Chicago, I taught in one of the poorest neighborhoods on the South Side. In Memphis, it was the same.

My students in both cities walked home because they lived in the neighborhood with groups of friends and siblings. My students in Chicago and Memphis were also a representation of me – I grew up in the same type of neighborhood, so I just knew I knew what I was doing.

I missed one very important factor.

All highly disadvantaged children, regardless of similarities on paper, are not the same.

Teaching requires a depth of content knowledge and cultural competence. I didn’t know that term existed until that year.

Cultural differences are not racial differences. A culture represents the characteristics of a group of people, the ways in which a group moves, lives, thrives.  Cultural differences can be vast from one side of town to another, especially from one city to the next.

Cultural competency in education isn’t a one-day training or a crash-course that you can take. It requires consistent awareness and deep reflection of one’s self and others.

For starters:

·         Know yourself

o   To thine own-self be true. If anyone can spot someone who isn’t being true to themselves, its children. They have spidey senses when it comes to bologna with no filters to disguise it.

·         Know your students

o   It’s not enough to know their data or demographics. Learn their favorite foods and listen to their music. Listen to them – don’t correct them, especially when engaging them in conversation.

·         Value Diversity

o   Being different is a good thing! There’s no right or wrong way to grow up, be or live. Different lives are made up of different experiences. As a teacher, I learned more about myself from my students and how they saw me.

Dynamic Differences

    Some cultural differences are so subtle, you’d miss them.  Even the most diligent student of a culture will miss certain aspects a time or two.

I missed a big one with eye contact.

I couldn’t figure out why my students held their head down when we greeted each other at the door and when we spoke in class. I am a mobile teacher, so I love moving around the classroom. I thought “maybe my students grew tired of following me with their eyes”, so I consciously stood still.

After months of weaving and ducking like a world-renowned boxer trying to find the eyes of my students, I reached out to a colleague for help.

Holding their head down in direct conversation with me was a sign of respect, she explained. It’s a southern way of raising children.

Up North, we teach our children to look everyone in the eyes, to hold your head up and greet everyone with a high smile and wide eyes. To look away or look down is a sign of

indifference or disrespect.


I missed it because no one can know everything about another’s culture. Being culturally competent is an on-going process; you will never reach an end-goal. Yet, there is a reward in being able to change your own course of action out of understanding and respect to another.

Us educators live for warm and fuzzy moments. It warms our heart to see rock-stars like Ron Clark “hit the Quan” or see Dwayne Reed’s rap video welcoming his students. Being culturally competent is meeting our students where they are in order to foster a learning environment that is vibrant and engaging.

We can’t miss teachable moments because we don’t understand our students beyond their data and their name. Honestly, it’s our students who can’t afford it – they are counting on us!

Stay tuned for the last and most important rule!


Marlena Little

Educator, visionary and leader.

Marlena Little grew up in the inner-city of Chicago in one of the worst neighborhoods of the city. Yet the contrast of her home and school life provided evidence to the statement, “it’s not where you’ve been but where you are going”. Having attended one of the best elementary and high-schools in the country, she was determined to live beyond the poverty and violence of her neighborhood, knowing education was the escape.

Marlena Little, a Memphian by choice, relocated to Memphis to fight for educational equity. As a teacher, it was important for Marlena’s students to see her as an example of that escape. As an administrator, Marlena challenged teachers and staff to illuminate education as the way out, yet as a visionary, Marlena has created paths of escape.

As Founder of Life Prep Academy Schools, Marlena Little has seamlessly merged her childhood with the standard of excellence imbedded in her educational experiences to provide students, regardless of any “label”, the limitless opportunities a high-quality education affords.  Her philosophical beliefs about education are the guiding principles of Life Prep.

In addition to her many roles, Marlena Little is also a mother and forever learner.  She is a Doctoral Candidate in Educational Leadership and has the pleasure of raising a nine-year-old daughter.