Professional Educators

Paul Hernandez, assistant professor of sociology at Central Michigan University.

Q & A: Reaching At-Risk Students Through ‘Real Talk’

Paul Hernandez is an assistant professor at Central Michigan University whose research focuses on sociology of education and social inequality. Through his work with K-12 teachers at lower-performing schools in Michigan, Hernandez has helped enable at-risk students to achieve academically, personally and eventually go to college, disproving the myths about at-risk students that many educators in priority schools deal with everyday. His unusual pedagogy, called Real Talk, calls on teachers to make personal connections with students. At the same time, Hernandez also has created specialized college visit programs for students who wouldn’t normally see themselves as college material.

Q: You work with a lot of teachers at low-performing or priority schools to help them inspire and engage at-risk students. What’s their most common question to you?

“How do I get these kids to care?”  My response to that is: how to get them to care isn’t what you should look at. We tend to see students as students, but we need to see them as people first. Once we understand the person, where they come from, how they see the world, and what they care for… then we can incorporate that into the classroom with curriculum and alternative pedagogy.

They do care—they just don’t care about the things that you and I, middle-class Americans, care about. We care about buying a house. They care about whether or not they’re homeless.

Q: How are at-risk students different from any other student? And why is it important for educators in priority schools to make those connections with at-risk students specifically?

At-risk students have unique needs because of life circumstances. They don’t have the luxury of focusing on school—they go home and sometimes they are the parents. They do need a specialized college program that connects to their lives and helps them realize that, from where they are, they can still go to college. Sometimes it’s very difficult for them to see past their current difficulties to the next day, even the next hour. They’re not connected to school. They see it as a waste of time. But when they do connect, they’re captivated.

Q: What’s the most common misconception about students at priority schools?

It’s about race, social class… When teachers really open up, they tell me sincerely that they struggle to connect with and understand their students. Most have never experienced any of the racial issues (or issues of poverty) that their students face. And, while some are fearless in tackling the issue, it makes others uncomfortable. They just don’t want to deal with it.

But the moment we begin to focus on our differences, we lose our perspective. We lose all the similarities that we share as people. Before you try to tackle race (or class) with students, you have to address the common, humanistic things. Regardless of who you are, you’ve experienced fear, happiness, and so on. That’s where you make connections. And once you’ve established those connections, you can get into the issues of inequality.

Q: When you were a child, living in deep poverty in Los Angeles, did many of the teachers in your life connect with you?

Very, very few: the norm was, ‘you’re not doing your work. You’re disturbing the class. Get out of here.’ The norm was punishment. The norm was a constant bombardment of negativity and all it did was make me stronger, in terms of my negativity. All it did was sharpen me. All it did was teach me ways to get around it. Teachers, as people, struggle to understand young men like me. How is he so violent? How is he so bitter? How does somebody so young have so much negativity? Kids like me are scary, so we seek to punish them. That was the norm then and sadly, I still see it today.

Q: So what inspired you to take a different path?

There’s no one thing. It was a series of things, meaning a series of people, teachers included, who took the time to see me as a person. From the librarian who infused me with the passion to read, from the custodian who taught me I wasn’t a monster, from the teacher and counselor who stood by my side… And, of course, my mama was a big part of it. All of them stirred me and moved me in a way that gained momentum. I hear teachers say ‘I don’t know if I had an impact today, but I may have sown the seeds for impact in 10 or 15 years,’ and I know they are right.

Q: Tell us about your pedagogy, Real Talk. What do you want teachers in priority schools to know most about it?

I want people to know that Real Talk is very powerful and helpful in the classroom. To reach our most challenging students, we must connect with them as people — and Real Talk helps with this.  It debunks the notion that the teacher exists only in the classroom and it introduces the person behind the position.  We gain tremendous insight into our students’ perspectives using Real Talk, thus infusing our approach to teaching them in a manner that is relevant to the students and still connected to the curriculum.  Many of the teachers I’ve worked with have personally noted the positive impact of Real Talk on their classrooms and students—and this is something I’d like to see happen for teachers all over the country.  I want people to know that anyone can do Real Talk if they’re willing to try it.

Q: Can you describe a Real Talk lesson?

Think of a funnel. It starts with you, at the top of the funnel, introducing a theme, a universal, humanistic theme like happiness or sadness or adversity. You start at the top of the funnel by describing how you know adversity, how your friends know adversity. (By sharing of yourself) you are demystifying the teacher and introducing yourself as a real person. And then you go further down the funnel and pose the theme to your students. Do they know adversity? You’re not going to get them to immediately jump in, but as soon as one begins to share it becomes a two-way street. It becomes a dialogue. But understand that it is not a counseling session. You need to connect it to the curriculum. And you want to make sure you begin with things that aren’t going to make you an emotional train wreck.

To learn more about Real Talk and College 101, the college admissions program that Hernandez has pioneered, read his article, “College 101: Introducing At-Risk Students to Higher Education,” at Hernandez also invites correspondence at

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