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Closing the Culture Gap

When it comes to connecting with students, cultural sensitivity is more important than a common ethnic background.

by Tim Walker

The majority of the 22 students in Lauren Mead’s first-grade classroom are White, but like the nation as a whole, only just. Almost half are Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, or Black. Students at Rose Hill Elementary in Kirkland, Washington, speak more than 20 languages.

Mead, now in her third year of teaching, is a White woman faced with an increasingly racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse classroom. And she’s not alone. The teaching force in the United States has remained stubbornly White, despite changes in public school student demographics.

But in terms of teacher effectiveness, does this really matter?

It depends, say the experts. The so-called “culture gap” between students and their teachers can contribute to achievement gaps among different student groups. But merely boosting the ranks of teachers of color would be a short-sighted solution, especially since the definition of “culture” is far more expansive than matters of race.

“I probably had more in common with a White teacher from a lower-income background than I had with a Black teacher who grew up in a more affluent environment,” says Manuel Scott, a former inner-city high school student whose teacher, Erin Gruwell, went to great lengths to relate to her students, as captured in the book and movie Freedom Writers (see "Start Where Your Students Are," below).  “Connecting to your students means a lot more than having the same skin color.”

Helping students make the link between what they learn in the classroom and the life they know outside of the classroom is at the core of cultural competency, a skill sought after by school districts across the country.

“Our nation can no longer be satisfied with success for some students,” says National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel. “Educators with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to value the diversity among students will contribute to an educational system designed to serve all students well.”

“We’re Really Not Prepared  for This”

Culturally responsive teaching is not only an issue for White, female educators. Devon Alexander, a young Black English teacher at Oak Park High School in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Illinois, is every bit as concerned about reaching all of the students in his classroom.

Establishing a connection with his White students, many of whom have never had a Black teacher, can take as long as half a year, he says. Then they “realize it’s an opportunity to expand their experience and understanding of race.”

Some students have turned to him for advice. He recently counseled a Hispanic student who was “nearly in tears. She was explaining how she had a hard time in her honors-level English class with her White teacher and predominantly White classmates. She said, ‘it’s like she says stuff and I need them to explain it in a different way. But it’s not that way for the White kids in the class.’”

Alexander says it’s his job to help students like her figure out how to engage in class while making it clear that they’re not expected to change in order to do that.

“First and foremost, let your students know that their lived experiences are valid and valued. They have every right to hold on to who they are, what they know, and what they live, even if sometimes they have to stop and work through differences,” he says. “But you also have to show them how to navigate our school culture so they can succeed.”

“Given the diversity of today’s public school classroom, most new teachers lack that serious professional background or training to deal with racial and cultural issues,” says Alexander.  “We’re really not prepared for this.”

 According to a 2008 survey by the Public Agenda Foundation, 76 percent of new teachers reported that their training covered teaching diverse students, but only 39 percent called this training helpful.

The multiculturalism training that many incoming teachers receive can serve as a solid foundation for more in-depth cultural competency training, but alone it lacks the breath and sophistication needed to properly prepare educators for a diverse classroom, say many new teachers.

“My teacher training in this area was all about multiculturalism and not the more academic aspects,” Laura West, a kindergarten teacher in Brookline, Massachusetts, recalls. “It’s the ‘heroes and holidays’ routine—songs and happy-go-lucky celebrations—a bit cheesy really.”

“Culture is so much more than the color of a student’s skin. You have to dig deeper,” says Lauren Mead. “Culture is about family life, religion, home life, and socioeconomic status. It’s about who your students are and where they fit in their community, and society as a whole.”

Mead concedes that once an educator steps back and begins to understand the myriad ways a student’s culture can impact learning, the task may seem overwhelming. But to be an effective teacher makes it no longer a choice.

“Everything is changing,” says Alexander. “Teachers bear the burden and we have to take the lead on it.”

Teachers as Learners

Although Mead is still relatively new to teaching, she confidently engages her students on issues of culture. They don’t shy away from talking about the fact that the children they go to school with every day come from different ethnic groups, religions, and family structures. “Even though they are so young, students are able to begin to think of each other and respect one another on a deeper level than their gender and their race.”

She has taken full advantage of the professional development opportunities her district provides, including a monthly cultural seminar at her school this fall and winter.

But it wasn’t always like this. Her first year, like many other new educators, was about, as she says, “survival.” Faced with a mountain of demands and responsibilities—establishing basic classroom management strategies, learning who’s who in the building, identifying mentors, and developing curriculum—she acknowledges that cultural competence wasn’t high on her list.

“If I could do it over I would” she says. “Because what I learned is that there are ways to begin that process, maybe start small, and build on it from there.”

“There are no cut-and-dried solutions to some of the challenges we face in the classroom,” she says. “When we get together and talk about some of the problems and possible solutions, we know it’s a safe place where it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know.’”

Similarly, Laura West participates in a group at her school in Brookline called the Critical Friends Group in which staff members have roundtable informal discussions about navigating though cultural issues in the classroom, particularly strategies on connecting with students’ families.

“You really have to go above and beyond with the family,” explains West, “and create a dialogue—even if it requires translators. There are cultural questions and issues that are  best for parents to answer. You don’t want to put your students on the spot.”

Teaching is about learning, says Devon Alexander, and educators have to learn about their students’ culture—from their parents, from the students, from their peers and, yes, books can help too.

“After all our education, it can be hard to accept the fact that we have as much to learn from our students in many ways as they do from us. But that is how we connect to our students culturally and help them learn. It’s about teaching on their level, teaching where they are.”

Start Where Your Students Are

When Manuel Scott was 14, he was abusing drugs and on the path to dropping out—until new teacher Erin Gruwell walked into his classroom. Through sheer determination, the young White educator gained the ability to speak to her diverse students’ experiences, and inspired Scott and his classmates to write. Their story became the 2007 Hollywood movie, Freedom Writers, starring Hillary Swank. Today, Scott is a Ph.D. candidate and motivational speaker.

Scott spoke to Tomorrow’s Teachers about Gruwell and how new educators can scale the cultural walls that may separate them from their students.

On Erin Gruwell:
“She was clueless at first. Here was this White lady from a gated community on her way to law school who chose to teach at one of the toughest schools in the district. She had no idea on how to reach us. But she kept trying because she wasn’t afraid to discover our culture, our families, our values, and our music. We were a tough crowd, but Ms. Gruwell was very good at finding bridges for communication.”

On Reaching Students:
“You have to start where they are and work your way up. Ms Gruwell would ask questions about our lives without being invasive. We could see she was sincerely interested and she cared. She wanted to know about our interests, our culture. I meet some teachers who don’t want to do this, that it’s somehow beneath them to have to spend time speaking to students on their level. Nothing could be more misguided.”

On the Culture Gap:
“It’s important to remember that the culture gap doesn’t just exist between White teachers and students of color. I agree with Education Secre­tary Arne Duncan when he says we should have a more diverse teaching body, but that’s not a cure-all. It’s still about the individual teacher’s strategy—whatever color or religion—on how to engage the students. If you think that the culture gap will disappear just because we have, for example, more Black and Hispanic teachers, you’d be mistaken.”

NEA’s C.A.R.E. Guide
New teachers—like all educators—must learn to reach students from multiple ethnic, racial, language, and economic backgrounds. NEA’s C.A.R.E. Guide offers educators a multi-themed approach to closing the achievement gaps, focusing on Cutlure, Abilities, Resilience, and Effort (C.A.R.E.). Download a free copy.

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