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Teaching Secrets: When the Kids Don't Share Your Culture

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"You can’t teach someone you don’t know," said the respected educator, Ted Sizer. After 15 years of teaching and coaching teachers in Oakland, Calif., this rings so loud and true it almost silences everything else I’ve ever learned about teaching.

Every year, the urban district I work in welcomes hundreds of new teachers. Many are somewhat prepared to plan lessons and manage a classroom, but most are stunned by the cultural chasm between themselves and their students.

Before I share some of the strategies I have used to bridge this chasm, let’s acknowledge our reality:

• Nine out of 10 teachers in the United States are white.

• Four out of every 10 students are not white.

• Some 40 percent of public schools have no teachers of color.

And here are my beliefs about what these statistics mean:

• The fact that 90 percent of teachers are white matters. Let’s accept this notion and acknowledge that race is an uncomfortable issue to deal with.

• In diverse classrooms, issues of race and culture masquerade behind differences in learning and communication styles, attitudes, interests, behavior, and much more.

• It is the teacher’s responsibility to bridge this cultural chasm. We cannot eliminate the differences but we can learn to communicate effectively with each other.

What Can You Do?

You must get to know your students.

And here are some ways to do so:

1. Before you start teaching, learn a little about the history and the cultures of the students you will serve.

2. Find out how the city and neighborhood you will teach in has changed in the last couple of decades and what the pressing economic and political issues are. Local libraries and papers are great resources.

3. Get specific information about each of your students. Even if they are from the same ethnic group, differences in nationality, language, and religion matter. (A Mexican-American child born in the United States is different from a Guatemalan child who just left the highlands, although they may look similar.) Be careful not to make assumptions. Get all the fine-grained details.

4. If you serve immigrants from specific ethnic groups (Eritreans or Hmong, for example), connect with community centers or refugee assistance organizations. A 20-minute phone call early in the year could be very useful in the months ahead. (Ask: "I’m going to be teaching a number of Hmong children. What do you think are the most important things for me to know about working with their families?")

5. Talk to colleagues who have worked in the community for a while. Ask what mistakes they made in the beginning, what big lessons they’ve learned, and what they appreciate about the families they work with.

6. Immediately meet with parents, once the school year begins. Among other details, let them know you’re excited to learn about their individual cultures. Acknowledge your differences. (Craftily work it in that you recognize that you don't share their culture. Let them know that you’ll be educating yourself so that you can better meet the needs of their child.) Put it on the table. This can relieve a lot of anxiety.

7. In the beginning of the year, have a potluck. Remember: You’re developing connections with students and families, and between students and families. Nothing builds community like breaking bread together. And you’ll enjoy a great meal.

8. Walk around the neighborhoods where your students live, either by yourself or, if they are older, with students as guides. (They love doing this!) Go during different times of the day and on the weekends. This will give you a glimpse into your students' lives.

9. Schedule home visits. Let parents know that you want to learn more about their children, would like to meet the family pet, and would be very grateful if they’d let you visit their home. Be honest, be humble, express curiosity, and communicate that it’s all so that you can be more effective with their child.

10. Learn how to ask questions that are acceptable to the cultures you are serving. Obviously, you need to ask questions to get to know people. But understand that what is personal and private to one group, may be trivial to another. You may need to get some help from colleagues to know what kinds of questions are best received and most appropriate, given the population you work with.

11. Invite parents into the classroom to share their cultures. Many are honored to do so; they want to be known and understood. This helps kids build community.

12. Accept all invitations! In many cultures, teachers are invited to religious ceremonies, holidays, birthday parties, or family dinners. This is, by the way, one of the most fascinating, enjoyable, and delicious parts of this job!

13. A lot of this “research” can be done by your students. Even young children can create maps of their neighborhoods illustrating the parks they like to play in, their churches or community centers, or the homes of the people they care about. Older students can conduct research about their backgrounds or how their city has changed; they can interview parents, grandparents, and neighbors. They can bring in and share cultural artifacts. Giving kids an authentic purpose for this kind of work (which obviously involves lots of reading, writing, and talking) will motivate them and result in higher quality products.

You will never really know what it is to be a child in the neighborhood where your students reside or to have immigrated from the villages where their parents once lived, but you can understand a lot and this will make you more effective.

For More Info...

Elena Aguilar suggests the following resources for learning about students' cultural differences:

We Can't Teach What We Don't Know: White Teachers, Multiracial Schools, by Gary Howard and Sonia Nieto
How To Teach Students Who Don’t Look Like You: Culturally Relevant Teaching Strategies, by Bonnie Davis
The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, by Gloria Ladson-Billings.

Getting to know your students is one of the most interesting aspects of being a teacher. I have learned about remote corners of the world without leaving Oakland, and my capacity for empathy and compassion has expanded exponentially because of what I have learned from my students and their families.

A note of caution, however: This is only one part of working with students with cultural differences. Teachers who work in communities that are different from their own also need to learn specific strategies of curriculum inclusion, culturally relevant pedagogy, and skills for promoting understanding, tolerance, and respect for diversity.

Readers, please share any strategies you’ve used to get to know students.

And dear new teacher, welcome! The diverse classroom is a wonderful and exciting place to be!

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