Education Opinion

Cultural Lessons Are Vital for Teachers

By Walt Gardner — June 10, 2016 1 min read
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As public schools across the country become increasingly multicultural, the effectiveness of teachers will depend as much on their knowledge of the culture of their students as on their knowledge of the subject they are teaching. It’s here that the Los Angeles Police Department can serve as a model (“For LAPD cops, walking the Koreatown beat filled with mystery, confusion, cultural minefields,” Los Angeles Times, Jun. 8).

Recognizing that ignorance has proved fatal, the LAPD is providing its officers with an understanding of how behavior can easily be misinterpreted. For example, staring directly into someone’s eyes is considered impolite in Korean culture. It is not a sign of evasiveness. And negative questions are answered differently in Korean than in English. “You didn’t do it?” would likely be answered “Yes, I didn’t do it.” Other cultures have their unique characteristics.

I wish that the Los Angeles Unified School District had conducted sessions along the same line when Third World immigration first made itself felt prominently in the early 1980’s. I remember only one faculty meeting devoted to the subject. It was absolutely useless because it failed to provide teachers with concrete ways of responding to behaviors that were alien to native- born teachers. For example, instead of interpreting a student’s body language as a sign of defiance, teachers would have read it quite differently.

The same lack of understanding of cultural differences was reflected in how teachers assigned grades for class participation. In Asian culture, students are supposed to be passive. As a result, they would find it unthinkable to question a teacher’s statement by raising their hand. When report cards came out, therefore, Asian students often received low grades in that section.

Looking back on my 28-year career in the LAUSD, I wish I had been more aware of these cultural differences. It would have made a difference in how I designed lesson plans. I’m also sure it would have made my classes more enjoyable to many of my students.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.