School & District Management

For Preservice Teachers, Lessons on Cultural Sensitivity

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 16, 2016 9 min read
Elizabeth Self, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, monitors a clinical simulation that she designed to help preservice teachers develop cultural sensitivity. As part of the simulations, education students work with actors who play the roles of students or parents. The interactions are recorded and can be viewed in real time from another room.
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High school senior Darius Miller has felt singled out all week.

A lunchroom monitor called him out for being rowdy but ignored his white teammates. He was asked to comment on civil rights in a history class in which he’s the only black student. Finally, after being shushed in last period for talking out of turn, he erupts. He stomps out, muttering, “Why are you always picking on me?”

Now he’s sitting across a table from the teacher who scolded him.

In the real world, what she says in the next five minutes can mean the difference between a relationship salvaged and one that deteriorates. Fortunately, this is actually a sophisticated simulation, not life, and “Darius” is Hasan Clayton, a Vanderbilt University graduate student who moonlights as an actor. The “teachers” he interacts with in this scenario are education students in Nashville, Tenn.

Clayton’s performance aligns to a set of carefully crafted protocols. Often, he explains, candidates playing the “teacher” role will deny the issue of race as a factor in their decision to quiet him; others will apologize. Both will lead Clayton-as-Darius to shut down, stop making eye contact, and start saying “yes, ma’am.”

“Those are turnoffs for Darius,” Clayton said. “He doesn’t want her to be sorry. He wants his feelings to be acknowledged.”

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The “Talking While Black” scenario is one of several that Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Self has designed at Vanderbilt to give teachers-in-training the ability to recognize how bias can manifest itself in schools.

“This is Darius’ reality, and denying that it exists is not going to do anything for you,” Self said. “It’s going to reinforce the notion that you can’t possibly see this from his point of view.”

At a time when teacher preparation programs are already wrestling with competing demands, why spend special time practicing such scenarios?

In essence, it comes down to this: The K-12 student population has never been more diverse. The first, and arguably predominant, interaction with public institutions that people of color face is at school. But the teaching force continues to be dominated by white women. And through their interactions with students—whether explicit or subtle, well-meaning or ignorant—teachers can compound the biases that many experience.

From Theory to Practice

Long cognizant of that fact, the nation’s teaching programs have, in theory at least, embraced diversity training. But as some leading experts in the field note, aspiring teachers need more than just book learning on the topic coupled with passive observations in the back of classrooms: They need explicit opportunities to practice it.

“For us, it’s about early and often: Early exposure from the onset of when a student wants to be a teacher,” said Robert Lee, the executive director of the Chicago Teacher Education Pipeline, a project at Illinois State University that has spearheaded the school’s efforts to improve urban teacher preparation since the mid 2000s. “That’s when we want them coming to our schools and communities of practice.”

On the plus side, the theory of action is clear. Over the past 25 years, education researchers, notably Gloria Ladson-Billings, Carol D. Lee, and Geneva Gay, have produced much well regarded scholarship on effective teaching for diverse student groups via what’s now generally called “culturally relevant” or “culturally responsive” pedagogy.

Elizabeth Self, a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University, monitors a clinical simulation that she designed to help preservice teachers develop cultural sensitivity. As part of the simulations, education students work with actors who play the roles of students or parents. The interactions are recorded and can be viewed in real time from another room.

Although precise terms and interpretations vary, the basic tenets are that such teaching is academically rigorous; it respects and engages with students’ cultures and backgrounds; and finally—in what has put it squarely in the political cross hairs of the culture wars—it contains a sociopolitical aspect that helps students to understand, critique, and begin challenging inequities in their lives.

That said, like K-12 educators as a whole, education faculty tend not to be as diverse as the school-age population and have not necessarily taught in diverse school settings. And it’s difficult to know how successfully the nation’s 2,200 teacher-preparation providers have integrated cultural competency into their training because no national inventory spells out what individual programs or even states require.

Potentially an even greater problem, teacher educators assert, is that of overall program coherence: Merely emphasizing the tenets of culturally responsive pedagogy in coursework does not guarantee that aspiring teachers will be able to enact them in a classroom.

That’s where Self’s project comes in. She has been adapting the work of other education researchers, notably Benjamin Dotger of Syracuse University, who built on the live-action simulations used in medical schools to devise trainings for teachers and principals facing difficult schooling interactions.

Many of those scenarios, though, didn’t explicitly engage with matters of race. So, with the support of her advisor and other administrators at Vanderbilt, Self set out to craft her own simulations and work them into the preparation classes she teaches. The Darius scenario is one of them; others engage with cultural barriers—for example, how a teacher can engage productively with a Kurdish parent whose son might need special education services, rather than immediately barrage her with jargon.

The simulations are taped so that the aspiring teachers, faculty, and peers can watch them and use them as the basis of discussion. “We can talk about Darius and W.E.B. Du Bois and double consciousness, and it starts to mean something,” Self said.

It also allows teacher-candidates the space to fail and make mistakes without actually hurting any real, live students.

But how much can simulations reflect the real situations teachers face in their schools? Ask Ellie Poole, who experienced several of the simulations in Self’s classes and is now completing her student-teaching assignment for a master’s degree in east Nashville.

“You know it’s not real, but the second you step through that door, it feels so weighty,” she said of the scenarios. What’s more, she recalled a recent meeting at her school in which a parent summoned to school was given vague, conflicting information about her son’s behavior.

For Poole, the situation had immediate parallels to the simulation about the Kurdish parent. “I had this vision of the [actor] I had done the parent simulation with. And I had this moment where I realized, ‘This parent also does not understand why she’s here.’ ”

Learning About Students

Since the fundamental idea behind culturally responsive teaching is knowing one’s students and their histories intimately, some teacher-preparation programs are tackling the challenge by increasing how much time teacher-candidates spend with the students they will one day end up teaching.

“There is no sense in using the ‘best’ school in the district for the clinical experience if that’s not where the jobs are, and not where the need is,” said Lee of Illinois State University.

And as teachers begin using culturally responsive teaching methods, deeper immersion is necessary so that they avoid essentialism, or the tendency for a well-meaning teacher to fall into stereotyping—by assuming, for example, that all black students will respond to lessons oriented around rap lyrics.

“You cannot do this and not be a member of the communities in which your kids live,” noted Adrienne D. Dixson, who is currently leading Teach For America’s efforts to improve diversity training. “Culture is ethnic, but it’s also regional, and it requires that the teacher is an active participant in learning about their students, so they don’t do these kind of trite ‘Taco Tuesday’ things.”

Contact time is a key part of Illinois State’s multiyear effort to prepare teachers for urban schools. Lee’s center runs an intensive four-week internship, STEP-UP, for a select group of its education students. The voluntary program places the students in specific Chicago neighborhoods, where they teach summer school and work with a local community organization on a service project. Evenings are reserved for specialized coursework and debriefings with colleagues.

Though Amanda Martin, a senior at ISU and a participant in STEP-UP last summer, grew up in a predominately African-American neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, she found the culture of the city’s South Side “completely different.” Compared to where she’d been raised, the rhythm of the South Side neighborhood was louder, bustling with buses and traffic. There were fewer stores and just one Wal-Mart.

But, crucially, the experience of working at a summer camp there made her realize that some commonly held assumptions about her students were just, well, wrong.

“You could still see their thirst to be out in the world. They aren’t as closed off as people think they are,” she said.

Like all STEP-UP participants, Martin lived with a host family in the neighborhood where she was placed during her internship.

“She looked out for me like I was blood,” she said of her host mother. “I remember coming into my host mom’s house, and she made a little ‘hoo-hoo!’ noise. And my grandmother used to do the same thing.”

Change Is Hard

As often happens in higher education, the work of pioneers takes a while to spread. A handful of Self’s peers at Vanderbilt have embraced the simulations and are creating new ones in other content areas and disciplines. And since 2004, ISU faculty have had help in rewriting their courses from Lee’s team and from community partners in the now five city neighborhoods where the university places teachers.

Among other elements, each of the redesigned classes now includes a relevant clinical component in Chicago. Aspiring Spanish teachers, for example, often come to city schools on report card pick-up day and work as translators for parents and teachers who can’t speak one another’s language.

Not all faculty have been receptive, but more have come on board as they’ve seen teacher candidates become more engaged in their work, according to Lee. There’s enough of a critical mass that his center is now moving to redesign entire course sequences, such as special education.

Broadly speaking, scholars hail the innovations.

“That attention to fine detail and classroom interactions, I think, is really important for this work, and it hasn’t been done extensively,” said Thomas Philip, an associate professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies teachers and ideological change.

He warns, though, that as culturally responsive teaching enters the mainstream, so to speak, it risks losing its sociopolitical edge. “If you de-politicize it, culturally responsive pedagogy is no different than tapping into students’ prior knowledge,” he said.

For practitioners, the work remains challenging. Self recalled one teacher in the Darius scenario who asked probing questions, but then talked for four minutes straight trying to convince him that race wasn’t a factor in the encounter.

On the other hand, Clayton, the actor who plays Darius, says he’s been giving more of the aspiring educators the benefit of the doubt—especially when, after the scenario, he sees the light dawning for them.

“Some of them come up to me and tell me later: ‘Thank you. I did not realize I was doing that.’ ”

Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the February 17, 2016 edition of Education Week as Preservice Programs Seek To Head Off Teacher Biases


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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