Teaching Profession Ask the Mentor

Teaching Diverse Populations

December 05, 2007 12 min read
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A “teacher of teachers,” Dr. Kelley L. Costner serves as the Associate Dean for Master’s Programs and Teacher Preparation Programs at the College of Education at Walden University in Minnesota. Since 2000, Costner’s research has focused on training culturally responsive teachers and supporting African American learners in the classroom. She has presented her 2004 co-authored paper “Seven Principles for Developing a Culturally Responsive Faculty” at numerous education conferences across the country and in Canada for both higher ed and K-12 teachers. Costner’s research supports her experience that a culturally sensitive staff is a more unified staff, and one that fosters greater student interest, participation, and achievement in the classroom.

In this first of two installments, Costner explains how to handle racially charged or culturally biased comments made by colleagues, dismantle stereotypes held by students, and be inclusive when discussing the holidays in the classroom.

I am a consultant and in-service provider to teachers. What is the best way to sensitize teachers who believe their biases are religiously supported, for example regarding sexual orientation?

Good question, and one that I am hearing more and more as the student population becomes increasingly diverse. First, I want you to commend you for wanting to sensitize teachers and not change their views or beliefs (whether right or wrong).

When I get questions relevant to sexual orientation (which is occurring with greater frequency), I promote sensitivity and respect first and I ask participants to examine how they treat others whose values and beliefs may not agree with theirs. I hone in on tolerance and respect for individual preference, and I always bring them back to assessing their own beliefs and attitudes and how these beliefs have an impact on their behavior and their treatment of others. I am a strong believer that one can hold his/her own beliefs; however, I always point out that it is a personal belief and should not be pushed on someone else, or be used to judge someone else. I continue to reiterate that I am not trying to change their attitudes, values, and beliefs, but am teaching them how to display behavior that is not offensive or demeaning to another person. I remind them that as educators, we will continue to be confronted with people who have differing values and philosophies.

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I often find that some teachers believe it is their duty to talk to students or colleagues about the “wrongs” of homosexuality. I strongly caution teachers against doing this and invite other participants to note what can happen when a person imposes his/her views on someone else, especially in a student-teacher relationship. The list gets really long and the consequences can be negative for both parties.

I always end by commending the person for having strong values and sticking to them, but I remind them gently of their role as an educator and how valuing and respecting others is a requirement and expectation, not just something they can pick and choose to do when they feel it is appropriate.

Which plays a bigger part in a student’s behavior—ethnic culture or social-economic culture? This peeks my interest after reading Ruby Payne’s work.

Seven Principles for Training Culturally Responsive Teachers

Principle 1: Structure Professional Development Activities That Focus on Cultural Responsiveness

Principle 2: Ensure That All Teachers Respect the Culture of Their Students

Principle 3: Value and Celebrate Culture—Promote Cultural Sensitivity

Principle 4: Embrace an Empowerment Culture

Principle 5: Communicate to the School’s Commitment to Cultural Responsiveness

Principle 6: Take Away Barriers that Impede Progress

Principle 7: Help Teachers Use Effective Pedagogical Methods for Teaching African Americans

Read the full paper here.

Thank you for your question. I do not believe that there is one set behavior for any culture—ethnic or socio-economic—so it makes it a little difficult to say one plays a bigger role than another. I believe that the biggest player in student behavior in the classroom is…guess who? You, the wonderful teacher in front of the classroom! I believe the teacher is instrumental in setting the tone for behavior, regardless of ethnic or socio-economic culture.

I want you to ask yourself a question, do you believe that socio-economic status and/or ethnic background influence student behavior? You may have to ponder this for a while and dig really deep, but be really honest with yourself about this one. It is very important to assess how you as the teacher feel because it can shape how you treat your students and what you expect from your students.

OK, I will just say it: I believe that teachers’ beliefs and attitudes shape how they treat their students. If the teacher believes that students can behave appropriately in the class, regardless of ethnic or socio-economic background, then their expectations will be just that, and the students will rise to the occasion. However, if the teacher believes that particular ethnic groups or students from certain socio-economic backgrounds cannot behave appropriately, then the teacher will more than likely expect less and get less. In fact, the teacher may inadvertently contribute to unacceptable behavior by not expecting more. Have you ever wondered why a group of students may behave when Mrs. Johnson is present, but misbehave with Mr. Smith? Think about it. In the teacher’s classroom, THE TEACHER sets the precedent for appropriate behavior.

Last, please be mindful that what you may view as unacceptable behavior (i.e., students talking out of turn, not making eye contact, or not using “standard” English) is acceptable in some cultures. So, be careful that you are not offending one of your students about something that may have rich cultural value for them.

A colleague makes biased comments and appears to be unaware of their negative impact. At a parent-teacher conference, where I translated for a Latina mother, my colleague said, “You’re not very well-educated.” I didn’t translate, but I could tell how insulted this mom was. (In Latino culture, being “educated” has connotations beyond whether or not one has a formal education.) This same colleague asked a 4th grader with an Arabic last name if the student was a convert. How can I sensitize my colleague to our diverse school population without insulting her intelligence?

I commend you for wanting to sensitize your colleague without insulting her intelligence. First, I would address the behavior and comments your colleague made diplomatically. Since it was stated that your colleague appears to be unaware of the negative impact of her comments and behavior, help your colleague see how the comments made were perceived as insensitive and insulting to this parent and why. In order to do this, give your colleague an overview of exactly what the comments mean in Latino culture, and how they hold a very different connotation than what your colleague might be aware of.

In regard to the comment made to the student, I would bring to your colleague’s attention, again, that the question may be perceived by the student as threatening (given that your colleague is a teacher), and also demeaning and insensitive. Although it may not have been your colleague’s intention, it very well may have come off that way. What seems to be very effective when I confront anyone about cultural insensitivity is to ask how that person would feel if someone did the very exact thing that they did to him/her. Asking a person to walk in another person’s shoes is very effective, in most instances.

As I have done in the past when I feel something has the potential to escalate, I alert my supervisor about what I witnessed and how I handled the situation. Be mindful that discussing race and culture and pointing out someone’s lack of sensitivity may offend them (which can be a defense mechanism) because many people are still not comfortable discussing race. In my experience, most people were unaware of what they were doing and welcomed the feedback.

I am an educator with 25 years experience who has worked with diverse populations. My question to you is: How do we motivate those middle schoolers whose parents are migrant and work hard, do not have a handle on the English language, little or no education themselves, and therefore cannot support their child at home? I have been able to reach many of these children but what about the ones that are still not making an effort? Any suggestions? I don’t believe in giving up on any of them. Thank you.

Thank you for not wanting to give up on any of your students. As you probably know, there are many factors that teachers cannot control outside the classroom, and this can be challenging at times. You state that you have been able to reach many students, but there are some that just are not making any effort. Since you said effort, I am going to assume effort, and not progress.

Student motivation and parental involvement are really outside the scope of my expertise, but what I can tell you to do, as the teacher is not. I am a strong believer in setting expectations within the classroom for each and every student. If you communicate to the students who are not making an effort that you have high expectations that you truly believe they can meet, they usually rise to the occasion.

The suggestion I have is this: continue to do what you do. Continue to not give up and use as many resources as you have available. Continue to believe that all children can learn. Your motivation and commitment to these students can be contagious!

I always wonder if teachers really know and understand how much of an impact they make on the lives of the students. Your words, behavior, attitude, classroom environment, and course content really do have a significant impact on your students. Once again, thank you for not giving up.

I teach humanities in a small, urban high school in New York City. Our student population is culturally and ethnically diverse—from African descendents and Asians to Central and South Americans to European Americans. At times the racial, ethnic and religious diversity is so great and their negative stereotypes of each other so pervasive (not to mention the iceberg of sexuality and gender), that I don’t know how to begin addressing them. And I share the ethnic heritage of many of my students!

How do we guide and encourage students to question the stereotypes of their own classmates, particularly when it conflicts with their deeply held beliefs? And when such beliefs interfere with the learning of history and human origins, what can we do to help students to be more open intellectually?

Kelley L. Costner's Booklist on Teaching Diverse Populations

1. Teaching African American Learners to Read
by Bill Hammond, Mary Eleanor Rhodes Hoover, & Irving Pressley McPhail
2. Creating Culturally Responsive Classrooms
by Barbara Shade, Cynthia Kelly, & Mary Oberg
3. Diversity and Motivation
by Raymond J. Wlodkowski & Margery Ginsberg
4. Culturally Responsive Teaching
by Geneva Gay
5. The Dreamkeepers
by Gloria Ladson-Billings
6. Culture in School Learning
by Etta Hollins
7. Culture and Learning
by Educational Research Service
8. Being Responsive to Cultural Differences
by Mary Dilworth
9. No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning
by Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom
10. Promoting Diversity in College Classrooms: Innovative Responses for the Curriculum, Faculty, and Institutions
by Maurianne Adams
11. Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap
by Richard Rothstein
12. Young, Gifted and Black: Promoting High Achievement Among African American Students
by Theresa Perry, Claude Steele, Asa Hilliard III
13. Through Ebony Eyes: What Teachers Need to Know but are Afraid to Ask About African American Students
by Gail Thompson

Interesting question. You may not be able to address each and every stereotype this year, but you can address tolerance, respect, and valuing people for who they are. Teach and promote cultural sensitivity. Explain to your students that cultural sensitivity involves the acceptance that people have distinct beliefs, values, and characteristics, and that they should be respected. I remember telling my students when I was confronted with such issues that I was not there to change their beliefs and values, but I could change their behavior. I also told them that I would not tolerate any of them putting down another student for differing traits or beliefs.

I have many colleagues who are very apprehensive about discussing cultural differences in fear of offending someone. I always tell them that if they do not teach their students how to properly address conflicting values and beliefs, then the “tightness in the air” they feel will continue. I also tell my colleagues that when we discuss culture in class and deal with certain stereotypes, we hit them head on. (Please note that these are first year community college students—who, in most instances, are around 18 years old.) We discuss the issues behind stereotypes, the consequences of stereotypes, and how to be more accepting. The students really enjoy the opportunity to share how they feel when they are victimized, which really hits home for many. I also share my experiences of how I used to stereotype people and did not even realize it. I also share how I have to combat stereotypical “expectations,” which they really seem to appreciate because it makes me human. But most importantly, I teach them corrective behavior.

What should a principal know about and look for in classrooms as best practice in teaching diverse populations?

Great question! There are many articles and books that specifically speak to best practices for teaching diverse populations. Please see the “Books for Teaching Diverse Populations” list. This list is not meant to be exhaustive; it includes just a few of my favorite books about this subject. Also, you can do a simple Internet search or search your library’s database for articles and books relevant to this topic. Last, I suggest you read my Seven Principles for Training Culturally Responsive Teachers, which offers much advice on teaching diverse populations. I hope you find them helpful.

We are examining the structure, instruction, and relationship of instruction for our students in math, particularly our African-American students. What are your suggestions for crafting our practices more effectively so that our African-American students can become more successful in math achievement at all levels, especially secondary? Thanks for your input.

Thank you for taking the initiative to examine the structure, instruction, and relationship of instruction for your students in math, particularly your African-American students, and most important, recognizing the importance of pedagogy when teaching African- American learners. To get a more in depth look at what you can do, I suggest you read Principles 1, 4, 5, 6, and 7, of my Seven Principles for Training Culturally Responsive Teachers. Also, please refer to my booklist, “Teaching Diverse Populations.”

Previously when teaching “A Christmas Carol,” I spent time helping the students understand the Victorian era and how many of our current Christmas traditions stem from that period. Up until last year, my classroom was a Protestant-based group of students. This year I have Hindu, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witness, and Jewish students, but still predominately Christian-based religion students. How do I still include all the wonderful parts of this holiday without offending the other religions, yet still help them feel included?

I commend you on being sensitive to the needs of your students, and openly and purposefully acknowledging that you do not want to offend students from diverse backgrounds.

One suggestion I would make is to have your students study various traditions outside of their own. I know many teachers have students present their own tradition, but I would suggest having students examine a different culture. During the holiday season, I would encourage you, as the faculty member, to take this time to teach tolerance and respect for how others celebrate (or don’t celebrate) the holidays. I would not give a specific list of holiday traditions to your students, but I would talk about what the “holiday season” means and ask students to be major contributors to this, so no one feels minimized, singled out, or left out.

As the teacher, you hold a very powerful position in your classroom. You can empower students to feel that their traditions are just as important as any other holiday tradition. Always remember that it may be difficult for a student to be the only one who does not celebrate Christmas or whose means of celebration is different from the majority of the class. (Not to mention children whose parents can’t afford to give them much, if anything.)

Valuing a student’s culture in the classroom is a frequently cited factor for successfully teaching culturally diverse learners. Cultural sensitivity involves the acceptance that culturally diverse students have a distinct culture and learning style that should be valued, promoted, and embraced in the classroom. Happy Holidays!


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