Reflections from Teachers of Culturally Diverse Children

By — National Association for the Education of Young Children
Updated on Jul 26, 2007

"Teachers cannot hope to begin to understand who sits before them unless they can connect with the families and communities from which their children come. To do that it is vital that teachers and teacher educators explore their own beliefs and attitudes about non-white and non-middle-class people."

—Lisa Delpit
Other People’s Children

Approximately 40 percent of children in U.S. public schools are from culturally diverse backgrounds (NCES 2003). Yet, other than in Head Start—where 52 percent of teachers come from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds different from the mainstream—only 22 percent of preschool teachers are culturally diverse (Saluja, Early, & Clifford 2002) and the percentage of non-White K–12 teachers actually may be closer to 10 (NCES 2003).

A cultural mismatch between teachers and the children they teach can result in uncomfortable classroom experiences for some children and teachers. Unlike many children who arrive at preschool and elementary classrooms and find familiar environments and teachers who speak their same language (English), many culturally and linguistically diverse students may feel like they are moving “from one world to another” as they go from home to school (Au 1993, 9). Their teachers often differ from their families in race, culture, and language. Classroom expectations and patterns of communication may also differ from those at home.

Cultural compatibility

Teachers who share their students’ culture can minimize some of the differences between home and school. Often these teachers serve as role models, validating the identities of culturally diverse children (Saluja, Early, & Clifford 2002). Unfortunately, while the need for teachers who reflect the cultural diversity of the student population has grown, the percentage of culturally diverse teachers has declined (Saluja, Early, & Clifford 2002).

Considerable research (Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba 1991; Halcón 2001; Moll 2001; Ogbu 2001) indicates, however, that teachers who do not share children’s cultures can provide culturally compatible instruction if they understand the children’s “cultural funds of knowledge,” which can be thought of as the different ways of knowing, communicating, and doing that exist within diverse homes (Moll 1994, 2001). Teachers who understand and appreciate culturally different strengths and funds of knowledge are more likely to provide enriching and responsive learning environments that celebrate and capitalize on children’s cultural differences.

Still, understanding and acknowledging the validity of different cultural behaviors and beliefs can present challenges for some teachers. As students themselves, most teachers were socialized in mainstream schools for at least 12 years (Cuban 1993) and often attended teacher preparation programs grounded in the mainstream culture. In centers and schools, many teachers then find themselves working with colleagues who have similar educational and professional experiences.

Beginning the journey toward increased cultural competence (the ability to understand diverse perspectives and appropriately interact with members of other cultures in a variety of situations) requires teachers to rethink their assumptions and consider life’s issues through the lenses of people who come from cultural backgrounds different from their own.

The activities most likely to increase cultural competence are those that immerse teachers in meaningful interactions with members of other cultures and promote cultural disequilibrium or a sense of being lost (Sleeter 1995). This article describes one such professional development initiative that combined course work with cultural immersion experiences designed to create this sense of disequilibrium.

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