Reflections from Teachers of Culturally Diverse Children (page 2)

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

A professional development initiative to increase teacher empathy

The public schools in one suburban Massachusetts city sponsored a professional development initiative designed to educate teachers about their Latino students’ unique cultural backgrounds. Latino families form the largest non-mainstream cultural and linguistic group in the school district. Twenty-seven White teachers of pre-K through third grade participated in course work, cultural immersion experiences, and interactions with culturally diverse families.

Teachers attended 12 workshops and participated in two Family Literacy Nights with Latino families and their children. The Family Literacy Nights were tailored to the needs and characteristics of several Latino cultures. Spanish is the home language for all of the families, many of whom have limited proficiency in English. Many parents work long hours for minimal wages, and most of the children participate in the school’s free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs.

In activities that simulated the experience of being part of a cultural and linguistic minority group, teachers played games in which the rules continually changed and the language was unfamiliar. Group debriefing exercises followed. The teachers were encouraged to think about their own cultural perspectives and recognize multiple perspectives as well as cultural and linguistic differences.

At Family Literacy Nights, teachers participated in storybook reading and activities in both English and Spanish, learned about parents’ interests through ongoing conversations with them, helped children with homework, and supported parents during English as a second language (ESL) activities. A variety of guest speakers spoke about the school’s structure, expectations, and available services.

Although the target for Family Literacy Nights was children from age four to seven, to support attendance the program coordinators encouraged families to bring all their children, babies to teenagers. Grandparents and other family members were also welcome.

Challenging misconceptions

As part of a research initiative with a local university, teacher participants were interviewed during and following the professional development series. This article focuses on teachers’ views with regard to four commonly held misconceptions that had been expressed by some teachers before the workshop series. We hope that their reactions and thoughts and some of our subsequent suggestions help other teachers increase their cultural competence.

Misconception 1—Everyone is the same (children are children, families are families)

Prior to the professional development series, a kindergarten teacher declared of her diverse classroom, “Children are children.” Yet, by not acknowledging differences, this teacher may have denied the children’s cultural strengths. Children from other cultures often have patterns of communication, interaction, and participation that may be different from those valued within mainstream schools. If the teacher doesn’t see the richness in children’s communication and interaction, she may inadvertently project her mainstream cultural values for understanding, speaking, and interacting with children. Ignoring children’s cultural differences and strengths can perpetuate a deficit model that seeks to “fix” culturally diverse children, making them more like their mainstream peers rather than celebrating their unique cultural backgrounds.

Following the professional development workshops, a second-grade teacher expressed a viewpoint that was echoed by other participants: “We think everyone is like us until we spend some time with them and realize their strengths and struggles.” Some teachers wanted to learn more about Latino culture. One teacher said, “As mothers, we cross all bounds of cultural diversity because we all want what’s best for our children, yet our Latino parents bring rich cultural differences. I’d like to know more about their language and cultures.”

Seeing the children and their families communicate with each other in their home language was an important learning experience for several of the teachers. The young Spanish-speaking children were learning English, and yet the teachers witnessed a rich expressiveness as the children and their families communicated in their home language. A kindergarten teacher noted, “Listening to the children interact with each other and their families has changed the way I see them. Yes, they speak English, but when they speak Spanish, they speak in beautiful, rich sentences.”

By immersing teachers in language they didn’t understand, the experience created a strong sense of empathy among teachers for both parents and children. One teacher, glimpsing the difficulties of learning another language, said, “I was trying to explain the ESL lesson [to a parent] and realized that no matter how much I dug into my bag of tricks, she did not understand me. It gave me an appreciation for the patience, determination, and frustration parents must feel every day, having to work, shop, or go anyplace knowing that they might not get what they want because they’re not understood.”

Misconception 2—Culturally diverse parents should know and conform to the expectations of mainstream schools

Prior to the professional development initiative, a group of teachers had discussed ways to increase the involvement of culturally and linguistically diverse families. An elementary grade teacher who was present stated, “I know we’re all different, but we’re in the United States. Our students and families live here. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Several other teachers nodded in agreement.

Delpit (1995) would argue that doing “what the Romans do” means first knowing what it is that the Romans do. Most culturally and linguistically diverse families have had experiences that differ from those reflected in the expectations of mainstream schools. Even when parents do understand school expectations such as storybook reading and reinforcing classroom learning with their children, they may not have the necessary resources in terms of language and time to meet these expectations. Some linguistically diverse parents have completed high levels of education in their country of origin but have difficulty communicating in English; others have had limited formal schooling but have had a rich array of life experiences. Many work very long hours to provide their children with necessities.

Following the professional development sessions, one teacher spoke of the need for better communication so the families can understand teacher and school expectations. She explained, “We were surprised to learn that for some parents there is a huge separation between school and home. Some parents believe the teacher is responsible for the child’s learning and have no idea of the role we expect them to play in reinforcing reading and classroom learning at home. Once you meet with parents and explain your expectations, they do try to help their children at home.” Other teachers mentioned the importance of discussing school routines and services with parents. Said one, “I can’t imagine being in another country where I wasn’t sure of the rules and expectations.”

Several teachers marveled at the complexity of language learning. As one explained, “I really have learned that I need to take extra time to make sure that English language learners know exactly what to do, because their parents may want to help but do not have the necessary English vocabulary to read with their children and support classroom instruction.

Misconception 3—Families who don’t participate in school activities don’t value education

One impetus for the professional development workshop series was teachers’ perceived lack of understanding as to how transportation, work schedules, and locations affect parents’ ability to attend school meetings. The comment of one teacher illustrates this misconception: “You can tell the parents who care,” she said. “When I have a parent meeting, none of my parents come. It is so hard to work with children without parental support.”

When parents don’t regularly attend school functions, some teachers assume this reflects a lack of concern. Yet, as most teachers who participated in the Family Literacy Nights realized, there is no lack of concern on the part of families. Many teachers indicated their surprise at the number of parents and children who attended the family literacy events twice weekly both in the evenings and also in morning sessions, which were added at the request of parents. Holding Family Literacy Nights in a central location, within walking distance for most families, and scheduling evening and morning meetings made the events accessible to parents who work different shifts and/or don’t own cars or have access to public transportation. “We need to make schools more accessible and welcoming. Then parents will come,” remarked a third-grade teacher. Research supports her conclusion; teachers who believe in their efficacy to involve families achieve high parental involvement regardless of parents’ background or socioeconomic status (Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, & Bridsie 1987).

A first grade teacher echoed most teachers’ reactions to parental participation and their new awareness of the extra effort required for parents to participate in the Family Literacy Nights: “It was wonderful to see mothers with their children, knowing that it wasn’t easy to get there, they don’t have the transportation, and they’re going to get home a little bit later that night. They put everything aside [to attend].”

The teachers viewed the video My Brown Eyes (Koh 1994), which shows a day in the life of a young Korean immigrant child and his parents, who work long hours to provide for him. Afterward, the teachers acknowledged the practical challenges that many families confront each day. As one teacher said, “If parents have to work 12- or 15-hour days to support their children, they may not be able to attend school functions or provide homework support, no matter how important they feel education is.”

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