For all the wonderful things that diversity brings to a classroom, teaching a diverse group of students can be much more difficult than teaching a seemingly homogeneous one because of our assumptions. Some people are uncomfortable talking about diversity and culture. No one wants to be labeled a racist. I learned this lesson during my fourth year of teaching.
Just before the school year started, I met with the third-grade teachers to do some planning for the year. About halfway through the meeting, a veteran teacher turned to me and said, “Hey, it looks like you got the Samoan kids this year. I’ll trade you for some of my black kids. I’m supposed to have the Samoans.”
He went on to tell me about the “good old days” when he taught mostly Asian and Pacific Islander students and remarked what a shame it was that the demographics of the school had changed enough that he couldn’t have a class full of those students like he used to.
Among my co-workers, there were two schools of thought. One saw a certain group of kids as “bad,” “disrespectful” or “lazy.” These adjectives were often used to describe American kids, or black kids (the two groups were synonymous at our school).
The teachers who espoused these views had various explanations: Americans don’t value education, families on welfare are too entitled, and on and on with that sort of thing.
In contrast, the other groups—all immigrants—were seen as hard-working. This was often attributed to the fact that the kids knew what their parents had sacrificed to bring them to this country and provide them with an education. The Asian students were particularly valued as respectful and studious. Of course, these stereotypical views do not value students, their individuality or culture. Those views make meaningful connections impossible and further solidify racial disparities.
The second set of teachers tried not to see cultural or ethnic background, but instead tried to view and treat all children exactly the same. This seemed like a noble ambition to me at the time, but in retrospect, I can see that this viewpoint also denies any unique qualities of students, invalidates their experiences and alienates them.
Neither group of teachers experienced all the gifts brought to the classroom by their students.
I’d like to suggest color consciousness as an effective way to build communications and connections in a diverse classroom. Teachers must acknowledge racial and ethnic differences and check themselves for bias.
They will also become aware of institutional discrimination and the impact on students. Color consciousness values students and their shared and individual experience. Everyone is richer for it.
Different cultures and subcultures bring their own traditions, strengths and weaknesses to the classroom. For example, some of our students were raised in cultures where kids show respect to adults by not meeting their eyes. This created confusion, because most American teachers see this as a sign of insolence and disrespect.
“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” was the response from some teachers when these kids were attempting to show the highest respect possible. Other students came from families or cultures in which you interrupt if you’re fully engaged in what someone is saying.
In elementary school, students don’t have the vocabulary to say, “In my culture, I’m showing my interest and respect.”
This is the difficulty with being color-blind or holding deep stereotypes. So diversity is not the problem. The issue is teachers who do not adequately address or value that diversity. I wish I had realized earlier that it was the teacher’s responsibility to see the strengths in all students, from various cultures. Many of us are used to teaching in one way, and measuring students’ ability by how well they respond to that particular method. Teaching in a truly diverse classroom is often more challenging, but if we are willing to teach all the kids—black, white, Samoan and others—we can learn to teach more effectively.
Harris is a teacher, tutor, and volunteer in California.
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