Schools are becoming increasingly diverse, and it goes beyond simple matters of black and white. Teachers today may find themselves teaching a classroom where the students speak Spanish, Ibo, French, Vietnamese, and Chinese–and representing a variety of cultures that may have very different views toward education. In order to serve these diverse student bodies, administrators must first change the climate of the school itself, showing teachers how to address issues of race and culture with honesty and compassion so that all students can thrive.
In a March 2007 article in Educational Leadership, REACH president Gary Howard noted that administrators have to begin by reaching out to their teachers. Because 90 percent of U.S. teachers are white and from middle-class backgrounds, they may have little multicultural experience. What’s more, these teachers may fear that diversity training implies that white, middle-class people are inherently racist and need to be deprogrammed of their racism. Howard recommends building a sense of trust with these teachers by having open, positive, nonjudgmental dialogue that deals with issues of race openly and honestly. If teachers know that they aren’t going to be accused of racism, they’re much more likely to acknowledge how privilege affects their lives and the lives of those around them.
Once teachers are willing to talk about racial issues and confront them, both the teachers and administrators can start reviewing the curriculum and the methods of instruction to see if they’re meeting the needs of a diverse student population. It’s easy to complain in the teacher’s lounge that some of the ESOL fourth-graders still can’t understand what a verb is; it’s harder to adjust the teaching methods to teach those students what they need to know. Kelly School principal Marti Diaz, an administrator who has made inclusion one of her primary goals as a teacher, reminisces that as a Cuban-American student, she had some teachers who simply told her to “speak English” and others who met her where she was with support and encouragement. Her story is a powerful example of the effect of inclusion, diversity, and multiculturalism in the classroom.
Changing the school’s climate and instructional method is easier said than done, and different schools have managed it in different ways. Diaz is a strong proponent of the “three critical factors”–passion, practice, and persistence, the traits proposed by educational researcher Glenn Singleton as utterly essential for a school to truly change its racial attitudes. By believing passionately in change, putting ideas into practice rather than simply discussing them, and persisting in the face of adversity, Diaz and Singleton believe schools can triumph. Howard, meanwhile, suggests looking to the diverse Loudoun County district for a model. Loudoun County’s methods emphasize strong, caring bonds with students, consistent high expectations, respect for each student’s intelligence, varied instructional methods to meet students’ cultural needs, and materials that honor students’ cultures and life experiences.
However administrators decide to make their schools multicultural and inclusive, it’s critical to move beyond colorblindness and have an open, honest and positive conversation about race and culture. Only then can genuine change occur.
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