Michigan Education Association

We all play role in making learning environment culturally competent

Diversity is not a choice.

Gary HowardSeldom has the education community helped white teachers look critically at the changes needed to work effectively with the real issues of diversity.
Gary Howard

That statement appears in a book by teacher Gary Howard, who recounts an experience he had while working with a school that had undergone rapid demographic change.

The school’s Hispanic student population had grown from 10 percent to more than 40 percent in five years. Howard, whose background is multicultural teaching and curriculum development, was at the school to deliver the opening day address to the staff.

After the presentation, a veteran teacher approached and asked, “Why are they sending these kids to our school?”

“You mean the Hispanic kids?” Howard replied, and the teacher nodded.

Howard’s answer: “Hispanic kids are coming to ‘your’ high school because they live here; they are a part of your community.”

Just as that high school experienced change, many other communities have witnessed a changing student body. Yet, the vast majority of teachers educating an increasingly diverse student population are still white.

Seldom has the education community helped white teachers look deeply and critically at the necessary changes and growth needed to work effectively with the real issues of diversity, says Howard, who created the Seattle-based REACH Center for multicultural education.

In his book, “We Can’t Teach What We Don’t Know—White Teachers, Multiracial Schools,” Howard details his own experiences with race and teaching. It began during the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, when Howard arrived at Yale University.
In his work, Howard challenges people to look inward when faced with diversity in the school setting.

“We have a tendency to blame the kids or to blame the families,” Howard explains. “Teachers ask, ‘What’s wrong with these kids?’ Who can we most likely change? That’s us. We can’t change the kids—they are who they are.”

And while the title of his book and much of Howard’s work focuses on teachers, he explains that all adults in the school community play a role in making the learning environment culturally competent.

“The adults have to have a conversation–not about what’s wrong with the February 19, 2009 maximize their learning,” Howard explains.

In many schools, that conversation should start by taking stock of relationships and understanding among staff, he added.

“Often, the (support) staff feels like second-class citizens,” Howard said. “There needs to be a culture of respect. You have to develop relationships…If I’m a culturally competent person, people who are around me and who are different will feel respected.”

And, Howard says, there must be some acknowledgement that diversity is not a choice–but how one responds to it is.



Updated: February 19, 2009 6:13 PM