Michigan Education Association

The need to understand diverse populations is increasingly urgent

Demographic shifts make it important that we learn to effectively interact with a new mix of students, their families and even our colleagues.

DemographicsClassrooms today don’t look the same as they did a decade or even a few years ago.

Major demographic shifts have led to increasing numbers of diverse students—children whose skin color, religion, language, family income, ability, sexual orientation—may be different from the student body of the past.

And the experiences that each child brings to school are different than the students who came before them. Our understanding of what culture is—and what it takes to understand the experiences of people—is changing as well.

Where “diversity” once referred largely to issues of gender or race, it is now important to extend that terminology to refer to the myriad ways that students are unique. It’s about understanding, appreciating, valuing and respecting the things that make us different from one another—as well as those attributes that we have in common.

“Being aware is one thing,” says Raymond Terrell, special assistant to the dean for diversity issues at Miami University in Ohio, a respected author on the topic of cultural proficiency. “Being culturally proficient is what we call the salt for nirvana. That’s the place where we will become so good at being able to interact effectively that we can teach others how to do it, too. Nobody I know is there yet. It’s a constant journey.”

Improving teacher preparation

Cultural and social diversity isn’t new. But the need to understand diverse populations—your students, their families, even your colleagues—is increasingly urgent.

State and federal laws, for example, require schools to focus on persistent achievement gaps between children of color, children in poverty and other student groups.

Also, some say that the need to effectively address cross-cultural differences was less of an issue when classrooms were more homogenous and teachers and students shared common cultural traits. While today’s classroom—whether in urban, rural or suburban settings—is more diverse than ever before, the majority of teachers continue to come from middle class, European American backgrounds.

Part of Terrell’s work, indeed, is focused on improving teacher preparation to help future educators.

Race is just one example. In Michigan, nearly one-third of students represent various minority groups. Almost 90 percent of teachers are white, according to federal data.

Begin conversations

Yet, even as schools must be more effective at addressing varying needs of students, there is little direction about how to do this from either the state or federal levels. Largely, schools are left to their own devices to address specific needs.

That local conversation is probably the best place to begin the transformation toward cultural competence. Terrell advises schools to begin with a “coalition of the willing,” people who are genuinely interested in making a positive difference—and who want to learn how they can increase their personal effectiveness with students.

“Take the elephant out of the closet and begin talking about it,” Terrell says. “That’s how people will begin to grow.”

Talking about what culture is and how it impacts student performance, as well as the work of teachers or school support staff, will help address shortcomings.

Building relationships and rapport with colleagues, students and families is integral to understanding the role that culture plays in student performance and school success.

Getting a ‘head start’

In the Carman-Ainsworth school dis-trict in Flint, discussions surface about the role that culture plays in student and staff work in the Head Start program. Rita Vater-Darnton, a retired teacher who now coaches staff in several districts, works with a classroom liaison at Carman-Ainsworth’s Fenton Lawn campus to understand culture.

On a recent morning, Vater-Darnton worked with Michelle LaRock Johnson to incorporate cultural elements into a class-room lesson. The morning’s focus was to teach 4-year-olds about Mexican heritage through story, song and food.

Vater-Darnton recounts her initial visits to some of the schools where she coaches, when she noticed few books depicting men as role models in the home, especially in books targeting African-American children.

“It’s extremely important for children to see positive role models—both men and women,” says Vater-Darnton.

Understanding families

Johnson, whose three children attended the Head Start program where she now works, says she and her colleagues work hard to understand the families and experiences of their students. One strategy plays out as they recruit students each year to attend the program—staff goes door-to-door throughout the district. In addition, home visits are scheduled to meet with the families.

“We get a good idea of where our kids are from,” Johnson says.

Cultural competency isn’t an issue just for staff who work in K-12 schools. Those in higher education must develop a keen understanding of the role of culture, too.

Donna Searight, who works as an administrative secretary for the mechanical engineering department at Oakland University, says she was challenged when she started her job assignment six years ago.

When she began, her biggest obstacles were understanding different accents and her own preconceived notions about other cultures, notably her own perception of how men from some other countries treat women.

Over the past six years, the respect and kindness of her colleagues and the students have encouraged her to work toward a personal goal of understanding others.

Respecting differences

“To me, cultural competency requires respect for differences and a willingness to be open-minded,” Searight says. “…Despite cultural differences, if you were to visit my department, you’d find a group of hardworking faculty and staff who respect and work well with one another. The cultural differences that do exist only bring variety to this group of professionals.”

Despite gains by some individuals and districts, much work remains, Terrell says.

“Most of us still don’t know very much about people who are different,” he said. “There’s a lot of cultural ignorance.”

Much of that ignorance is unintended, he adds, due to a lack of real understanding. Some may criticize cultural competency efforts, but usually negative remarks are due to a lack of knowledge about what it really is, Terrell says.

Diversity is sometimes viewed negatively by those who believe that all who live in America should adopt the same language or customs, a perspective that fails to make room for those who have different values.

However, striving for cultural competence can provide lessons about one of American’s core democratic values.

Making strides toward understanding

Every December at Troy’s Barnard Elementary School, fourth-graders study their family lineage, cultures around the world, and winter holidays celebrated in different cultures.

A highlight of the unit is an international fashion show in which students represent their family heritage by wearing their native attire. This past December, more than 20 students in costumes from all around the world paraded down a lighted runway as fellow students announced them by giving specific information about their clothing and the significance to their culture.

“This multicultural unit pro-vides a multitude of learning opportunities for our students,” said teacher Debbie Rosenman. “They discover more about their own families and gain an appreciation of the cultures of their fellow classmates.

“The entire experience strongly supports the core democratic value of diversity as students come to understand that the strength of our country is in the many people who make up our American citizenry.”


Updated: February 19, 2009 6:15 PM