Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Our Students Need Culturally Relevant Education—It Starts With Training Teachers

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From pre-K to high school, the education system in America is white-centered. The content that teachers present to students is always designed with white students in mind. Language arts curricula overrepresent white authors and white main characters, world history lessons are Eurocentric, U.S. history often ignores the accomplishments of and institutional racism faced by Black Americans, and science and math instruction are marked by teachers’ low expectations of Black and Latino students. The teaching in college programs is no different, even in courses training future teachers who will one day educate in diverse classrooms. Students deserve teachers who are equipped to navigate issues of race, socioeconomics, and equality, and as a teacher myself, I can say from experience that it can start in teachers’ training. 

Every teacher remembers that one assignment designed to make us culturally aware of others. For me, it was an assignment for my 300-level multicultural education course where we had to attend a Black church. I laughed out loud when I read it. It was yet one more example where a white professor assumed every student in that education class was white and had never been to a Black church. She introduced the assignment with enthusiasm. She spoke with passion about the Black church, describing it as “lively with great music.” She was attempting to hook her white students, and the assignment made it clear: This lesson wasn’t designed with Black future educators in mind. After class, I introduced myself, the only Black student in the room, to my white diversity professor. I asked her if she still wanted me to complete the assignment. With a warm smile, she told me I could choose anything different from my own experience. I went to a synagogue. 

The education department missed the diversity and inclusion mark. Diversity does not mean centering whiteness and othering everything and everyone else, yet this is what happens in education—at the teacher training level and in our children’s schools. So many of my education courses were geared toward teaching middle-class white women how to “deal with” Black and brown children in urban areas. It was as if they did not expect this young Black woman to become a teacher. It also ignores that diversity includes the complexity of religious, ethnic, economic, and gender diversity. Pedagogy that does not teach diversity as something that is broad and deep fails to prepare all teachers to effectively teach all students. 

Training teachers to be the great white hope for Black and brown students does little to prepare teachers to wrestle with the complex issues of race, ethnicity, poverty, and extreme capitalism they’ll have to navigate in the classroom. It does little to prepare teachers to support students when they are faced with these issues. I grew frustrated sitting in class after class being taught about my lived experience from upper-middle-class white instructors. Teachers grow frustrated sitting in diversity training year after year learning only that people are different. It’s time to move beyond that.

Diversity in Teacher Training 

My teacher training certainly didn’t prepare me to be the only Black educator in a predominately white rural district. Hadn’t I been taught to be the savior of urban Black and brown students? Still, at the time I accepted the job, I believed my undergraduate experience had taught me how to navigate white spaces. When the superintendent asked me in my interview if I would be OK working in this school district as the only Black teacher, I said “yes,” and I thought I would be. I was as ignorant as my well-meaning professor.

My white rural students taught me more about diversity through their lived experiences than I’d learned in college. I met students bathing in creeks with no running water in their homes. I comforted children after their barns burned down. I taught students who proudly wore the Confederate flag. I was not their great white hope nor their Michelle Obama. I came to teach them, and they overcame obstacles to come to school and learn. I found a way to relate to them and still be authentic. That’s where teachers can begin to give students the culturally relevant education they need.

Diversity is more than learning that people are different. It’s learning and celebrating all of our differences. We don’t shy away from our differences because acknowledging them is uncomfortable. We do the work. We find out about our students and we spend time being scholars. We glean knowledge from our special education discourse to shape culturally relevant lessons. Special education professors never allowed education majors to believe that students with disabilities were not all of our students. They taught us the meaning of inclusion and the difference between equity and equality. 

Delivering Culturally Relevant Education

Educators must teach diverse students with inclusion and equity in mind. Culturally relevant teaching aims to make all students feel seen, no matter their identities and experiences. It requires teachers who understand how social factors impact students' learning and who can connect students' backgrounds with the curriculum. The students attending the predominately white schools in the suburbs, the students attending the predominantly Black and Latino schools in the inner city, and the students who attend schools in rural areas that have more cows than people are all of our kids. They will grow up and move around. They will vote on policy, pay taxes, and make a mark on society in one way or another. 

We must dive into our subject areas and discover ways to connect to all our students. Our education system has to be inclusive, and our content knowledge has to include all people. Who are the Indigenous astronomers? What equations did the Black female mathematicians use to get the astronauts to the moon? What happened in Tulsa? What happened at Stonewall? What makes Frida Kahlo’s art so significant? How do we explore the humanity of a writer like Mark Twain who is occasionally racist? What are the stigmas surrounding mental health in the Asian community? Have we discovered the missing BIPOC and LGBTQ content in our content areas? We can’t just be well-meaning educators. We have to be masters of our subject. We have to be well-trained in equity and inclusion. We have to go beyond our favorite color and immerse ourselves in the rainbow of our society. We do the work of scholars. We research articles about diversity and inclusion, then we apply the knowledge we have gained. This is how we develop culturally relevant education for all of our nation’s students.

Alyssa N. Haymore, M.S.Ed, is a dedicated English teacher and a strong single mama to two beautiful girls.

Read more on how to talk to your kids about Black history in Parents.com’s Anti-Racist Curriculum, here. 

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