Several courses in the Teacher Leadership program prompted me to reflect deeply on my personal biases, structural inequalities in our society, inequity in education as a system, and the need for multicultural education in our democracy. Namely Engaging Communities, Leadership in Education, and Culturally Responsive Teaching pushed me to analyze our current public educational system, from hiring to boundary zoning to engagement strategies to curricula, and think about what choices I can make as an educator to mitigate the negative impact of inevitable inequity in schools so that all of my students are set up for success. James A. Banks (1996) argues, “the implementation of multicultural education requires not only curriculum reform but also reform of teaching, planning, and classroom organization” (p. 125).
Through online discussions (Race and religion, Personalizing Cultural Diversity, Access to Education, This I Believe Post), readings, and personal reflection papers (Moral Education Framework, Religion in the Classroom, The Charged Classroom), I had the opportunity to become aware of my personal beliefs on what culturally inclusive teaching looks like, gained a profound understanding of the importance of creating an inclusive learning environment for all students, learned strategies to do so, and pinpointed some action steps for my own improvement. Race, ethnicity, language, gender, and religion are some of the factors I examined throughout my studies. A poem I wrote and author’s note, “It’s Time” , depicts a reflection on culturally responsive teaching based on true events and experiences.
I resonated with statements in Peggy McIntosh’s article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” McIntosh urged me to reflect on my biases and what my racial identity means as she wrote, “many, perhaps most, of our white students in the United States think racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color; they do not see “whiteness” as a racial identity.” It is a privilege to not have to think about my race everyday. While inequality and racial tensions have always been prevalent, “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average,” remaining oblivious to White privilege. Gary Howard corroborates, “the possibility of remaining ignorant of other cultures is a luxury uniquely available to members of any dominant group” (p.326). Reading about white privilege, as a white person, can bring up shame and guilt. Howard argues, “ultimately, guilt must be overcome, along with other negative responses to diversity- for it, too, drains the lifeblood of our people” (329). The blame game only increases negativity and wastes energy that could be spent seeking mutual understanding and respect.
In the elementary school setting, we too often fail to help our students understand racism is very much alive and relevant today. Howard poses that “schools have not done an adequate job” of teaching people how to interact and function amidst diversity (329). Great change is necessary, but happens slowly. Since we can’t wait for the curriculum to change, what can we do NOW in our classrooms to make our human connection prevail?
Judith Pace’s The Charged Classroom discusses academic expectations, discussing controversial topics, and navigating curricular demands as three arenas that cause the classroom to be a place “charged” with friction and potential for democratic education. Our democracy hinges on cooperation and communication between all types of people, and it is our education system’s obligation to teach all students how to be active citizens. This is a tall order. When “people of color [make] up 45% of the U.S student population and only 17% of the teaching force” (Pace, 2015, p. 11), there is serious work to do in educating teachers about racial inequities. Teachers are unprepared to address today’s students needs, and their attention is divided between teaching common core standards, closing the achievement gap, and trying to connect to student interest.
Pace suggests, particularly when working with students of color, to establish a warm, trusting relationship before pushing academic excellence. Fundamental to this relationship is a deep understanding of the student’s cultural background. Pace includes vignettes to show how teachers use verbal and nonverbal communication to either empower students or disengage them. I believe my purpose as an educator is to facilitate young peoples’ self-discovery and identity formation as critical thinkers, so that they can be active members of society.
Religion plays a critical role in one’s personal identity and culture. Too often, the majority religion or culture becomes the “normal,” defining all else as other. Jennifer James and her colleagues argue, if we don’t closely re-examine religion’s not-so-unintentional presence in American public schools, “students are likely to leave with severe misunderstandings about religions and about religion in general, intolerant of different ideas of people who hold them, limited in their willingness or ability to talk across difference, failing to recognize the ways their own beliefs shape their understandings” (James, 2015, p. 36). James poses Christianity is institutionally favored in our public school system, because of the way the school year schedule is organized, how we view “goodness” and morality, and the relationship to knowledge, or belief that knowledge lies with experts rather than with students. If educators are not careful, students may adopt misunderstandings and over-generalizations of religion.
Simone Schweber offers the idea, students’ religious understandings impact their own learning as well, and teachers should recognize and engage students’ religious backgrounds as part of their identity search. However, James uses vignettes to demonstrate how religion can make teachers and students uncomfortable, so it is avoided, which leads to ignorance and fear.
Despite the diversity that comes into our classrooms everyday, we continue to teach in an ethnocentric view. The fear to talk about religion and the acceptance of ignorance passes onto our students. This type of complacency is what leads to oversimplifying and stereotyping religions. According to James (2015), public schools have the potential to teach today’s youth “the difficult art of engaging with diverse others in responsible respectful ways,” especially critical “as adults self-select into increasingly homogeneous communities where they are less likely to engage in cross-cutting talk than ever before” (p. 93).
I think many teachers today are feeling overwhelmed by the diversity in their classrooms. They are unprepared to develop relationships with students from different backgrounds. Teachers have insecurities they need to examine. It’s time we get ahead of the curve, or at least, try to catch up. Especially in the Seattle area, our demographic is changing fast. Teachers need to be supported in these changes with learning opportunities, as Pace mentioned, that set us up for success when we take steps to realize and face the “predicaments and possibilities for democratic teaching.”
Teachers must take the time to learn about their students and get to know their cultural backgrounds. Culture is constantly impacting an educator’s work. American schools are faced with a great challenge to provide effective education for all students, regardless of their economic status, race, language, etc. However, it is also a blessing, or ‘gift,’ that children are given the opportunity to learn acceptance and tolerance of people of different cultures. Educators must become aware of the cultural diversity in their classrooms, otherwise they fail to make space for that diversity to be highlighted and are doing a disservice to students who need to be able to interact harmoniously and productively with people from diverse backgrounds.
Banks, J. (1996). Multicultural education, transformative knowledge, and action: Historical and contemporary perspectives. New York: Teachers College Press.
Howard, G. (1996). Whites in Multicultural Education: Rethinking Our Role. In J. A. Banks (Ed.), Multicultural Education Transformative Knowledge and Action. (pp. 323-334). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
James, J.H., Schweber, S., Kunzman, R., Barton, K.C., & Logan, K. (2015). Religion in the classroom: Dilemmas for democratic education. New York, NY: Routledge.
McIntosh, P. (1989). White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack.
Pace, J. (2015). The charged classroom: Predicaments and possibilities for democratic teaching. New York, NY: Routledge.