What teachers need to know about multicultural education
**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**
A guest column by Rae Votta
For a brief time, at the inadvisable age of 20, I had a brief stint teaching English and Social Studies in West Philadelphia. I’d never taken a formal education class, nor had I any real aspirations of teaching middle schoolers, but I was part of a bandage-style solution aimed at fixing failing school systems by patching them with inexperienced but optimistic young teachers.
I’m white, and not a single one of my students were white. This is none too surprising, considering the demographics of West Philadelphia, as well as the propensity for college-educated young white adults wishing to “give back” by working in low-income neighborhoods. Despite the fact that there’s a call for nonwhite teachers to work with students of color, which often produces better educational results, 80% of teachers are white—and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. One of the things I learned clearly and quickly during this experience was that there is a gap in the educational standards of what was expected in predominantly white, middle-class, suburban schools versus what urban and low-income schools had available to their students. In addition, the cultures surrounding those students have a massive effect on how the education system works for or against them. Reflecting multiculturalism in the classroom is imperative in our increasingly multicultural society.
For me, teaching was as much of an education on culture as it was a fundamental education for the 13-year-olds I taught. While we worked our way through the common core, we also worked our way through navigating a school system that told them learning Social Studies didn’t require dedicated books. My parents would have stormed the school if I came home telling them I wasn’t given a book for a subject, but not a single one of my students’ parents complained, nor did the students seem concerned. Instead, we worked around it, and my students were adaptable to items I brought in; they became an active part of determining what they were interested in and what we’d learn about under the massive umbrella of “World History.” Instead of falling into the trap of a Eurocentric approach, we decided to mix it up and include Africa, since we didn’t have a book dictating our every move.
For my students, or at least some of them, our brief time together was eye-opening for them about a different world outside of the few blocks they inhabited in Philadelphia. At 13, I had been obsessed with college, and so I thought some of my students might be as well. I brought in magazines about picking the right college and about getting ready for applications in high school. No one had really emphasized this to them before. A group of students who had acknowledged the existence of the colleges in their town thought that maybe they’d be lucky enough to attend one since, as one told me, there was a McDonalds near one. That was when I realized that, in their world, a fast-food joint that’s taken for granted elsewhere was considered almost a luxury, or a neighborhood perk, to these students. By the end of my time teaching, the students had started to learn about out-of-state colleges and realized they could aim for them if they wanted. I sat one high-achieving student down with her mother and explained that she was the smartest girl in her grade, but that kids like her in suburbia were already doing SAT prep and practicing essay writing. I gave her books so she could compete outside of the confines of her community.
There is a call for the opposite of my situation as well—to increase the diversity of teachers for predominantly white schools. After my experiences on both sides of the situation, I cannot agree more. For all my well-meaning suburban teachers, I can’t remember a single one who wasn’t white, and I think that was a disservice to my understanding of the world outside of my bubble—until I was in the “real world” as an adult. Outside of history classes about emancipation and civil rights, no one talked about how racism applies to other areas of education, and no one took stock of the diversity of our source material. No teacher or educational leader had ever led me to believe there were other types of community and culture outside of the one we existed within.
One moment that stands out from my time as a teacher was when I was trying to mitigate the daily fighting that broke out in my classroom. It was a far cry from my middle school education, where fights were few and far between. At first, I tried to bandage the situation and just tell them to stop, assuming that my authority was all that was needed. It wasn’t until one day that I stopped lessons, sat everyone down, and said, “Tell me why this happens” that I understood the cultural issue at play that I’d simply never experienced. My students expressed that they had to stand up for themselves, that their families had instilled a value of not backing down, and with honor on the line the threat of a suspension didn’t matter because dishonor was worse. Knowing this, however, did not stop my students from fighting, and neither did my explanations of how there were different ways to handle conflict. On the other hand, understanding the cultural aspects of the situation gave me new ways to handle such conflicts.
Multicultural diversity in education is not just about what is taught to the students, but who is teaching these students and the interplay between the cultures of the educator and of the students. The more diversity we can infuse into the mix, the better the outcomes for both students and teachers.
Rae Votta is a senior account planner from Prime Access, one of the largest health and wellness marketing agency and is the only full-service advertising and marketing communications company at the intersection of health care and multicultural markets.