I stared at my boss with blank eyes as she repeated her question. “How culturally aware are you?” Back then, I was still a principal, and the question had come up in a conversation about hiring, supporting and retaining high quality teachers. I blinked, wondering how this could even be a question. I clearly was a minority, I had lived in another country, my first language is not English, I had experienced racism in the U.S. Wasn’t I the poster child of cultural awareness? “You have a school with 99% minorities; do you want to be successful?” In the moment, I found myself beginning to get defensive; had I not SEEN my students, who they were, what they brought to the table?
Thinking back on that experience, I now realize just how culturally out of tune I was. I was so focused on what I was doing and my own cultural experience, that I didn’t think of why that question might even be important for me to explore – this issue of how cultural differences (regardless of which cultures are represented) can impact people’s experiences in and around education. How every individual that is part of a school community has an attitude and a manner of behaving that is, in part, shaped by our culturally context and cultural identity.
And yes, this includes me. In recent years, I have begun to explore more in depth what cultural awareness means and how I can be more culturally aware in order to better understand my students and teachers with whom I work. After all, if I can’t understand the people I serve, how can I possibly reach them? In exploring this topic, I’ve come to the following conclusion: while culture is quite complex, there are three critical things, particularly for immigrant teens, that we must learn quickly and begin to address if we want to make a difference in a student’s life:
- We must learn about their culture.
- What do you know about the cultural richness and assets of the students in your class beyond stereotypes? What do students value?
- How do students define their culture?
- What is important to them and what is their educational experience? Students who are used to having an adult-driven, seated in rows educational experience might have a hard time adjusting to a collaborative project that involves students debating each others point of views because it goes against a cultural norm that has long been established.
- We learn how to involve their parents and community allies
- What expectations do parents have of teachers and schools?
- Are teachers and schools on the same page around the role of parents in the education of their child?
- Are there additional resource in the community that your families trust?
- We must learn and appreciate how culture impacts learning
- What prior knowledge do students have?
- What are priorities for your students and how will that impact learning and the way students resolve conflicts in the classroom?
- How will your students learn best?
By answering these questions, you can begin to learn more about the students that you serve as well. In the end, every person brings a set of experiences that serves as a lense through which we see the world. This is not a bad thing, but one that makes it more critical that we as teachers make our first job that of being lifelong learners. That is the true key to success.