3 Critical Cultural Issues of Reaching Students:

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.