Monday, September 2, 2013

Listening to Teachers on Issues of Cultural Understanding in Classrooms

As a trainer of Head Start teachers, I’m used to doing more talking than listening.  Much of what I train on presently is a curriculum I’m helping to develop that reflects the culture and language of the children, whose parents are migrant farmworkers.  While the teachers seem to buy-in during training, I’d seen few changes in their classrooms, i.e. they still looked like typical American plastic preschools. 

During a recent training, I went on a hunch about why their good intentions were not being translated into practice.  Frequently, our classrooms are staffed with a lead who possesses a teaching degree, and an assistant who speaks the language of the children but has less formal training.  Curious if inequities in cultural power were at play, I asked the teachers who were white or African American (and were mostly leads) to reflect on what from their cultures they thought the children should know to successfully acculturate.  I asked the teachers of Latino culture, who were mostly assistants, to think about how to change the planning process so that their knowledge could be included and reflected in the classrooms.

After 20 minutes of intense conversation, the 2 groups sat across from each other and began speaking.  My first realization that their interaction could explode was the visual sight of 3 cultural groups facing off with arms crossed on their chests and a table between them.  Na├»ve but hopeful, I listened carefully to their thoughts. An African American teacher described the pressure of a consequence focused work environment, and the intense responsibility she feels for meeting Head Start requirements.  A Latino teacher spoke of her discomfort with seeing sombreros as the sole representation of her culture on the classroom walls.  One misunderstanding after another revealed itself, with the potential for offense hanging heavily in the air as a group or person realized they were being accused.  Some misunderstandings were culturally based, while others were not.  Fully aware, finally, of what I had set in motion, I affirmed the strength of the emotions in the room and the courage they were displaying in saying what needed to be said.

And then, with one story, they became a school community again.  An African American teacher who now has power (she is a degreed, lead teacher) talked about the shame of being teased as a child for wearing different shoes to school, due to a lack of home electricity that meant dressing in the dark. As she cried, one Latino teacher passed a tissue as another touched her back. Tensions melted into talking through how they could share power, so that their best thoughts – the ones borne from shared past experiences of being a minority, of being excluded, of not being considered – could be brought to the light for the benefit of the children we teach.

- Story from a Board Member