Classroom teachers and the school community are a first line defense against inequities in social justice. Children spend a significant portion of their lives in school and involved in activities driven by the school community. Therefore school can be a powerful vector for transmitting the messages and values necessary to raise a generation of adults who are culturally competent and prepared to recalibrate inequities in social justice.
Walker and Riordan teach us that role of the school administration in this effort is not detached from the daily happenings in the classroom. Modeling and projecting the values of the school begins with the administration and moves through the teachers and staff to students, then on to their families and community (2010). This culture may not match precisely the dominant culture of the geographical community or the culture(s) of the teaching staff, and this in fact, is the opportunity to teach a more socially just “correction” if you will. Administration can create the spaces, experiences, and opportunities for teachers and students to recognize their own personal biases and blindspots derived from their cultural identity (Walker & Riordan, 2010). The school can have a community of collaboration and learning from each other, a safe space for challenging debates, diverse representation, and goals for cultural competence for students and teachers directly orchestrated by the leadership of the administration. One of the most direct ways for administration to accomplish this is through creating professional development (PD) opportunities for teachers and staff that open their minds to issues of racism, language, immigration, biases, and civil rights (Finch, 2014). If teachers are not aware of these things, their teaching will reflect only their own unconscious cultural biases, possibly perpetuating inequities in social justice (Foundations of Multicultural Education, 2012).
At my own school in Japan, the administration does an admirable job of recruiting a diverse teaching staff. This is an excellent first step in ensuring students experience a multicultural space at their school. However, issues of culture and unconscious bias are not raised in a formal way (and not usually discussed informally either). Having token diversity misses the reality that one’s individual cultural identity is more than a prominent or dominant cultural membership. Here is a telling quote from an African American teacher in the US:
“Teachers here think I know everything about Black children, but I never grew up in the city and never experienced the difficulties these students have had… Yet, the teachers expect me to have access to every Black student, and I find that really troubling.” (Walker & Riordan, 2010, p. 59)
We would benefit from focused PD such as the Identifying Privilege Activity or Immigration segment from the “Developing Cultural Competence Among School Staff” module in Inquiry to Action Group (Finch, 2014). Our school could do more to learn about inherent cultural biases and how to look beyond ourselves. This is not a criticism, but rather a suggestion to improve what we offer our students. The teachers at our school definitely have hearts open to this effort, but need the time and space allocated for it in order to do a deep dive.
Cultural competence in the classroom requires a teacher to investigate the differences in cultures below the surface (Pratt-Johnson, 2006). Diverse classrooms and schools provide ample opportunity to learn about cultures superficially from the many people representing them in the school community, but that is not enough to be culturally competent. Teachers must understand on a deep level the interaction of language, immigration, national/regional cultures, gender identity, economics/personal finances, and more that collectively create individual cultural identity for students. The size of the task sounds like an insurmountable impossibility, but Pratt-Johnson reminds us that this is a gradual process that rolls out over years of experiences with students, families, and colleagues (2006). In order to take the first steps, teachers can look to this list of six topics of inquiry to become culturally competent classroom leaders:
- Ways of Knowing
- Ways of Solving Problems
- Ways of Communicating Non-Verbally
- Ways of Learning
- Ways of Dealing with Conflict
- Ways of Using Symbols (Pratt-Johnson, 2006)
Globally mobile students in my classroom will bring with them a plethora of cultural conceptions that may or may not be in line with the global, intercultural ideal I would like them acquire. My students are all supposed to be native English speakers or near-native level, but in actuality there is a wide spectrum of English language ability. As the teacher, it is incumbent on me to set the stage for overcoming English language differences and indeed communication differences to open accessibility to my class to all students (Foundations of Multicultural Education, 2012). If I communicate with written English, verbal instruction, body language, peer-to-peer guidance, and beyond, my students will know I am open, supportive, and respectful of their differences by reaching out to them any way they are willing and able to receive the message. This is a key step in developing an inclusive classroom where all are welcome and we learn from each other’s cultures. Just as teachers did during clinical practice to become licensed educators, we can continue to hold ourselves accountable for this through rigorous and regular reflection. InTASC standards require this and Foundations in Multicultural Education suggests this can be accomplished through self-reflection, video recording, and peer observations (2012). From my own experience, video recording is the best tool for me to see the brutal truth objectively. If I cannot assess my own teaching by having the hard conversations with myself and my video evidence, how can I tackle the hard conversations of racism, classism, gender discrimination, and others in the classroom that are required to be a culturally competent fighter for social justice (Pollock, 2012) (Ladson-Billings, 2015)?
Being a teacher in the classroom is a great honor and a calling I am happy to fulfill. It also comes with great responsibility as school is such an all-encompassing institution in a child’s life all the way through adulthood. Family and church also work in this same all-encompassing space to influence a person’s individual cultural profile. At my school, families are heavily involved in the daily operations of the school and discussion of religion is welcomed. In full disclosure, it is a Catholic school, but all religions are welcome and mingle harmoniously in the curriculum and discourse among community members; it is not a subject we shy away from. My students’ parents are a window into this side of my students’ cultural composition. We know classroom teachers must be open to input from families and through whatever modality the parents are willing to communicate (Foundations of Multicultural Education, 2012). My relationship with the parents can make or break my effort to conduct a multicultural classroom environment.
I have attempted here to share thoughts on how critical teachers and the school are in establishing the groundwork for a respectful and equal multicultural, global world. None of us is working or living in a vacuum. The interactions and active engagement of all the cultural resources available to us must be leveraged for success in improving cultural competence today and in reaching social justice tomorrow.
Finch, Avery. Ed. (2014, March/April). Inquiry to Action Group: Social Justice Educators on a Path to Cultural Relevancy, http://tagphilly.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Developing-Cultural-Competency-Among-School-Staff.pdf
Foundations of Multicultural Education (2012).
Ladson-Billings, G. (2015). Critical Race Theory and Education. Lecture presented in University of North Carolina, Asheville. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=katwPTn-nhE
Pratt-Johnson, Yvonne. (2006, February). Communicating Cross-Culturally: What Teachers Should Know. The Internet TESL Journal, 12(2), http://iteslj.org/Articles/Pratt-Johnson-CrossCultural.html
Pollock, Mica. (2012, March) Adopting an Anti-Racist Framework
Walker, A., & Riordan, G. (2010). Leading collective capacity in culturally diverse schools. School Leadership & Management, 30(1), 51-63. doi:10.1080/13632430903509766