When I moved to the U.S. from Ireland back in 1993, I considered myself to be very inclusive and open minded, but the reality was, having lived my whole life in a very homogenous society, I really quite ignorant on the subject of cultural differences. Sure, I had traveled widely throughout Europe and been exposed to other cultures through these travels, but I had never really considered the impacts of people from different races, countries and cultures all living in the same place, utilizing the same resources.
I actually managed to spend fifteen years in America without any proper exposure to another culture. I had friends from different races, countries and cultures, and students from different races, countries and cultures, and I thought that sharing holidays and customs with them nicely rounded out my “diversity portfolio”!
Then in 2010 I decided that it was time for me to get my state teaching certificate. At the end of my training, I had to do a three month teaching internship. At the very last minute, I mean the Thursday before the beginning of Teacher Work Week, my college alerted me to a paperwork problem with my planned placement at a well-to-do, local K-8 charter school, and told me they were scrambling to find me replacement site. The school they found to accept me was a brand new charter is a notoriously rough part of downtown Orlando. I was in the total horrors, but in the spirit of, “everything happens as it should”, I dove in. My three months as an intern in third grade was one of the most challenging teaching experiences of my life. I got to experience what it felt like to be one of an extremely small minority of white people working with an almost entirely black staff and student body (and see, I still don’t know if anyone here will take offence to me saying black instead of African American – things I need to work on). It was a really great perspective to gain. The children couldn’t keep their hands off my skin and hair, and anyone else with blonde hair and white skin who showed up on campus was instantly presumed to be related to me!
The following school year the principal asked me to join the staff and, despite already having a job at a Montessori charter, I decided I needed to dive in a little deeper to the cultural difference thing. Despite having taught in private Montessori schools for fifteen years, this was my first year teaching in the traditional model in a public school. I was a novice, until I found my feet. It was the hardest year of teaching I ever put in, and the most rewarding. I learned that braids can fall out whole, and it’s no big deal (I about collapsed the first time that happened). I learned that some children don’t get fed at the weekend. I learned that all parents, even those who are struggling to keep the lights on in their apartment, can care deeply about their children’s academic progress. I learned that it’s hard to teach children who sleep on a pallet with four siblings. I learned that music is a universally great way to teach young children. I adapted what I did to include lots of movement and music. We made up songs for everything. I really grew as a teacher, and my students grew with me. I employed all the hands on, interactive lessons that I used in private school (having begged an almost complete set of second hand Montessori materials and shelves from Central Florida Montessori schools) and gave my Title 1 children all the same benefits of the techniques I found to work so well with my private school children. At the end of kindergarten year, all but one of my children (who had a DD), were reading at or above grade level, compared to the expectation of 40%. It supported my belief that despite all odds, when given the right tools, all children can learn.
My experience at the Title 1 school made me realize that I had only really been paying lip service to inclusion and understanding cultural differences before. It was so strange to think there were people living in the same city as me, just twenty minutes away from my part of town, who were having an entirely different American experience. I realize that even within races and cultures, we must resist the temptation to generalize. As Chamberlain (2005) says, “[o]ur perceptions of the ways others think and act depend on our cultural perspective, which depends, in part, on our understanding that cultural differences do exist among groups. Equally important is the ability to recognize the vast diversity within cultural groups. Without such a recognition, we run the risk of stereotyping people”. I also realize that it’s not acceptable to be “color blind”. Differences must be acknowledged, discussed and celebrated. I am certainly more culturally aware than I was before, but I still have a long way to go. Not being fully culturally aware organically creates biases; when I am uniformed I am ignorant, and that’s bound to negatively impact my instruction. As I encourage my students to explore other cultures, to be impactful as a teacher I must create opportunities for myself to increase my cultural awareness. At the core, we are all part of the human family, but closer to the surface, we have very varied experiences and ways of doing things; and these differences affect how we are and how we teach, and learn.
Chamberlain, S. P. (2005). Recognizing and Responding to Cultural Differences in the Education of Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners. Intervention In School And Clinic, 40(4), 195-211.