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Winter 2003 Vol. 11. No. 2 Focus on Improving Teacher Quality

Theme articles

Teachers must understand, embrace differences

By by Cristina Gutierrez on Nov 26, 2003 11:00 PM

Teachers have to find out what their students are bringing to the classroom.

A bachelor's degree; required education courses; student teaching experience; passing Pennsylvania's Praxis test.

According to state regulations, individuals who meet these requirements are prepared to teach anywhere in the Commonwealth. But are they really prepared to teach in Philadelphia?

In particular, are these teachers aware of Philadelphia's students' diverse backgrounds and willing to learn from and embrace these differences in their classrooms? Do they believe that doing so is critical to student learning? In short, are they committed to multicultural education and to developing themselves as culturally competent teachers?

In too many instances, the answer is no.

For anything meaningful to happen in a classroom, teachers and students must form a community where students feel significant and cared about. And in order to form this community, teachers have to find out what their students are bringing to the classroom and then make it an essential part of the curriculum.

Culture - often defined as a set of values, beliefs, and traditions created and shared by a group-is central to an individual's identity. Teachers and students alike possess their own individual cultural identities, just like everyone else.

A teacher can be an Argentinean immigrant man who teaches art, plays soccer, enjoys wine, is a father, listens to jazz, and collects comics. Or a teacher can be a lesbian woman from North Carolina, who plays guitar, teaches biology, is a vegetarian, and fights for animal rights.

A student can be a Cuban with loving parents, nice home with a yard, two dogs, and a comfortable, safe learning environment. Another student-the eldest and the one responsible for his siblings while mom works a three-to-eleven shift-might live in a single - parent, low - income household with three rooms for seven people.

Students of color are in the majority in the District. Yet they are predominantly taught by White teachers who largely do not understand the causes of inequality and do not question the privileges they are given in society.

I often interact with teachers who are quick to label "problem students" (and sometimes their parents) as lazy, and apathetic. But these same teachers are ignorant of the true history of racism and other forms of discrimination in the United States and how they affect the present situation.

The goal of the Philadelphia School District is to educate and prepare children for the future. But how can this be accomplished without a districtwide corps of culturally competent teachers who are capable of harnessing the potential of their students' collective differences to promote student achievement?

Put simply, it cannot.

The District needs to place more emphasis on promoting authentic multicultural education. Unfortunately, the new Core Curriculum, which District administrators claim is the most multicultural in District history, only superficially highlights the holidays and heroes of particular racial or ethnic groups, which does not help develop culturally competent teaching. Instead, we need to encourage and support teachers' efforts to build upon what students know from their individual and group experiences as a tool to foster student learning.

As a teacher, I invite my students to bring their lives into the classroom by having them express themselves through writing, especially poetry. Through this, my students have given me valuable feedback and information about their lives, which has enabled me to provide better instruction and create a responsive, involved classroom community.

Compassion and an open mind can go a long way in reaching the goals of culturally competent teaching. By simply understanding that everyone is different and by truly valuing these differences, a teacher can build a classroom environment that positively influences our students. It is up to the teacher to create a community that accepts and appreciates students for what they can contribute, not what they lack.

About the Author

Cristina Gutierrez teaches third grade at McKinley Elementary and served on the Notebook's editorial board for this issue.

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