Why Educators Need to Be Taught Cultural Sensitivity

Why Educators Need to Be Taught Cultural Sensitivity

Each year, millions of students, both traditional and non-traditional, pile into colleges and universities to enter the amazing profession of education. From college campuses to online-learning facilities; many are setting out with the vision that they have the power to save the world. They go through their loaded programs filled with mega-amounts of information to help their future students get from point A to point B. They are taught strategies and concepts with the hope they will one day help to make America’s students College and Career Ready. This over-arching goal is one that is believed to promote over-all professional preparation, whether it be preparing a student for a vocation or preparing them for higher-learning. Future teachers receive entry into teacher-prep programs, taking courses that will assure they are ready to teach the common core and/or work with students on different learning levels. However, the idea of addressing someone’s cultural differences, which may have the biggest impact on learning, is never even considered.

I was extremely fortunate. For my undergrad years, I went to Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, a private college that makes a point to address diversity, dispositions, and cultural differences. I remember having a professor that looked like Miss Frizzle on the magic school bus. I believe her name was Dr. Staley (it’s been a VERY long time). She taught foundations of elementary reading. She would often tell us, “When you are instructing a child, remember you have no idea what they went through before they walked through the school doors.” How often do we really think about this? Furthermore, even if we thought about it, can you imagine the options? Are you only accustomed to one way? Dr. Kim Boyd would assign us practicum experiences throughout the city of Tulsa to assure we had different experiences with different communities, different races, different socio-economic groups; assuring we had background experiences from diverse educational settings. We spent just as much time discussing the likes and differences of each cultural setting than we did talking about the learning objectives.  At that time, practicum hours were a prerequisite for entering the teacher prep program. Now, many colleges and universities do not have future teachers experiencing practicum/face-to-face experiences in educational settings till 2nd semester of their junior year. Lots of programs allow 85% of instruction online and practicum hours during their senior year. This is way too late! Even if they felt they wanted to change majors based on the practicum experience they received, they are so far along, many wouldn’t due to time and financial commitment to that degree. So not only have they not had many experiences in different settings of teaching, they have had no classroom teaching on understanding cultural differences. Why is this important? Let me give you some recent examples:

  • Student expelled for telling another student to “kill yourself”.
    • Although this sounds harsh, this is a common phrase used by many comedians as a point of embarrassment, not an actual act
    • Student sent to an alternate setting for telling another student “I’m gonna stick you”. Teacher and administration felt this was a threat to stab another student.
      • “Stick” could mean MANY things. In this setting it was a punch. Student said, “If you say one more thing, I will stick you in the face.”
      • Student made to remove head wrap during PE due to it restricting movement
        • Student wore head wrap for cultural/religious beliefs

I could go on and on as many of these are made public and blasted on social media outlets daily. However, there are many other issues that stem from this as well. There are many teachers that leave the profession daily feeling they are not equipped to deal with student differences.  Almost 90 percent of teachers are female, and nearly 80% of all teachers are white. With the vast amount of cultural differences seen within our public schools (race, ethnicity, religion, cultures, money, etc.,), teachers need more insight and experiences than their natural surroundings.  Here are some facts regarding teacher turnover:

  • One-third of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years of their career (Darling-Hammond, 2003)
  • To add to that equation, teacher turnover is 50% higher in schools with a high poverty student population than schools that do not have a high poverty student population (Ingersoll, 2011)
  • Beside the issue of limited experience working with students and other teachers with diverse cultures, working conditions in low socio-economic schools tend to be more difficult than in middle/upper class schools and also carry a heavier workload (Feinman-Nemser, 2003).

Unfortunately, the majority of new teachers in urban areas are put into more difficult teaching situations were cultural competency is most needed.

When we enter a school, often times we make huge assumptions. We assume that all teachers understand the diverse needs of students. We assume all teachers are able to shake off any learned and/or developed stereotypes or misconceptions about race, economic status, disability or culture. We assume our children will be nurtured mentally, physically and emotionally. What is not considered is when a teacher is dealing with behaviors completely unfamiliar to them, hearing conversation and jargon they do not understand, and seeing or being made aware of living conditions they would never imagine, they are blind-sided with a harsh reality they are not prepared for clinically or literally. Teachers are not receiving courses that discuss positive ways to discipline students depending on their cultural environments. Teachers are not often taught how to address students respectfully from different ethnic settings. Very few teachers had intense conversation or clinical experiences focused on the learning styles of students based on race or culture. We have to be aware of the differences and know how to respond to them. Here are some differences seen in education:

  • Welfare children experience 500 affirmatives and 1,100 prohibitions per week, while working class children experience 1,200 affirmatives and 700 prohibitions per week (Hart & Risley, 1995).
  • Children from families in poverty have about 70 percent of the vocabulary as that of the same aged children in working-class families, and only 45 percent of the vocabulary of children from professional families.
  •  In a study using a panel of over 6,000 children matched to their mothers from National Longitudinal Survey of Youth datasets, research implies that for every $1,000 increase in income, math test scores were raised by 2.1 percent and reading test scores by 3.6 percent (Dahl, & Lochner, 2010).

By no means am I saying Cultural Sensitivity would remove these numbers. A lot of times these numbers are created before children are ever old enough to enter a school. I am saying they would help us address student’s differences more adequately.

            One final story,….I use to work at a school called Cooper-Whiteside Elementary School. This was an amazing place to go to work each day. The students were so excited to see you; it literally made your heart warm. There, I started a program called The KING’s Club. It is an acronym for Keeping Inner-city Neighborhood’s Great. We worked with boys, focusing on social skills, problem solving/problem resolution, etiquette and many other areas. One of the teachers of a young man in my program came to me around mid-November of that particular school year very aggravated at a student, ready to give him a stern disciplinary action. She told me day after day he brings his homework to me unfinished. She said it had been going on for the past 2-3 weeks and felt he was just lazy and obstinate. She was tired of talking about it. She wanted something done. I asked how he has done on assessments. She said he has done great, which is why she knows he is just playing her and she is fed-up. I had KING’s Club that day. I told her I would talk to him immediately. We had a great KING’s Club session. I and some dear friends (Monte Hensley, Cornell Shackelford) would make sure all the boys got home safely. That day I purposely took this student and his younger brother home. I told him the concerns of his teacher. He informed me he was doing the best he could. We got to his house and his mom wasn’t there but his older siblings told me she would be home soon. I went in and we began working on his homework together. I noticed a teenage sister putting candles all throughout the house. It was mid November, so after the time change, it would start getting dark before 5:00 PM. I immediately realized why this amazing boy wasn’t finishing his school work. He didn’t have power in his home. I got up and told the kids I would catch their mom tomorrow. I did not want to cause them any embarrassment. The next day I spoke to the teacher. I told her why he was only finishing part of his work. Without power, he could not see to the materials to complete the work adequately. She then became sad and upset. She felt bad for being so hard on him, but then wanted to blame somebody for this child not having lights. She even stated she was going to call social services because no child should have to live like that. That’s when I lost it! I told her the mom is working two/three jobs to provide for 4 children! The kids are always clean. They are well behaved. They had food and the place was pristine. If you want to do something, call someone to help them get lights! This was not a bad mother. This was a poor mother. This was not a bad teacher. This was an uneducated teacher. She could not understand how a child could live in a house without lights. Even more so, she couldn’t fathom living without lights herself, so it had to be “bad”. Well, there are a lot of good people from good families who have had the lights turned off, went without running water, or even ate less than they desired. We have to be equipped as educators to understand and be prepared to educate the whole child despite how different their lives are from ours. We have to be able to listen, even when words are not spoken. We may have to adapt lesson for the needs and challenges of different students. If we are taught how to work with students with complex backgrounds, we won’t pity them, ignore them, or provoke them. We will TEACH them, using variety and choice. We will assure they are given an opportunity to learn they way their mind works. In doing so….. we, the educator, will be more successful and fulfilled for it.





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