Standard 9 Cultural Sensitivity:
Establishes a culturally inclusive learning climate that facilitates academic engagement and success for all students.
This class proved to be one of the more challenging of my M. Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction program, not because of any inherent difficulty with my understanding of content or concepts but due more to a feeling of dissonance between my professional context and the American-centric context of the course. I have made a career of working with multiple nationalities, both students and fellow teachers, in many regions of the world: Egypt, Mongolia, Bolivia, Indonesia and soon, Africa. While I have taught in the US, both as an instructional assistant and as a middle school social studies teacher, the crux of my experience has been within the realm of the private, international world. Ironically, as an international teacher living in developing countries, I am the minority who must negotiate the majority culture complete with personally experiencing inequity and racial and gender discrimination. Yet despite navigating inequity in my daily life, I do not work in schools where students are subject to overt or covert racial tension and inequity, though admittedly there is a vast divide between students that attend private international schools and the population at large. Regardless, within the confines of the school walls cultural responsiveness is the crux of being an effective international educator and the key to continued employment.
This course further solidified many of the enduring understandings I have gained from previous courses and my experiences working in international schools; these are some of my enduring understandings around inequity, racism and cultural responsiveness.
Hand-in-hand with realizing that racism is a relatively recent social construct is an acknowledgement that changing deeply engrained prejudice and inequity takes deliberate effort, and time. In the article, A Reluctant but Persistent Warrior: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Early Civil Rights Movement, Allida Black details the overt and subtle support that Eleanor Roosevelt engaged both as first lady and in her later years. While Roosevelt was willing to use her position as First Lady, Black (1996) notes that she was simultaneously constrained; “The challenge Eleanor Roosevelt confronted on a daily basis from 1932 to 1945 was how to use her influence and her clout to the maximum, how to use her power in her own right” (p. 244). Many of Roosevelt’s actions were public in nature such as keynote speeches or symbolic resignation from national organizations (like the Daughters of the American Revolution), opening her to criticism. Eleanor Roosevelt understood that “great change comes slowly” (Roosevelt to Murray, 1939 as quoted in Black, 1996).
In his article Whites in Multicultural Education: Rethinking Our Role author Gary Howard acknowledges the reality that a changing demographic, one that necessitates a shift in hegemonic power from a system historically dominated by Euro Americans to one that is multicultural in nature, discomfits many White Americans: “Some White Americans resist the multicultural movement today because they feel that their own history of suffering from prejudice and discrimination has not been adequately addressed” (p. 325). Howard’s section titled Responses That Heal explores the transformative power of honesty, humility and respect as necessary components during the transition from a dominant White hegemony to brokering a more multicultural distribution of power that moves beyond identification as “the oppressor” and the “oppressed”. A fundamental shift has occurred in America from a nation that was largely dominated by deeply held racist and prejudiced beliefs towards a nation that is slowly moving towards inclusion and a redefining of power. For Americans with the most at stake, the process must seem mercurially slow while for those reluctant (or resistant) to change, the pace has been astoundingly fast; we can all agree that the work is far from over.
One of the keys to understanding the pervasiveness of racism and inequity in American society is an understanding of cultural hegemony which is the antithesis of multiculturalism. Hegemony is power or dominance of thought, political power and knowledge. When we acknowledge that “Knowledge is both subjective and objective” and that “facts” are indeed “…subject to multiple interpretations and can be analyzed from diverse perspective” (Banks, 1996, p. 64) we are able to understand the dissonance experienced by minority populations and the impact that this dissonance has on achievement, social mobility and political power. Positionality is another important concept to understanding when talking about the subjective nature of knowledge. When we talk about someone’s positionality, say an author, we’re talking about all the personal and group identifiers that color their perspective of the world, and hence, their version of knowledge.
Banks (1991) highlights this interplay between knowledge and positionally, contending that knowledge is a hegemonic (read: dominant) construct “…masquerading as totally objective” (p. 65). and the influence that a meaning-maker’s positionality has on knowledge construction is profound. Identifying upfront one’s positionality lends transparency to the multicultural movement. Banks (1996) tells use that although they were largely ignored by mainstream white scholars, early African American scholars approached their work with a stringent eye towards objectivity and “…tried to avoid any hint that their works were value-laden, positional, or propagandist” (p. 33) yet multicultural education has evolved today to be a movement that has at its’ heart the voices of ethnically diverse scholars of color who lend their perspective to theory making, research, and practice. As educators, we are all effected by multiculturalism in some way regardless of our ethnic, socioeconomic, gender or exceptionality. We must honor and encourage the involvement of all students (and teachers) in multiculturalism in a way that is inclusive yet honors the perspective of primary stakeholders.
This year I am working as part of the administrative team at my school as I finish the Curriculum and Instruction program at SPU and pursue my principal’s certification. My current position at an international school in Indonesia has given me unparalleled access to Board meetings and the day-to-day decision making negotiations that come with running a school. There are many problems at my current school that the administrative team has been working to change; governance structure, resourcing, transparent communication, teacher retention and a history of low academic achievement. My school is owned by a large property development company run by predominately Chinese-Indonesian ethnic minorities that have no previous experience running a school. One of the challenges this year has been in the realm of overt racist hiring and student recruiting practices by the parent company. Specifically, teacher applicants of Chinese, Indian and Filipino [amongst others] ethnicity are paid less and offered lower benefits than teacher candidates from other countries. When questioned vehemently about this practice by the Head of School during a meeting I attended, the Business Manager simply stated that the “market” for these nationalities was lower than teachers from other countries, end of discussion.
I find it fascinating that different social and national contexts breed different forms of racism and inequity that turn the typical white-dominant framework inside out. Henry Yu’s essay Constructing the “Oriental Problem” in American Thought, 1920-1960 (1996) tells a familiar tale of alienation, prejudice and blatant racism towards the “Oriental” in American history. While Yu maintains ethnic Asians are redefining their identity by rejecting “Oriental” as a classification, white America continues to delineate between the Occident and the Orient as exotic, different and “The Other”. One way ethnic Asians resist this pigeon holing of their identity as exotic is through a reframing of group identity as Asian American: “Considering oneself as Asian American is a different intellectual, social and political experience from thinking of oneself as an “Oriental,” but the changed definition still existed, and exists, within a world in which Asians are considered different and somehow exotic” (p. 173). How ironic that in one context [Indonesia] my ethnic Chinese-Indonesian co-worker blatantly engages in discrimination yet if she was in a different context [America] the likelihood of her experiencing discrimination from the dominant white-hegemony is high.
I think it is important to remember that inequality and dominant culture hegemony impact students in ways that transcend skin color and ethnic origin; social class is another categorization that separates and drives inequity. This point was driven home in reading in Multicultural education, transformative knowledge, and action: Historical and contemporary perspectives. Rather than focusing primarily on race as the sole determinant in a students’ success Allison David, as noted in Hillis (1996) that “people who come from a culture or social class that is different from the mainstream will tend to be viewed as unsuccessful and lacking in academic potential” (p. 121). In other words, group experience at the socioeconomic level is as much of an advantage or hindrance as cultural experiences due to race. This perspective has impacted multicultural educational theory through a call for curriculum reform that is broadened to better meet the needs of students: “not just to incorporate ethnic content but also to help students understand the ways in which knowledge is constructed” (p. 122) in addition to addressing evaluation practices that more accurately measure cognitive ability. If we truly believe that “Education is what prepares children, rich or poor, to go as far as their ability and initiative allow, to achieve liberty, or freedom in the positive sense, where they’re actually equipped to “seize the day” (Mvududu, 2013) then we must ensure that cultural responsiveness transcends surface features such as race and ethnicity to include all of our students.
My favorite assignment during this course was writing a critical autobiography exploring my personal cultural history. This was my opportunity to reflectively analyze my personal identity as grounded in my self-identified cultural and socioeconomic background. I examined cultures and identify groups that I have had experience with and discussed groups that were less familiar to me. Through the writing of my autobiography, I was gained a deeper understanding of how my identity and experiences color my humanity. As I looked hard at where I come from and what I’ve achieved despite some considerable obstacles, I have gained a deeper understanding of what motivates me as a teacher, and how this impacts my instruction. Though my final document length is admittedly beyond the scope of the assignment parameters [I wrote too much] I am okay that I received a reduced grade because I could not and would not change the telling of my story to meet an arbitrary requirement. This paper represents who I am and why and that is not something that can be easily quantified.
In my own practice as an educator, I embody a set of beliefs about culturally responsive teaching that I believe begins with meeting students, parents and colleagues on an individual level rather than dichotomizing these interactions between myself and “the other”. As Cuban points out as included in Hillis (1996), “…curriculum reform without more fundamental restructuring of the school will result in classrooms that are not fundamentally changed. Most teacher will continue to teach in traditional ways” (p. 125). I believe that the goal of multicultural education should not about political correctness or incorporating ethnic content into the curriculum but should be more deeply concerned with empowering students by teaching them to be knowledge makers themselves as they come to realize that knowledge is a social construct and that they can and should be involved in its construction.
This is a link to a response paper that I wrote articulating what being a culturally responsive teacher looks like in my own practice. I believe that I have work to do around empowering my students to become active knowledge makers rather than passive recipients, but this is a start in the right direction of critical thought and application.
This is a link to my final project for this course where I reviewed the historical figures and events from my reading and writing during class. I explore ways that I can apply some of my knowledge in my professional life and become a more culturally responsive educator.
Despite feeling that some of the course objectives and goals were context-specific I appreciated the opportunity to take a deeper look at the historical roots, movements and personalities that have shaped the multicultural movement to address cultural responsiveness in teaching. Although I am not teaching in American schools, I am still a product of an American education and therefore influenced by the hegemonic structures and systems that have historically marginalized American students through there school years and beyond. Further, while racism and inequity is not a historically systemic presence in international schools [that I’ve been] the need to be responsive to student needs based on an awareness of the impact that culture has on learning cannot be highlighted enough. Finally, while I have not perceived overt racism and inequity occurring in my schools, I recognize that I simply may not be capable of seeing the subtle yet pervasive force of inequity; being open to the possibility that I may not recognize cultural disfunction and inequity when it occurs is a key to being a culturally responsive educator.
Banks, J. A. (1996). The African American Roots of Multicultural Education. In James A. Bank (Ed.), Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge & Action (pp. 30-45). New York:Teachers College Press.
Banks, J. A. (Ed.). 1996. Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge, and Action: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. New York:Teachers College Press.
Black, A. M. (1996). A Reluctant but persistent warrior: Eleanor Roosevelt and the early civil rights movement. In James A. Bank (Ed.), Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge & Action (pp. 156-175). New York: Teachers College Press.
Hillis, Michael R. (1996). Allison Davis and the Study of Race, Social Class, and Schooling. In James A. Bank (Ed.), Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge & Action (pp. 64-87). New York:Teachers College Press.
Howard, Gary. (1996). Whites in Multicultural Education: Rethinking Our Role. (Ed.), Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge & Action (pp. 323-333). New York:Teachers College Press.
Mvududu, N. (Producer). (n.d.). Module 04: The twin pillars of justice and caring. Podcast retrieved from https://connect.spu.edu/p52679026/
Yu, Henry (1996). Constructing the “Oriental Problem” in American Thought, 1920-1960. In James A. Bank (Ed.), Multicultural Education, Transformative Knowledge & Action (pp. 156-175). New York:Teachers College Press.