Written by Patricia Williams, TE Instructional Coach
As a first year TFA corp member in 2004…I feel very old writing that …teaching in Texas was a culture shock. I grew up in New Jersey, and I went to undergrad in New York; I’m an east coast girl for sure! During my first lunch in Houston, the appetizer was chips and guacamole. In my mind I was thinking, “Where’s the garlic bread and bruschetta?!”
Needless to say, my culture shock lasted well beyond that lunch. I definitely carried my cultural differences into my classroom, and so did the majority of my TFA friends. In my classroom I sometimes struggled to relate to my students. Having grown up in an inner city area, I was able to beat the odds. I looked forward to teaching my kiddos how to do the same. But I grew frustrated with their lack of drive. Some of my teacher-friends from upper middle class backgrounds found it hard to relate to their students as well. We definitely realized that it wasn’t the kids’ fault; it was ours. That lead us to question: How can we increase our cultural awareness to build stronger relationships with our kids and increase student achievement?
If you’re anything like me in my first year, struggling to relate to your students, consider the three strategies below to increase your cultural awareness in order to meet the needs of your students:
1. Embrace your background
Investigate your upbringing. Gary R. Howard, author of You Can’t Teach What You Don’t Know , looks into the mirror of his own racial identity to discover what it means to be a white teacher in a multi-racial school, and discovers that embracing his own background allows him to effectively meet the needs of his students. I think his discovery applies to all teachers who have a different background than the students they serve. This inquiry lead me back to track the challenges I faced when ‘beating the odds.’ I was able to be more understanding when challenging my students to excel.
2. Genuinely invest in your student’s lives
I realized that my students had as much to offer me as I had to offer them. Sadly, it’s easy to assume that in order for our students to succeed they must assimilate to a way of life similar to ours. But isn’t it true that we must assimilate to theirs?
In order to get to know my students, I conducted home visits. I took a few of my students to lunch once a month. I organized a competition that would allow them to each eat lunch with me in my classroom once a week. We had such rich discussions! I asked them about a time when they felt most valued, or who had made the biggest impact on their lives and why. Their answers helped me reach them at a different level during instruction.
3. Plan and execute with your students in mind
A best practice in facilitation is to ‘know your audience.’ Teachers ARE facilitators in their classrooms. Engagement will increase in your class when you plan with your students in mind. Even more importantly, when you are aware of your students’ lives, likes, and dislikes you’re able to plan your lessons more effectively. For example, when I discovered my students favorite pop star, I’d use him as a hook during my next lesson.
After implementing these 3 things the engagement in my classes soared! The use of my students’ right arms changed. Instead of lifting them to cover yawns, they thrust them in to the air to respond to questions. And yup! You guessed it! I love chips and guacamole now! And I still eat garlic bread and bruschetta…when I can find it