American schools are becoming more diverse. A report published in 2019 cites that the white proportion of students in schools actually decreased during a 17-year period beginning in 2000, while the Hispanic and Asian populations increased.
However, just because there are more ethnically diverse students entering the U.S. school system, it doesn’t mean there’s necessarily a higher level of cultural awareness across the board, says Dr. Tasaria Bettis, an education administrator formerly of Dayton, Ohio. For this to happen, it takes a focused effort that comes from the top, he adds. Failing to implement measures to increase cultural awareness can set up many students from different backgrounds to fail.
Creating a Culture of Promoting Cultural Awareness
Instilling cultural sensitivity among students (and even teachers) takes a multi-faceted approach. It’s more than just making students aware that their classmates are from different backgrounds — it’s about understanding how each child is a piece of a cultural mosaic that pupils and educators alike can learn from.
However, since curriculums are typically mandated by individual states (with the help of school administration), the process needs to start at the top, explains Dr. Tasaria Bettis. There must be time and resources set aside to address it, allowing students to collaborate on cultural topics.
The Ohio educator points to an example of a U.S. high school in the west that was seeing low engagement from students, largely because they were disinterested in the core subject matter that did not take cultural awareness into consideration. The solution, explains Dr. Bettis, was to create a training manual for education administrators to better address cultural aspects through “learning stations” and the results were clear: the approach closed the gap and allowed culturally diverse students to feel more connected to the learning material and thus improve their academic success.
Creating Trust Among Educators and Diverse Students
But in order to engage culturally diverse students, education administrators need to build trust with the student body in a genuine way, explains Dr. Tasaria Bettis. This is partly because the majority of teachers in U.S. public schools are white and thus have a related experience and upbringing. This sets up a situation that makes it more difficult for some educators to connect with minority students, but by making a real effort, the gap can be bridged.
Trust starts with acknowledgement: instead of being defensive about cultural awareness gaps in the system, education administrators and educators have to acknowledge there’s a divide. There also has to be acknowledgement that this gap can be negatively impacting some students. But to add to authenticity, school leaders have to help build the cultural awareness of the teachers before passing along instruction to students. That means having important discussions that may have seemed inappropriate beforehand, as well as immersing educators in material that examines their own level of cultural competence without judgment.
Dr. Tasaria Bettis on Taking an Active Approach to Increasing Cultural Sensitivity
The next step is putting it into action. While it’s important for educators to support minority groups to express themselves through diversity-focused initiatives within schools such as Black History Month, some schools have taken it a step further. Equity teams including educators, parents, and students have been created in some districts to have honest conversations about diversity, while also examining disparities such as how many minority students versus white are in gifted programs.
While there can be important changes to curriculum and how teachers are trained to deliver education, it’s important that principals and other school leaders take a leading role in driving the change. While schools are comprised primarily of students, it’s the school administrators that ultimately create the culture and set the stage for culture sensitivity. This can mean encouraging teaching staff to collaborate to help develop cultural and academic standards and some schools are using professional learning communities (PLCs) to help with this process. PLCs are a way of assessing student achievement on an ongoing basis and making adjustments, says Dr. Tasaria Bettis. This means trying new approaches and strategies that serve a broader student population.
Other schools in the country are forming culturally responsive teaching (CRT) teams to help achieve goals. CRT involves forming genuine bonds with students that considers their individuality, as well as developing a curriculum that considers their unique background. These teams are typically made up of education administrators such as principals, but can also have parent input. The approach is also to rethink what students from various backgrounds can bring to the table, while also valuing individual skills without focusing on deficiencies.
CRT also helps build empathy for others’ experiences among students, which goes a long way in creating real cultural sensitivity. CRT is not a set curriculum or a special program — it’s aimed at changing the cultural awareness in a school by including diversity in all aspects of teaching and collaborating.
Teachers are The Key to Bridging the Gap
While state and local education administrators can help open the door to cultural awareness, teachers can help implement sensitivity in the classrooms on a daily basis. This can include specific lessons to learn about different cultures and their impact on the world, but also by being sensitive to any inherent language barriers while possibly providing materials in a student’s first language when necessary. It can also mean a shift from “educator” to “facilitator,” meaning teachers can gauge interest on certain topics from the students and even allow them to present their own unique perspectives or experiences to the classroom.
Cultural Awareness Can Boost Student Outcomes
It’s important to note, says Dr. Tasaria Bettis, that building cultural awareness does not dismiss white people’s history and perspectives. It’s about including other backgrounds as equal partners. He acknowledges it takes systemic change and possibly some courage from education administrators to make this happen. This is because schools are historically resistant to changes.
Even if a particular classroom is not diverse, there should still be an effort to instill cultural awareness among the students. This will start the awareness process and improve cultural sensitivity. Make no mistake, America is becoming more diverse and attitudes about it are changing for the better, so being ready in the classroom can go a long way for student success.
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