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May 1, 2005
Vol. 47
No. 5

Managing the Multicultural Classroom

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Classroom ManagementEquity
Skillful teachers know that they regularly compete with various outside influences in their students' lives—such as television, Web sites, and video games—and are prepared to deal with them. Occasionally, however, even the most experienced teacher can find herself up against an influence she knows she can't compete with.
Take God, for instance.
"One of my [master's degree] student teachers told me that [an elementary school] pupil tried to share information with another student because at church he had been told that God would be angry with people who didn't share!" says Alison Shook, an assistant professor of education at Albright College in Albright, Pa. "Many minority communities don't focus on individual achievement," she adds. "They focus on collaboration instead."
Cultural differences such as the one Shook describes are an influence teachers must learn to manage in order to promote effective learning environments in their classrooms. For instance, disciplining a student for a perceived infraction can create a cultural rift between the teacher and student if the student feels the teacher does not understand or respect the intention behind the action. If not closed quickly, such a rift can lead to greater misunderstandings that have the potential to poison the teacher's relationship with the student. In extreme cases, such differences can irreparably damage a student's openness to learning.
"Conflicts can arise when 90 percent of teachers are white and a majority of the students are nonwhite," Shook adds. "There are disconnects or misunderstandings between approaches and activity levels that can come up, [so] the best strategy you can employ is simply to prevent problems before they start."

Cultural Sensitivity vs. Individual Identity

Ironically, one of the biggest mistakes new teachers often make stems from their good faith efforts to treat all students equally. "It's a mistake to treat everyone the same," says Richard L. Curwin, coauthor of the ASCD book Discipline with Dignity and a 25-year observer of effective classroom management techniques. "You need to choose what works with each student, not what works with someone else."
Selecting what works for particular students, however, is seldom easy. On one hand, some experts point out that certain ethnicities will often have cultural behaviors that are not always identical or compatible with those of the teacher. "A lot of middle class white [teachers] do not have a great deal of experience working with inner-city black children," says Shook. "There's often a disconnect or misunderstanding between approaches and activity levels," because physical activity and calling out is frequent in many black communities and churches. Reprimanding students for speaking up, she says, in some instances can reflect ignorance of the norm for African American, Hispanic, and other cultures. This can be interpreted as a simple misunderstanding at best or a disrespectful attitude at worst.
If the teacher yells at the student, things deteriorate further, Shook asserts. "It makes children dislike being in the classroom, and it makes them think that they now have to behave according to white, middle class mores."
On the other hand, other experts caution against drawing too many conclusions based simply on a student's ethnicity. "Knowing about a culture is important, but it doesn't help you know anything about an individual child," Curwin cautions. "You may have research that says black children may be louder than others, but what does that tell you about that particular child in your classroom who's being loud?"

Rewarding Relationships

This dichotomy of balancing cultural expectations with individual learning styles presents teachers with a difficult challenge: Given such conflicting advice, how does one best reach students to help them learn?
"To boil things down, you need to create relationships," says Allen Mendler, president of Discipline Associates, an educational consulting firm in Rochester, N.Y., and author of the book Just in Time: Powerful Strategies to Promote Positive Behavior. "You have classrooms full of different students, both culturally and in terms of learning styles, so how do you reach out to all of them? How do you achieve those high standards in a differentiated classroom while addressing multiple intelligences in an inclusive environment? You do it by building a community."
Building that community requires thinking of students not as members of particular groups but as individuals, each with his or her own distinct learning style. In fact, making hasty judgments based on perceived cultural similarities can actually have disastrous repercussions, however well-intentioned such perceptions and judgments might be. "I visited one classroom where the teacher thought that because certain students were from certain groups they would get along," says Alfred Arth, professor of education at the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. "The teacher was proud to be putting certain groups together and had grouped one set because the students were all from Vietnam," he says. "But what the teacher didn't realize was that some of the students were from South Vietnam and some were from North Vietnam."
"A lot of times our emphasis on cultural differences brings us to the point where educators become too worried about being politically correct and do not confront inappropriate behavior because they fear being called on the carpet," Mendler says. "Having an awareness of how one learns and being sensitive culturally to what fits is helpful and useful, but too often educators get overly concerned about responding in culturally sensitive ways as opposed to humanly sensitive ways."

Fearing Labels

The fear of not being perceived as culturally sensitive is not uncommon, according to sources. "Some teachers are afraid to confront minority students if they [themselves] are not a minority because they fear misperception," says Curwin. "They don't want to be accused of being racist."
If a student makes an accusation following a disciplinary action, experts caution against reacting with hostility. Instead, they encourage using the student's charge as a means for opening a dialogue with the student. "There's always the possibility that the student may be right in accusing you of something you're not aware of," he adds.
Mendler, for instance, had just such an experience. "A number of years ago, an African American woman approached me after I gave a presentation and told me I was being racist," he says. When he asked her why she thought that, the woman pointed out that in the demonstration Mendler had given, all the role-playing for good students had been done by white audience members while the roles for problem students had been done by black ones. The realization floored him. "I had no idea I had done that," he said. "I did not intend to do such a thing, but that was how I had come across. I thanked her for pointing that out to me, and I became more sensitive to these things as a result."
The key is not to seek to avoid conflict, experts say, because to some extent conflict is inevitable in any relationship between people. Rather, they argue, the successful strategy involves being open to listening to students, parents, and others and using discussions as a way to build bridges for understanding. "I once had a principal tell me that I couldn't understand my kids because I had not grown up where they did," says Kathleen Wheeler, associate professor of education at York College in York, Neb. "I remember getting so mad at him, but he was right. I had not experienced what they did from birth. I couldn't know what they had gone through growing up where they did. But I learned to ask them what I needed to know and sought ways for us to work together to learn more about each other."

The Importance of Differences

This openness to learning about one's students means recognizing that teaching methods vary with each individual. It takes time for the student and teacher to understand and learn from each other.
In Wheeler's case, she learned the importance of knowing her students during her first teaching assignment at an urban school in Memphis, Tenn. "The 5th grade teachers were actually taking bets on whether I would stay," she recalls. "But I was willing to learn from my students. I asked them to tell me what I needed to know to work with them more effectively."
Above all, successful classroom management requires being able to change course to meet the needs of the learner. "You need to know what makes your students tick by interacting with them and their parents to find the right strategies and procedures that work," says Arth. "You also have to care about what you're doing—because the bottom line is that the teacher makes the difference."

John Franklin is a contributor to ASCD publications.

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