I was talking to a friend last week, and he told me a story about his 8-year old daughter. He had been called in for a conference with the teacher, because the teacher was concerned that Kayla [not her real name] was doing so well on written math tests, but was failing her verbal tests. My friend asked for an example. The teacher asked Kayla, “If you have a quarter, and you buy a pencil at the school bookstore for 10 cents, how much change should you get back?” Kayla’s answer? “None.” My friend was perplexed, and called Kayla over. He repeated the question for Kayla, and said, “Why did you answer that you shouldn’t get any change back?” Kayla responded, “Well, Daddy, it’s only 15 cents back, so I thought I’d tell them to just keep the change like you do when we go out to a restaurant. Also, why would I buy a pencil at the school bookstore for 10 cents when I can go to Target and get them for 5 cents?” Needless to say, the teacher was quite surprised at this answer. She had not expected such a complex thought pattern from an 8-year old. I wonder if, perhaps, the teacher was also unconsciously influenced by her beliefs about girls and math, or even, as Kayla is African American and the teacher is white, her expectations for the African American students in her class.
Classroom demographics are changing rapidly. As a national average, the 2009-10 school year was the first year there was a non-majority white kindergarten class, and different areas around the country have been experiencing this demographic shift for years. At the same time, roughly 80% of American teachers are white, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, and 42 % of our public schools have no teachers of color (National Education Association). Students in teacher education are often given only one class in multicultural education, a class that often focuses primarily on gender differences, and where there is not a lot of practical advice on flexing teaching skills to meet the differing needs of children from many different cultures. The changing demographics and lack of training teachers have around culture only contribute to the education crisis we already face in the U.S.
Cross-cultural competence is a key skill for teachers in the classroom, at any level. Teachers need to understand the cultures of their students in order to keep children engaged in education and provide a relevant, quality education for all students. They need to be able to flex their styles, see things from different points of view, and understand their own biases. Cross-cultural competence helps teachers develop culturally relevant teaching that engages and motivates students by making connections for them in a context they can understand, and it can help them to engage students’ parents, members of the community, and other teachers, staff and administration. This critical skill needs to be demanded of our teachers, administration, and staff, for our students to succeed.