A sixth-grade teacher in New York City looks over her new class roster and sees that half her students have Asian names. "Good," she says, smiling to herself, "a smart class at last." Across the country, a fourth-grade teacher planning a sleep-over field trip is puzzled when immigrant parents from El Salvador and Nicaragua refuse to let their children attend. Through an interpreter, she soon discovers these families — survivors of terror in their native countries —are afraid to send their children away overnight to an unfamiliar place.

As America's classrooms become increasingly diverse, many teachers face a culture gap that can hinder positive relationships with students and their families. In my work as a diversity trainer in schools, I help teachers begin bridging the gap by first taking a close look at their own assumptions and then finding new ways to reach out to those who are different. In this article, you'll find the following:


Self-Quiz: What Are Your Assumptions?

Ask Yourself . . .

  • What are the different cultures in my school? (Include categories such as various ethnic groups, students with disabilities, new immigrants, residents of public housing, and any other relevant groupings.)
  • What characteristics first come to mind when I think of each group?
  • Where did these impressions come from? (Peers, family, media, religion, etc.) How reliable are these sources?
  • How do I treat people based on these impressions?
  • Can I remember a time when someone made assumptions about me based on a group I belong to? How did it make me feel?

Where Do Biases Begin?
How we react to people from different backgrounds is influenced by many factors:

  1. Our own personal experiences with people from that background.
  2. What we've heard about people from this background from our families, peers, the media, popular culture, school, religious institutions, and so on.
  3. Whether we see ourselves as sharing any values, goals, and ways of doing things with people of this background.
  4. Whether people from this background have any control over the things that make them different from us.
  5. How much power we believe people of this background have in our society and any laws or special programs we know about that affect how people of this background are treated.


How Culture Affects Behavior

  1. Speaking Up: Sociologists draw a distinction between high-context societies in which there are many rules and people say less, and low context societies that depend on explicit verbal messages.
  2. Tracking Time: There are also different cultural takes on time: monochronic, meaning that people do one thing at a time and adhere to schedules, and polychronic, in which people do several things at a time, put interpersonal needs over schedules, and may view time as an invasion of self.
  3. Physical Self: Culture shapes the kinds of gestures we use — for example, beckoning someone is offensive in some cultures — and the amount of personal space we need to feel comfortable.
  4. Personal Interaction: Importantly for teachers, our cultures also contribute to how we view cooperation, competition, and discipline.


How to Build a Buffer Against Bias

  • Be aware of your assumptions.
    1. We're all biased in one way or another. The key is to notice when you are making a judgment — positive or negative — about a child or parent, and then figure out what the judgment is based upon. In my workshops I always have teachers ask themselves the questions in the self-quiz. Like many of the teachers I work with, you may be surprised at your own answers.
    2. Invite an objective outsider to observe you in your classroom. Teachers have been shocked yet grateful when I have given them feedback about their behavior in the classroom. You may suggest that the principal hire a professional to observe each teacher in the school.
  • Be aware of cultural differences.
    1. Everything we do — regarding time, personal space, body language, voice volume, small talk, and so on — is shaped by our culture. Most of the participants in my workshops named eye contact as the most important feature in communication. Yet people from many cultures, including some Asians, Native Americans, Africans, and Hispanics/Latinos, don't make eye contact like Caucasian Americans do — in some cultures, in fact, making eye contact is considered an insult.
    2. You can learn a lot about other cultures from your coworkers. Organize an after-school gathering for teachers and other school staff to bring in a favorite dish from their culture and to share cultural characteristics.
  • Keep every student in mind.
    1. Try to be sensitive to the cultural shock that new students experience. According to ESL teacher Marge Kaplan from Roseville School District in St. Paul, Minnesota, there is a cycle children often go through in any new setting. At first they are excited. Then reality sinks in: They may feel stupid, lonely, and depressed. This can last anywhere from six weeks to three months or more. Most of these students will eventually learn to accept and feel comfortable in their new situation.
    2. It helps to be direct and deal with student biases right away. One kindergarten teacher relayed the story of Melissa, who showed her new purse to the class during show-and-tell. She then innocently said that on the way to school her mother made her walk faster when an African-American man was walking behind them, because her mother was afraid he might try to steal the purse. In a situation like this, I recommend asking the child why her mother might have felt that way, and then launching a class discussion about how people who steal things come in many colors and why it is a mistake to judge people by their outer appearance.
    3. When you create different standards for different groups, you do a disservice to everyone. Establish expectations and clearly communicate them — that way, no one will be made to feel second-rate or superior.
    4. Familiarize yourself with all the holidays and traditions your students celebrate. Record important dates on a yearlong calendar and check it before you schedule special events. Recently, a high school held its first Diversity Day, but it was scheduled during Passover, so some of the Jewish students could not partake of the food. An event intended to promote diversity unfortunately resulted in hurt feelings.
    5. Encourage students to be honest about their own fears and misconceptions. One Hmong boy told his teacher of the stories he heard before coming to America. He heard that Americans get to be big by eating Hmongs and that blacks send Hmongs to Thailand as canned fish. Needless to say, once the fears were dispelled, he felt much more comfortable in school.
    6. Make sure your classroom reflects diversity. Take a quick inventory. Do the pictures on your walls include a variety of cultures? Do you have a multicultural curriculum? Little changes can make a big difference, and, if necessary, you can get grants for larger efforts. One school got a grant to open up a Family Resource Center where parents could learn about the school and community and share information about their own cultures.
    7. When in doubt about the appropriateness of certain materials, consult others. Think about forming a committee of parent volunteers to evaluate authenticity in questionable material.


How to Develop Positive Communication With Parents

  1. Schools differ from culture to culture, as do parents' conceptions of the function of the school and the teacher. Before the school year begins, you might put together a newsletter describing: the benefits of school, the opportunities that are available, what you expect of the students and parents, how the school operates, and how parents can get in touch with you if they have any problems or questions. Have volunteers translate the newsletter into the necessary languages.
  2. Establish rapport with parents. Encourage them to share about their cultures and experiences with you. They will feel more respected, and will be more open to hearing about what you have to say. It is difficult for some parents to hear criticism of their children, so it will be easier to discuss a child when trust has been built.
  3. Let parents know that you care about their child, and suggest ways that they can help their child succeed in school. Demonstrate to the parents that a good education can make a difference in their child's life by citing examples of those who came from similar experiences and backgrounds and have been successful in America.
  4. Be consistent and honest. Teachers have told me that parents from certain cultures can be particularly unforgiving if they feel betrayed. It is often harder to reestablish trust after it's been damaged than to build it the first time.
  5. Help parents locate community resources. They may be keeping their child out of school to baby-sit or because they don't have appropriate clothing.
  6. Plan activities such as performances and parties to bring parents into the school. Pam, a fourth-grade teacher, had a problem getting some of the parents to attend open houses even when the school provided transportation. The problem was solved when the school provided food and the children performed.
  7. Recruit parent volunteers. Explain the benefits of their involvement and create a range of volunteer opportunities. If parents seem hesitant to volunteer, find out why. They may be embarrassed by their language skills or clothing, may need baby-sitting help, or may lack transportation. You may be able to encourage them or help them find solutions.


Resources and Bibliography

We Can All Get Along by Clyde W. Ford (Dell, 1994). Excellent resources and suggestions for getting along better in the classroom and everywhere.

The Nibble Theory by Kaleel Jamison (Paulist Press, 1984). Depicts some of the ways people can be hurtful and suggests strategies to change.

Making Contact by Virginia Satir (Celestial Arts, 1976). A must! About the perceptions and behavior we all bring to communication.

American Ways by Gary Althen (Intercultural Press, 1988). A guide for newcomers to the United States.

Gestures by Roger E. Axtell (John Wiley & Sons, 1991). Shows how nonverbals mean different things to different people. Makes great classroom resource.

Cultural Etiquette: A Guide for the Well-Intentioned by Amoja Three Rivers (1990, contact Market Wimmin, Box 28, Indian Valley, VA 24105). Dispels myths and provides guidelines for interacting with various cultural groups.


Linda Ross has been an organizational development consultant for nine years. She conducts diversity training with teachers and has taught discrimination units to elementary school students. She also teaches at Minneapolis Community College and is a chair of the St. Louis Park (Minnesota) Human Rights Commission.