Promoting diversity in schools brings a lot to the classroom – a bigger wealth of cultural knowledge, experiences, and perspectives – but it also brings with it some challenges for teachers and staff.
First, let’s define diversity: it is not only diversity of ethnicities, though this is certainly a large component. Diversity can also refer to socioeconomic background, sexual orientation of either students or their parents, familial makeup, disabilities, religion, lifestyle, or in fact, anything that could set a student or group of students apart. The challenge to promoting diversity in schools is being sensitive to diverse student and parent populations while providing appropriate and authentic instruction.
As teachers, parents and students, we need to examine how we feel about diversity. In an article entitled, “Working with Diverse Learners and School Staff in a Multicultural Society,” William Sanchez writes:
The diverse student and community can be conceptualized as a wonderful and exciting element of the world we live in, and not as a hindrance to the educational process. The authentic involvement of parents as active and empowered members of the school community will link school staff with the diverse learner, further increasing and promoting diversity in schools within our school settings.
Involving the parents is key, but how do you do this?
Especially among groups that have been traditionally alienated from the school system, or in the case of foreign families, are unfamiliar with the American school system?
In Bridging Cultures Between Home and School Elise Trumball, et all, mentions that while overall parent participation has been on the incline, involvement of or by “minority” parents has not increased. But, this is not due to lack of caring. In fact, most want more contact with teachers.
What is the problem then?
There is a disconnect because the type of involvement that is wanted by Latino and African-American parents, for example, is not typically the type of involvement pushed by the schools. So as teachers, we must find out what parents want and need and bend to accommodate that for the good of the students.
It is even possible that without knowing, teachers engage in activities for parental involvement that seem to exclude minority parents. As an example, one of the big instruments for parent involvement is parent/teacher conferences. This is a way for parents and teachers to discuss their concerns, but in some cultures, it is considered disrespectful or interfering to question the teacher.
Volunteering in the school is also touted as a great way to participate, but this can be overwhelming to people unfamiliar with the school system, those with limited English proficiency, or those who have to work all day.
It is the same with recommending parents help children with schoolwork at home. Again, this is great for parents who speak English fluently and have the educational background to help. Many immigrant families do not have this background or do not consider it their place to do so.
So when promoting diversity in schools what can teachers do to accommodate the diversity in their classrooms?
One way to do that is to recognize differences in communication styles. For instance, some cultures may view telephone calls as inappropriate and would rather have face-to-face contact to establish a relationship. If this is the case, you could try sending a note home, inviting the parents in for a chat. It need not wait until there is a problem – but laying the groundwork for a good relationship will be important in helping that parent be involved.
Many groups do not respond well to formal meetings, so casual one-on-one or small gatherings of parents from similar backgrounds may work a lot better in creating a feeling of partnership. And you may have good luck not limiting participation to parents. In many cultures, value is placed on extended family, so make invitations welcoming to all members of a family.
When promoting diversity in schools there is no one way to include every parent, nor every culture.
The best teachers can do is to recognize differences in participation and involvement – without judgment – and try their hardest to include every parent in the appropriate way. That may mean sending notes, making phone calls, or using a class website to disseminate information. You don’t necessarily have to know the nuances of every culture – that would be impossible! But it is worth it to take the time to learn about your students’ cultures and let them help you decide the best way to include their families.
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