by Julie Dodd
JEA Mentoring Committee co-chair

Diversity was one of the topics we discuss during the Mentor Academy last week at Kansas State.

We talked about the wide range of diversity in today’s classrooms — racial, socio-economic, cultural, religious, sexual orientation, etc.

I was reminded of that discussion when I read “Taeching Secrets: When the Kids Don’t Share Your Culture.”

I’d recommend reading the article, as Elena Aguilar, a school improvement coach for the Oakland Unified School District, offers some useful insights.

But I’d also say that if a mentor were going to share the article with new teachers, the article’s advice merits some conversation between the mentor and the new teacher.

Aguilar’s advice for teachers to learn about the cultures of their students is on target. Teachers can better connect with students if they understand the students, and part of that understanding can be about the students’ cultural background, which can include holidays, dress, food and values.

The tips I found most useful:

– Talk with colleagues who have taught in the community to find out about the students and their cultures. What mistakes did they initially make and what lessons did they learn?

– Walk around the neighborhood to learn more about it. She suggests that you can have students be your tour guide. [Driving may be more practical for an overview, but walking can help you make some personal contacts even if you aren’t guided by your students.]

– Find out how the community has changed in the past decade, as that can help you better understand some of the dynamics of different cultural groups in your classes.

– Invite the parents and other relatives of the students to talk in class. That can work particularly well in a media class, with students practicing their interviewing skills.

One would hope that a school district with a diverse student population would provide in-service training for new teachers about the different cultures and heritage of the students in the school. Unfortunately, that kind of helpful and practical in-service training doesn’t always happen.

Mentors can help new teachers better understand how the diversity of the students in a classroom impact issues ranging from curriculum decisions to student learning styles.

Agullar also offers some advice that I would encourage mentors to talk about with their new teachers:

– Hold a potluck with your students and their parents. That would be do-able with the student media class and a good way to connect with the parents. But that also could present some challenges in terms of being in the school after school hours, having food in the classroom, etc. Definitely need to work that out with the school administration.

– Make home visits. My cousin who taught kindergarten for more than 25 years always made home visits at the beginning of the school year. She really learned a lot about the home environment and also made a personal connection with family members. But making home visits isn’t the norm for middle school and high school teachers. Most high school teachers would have more than 100 students each term. So the time involved would be tremendous.

– Accept all invitations. Agullar says that attending family dinners and religious events can help you better understand the culture and meet the family members of your students. That’s true. However, you can appear to be playing favorites if the other students learn you have had dinner with one of their classmates. The new teacher definitely should talk with colleagues about how much to be involved in activities with students and their families outside of school activities.

What advice do you have for how new teachers can learn more about the diversity of the students in their classes?