How can we prepare teachers to work with culturally diverse students and their families? What skills should educators develop to do this successfully?

Sherick Hughes
September 1, 2005

One of the most important skills we need to develop in Pre-K?16 teachers is their ability to build on the knowledge that students bring into classrooms, particularly that knowledge which is shaped by their family, community, and cultural histories. My ethnographic research pertaining to this topic spans over 5 years. By studying multiple generations of Black families in the Northeastern Albemarle region of North Carolina, I search for family knowledge that can transfer into teacher education. I explore historical and contemporary family struggles and hopes regarding school desegregation. My research has uncovered the nuanced ways that families support their children?s education at home and how families teach their children to balance struggle with hope. I refer to such home teaching strategies as ?family pedagogy.? What might teachers learn from the Black family pedagogy used by families to survive and ?succeed? within and outside of school?

Family pedagogy is shaped by both spiritual faith narratives of hope and stories of struggle. Families maintain faith in a higher power to help them understand and navigate the hidden rules and norms of survival and success driven and accepted by school authorities. Families uphold a spiritual faith that learning to read and write is directly relevant to leading a holistic spiritual life. Families also tell stories of struggle and share hope-filled stories of how even in the face of adversity, members of their family were able to survive and succeed within the educational system that was not initially created to benefit Black families.

Teachers must come to understand the real lived experience of the families and children they teach. In my classes, I try to encourage teachers to think about how to set up plausible situations to give families a legitimate voice in their curriculum and unit planning. If they have not already done so, I encourage teachers to take the spiritual lives of families seriously as a key point of connection. Family voices can advise teachers on how to balance high stakes accountability testing with skills we also know children need to survive and thrive at school.

I now turn to naming and supporting the teaching skills that breed high educational performance by bridging the gaps that separate school and home. I call these types of teaching skills diversity capital. We already talk about the notion of teacher capital, which is the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to be an ?effective? teacher. However, all too often this type of effectiveness is measured in a limited way and only highlights the skills teachers possess to help flagship students (students not from traditionally underserved communities) meet or exceed standards on proficiency tests.

Teacher diversity capital is intended to name the type of teaching enhancement that embraces emotion and drives teachers to seek new opportunities and ideas for building positive relationships with students and families from culturally diverse backgrounds. Diversity capital can in turn afford teachers the knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for a sustainable commitment to, validation of, and exchange with culturally diverse students and families. I argue that teachers need support, motivation, and experiences related to cultures other than their own in order to engage in effective cross-cultural teaching. The families of my study note that ?good? teachers already implement diversity capital. Thus, the term diversity capital is essentially my attempt to name good praxis.

It is often difficult even for good teachers to go out into the community to do the home visits that can build rapport. I advocate three family-specific alternatives to connect teachers with the primary or secondary caregiver(s) of each student at least once during the school year in order to offer positive information regarding student progress.

Call each child?s family with positive information.
Email each student?s family during the school year with positive information.
Through email attachment, post office mail, or student delivery, send a positive message via audio or audio/visual medium regarding each student.
Finally, I also conduct critical classroom simulation exercises with general and special education preservice teachers to help them connect with the emotional-behavioral lives of their students. First, my preservice teachers do three focused observations of a child with heritage that is perceived as different from their own. I also encourage them to ask the classroom teacher respectful questions about the child?s home life and family life. In class, we work in groups to develop lesson plans that would complement that child?s learning interests without compromising other students? abilities to reach their highest potential. I then have teachers role-play and critique lessons from the child?s and teachers? point of view. In all these ways, I work to find and transfer useful information from family pedagogy that can enhance teachers? development of knowledge, skills, and dispositions to work with culturally diverse students and their families.

Sherick Hughes
Assistant Professor
Department of Foundations of Education, College of Education
University of Toledo
2801 W. Bancroft Street
Toledo, OH 43606