STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Classrooms are changing, and students need teachers who are ready for the shift

U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

America's public schools have reached a milestone. Students are more racially diverse than ever, and the number that identify as minorities outnumber white students for the first time.

According to Pew Research Center, the changes reflect a broader shift toward a majority-minority youth population. But this is not reflected in the country's teacher workforce, which remains more than 80 percent white.

This lack of diversity creates a disconnect between teachers and their students that has received increased attention in recent years. National teachers unions and the U.S. Department of Education have tried to raise awareness and drum up more diverse recruits.

Schools are also striving to create more culturally competent teachers. Cultural competence says that by learning about someone's culture, you can understand and relate to them, and have successful interactions. It helps teachers bridge the divide between themselves and students from cultures other than their own.

Training programs focused on cultural competency have multiplied rapidly in recent years. Programs around the country vary in focus and duration, but all strive to provideeducatorswith an awareness of personal and institutional biases, and to make them willing to immerse themselves in the communities where they teach.

According to Slate, in the Houston Independent School District, where more than 60 percent of teachers are white (while nearly 70 percent of students are not), teachers are automatically enrolled in a series of courses designed to help them address the diverse needs of the city’s public school students. They learn things like how-tos for effective communication between schools and families, and addressing misunderstanding in the classroom.

Gloria Ladson-Billings is a professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Education. She told Slate she believes everyone has the capacity to become a culturally competent teacher, but many white educators are afraid to have conversations about their whiteness, privilege, and the advantages they don't share with their students. Ladson-Billings said:

I do think maybe white, middle-class teachers have a hard time because they don’t know what it’s like to live in poor communities, but it’s not impossible. Basically, there are no short cuts.

Randy Miller is a teacher and author. He wrote in The Huffington Post:

Simply put, teachers need to be able to get to know their students. That means doing the research and getting the information about their population. While working at my school, I see the daily conflicts between teachers and students. There is a disconnection and it hinders the teacher’s ability to teach and the student’s ability to learn. It really doesn’t matter how good a lesson a teacher has prepared or how smart the students in that classroom are. If that teacher has failed to connect with their students on a culturally responsive level, students may disengage from the learning.

He says teachers need to know the demographics of the community surrounding their school, they must step outside of their comfort zone to engage with and get to know their students, and they have to allow themselves to be taught by their students.

Miller continued:

One important way to close the achievement gap is to ensure that teachers are culturally competent so that they can provide their students with the educational experience they deserve. Culturally competent teachers assure that the curriculum will be taught, that the curriculum will be delivered in a way that is responsive to the collective norms and experiences of the student population and that the relationships forged between teacher and student is built on respect and sincerity — a relationship where that teacher will assure that their students will not only learn the coursework, but grow as individuals. Here is what it will take: teachers who are ready to grow as individuals themselves. It was Malcolm X who said, “We cannot teach what we do not know and we cannot lead where we will not go.

Experts project that by 2023, only 45 percent of K-12 students will be white. The success of minority students will depend on teachers that are prepared for the shift.

Related Content