Teaching Culture Blind: Diversity In Professional Development

teaching-culture-blindTeaching Culture Blind: Diversity In Professional Development

by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Social Studies Teacher & Learnist Evangelist

Related Learnist Resource: Consider Diversity.

It was one of my first experiences teaching.

I overheard a conversation. I try not to eavesdrop, but sometimes my brain just joins in.

“Miss?” said the student. “My name is Mrs. X!” came the stern reply from another teacher. Culture clash.

I explained to my colleague that the student was being respectful. He was Hispanic. In the student’s culture, “Senor, Seniorita or Senora,” is the most polite form of address for a teacher. Directly translated, that’s “Miss, Mrs., or Mister.”

To the Caucasian teacher, however, omitting the last name was impolite. Learning the subtle aspects of cultural awareness can be critical to establishing and maintaining successful relationships in diverse schools. I’ve experienced this. A Chinese friend once got angry at me because I didn’t put my shoes in the right place.

This is not a big deal for an American, but for Chinese, it has the potential to be highly offensive. I hear complaints about behaviors from specific groups on occasion. One is about “cheating.” Digging deeper, the line between what Americans consider cheating and other cultures consider “helping” or “collaboration” is not so clear.

Years ago, when I was working with Eastern European refugees, this line was even more blurred–people spotted each other over the testing chin-up bar because in their culture failure was simply not an option. It had dire consequences.

My husband and I used to teach martial arts together. I gave a status report to a father, telling him his children were progressing well. The father thanked me, then immediately turned to my husband and said, “So, how’s my son doing?” I saw my husband’s eyes open wide. He wanted to say, “Didn’t you just hear my wife?”

I motioned secretly that he should not say this, explaining later he was dealing with a male-dominant culture where a woman wouldn’t have the authority to provide such an official report on a man’s son. No matter how much this father liked and respected me–we’d had many intellectual conversations and had an excellent relationship–my husband had to be the final word.

Sometimes I’ll hear educators say “these parents don’t care.” That upsets me. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Perceptions of a parent’s role in the education process vary widely from culture to culture. In America, teachers are, sadly, used to being second-guessed and often get defensive. In other cultures, teachers are highly, highly respected. A parent who doesn’t may be withholding that kind of interaction because they recognize the teacher as the professional.

For many, teachers are respected the way we respect doctors. A parent wouldn’t dream of telling us how to do our job. In short, that is their compliment to us.

And this kind of thinking isn’t always easy to internalize on the spot without experience and professional development.

Push pins on a white background.PD Sucks, So Let’s Do Better: Diversity Training

Diversity training is something that we don’t do enough. In this case, professional development would help save a lot of hurt feelings over cultural misunderstanding. We can learn from and about other cultures. It’s important to include PD on every aspect of diversity and culture. This week’s Learnist Better PD Series focuses on diversity.

Please visit this Learnist board, “Consider Diversity.” The board looks at subgroups you might consider in planning staff training, as well as ideas for some helpful PD. Comment both here and directly on the board, then add your learnings (resources you think others might find useful to better understand this idea) about diversity.

If you have ways to better educate staff, families, and students about this issue or success stories on the topic of multiculturalism, diversity, or professional development at your school or community organization, please share on Facebook and Twitter, and tag @LearnistTweets so we can all benefit.

See parts 1-3 in this series, PD Sucks. Is Edcamp the Solution?Pairing Teachers for Better Professional Development Hacking Your Classroom, and Moving The Conversation From Bullying To Climate; Teaching Culture Blind: Diversity In Professional Development


  • The school that I teach has a primary focus on closing the achievement gap. I feel they are headed in the right direction. They are focusing on areas that use best practices for classroom interaction. Common strategies they require are performance-based activities, student-centered groups, and inquiry-based. These strategies are important, but without a focus on training teachers and students how to think critically, I feel we will only address symptoms and the achievement gap will continue. Training teachers on how to think critically will relate into their lesson design, and in essence require students to use critical thinking skills as well.

    Another aspect that has been neglected: the cultural gap between teachers and students. Many of our teachers come from predominately white middle-class families and have had limited interactions, and as a result, limited understanding of working and supporting our low-income, poverty stricken families. This disparity between two people groups creates a divide in developing strong relationships between faculty, students, and parents. Through on-going professional development workshops that assist teachers in understanding how culture in society plays a deep foundational role in a student’s life we would in time eliminate some of the inequality that students experience in the classroom.

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