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First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

Demographics Change; So Must We


By Amy Issadore Bloom

Over dinner, an acquaintance was explaining that the school in his new neighborhood is top-notch because “the parents are affluent and want their children to do well.”

“Don’t all parents want their children to succeed in school?” I asked.

“You know what I mean,” he said.

Not really, I thought, but I dropped it. Why do people assume that only well-off families are “into” education? More importantly, what happens when schools that are accustomed to a certain type of student start to become more diverse? How do teachers and other staff members handle it?

It’s bad enough when some parents believe that they’re somehow more entitled to better schools than others, but when school staff members perpetuate that type of thinking, it’s extremely detrimental.

Several teachers at a school where I recently taught frequently talked about how different the school used to be, how the student population had changed. I was new, and didn’t know if they meant the students are more diverse in color, economic status or intelligence. Whichever it was, it seemed to be a significant problem for them.

Teachers who are hesitant to talk about diversity in more specific terms are probably not comfortable with it, or perhaps simply afraid they might offend someone. But sometimes, we need labels, we need to name what we’re talking about.

“Different” and “diverse” are not sufficient. They don’t care about learning is also an unacceptable generalization. I don’t think we can really figure out how to change our teaching, or how to have valuable conversations as educators, if we only talk in broad terms. And we certainly cannot begin to dive into cultural awareness if we’re afraid to even talk about the obvious differences.

But differences are complicated, and can’t be defined by a simple label. If you notice trends, such as a certain minority group not doing well in your class, then try to figure out why. Are they represented favorably in your textbooks? Are they encouraged to participate?

Students from an inner-city environment might need different support—academically, socially, emotionally—than students growing up in the suburbs. It’s up to us to recognize these needs, and fulfill them as best we can.

Most of my experience and expertise is in helping students who come from a variety of cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds. They are in my class because they struggle academically. Some need extra help simply because they’re new to the country; others need support because they learned how to read late, or maybe never really took to it and have since fallen behind.

I work hard to ensure that they’re successful in my class. And they are: they’re not afraid to share ideas, to ask questions. I know there are teachers who think I am too forgiving, too nurturing. But to me, “sink or swim” is a long way from how we should be approaching teaching.
 
One of the most common complaints in the teacher’s lounge is that “almost the whole class failed the test.” A good teacher recognizes that if a majority of students fail a test, than the lesson did not reach the students. Grading on a curve doesn’t help, either. It places too much emphasis on outcome. Plus, the students who struggle still do poorly and never actually learn the material.

Gone are the days of using only one textbook and assuming it’s a good fit for all students. Likewise, we can no longer pull out the same lesson from the dusty file cabinet year after year. Students need resources at their ability and interest level. They need variety. Don’t we all?

As student populations change, we must adapt—not just our way of teaching, but often our way of communicating and managing the classroom. We frequently need to trust our instincts, to know which students need a firm discipline style, and which respond to a softer touch. It’s often trial and error.

For example, saying “why are you talking now?” to one student means “be quiet right now.” To another, it’s an open invitation to explain her problem, to literally answer your question. (Before you know it, you’re listening to some saga involving Lola, Jennifer and Clara.)
 
These differences in learning styles and communication are a part of what makes teaching so challenging. But it’s also what helps us to stay fresh and sharp.
 
Our schools are becoming more diverse in culture and socio-economic status all the time. It is our responsibility to adapt our lessons, and our attitude, in order to give all students an equal opportunity to shine.

Issadore Bloom, a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. Read more of her writing at www.bloomindc.com.

 

 

 


 


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