By: Esther Briner
North American universities and colleges have seen an increase in cultural diversity within the student population in the past few decades (Cummins, 1996; Flores, Gee, & Kastner, 2000; Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007; Weinstein, Curran, & Tomlinson-Clarke, 2003). At Carleton University, the number of international students has increased by forty-three percent over the last ten years (Carleton University, 2015). As more and more students from diverse backgrounds enter the academic setting, it is increasingly important for Teaching Assistants (TAs) to identify and employ effective strategies that are culturally inclusive and find opportunities to foster student learning through culturally responsive practice (Sandhu, 1995). Through an overview of the literature on teacher-student engagement (Holiday, 1985; McCormick, Eick, & Womack, 2013; Wlodkowski, & Ginsberg, 1995; Vavrus, 2008), this essay argues that educators need to be self-aware, knowledgeable, and respectful of cultural diversity—skills and values that play a significant role in terms of learning opportunities and learning outcomes for classes with ethnically diverse students. The aim of this essay is to examine three culturally responsive strategies that TAs can potentially use to inform their own teaching practice, including self-reflection of attitudes and beliefs, acquiring cultural knowledge education, and acknowledging and sharing the differences and commonalities present among diverse cultural backgrounds within the classroom setting.
Truly, culturally responsive teaching is a comprehensive endeavour that should be part of all dimensions of the educational enterprise, including institutional (e.g., policies, values), curriculum content (e.g., materials), instructional strategies (e.g., learning activities), and performance assessment (Gay, 2000; Weinstein, Tomlinson-Clarke, & Curran, 2004). In addition, a personal dimension—that is, cognitive and emotional processes that a teacher should engage in to become culturally responsive—is also important to foster environments of cultural respect (Richards et al., 2007). All TAs have an opportunity to promote cultural respect directly by ensuring that the instructional and personal dimensions are culturally responsive. For example, TAs who are comfortable aligning their instructional and personal practices with a culturally responsive approach may be more likely to respond appropriately to an ethnically diverse student body. As such, TAs play an important role in creating a culturally responsive environment where all students, regardless of their cultural background, are welcomed and supported. In preparing to be a culturally responsive TA, several authors have suggested strategies shown to help the process and promote TA cultural responsiveness in every day practice (Banks & Banks, 2004; Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Nieto, 1999). This article will briefly discuss three of these.
Engaging in self-reflection of attitudes and beliefs. TAs can learn to be more self-reflective practitioners so that they can develop skills to evaluate and revise their respective instructional styles through self-reflection. According to researchers, regularly examining attitudes and beliefs about self and others is key to becoming culturally responsive (Novick, 1996; Sandhu, 1994). Still, discerning personal motivations, negative assumptions, and recognizing personal stereotypes that govern one’s behaviors is not a simple task, and ethnocentric outlooks are not always easy to overcome. Yet, researchers suggest that recognizing and self-reflecting on attitudes and stereotypes is a first step towards changing misconceptions and behaviors (Cleary & Peacock, 1998). Furthermore, research shows that if individuals view themselves as learners or as involved in the process of learning, it makes them more open and willing to bridge barriers between self and others (Cleary & Peacock, 1998). Reflective journal writing can be an effective way to facilitate the self-reflective process (McCormick, et al., 2013). TAs can also learn to improve their skills for maintaining, evaluating, and revising their respective instructional styles through workshops and focus groups (Gay, 2002; McCormick, et al., 2013; Pewewardy, 1994).
Learning about the culture, history, and experiences of diverse groups. Learning about the history and experiences of diverse groups can help TAs understand how different historical experiences have shaped attitudes and perspectives of various groups. In the process of learning about other groups, TAs will begin to see differences in their own values and those of other groups (Gay, 2002). For example, reading literature by different groups or personally interacting with members of diverse groups is a great way to learn about other cultures. According to Gay (2002), culture refers to characteristics of a particular group of people, generally defined by language, religion, politics, social habits, and the arts. However, culture is a two-edged sword: it simultaneously anchors and blinds people (Gay, 2000). For example, culture can form an anchor from which to interact or connect with others, but culture can also lead us to assume that our own ways of being and behaving are the only right way. To meet this challenge, TAs should try hard to educate themselves about other cultures in the classroom, learn how the cultures differ from one another, and finally be prepared to employ culturally responsive practises to overcome these challenges (Garcia, 1991; Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007).
To be sure, cultural awareness is an important part of culturally responsive practice for TAs. Research suggests that culturally responsive practice is designed to help empower students by using meaningful cultural connections to convey academic and social knowledge and attitudes (Banks, & Banks, 1994; Novick, 1996; Gay, 2000; Pewewardy, 1994). In some instances, certain elements that have direct implications for teaching and learning (e.g., values, communication styles, learning styles, social problems, and levels of ethnic identity development) may be more important for TAs to be aware of than others (Gay, 2000)—e.g., knowing about the historical background of Indigenous groups may be important during instructional activities to ensure that specific traditions are not inadvertently violated.
Developing an appreciation and respect for diversity. Research shows that promoting a culture of equity and mutual respect is imperative within the university community (Hemmings, 1994; Novick, 1996; Wldokowski & Ginsberg, 1995). All students should be fairly treated and respected and should not be subject to unfair discrimination because of their differences. TAs can act as role models to demonstrate and promote fairness, as well as to remind students that acknowledging differences and commonalities are crucial to ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to achieve to the best of their ability. Indeed, TAs should respond to students individually, based on their individual strengths and weaknesses, rather than preconceived notions about the student’s group or ethnic affiliation (Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007).
According to Wlodkowski and Ginsberg (1995), European-American middle-class norms have been commonly accepted as universal: “We are likely to see deficits rather than difference within the rich variation of human beings” (p. 6). As such, these presumptions of universality and “deficits” can be the source of major inequities in the educational opportunities provided to students from diverse ethnic, racial, cultural, and ability backgrounds (Gay, 2000). Ignoring diversity is not a solution either and research suggests that doing so merely devalues those who are culturally diverse (Pai, 1990). Rather, research reveals that students who feel free to share their own cultural experiences are more likely to demonstrate improved learning outcomes (Banks & Banks, 2004). Moreover, an appreciation for diversity not only serves to undermine the notion that any one group is more competent that the other, but it also promotes respect for group differences and acknowledges that the TAs views of the world are not the only ones that matter. In this way, culturally responsive practise recognizes and respects the student’s personal and community identity (Banks & Banks, 2004; Garcia, 1991; Gay, 2000; Nieto, 1999).
Being culturally competent is not always easy or obvious. In fact, it requires practice and hard work. Becoming culturally responsive is more than action or reform; it involves increasing the engagement and motivation of students of diversity who historically have been socially alienated from others because of their differences (Holliday, 1985; McCormick et al., 2013; Wlodkowski, & Ginsberg, 1995; Vavrus, 2008). With more and more students from diverse backgrounds entering the academic setting in Canada, TAs will need to increase their cultural competency and awareness, employ more culturally inclusive activities, and find opportunities to foster student learning through culturally responsive practice (Sandhu, 1995). As a TA, one of the most important aspects in becoming culturally competent is to understand that self-knowledge and beliefs strongly influence the way one interacts with others, and therefore it is imperative to keep this in mind when building relationships among students. TAs who strive to the best of their ability to foster learning through culturally responsive practice and who demonstrate values that are inclusive are truly fulfilling their responsibility to students.
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