Bringing cultural proficiency back to school

fullsizeoutput_6bdcIt takes most teachers a couple of weeks to adjust to the routines of a new school year. The first week is a head rush of frenetic activity when all the plans we’ve carefully made face the reality of the mass movement of teens walking in and out of classrooms every 50 minutes. Once the bell rings, there’s no rethinking the bulletin board, the handouts, or the icebreaker activity. We make it through the first week as if struck by hurricane-force winds. It’s not just me, returning from a one-year leave of absence; it’s everyone. Teachers gather in the department office for lunch like divers coming up for air. We laugh, eat quickly, and get back to work. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. By the second week, we’ve learned more names, what time the photocopier is least likely to jam, and where the nearest staff bathroom is.

I’ve been a public school ESOL teacher for 18 years, so I don’t know why this September seems so much harder than previous ones. Is it because I lived and worked in Southeast Asia last year and got used to a slower, more-balanced pace of life? That’s certainly part of it. I’m returning to a different school, but I’m not a new teacher. The general curriculum, overall expectations, and district jargon are familiar. (Honestly, I don’t know how the brand-new teachers cope with all the acronyms). I’m adapting to new classroom technology and getting comfortable with updated reporting systems. But the biggest change, by far, is that I’m in a new school with new colleagues, different leadership, and a unique micro-culture that I’m still learning.

I spent half of my summer taking required courses on “religious diversity,” “supporting LGBTQ students,”  and “equal opportunity in the workplace.” I’ve been living and breathing these lessons for most of my professional life. As an ESOL teacher exposed to students from around the world, I thought I was well prepared for my school district’s focus on cultural proficiency. We’d always provided a space for Muslim students fasting during the month of Ramadan. We’ve had bilingual counselors who can speak to students and their parents in their native language – Spanish, Chinese, Haitian Creole, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, etc. Sometimes we have to speak up to make sure our English language learners are accommodated fairly. It can feel lonely and scary to stand up for my students alone. At my new school, however, there’s an entire team of ESOL teachers promoting the needs of ELLs and celebrating this type of diversity as a positive contribution to our school community.

After a year abroad, I am struck all at once by little changes that my colleagues have experienced incrementally. For example, our district policy now addresses the rights of gender nonconforming students. Teachers and staff should use a student’s preferred name and students should be addressed by the chosen pronoun. My colleagues shrug when I tell them about my first transgender student two years ago, about how I felt awkward and embarrassed bungling the he and she. At a celebration this summer my friend’s 6’1″ son showed up with purple hair and a beard. I’ve watched him grow up, from a cute toddler to an awkward adolescent. But now he’s a they and called by the name of a flower. I’m struggling with how rapidly everyone has adapted to this new reality.

Between 5th and 6th period, I sometimes have to take the elevator. I see the same girl in a wheelchair every day. She’s got an aide who travels with her. We smile and say hello. Schools have had to accommodate students with disabilities since the ADA was passed in 1990. But this week I saw something I’ve never seen. A girl was walking up the stairs with a dog in a harness. It looked like a standard poodle because of it’s prancing gait. I smiled as they passed. The girl didn’t appear to be vision-impaired. It was clearly a service dog, probably for a mental or emotional disability (do we even say that any more?).

I realize now that cultural proficiency is a broad term that includes equity and acceptance for all kinds of diversity, not just language diversity. My course in Culturally Responsive Teaching has taught me to be more aware of my own beliefs and to take responsibility to help reduce students’ social-emotional stress from stereotypes and micro-aggressions. I will have to do a lot more than just accommodate students from different countries.

A public school is probably the most diverse institution in the USA. We accept students from all backgrounds, interests, gender identities, learning styles, families, and developmental levels. We build lessons at the beginning of the year to create a safe space for learning. We teach them how to respect each other as they work together in cooperative groups. ESOL students have a unique challenge in that they are learning the language and culture at the same time. If little changes are difficult for me — an American returning to the US — I can only imagine how difficult adjustment is for my students.

ESOL classes have age diversity because students are placed by language proficiency not grade level. I’ve got brand new 9th graders and second-year seniors who are almost 21. Many students work after school and support themselves. Some are here alone, living independently or with distant relatives. I have to spend extra time establishing routines and structures to help the class get comfortable with each other. They have trust their peers before they can share their own stories and feel a sense of agency in their newly-adopted culture.

We’re three weeks into the school year, and I can finally begin to process my own re-entry shock. It’s natural for teachers to put the needs of their students first. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by colleagues who understand the importance of team building better than I do. This week we went out for our first department Happy Hour – I mean professional learning community – and I think it’s going to be a fabulous year.

I have to remind myself that teaching is one of the most difficult jobs in the world; it is also one of the most rewarding.

IMG_0241 My colleague has created a rain forest in her classroom.

Published by

evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during 2017-2018. She worked with the Ministry of Education and Sports in Lao P.D.R in Southeast Asia. She is currently teaching English as a Second Language with Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She has written a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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