Teaching in an urban environment is a unique experience, especially in a city like New York where individuals emanate from many backgrounds and cultures. Teaching in a multicultural setting has both its rewards and challenges. Having students from various parts of the world creates a classroom of diversity and global awareness. However, if not properly trained to adapt and teach to a style that is effective and relatable to the entire array of students, the task can prove to be challenging for future teachers and damaging to their students.
From its introduction into the United States school system in the 1960’s, a time of substantial political and racial instability, the premise of multicultural education was that minorities should adapt to the values and behaviors of the dominant culture in every way. As time progressed, there has been a shift in view and philosophy. Today, the approach to multicultural education does not mean that minorities should surrender their distinct cultural traits to a homogenous ‘melting pot’ of America. Rather, minorities are to maintain their cultural identities and still be a part of American culture much like a tossed salad (Banks, 2001). To accomplish this objective, the school system needs to accommodate each culture to the benefit of all. For pre-service multicultural educators this means preparing future teachers ‘to be reflective, critical thinkers’ (Gay & Fox, 241) who will promote social fairness in their classrooms towards the greater goal of a ‘collective empowerment’ (Lipman, 52) of minorities in their communities. This standard in teaching and training is vital to realize this objective.
Paulo Freire’s fifth letter in Teachers As Cultural Workers discusses the fear and insecurities teachers face on the first day of school. In regards to multicultural classrooms, is this a result of not being properly prepared? The question at hand is, are teachers are being properly prepared to teach in a multicultural classroom? Freire continues to comment that students should be able to think creatively; identify and solve complex problems; know their passions, strengths, and challenges; communicate and work well with others; lead healthy lives; and be ethical and caring citizens of a diverse world. However, this is only possible if the teacher creates the environment to do so.
Future teachers being properly prepared to teach in a multicultural classroom is an issue that needs further examining, and research shows it is a worthy issue. Minorities make up an increasing percentage of the United States population. By the year 2020, predictions speculate the school population to be 46% non-White (Neito, 2000). Therefore, it is imperative the growing minority workforce be educated. Unfortunately, this is not happening. In a study conducted by the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, from 1980 to 2020, the white population working force is declining as the minority population work force is increasing (see figure 1 and 2).
To address the lack of education that minorities are receiving I suggest examining the way educators are taught to teach minorities. Are future teachers not being properly prepared and trained to handle multicultural classrooms? Should teaching programs nationally require multicultural pre-service education? Investigating both serious questions is necessary.
The consensus of both scholars and teachers suggest that future teachers are not receiving the necessary training to prepare pre-service teachers to handle multicultural classrooms. However, the means to solving the issue properly is debatable. One suggestion is a push for national program requiring future teachers to take more classes to prepare them for multicultural classrooms. The opposing side argues that future teachers cannot be properly prepared to handle multicultural classrooms from a course of study but rather fieldwork experience is the solution.
Education courses provide future teachers with skills in order to prepare them for the role of full-time teacher. Suggesting required classes to train future teachers to handle multicultural classrooms is argued for this reason. It is debated that no amount of cultural awareness can make up for good teaching skills (Frisby & Tucker, 151; Marshall, 374). Future teachers are to learn proper classroom management and instruction techniques (Sheets, 165) and as related to issues of cultural diversity. Multicultural education for future teachers involves effective teaching skills with sensitivity toward cultural diversity. Unarguably, it takes special skills to manage and make the classroom a safe place to accommodate feelings and perceptions as well as language and of students from different backgrounds, but those skills cannot teach you or prepare you for all scenarios. While relating lesson-content to students’ cultural experiences, for example, can produce student engagement, every teaching experience is different. In fact, no class from year to year, school to school, grade to grade, or even room to room is the same.
The counter argument is that classes on teaching multicultural classrooms serve only to make future teachers aware of the situation, but does little to no job in preparing them in effectively handling the situation. Research in 2003 by Charles Howard Candler Professor of Urban Education in the Division of Educational Studies at Emory University, Jacqueline Jordan found that “pre-service teachers have negative beliefs and low expectations of success for … [non White] students even after some course work in multicultural education” (Irvine, 11); she called this “cultural discontinuity.” This cultural discontinuity produces negative interactions between teachers and students, thus reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices on both sides. Irvine argues that cultural discontinuity can cause teachers to “ignore their students’ ethnic identities and their unique cultural beliefs, perceptions, values and worldviews” (Irvine, 12). Therefore, simply taking classes on multicultural students can cause future teachers to have pre-notions which in-turn can affect teachers’ attitudes and expectations, thus impacting students’ academic performance (Delpit, 1996; Howard & del Rosario, 129).
According to authors Thomas G. Carroll and Geneva Gay, future teachers need to be taught to become changing agents with skills for the following: (1) critical self-analysis, (2) self-reflection and (3) understanding culture. In addition, the authors believe that teachers must develop strategies for teaching both minority and mainstream students. To do this, teachers have to immerse themselves in other cultures (Follo, Hoerr & Vorheis-Sargent, 2). Fieldwork experience, an example of immersion, provides future teachers with the opportunity to communicate and learn from multicultural students while working. ESL teacher Marilyn Bean Barrett pointed out that field experiences needed also to include opportunities for reflection on critical incidents (Barrett, 23). Fieldwork experience facilitates future teachers’ observational and analytical skills about the norms, values and attitudes of multicultural students.
Learning from hands on experience is a distinctive skill that you do not receive from a textbook or instructor. To understand the entire spectrum of multicultural education, future teachers must close their textbooks and step into the classroom. To learn the skills of teaching multicultural students effectively, he or she needs to experience doing so. The lack of meaningful multicultural preparation and the fact that most teachers come from isolated ethnic groups, and possess professional preparation that usually excludes direct meaningful interaction with various cultures create problems for proper multicultural understanding (Russo & Talbert-Johnson, 1997). In order to achieve meaningful interactions, ample experience with students of other ethnic backgrounds is required. Through these experiences, future teachers will acquire an understanding of cultural differences and commonalties between themselves and their multicultural students, which as a result will properly train them to handle multicultural classrooms. Having this knowledge of other worldviews, family life, and customs can aid in valuable communication between teachers and students of other cultures, which might lead to healthy relationships, student satisfaction, and positive learning environments for both teachers and students.
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