The Transylvania Times -

By Betsy Burrows
Everyday Education 

Embracing Strength In Diversity

 


As Alice Wellborn ended the year with her “Everyday Education” column on emphasizing the unique strengths of our children and students, I would like to ring in the New Year with an extension of her thoughts.

Providing our children with an inclusive school environment rich in diversity of perspectives, talents, skills, and cultural backgrounds may be one of the most important responsibilities of our Educational System if we want to ensure a strong democracy and prepare our students for the creativity and adaptability they need for living and working in the 21st Century. We must also provide our students with teachers who appreciate diversity and see it as a strength in their classrooms.

In 2015, new teachers will enter classrooms more diverse than ever, socio-economically as well as culturally. According to recent statistics reported by educational researchers Banks and McGee Banks, our student populations are growing richer in racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity while at the same time, poorer socio-economically. Nationally, more than 20 percent of school age children will live in poverty, in some areas as high as 50 percent according to statistics by a 2013 study by the Southern Education Foundation. Students of color will make up more than 50 percent of the Pre-K-12 population.

This diversity is not yet mirrored in our nation’s teaching candidates. More than 82 percent of the nation’s teacher candidates are Caucasian from middle-class backgrounds. Teachers will enter classrooms where they must bridge a potential divide and demonstrate cultural competence.

This cultural gap between teachers and their students as well as the increasing emphasis on common standards and standardization of educational assessments makes it more important than ever that we educate teachers who see the strengths in difference and diversity and can design curriculum and implement educational experiences in the classroom to empower the unique, creative, and “unstandardized” characteristics of our individual students. So how do we educate our future teachers to do this?

One way is to provide future teachers as much exposure to diversity and different perspectives as possible — one of the main goals of a quality liberal arts education. In Brevard College’s Teacher Education Program, we design curriculum that asks students to experience and reflect upon diversity. One powerful experience occurs in Education 205: 21st Century Teachers and Learners. In this class, students visit three different houses of worship and listen to a presentation of different views. This past semester, future teachers visited a Jewish Synagogue, a Roman Catholic Basilica, and a Buddhist Dharma Center.

The learning is best conveyed through some of the quotes from the students’ written reflections. Nancy was made more self-aware of her own bias:

“The most important thing I learned from this experience is that I have stereotypes and assumptions about different religions and races. I would not go so far as to say that I am prejudiced, but these preconceptions concern me.”

Alex realized that teachers should respect differences:

“In a classroom, diversity based on religion, race, gender, and sexual preference to name some are things that teachers need to be aware about and know how to handle differences in each student. I don’t mean that a teacher should have to give special privileges and freedoms to some, but more of being aware and sensitive of them.”

A recent article in Scientific America entitled “How Diversity Makes us Smarter” seems to confirm what these future teachers are experiencing: Exposure to diversity leads to an open-mindedness that can help individuals go beyond the bias and generalizations that are an inherent part of uniformity and standardization. Being around people who are different than us can make us more diligent, creative, and hard working.

Great teachers see and nurture the differences in our students and help them realize their potential. A recent movie “The Imitation Game,” tells the story of Alan Turning, a mathematician in the 1940s whose unique mathematical talents broke the Enigma Code that helped the Allies defeat Germany in WWII. He was also a pioneer in computer science. Turning’s life story portrays the difficulty of being different in a culture fearful of diversity.

A quote from the movie, “Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine,” reminds us that our educational system benefits when we are inclusive of diversity. Diversity of culture, religion, perspectives, sexual orientation, minds, talents, skills, and abilities strengthens society and the nurturing of these differences is a primary responsibility of a great educational system. Let’s not loose sight of the fact that diversity is a strength in this era of educational standardization.

(Professor Betsy Burrows is director of Teacher Education at Brevard College.)

 
 

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