One of the main reasons I was drawn to the teaching profession was the opportunity for cross-cultural exchange and to promote such relationships in our society. As I white male working in or for communities of color as an English teacher first and then a primary teacher, I found that I had the opportunity to represent the dominant culture in a positive way for immigrant children and their families, or for marginalized minority American groups as well. I take this responsibility and opportunity very seriously and I have grown quite comfortable translating a parent-teacher conference in Spanish or reaching out to the Hmong community in our school in order to learn more about them. This is a part of the job I love.
And to be frank, I think I had that interest in understanding the other, in empathizing and attempting to take on their perspective before I entered the Teach-Now program, before I completed my clinical and before I continued on to the Master’s in Global Ed program. In fact, my purpose was set as I entered the profession, to be a positive social mirror for students of color and immigrants, and to do my best to treat them like the individuals that they are.
What my clinical experience and my learning in this module have taught me the academic terms and definitions that go along with my experiences teaching in these communities. I knew I wanted to seek to know and understand people of other cultures beyond stereotypes, but I didn’t know that I might be avoiding the single story danger or tokenism in the process. I always knew that I valued diversity and would seek it out in my personal and professional life, but I didn’t know that this was a central component of culturally competent teaching. I also keenly felt the insider immigrant tendencies while abroad to seek situations where I could take a break from my second language learning, where I could find emotional and instrumental support in regards to the challenges of living outside of my own culture. No I have those strategies in mind the next time I am working toward better intercultural communication and understanding in my classroom or school.
The truly revelatory part of my Teach-Now clinical experience and now with this Global Ed module, is that I have gone through the process of thinking and reflecting about cultural interactions, in what ways they are fraught with challenges, where and when I have had negative intercultural experiences, and also what the environment was like when I had sublime experiences of connecting across a great cultural divide. Knowing what both of those contexts look and feel like will make me more culturally self-aware going forward, and will allow me to more accurately dissect the dynamics of cultural interactions my students have and that I have with them and their families. In short, the reflection will make me more sensitive to the two-way social mirror present, how Hmong families might see me as a white man educating their son, and how I reflect their identity by treatment and consideration for them.
The big challenge for me at my current school is getting to know the Hmong community. I do not know their history, their language, or their culture like I know those of Latinos, African-Americans, Koreans, or other immigrant minority groups. In reading Chee Vang’s exhortation to implement Hmong culture into classrooms, my ignorance was confirmed once again, but so was my awareness for the need to learn more. In fact, earlier this year I had a conversation with a Hmong diversity consultant, who took some time out to teach me her approach to schools with significant Hmong populations along with a few critical facts about the Hmong culture. She taught that Hmong people are not as transactional as white Americans in their interactions and she told me that the biggest fear of Hmong parents is that their children will completely assimilate into American culture and lose their heritage even more than it has been threatened and lost already. As a member of the district equity team, I felt that it was very important that we have a Hmong representative from the Muir Elementary community and so I reached out to several and found one mother willing to commit her time to the effort.
I still have enormous gaps in my knowledge of the Hmong people, but at least I can see and feel those gaps now. At least, I have resources and community connections which can help me to slowly fill those gaps and implement more responsive approaches to my Hmong students. The next phase will be sharing what I learned and what institutional knowledge already exists at Muir Elementary about our Hmong community, so that new teachers can gain the knowledge they need with this particular population.