My Preparation for a Diverse Student Body

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.

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My Cultural Identity Explained

I am a white, cisgender, straight, neurotypical male born in the Pacific Northwest, raised by a single mother, and firmly part of the American middle class. From early on I had to “code-switch” within my family because my mother’s side of the family did not go to church and did not identify as Christian, while my father’s side of my family goes to church routinely, identifies as Christian above and before many other identities they possess. I had switch my language somewhat dramatically when in the presence of my Christian family, careful not to say “Oh my God” or “Jesus!” as terms of exasperation or surprise. And considering my mom was raising me without being married to my dad and without my dad playing a major role in my childhood, this was controversial on that side of my family and I had to play diplomat. Furthermore, my dad’s half of the family were more recent rural immigrants of northern European descent, lacking any generational wealth and higher education aside from my dad at the time of my youth. In contrast, on my mom’s side of the family, I was a fifth generation Seattleite, urban, educated, wealthy, industrialists, and quite comfortable with the trappings of west coast high society.

Nevertheless, both sides of my family left me feeling ethnically identifiable as part of the dominant culture in the US, of anglo-saxon descent with a very American and Pacific Northwest social imaginary about my local place and the world. Fortunately, the bit of religious code-switching I had to do among my father’s side of the family began my training early on in taking the other’s side and trying to speak their language and learn their social norms and expectations. Otherwise, I would have floated along in a world that made sense to me and included many assumptions about the world that other cultures balk at, and I never would have fathomed such opinions and customs could exist.

That religious code-switching early on combined with my social interactions in middle school to begin to create my multi-cultural awareness and take me down a more globalized identity pathway. My best friend in elementary school was part of a proud middle class, well-educated, multigenerational Japanese-American family. They told me of the Japanese internment camps of WWII, how the government had seized their accumulated wealth at the time, shops, business, homes, and possessions. They told me how the Japanese-Americans had contributed to the settling and development of the Puget Sound region. And yet this family is fully assimilated into the American dominant culture on their own terms, owning an admirable fusion of cultures, a transcultural identity that has only grown stronger through the generations.

In middle school, we added a Chinese-Korean-American friend, who’s family lived and worked in the International District aka Chinatown of Seattle. This is a strong immigrant community, his parents were both first generation immigrants, he spoke a bit of a second language at home, ate much different foods than I did and had a much broader perspective on the world than I did. And yet, we identified each other as lovers of basketball, shoes and action movies. These relationships changed my identity in a way that I did not perceive at the time, yet I was already growing accustomed to being in the homes of families that did not look like me, sound like me, or see the world the same as me or my parents.

In high school, my heterosexual white male identity was dominant. I was a jock. I was a jock that was good at school. I was a jock that was good at school and somewhat popular and normal. I partied, I liked girls, I played on the basketball team, I liked typically urban male things like sneakers, rap music and hanging out with my friends in the popular crowd. I look back on this as my least tolerant and least multicultural identity phase. My identity pathway had narrowed and the dominant white urban American culture had come into stark focus. The whiteness of Seattle had won out.

The last major change of my identity took place over time starting in college. I began to seriously study the Spanish language, I studied abroad, traveled abroad, lived and worked abroad for the first time. I loved it. I felt empowered to explore the previously unknown corners of this endlessly interesting Earth. I found that interacting with a person from a totally different background was exhilarating and always edifying. I found that while I struggled all the same with the challenges of authentic encounter with the other, and butting cultural heads with my new friends and acquaintances in other countries, I never was discouraged by it, never focused to heavily on the confirmation of negative stereotypes and mostly found greater and greater nuance in the peoples I met across the globe. I attempted to become an intimate insider in Latin America and succeeded to a limited extent, proficiency in the language, long-term relationships and work environments provided the portals for entry into a deep understanding of people who did not grow up like me at all.

Consequently, I have come home with a mixed identity that I do not recognize in many of my oldest friends in Seattle who have not left, or who have not had these international experiences. Some of the cultural and social norms that I took for granted before now seem silly, frivolous, questionable or even more sensible and right than I perceived before. At this point, I feel like my identity is globally oriented while locally rooted. I know where I’m from and I’m proud of what my local place stands for in this world, and I’m proud to be a part of the PNW culture. Yet, I yearn for international exposure and count myself as a world=traveler who will spend his life seeking to understand foreign places and peoples as best I can.