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Teacher training programs strive to bridge culture, racial gaps in the classroom

Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford lectured incoming Teach for America recruits in Nashville about how to address race and culture in their classrooms.
Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford lectured incoming Teach for America recruits in Nashville about how to address race and culture in their classrooms.
G. Tatter

A week after nine black people were shot and killed during a Bible study inside their church in Charleston, S.C., Donna Ford stood in front of a packed lecture hall at Lipscomb University, talking to Teach for America’s Nashville corps members about how to address race in their classrooms.

“Let’s go to Charleston,” she said of the June 15 attack, in which a 21-year-old white man has been charged with the killings. “The world seems shocked that the families (of the victims) are forgiving so quickly.”

Ford, who is black, attributed part of the families’ spirit of forgiveness to a virtue that she considers a cornerstone of African-American culture: a strong sense of spirituality.

“So how is this going to play out in your classroom?” she asked her students.

Ford is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, where she specializes in cultural competency: the ability to collaborate with people across cultures. She also instructs incoming Teach for America of Greater Nashville recruits on the topic twice a week during their summer teacher training.

Teacher preparatory programs such as Teach for America, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, are focusing on cultural competency more than ever.

Last school year, for the first time, most U.S. public school students were non-white. That’s been true for much longer in districts such as Memphis-based Shelby County Schools, which is 80 percent non-white, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which is 55 percent non-white. Research shows that, even 50 years after de jure school desegregation, low expectations from teachers contribute to the racial achievement gap by hindering achievement for non-white students, especially black students.

Vanderbilt’s Peabody College addresses classroom diversity in several programs, and almost all of its graduate students study the topic in at least one class.

Teacher training schools don’t have a choice but to address racial and cultural differences if they want to be successful, according to Ford.

“If you don’t manage diversity, diversity will manage you,” she said.

Recruiting more teachers of color is important, she says, but it’s not enough. Teachers and students of all races and cultures must be equipped to have productive relationships. Ford talks with her students about the importance of being sensitive to differences in language, nationality and sexuality, but she especially highlights the treatment of black students.

“People are just so unaccustomed to talking about African-Americans and African-American culture,” she said.

During a recent TFA training in Nashville, Ford walked through some behaviors that teachers might misinterpret from black students. Black students, for example, might be more likely to talk when the teacher is talking, mimicking call-and-response, a common practice in traditionally African-American churches in which the congregation punctuates a minister’s remarks with verbal exclamations. However, some teachers would perceive such behavior as simply talking out of turn.

One white Teach for America recruit told Ford he was wary of stereotyping his students when he starts teaching on his own in the fall. Ford responded that being conscious of cultural differences doesn’t interfere with teaching students as individuals first. Everyone is different, she said. However, being educated about culture might help explain some student behaviors.

Elizabeth Self, a doctoral student studying cultural competency at Vanderbilt, says that even the most well-intentioned teachers can fall prey to unconscious biases. The key to thwarting them is looking introspectively before a teacher ever steps in the classroom, she said.

“There are certain things that are not totally going to click until you get out into the classroom,” she said. “But we need to move the bar in how far we get teachers, at least in their thinking, before they ever get there.”

Self, who is white, knows from experience. She went from teaching at a predominantly white school to a predominantly Hispanic and African-American school in Chicago. Now, she’s researching ways to prepare teachers for the realities of U.S. schools. Teachers-to-be improvise conversations with actors based on real-life classroom experiences, such as situations where a student might feel singled out because of race, or a conference with an immigrant parent.

“I know the damage that I did as someone who was unprepared on these issues, and so part of what I want to do is make sure that the teachers that I train go into the classroom better prepared to respond to these things than I was,” Self said.

Teachers and students often are reluctant to talk about race, or even angry about it, according to Ford.

“Many people believe they’re bias-free, or they can’t possibly be racist or classist or sexist,” Ford said. “To help teachers acknowledge that they have biases is the first step to letting them have some sense of relief.”

Ford also conducts professional development through school districts across the country. She would like to do more such trainings in Tennessee school districts — not after racial tension flares, but before it happens.

“We need to stop being reactive, but being proactive,” she said. “Diversity is here to stay. It is inevitable. We have to keep the conversation going.”

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