Guestblogger Pia P. Payne-Shannon teaches sixth and seventh grade Language Arts classes at Nellie Stone Johnson Community School, Minneapolis, Minn. She participated in New Voice Strategies’ VIVA Minneapolis Idea Exchange.
Cultural competency relates to the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully teach and relate to students from diverse cultures. As an African-American teacher in Minneapolis, I have witnessed the cultural shifts in our schools. Nellie Stone Johnson Community School was predominantly African-American/Black and Asian a few years ago, but is now African-American/Black and Latino. As teachers, we should have access to quality staff development courses to help us adjust our curricula, as well as afford us an opportunity to become bilingual in Spanish without having to pay for classes, which we cannot afford. This is called catering to the needs of our students and families.
The VIVA Minneapolis Idea Exchange report Connections for Learning, which I co-authored earlier this year, is filled with recommendations that could help to bridge the gaps in our current education system. District professional development needs to bridge the cultural gap that exists between teachers and students, and among diverse students. As teachers, we know structural changes need to be implemented in order for our academic environments to be more conducive to scholarly achievement. Therefore, if Minneapolis Public Schools is serious about the education of our students, then cultural competency staff development cannot be voluntary or based on the feel-good needs of adults. We need to demonstrate to our families that we are serious about valuing the diversity of our students by ensuring that all staff working with students become culturally self-aware, knowledgeable about the dynamics of cultural interactions, and select relevant curricula to acknowledge the cultural diversity in our schools.
The time is now for district and union officials to negotiate how these changes can be implemented in Minneapolis. It is not enough to provide professional development, which is optional or voluntary when it comes to the needs of our students being met. The doors of opportunity for our students, especially students of color, are continuously being closed because the goal post keeps moving for them. They need to know that we care enough to make sure their teachers and staff are culturally aware of the diverse students whom we are teaching every day.
Teachers continuously are finding themselves in diverse classrooms trying to develop relationships with students who are from different cultural backgrounds and have had distinct experiences that differ from their peers and teachers. To foster respect and productivity, teachers need to be mindful of their students’ backgrounds. This, alone, would help to reduce conflict. The relationship between the teacher and student must be viewed as a positive partnership for learning, not an adversarial relationship based on fear, misunderstanding and mistrust. Students need to be able to identify with the curriculum of the classroom and pedagogy used in the classroom. We need to foster child-centered educational programming, which meets the needs of the whole child. Our students should have access to extracurricular classes that explore their various interests.
Enhancing the cultural competence of its staff will help foster the districts’ goals of improving student academic achievement, improving the effectiveness of teachers, and meet accountability requirements, while improving the communication between families and schools.