Teachers felt their formal pre-service training did little to prepare them for teaching a diverse student population. Typically, discussion about diversity was the extent of their training. Teachers felt the best pre-service preparation was student teaching in schools with racially and culturally diverse student populations. In the absence of formal training, they drew upon personal life experiences. Some teachers had traveled extensively; some had lived and taught overseas. Older teachers either had previous job experience working with children of similar backgrounds or felt their accumulated life experiences prepared them for understanding and relating to all kinds of students. Similarly, teachers growing up in urban areas among different races and cultures felt this background contributed to their understanding of and preparation for working with diverse student populations.
Most teachers said they learned about teaching diverse student populations on the job. Some familiarized themselves with the backgrounds of their students by doing research on specific cultures or reading about teaching in diverse settings. Once they felt they had an understanding of their students’ backgrounds, interests, needs, and aptitudes, they then tried to figure out how to differentiate the curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. They relied mainly on trial and error, and received little structured assistance to achieve this goal.
According to the survey findings, about a third (32 percent) of the new teachers did not think their induction programs had any impact when it came to teaching a diverse student population; more than half (55 percent) felt the program had no impact on teaching English language learners.
During the interviews, the teachers said they had few professional development opportunities and limited support for teaching diverse learners. Diversity workshops were the most common form of professional development. In Seattle, diversity workshops are a standard component of the induction process for new teachers. While teachers generally held a positive view of the workshops, most felt they did not offer much in the way of actual classroom practice. Some teachers said their mentors helped them translate what they learned in the workshops into classroom practice. Mentors, peers, and administrators sometimes shared personal knowledge of individual students and their backgrounds, and new teachers found this to be useful.
Teachers felt that addressing diversity should be a goal of the entire school, not something left up to individual teachers. The extent to which a focus on diversity was part of the school culture either supported or impaired teacher efforts to address diversity in the classroom. Teachers pointed to aspects of school culture-low expectations of students of color and of those from poor families-that reinforce the cycle of poverty by asking less of certain students. School policies that labeled, separated, and tracked students with special needs, or those having learning problems, were seen as running counter to the efforts of individual teachers to promote effective teaching in their classrooms.
Although teaching special education students was challenging, teachers also found it to be a valuable learning experience. Teachers that had experience in special education felt they were able to draw upon that experience to teach academically diverse learners in general education classes.
Academic Diversity Support
Teachers struggled to meet the needs of diverse learners. While most felt they made progress as the year progressed, they also voiced frustration at the lack of instructional supports available to them. One teacher commented that half her class was bilingual and required an instructional assistant, but the assistant was frequently pulled out of the classroom to chaperone field trips and do other things. Another teacher felt she was not given adequate time or materials to teach effectively; she wanted fewer students, more classroom support, and less paperwork.
For the most part, teachers were left on their own to address academic diversity. Using trial and error, they introduced techniques they hoped would be effective and then evaluated how well the techniques worked with individual students. Observing and/or working with other teachers was another strategy new teachers employed. Several teachers found that the best way to address student differences was to find out as much about the students as possible and use this information as the basis for instruction.
For the most part, teachers had to come up with their own strategies for developing, implementing, and assessing what instructional strategies were effective with different types of learners. They felt hands-on instructional approaches worked with an array of learning styles.
Teaching Diverse Students
– Get to know each student individually. A good relationship is key to student and teacher success, and is based on open communication, trust, and respect.
– Learn about the racial and cultural backgrounds of your students, and get to know their parents.
– Learn about yourself and your own background. Ask yourself how your own background may affect your teaching style and your relationship with students.
– Create an environment where students can have safe dialogues on diversity, including race, culture, class, and sexual orientation.
– Help foster a school environment where staff members can have open discussions on race, culture, class, and other aspects of diversity.
– Identify and use tools to facilitate discussion around diversity, including facilitation protocols, ground rules for discussion, and contracts. Promote the use of these tools consistently throughout the school community.
– Master a variety of instructional strategies to reach students with different interests and strengths.