Restructuring Teacher Education to Prepare Teachers for Diversity

Jacqueline Jordan Irvine talked with participants about the need to restructure teacher education programs to prepare teachers for diversity. The day of the typical student being a white, middle-class child from a stable, two-parent home in the suburbs is over, Irvine noted. Teachers are not being adequately prepared for the fact that when they enter the classroom, it will not be filled with Beaver Cleavers.

"Students of color represent the majority of students in all but two of this country's 25 largest school systems," she said. Multicultural courses exist, but the "isolated course is not the answer," she warned. Some research indicates that even teachers who had had some multicultural course work were still unprepared to teach in classrooms where diversity was the rule. Even more disconcerting is the fact that attitudes among preservice teachers toward "minorities" are more negative now than they have been in 60 years. Add to that the fact that the failure rate in training cross-cultural workers in any field (the Peace Corps, for example) is high, and the result is a daunting challenge facing American education.

Studies indicate, Irvine, said, that individuals involved in cross-cultural training experience a "U-curve" phenomenon. "They are initially very excited about going to another country or working with Navajo or Hispanic students," she explained. "But these feelings decrease with increased contact. Unfortunately, a lot of prospective teachers drop out at this point, at the bottom of the U curve, because they are not provided the proper support and additional training required to help their attitudes rise again. This kind of support and training takes time."

Another factor involved in successful cross-cultural training is self-selection. Despite efforts to test potential candidates for psychological and other indicators of suitability, self-selection remains a key indicator of potential success. In addition, students need training in problem identification and problem solving skills rather than in knowing "25 things about Native Americans." Relying on such an approach can encourage rather than discourage stereotyping, and does not take into account individual differences and changes in groups over time.

Irvine then discussed what she considered ten essential components for restructuring teacher education programs to prepare teachers for diversity. The first component is to understand and appreciate what students know and then to use that knowledge to teach new concepts. "It is a process of discovery," Irvine said. "It involves constructing and designing relevant cultural metaphors, and using cultural images to bridge the gap between what students know and what the teacher is trying to teach." For teachers unfamiliar with some cultures, that will require, at a minimum, listening to what students talk about and picking up on what they like and understand.

Next, Irvine listed the need to revise teacher education curriculum to allow teachers the opportunity to learn the history and culture of the groups in their schools. "If we prevent students from taking such classes, then we seriously undermine our ability to teach for diversity."

Third, Irvine advised teacher educators to acknowledge the fact that a large number of students are afraid of minority students and their style. "When we don't give students the opportunity to admit their fears about teaching these children, we contribute to problems in recruitment and retention." Student teachers have questions about why the students they have contact with dress, talk, walk, and in other ways perform as they do, Irvine said. These questions, left unanswered, turn into apprehension. "We need to acknowledge this if teachers are concerned about it."

Fourth on Irvine's list of components was knowledge of language and dialect. "Obviously, if teachers can't understand children, they can't teach them. So, we need to prepare them to speak the language they will encounter. They should get academic credit for knowing or learning a second language. They need to develop an ear for dialect." In addition, Irvine said, teachers need to be able to communicate with their students so that they can teach them how to speak standard English, because "they need to know it."

Cognition and learning styles were fifth on Irvine's list of components. Assuming that various racial groups have different learning styles is dangerous, Irvine warned, but added that teachers must become aware that not all children flourish under a single teaching style. "The children who are not compatible with their styles get left out," she said, "so we must emphasize the need for teachers to be aware that all children, regardless of their race or ethnicity, have different learning styles. And teachers should have a variety of teaching styles. If a child does not master a skill the first time, try again, but not the same way you taught it the first time."

Understanding how to communicate with parents and the larger community was Irvine's sixth component for restructuring teacher education. Student teachers need community-based field experiences, she said, and so they need to get out into communities during preservice programs. Day care, recreation, and youth centers offer opportunities for student teachers to get to know the community in which they may teach. Furthermore, credit should be given for such experience. "Not all the parents are 30 or 40 years old," Irvine said. "Sometimes we are talking about 21 year old parents or younger. And teachers need to know how to talk to them. Some of these parents, by the way, are negative about school because of their own experiences, so we need to be able to help them know how to help their children succeed in school."

Among the most complex components for restructuring teacher education is training teachers in an ethic of caring, Irvine said. One research effort in California indicated that perhaps the most powerful element in successful teaching in culturally diverse settings is for the teacher to indicate that she or he cares for students as individuals. Providing for this in teacher preparation programs can be complex, but is not impossible. Teachers simply need to have significant experience working with minority children before they enter the classroom, and they need to receive credit for it within their program. This may occur through community-based experiences, summer camps, after school programs, study abroad, or internships.

The student teaching experience is critical in the preparation process, and many students indicate that this experience is the deciding factor in whether to actually teach. Irvine urged participants to consider an eighth component ensuring that the experience occurs in only excellent schools. "Students ought to be exposed to a wide variety of schools over their teacher education program," she said, "but the internship ought to be an excellent school. And the cooperating teachers should be rewarded with stipends and should be regarded as especially vital parts of the faculty." If there are not excellent schools with diverse populations nearby, Irvine said, then serious thought should be given to getting student teachers into schools at a distance.

Ninth, Irvine said teachers need to be trained as change agents. "We need to train teachers to reform, reculture, redesign the schools they work in." Teachers, especially those in their first years, do not last in uncaring, unsupportive schools. "How can we expect teachers to show positive attitudes when they work in school where they do not feel positive about themselves?" she asked. One solution is to help teachers learn how to reform problem schools; by making this a part of teacher preparation, teachers will not be alone or considered mavericks when they speak up about the need for change, but will have a cohort of colleagues with them.

Last on Irvine's list for restructuring teacher education is the necessity for including people of color on faculty of colleges of education. "If schools of education are not able to recruit and retain minority faculty, how will they ever provide diversity for their own students?" And the pool for hiring such faculty already exists, Irvine said, one half of all doctorates earned by African Americans are in education, yet more than 90% of all professors are white.

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Published in Teaching for Diversity