How to Change White Teachers’ Lenses
America’s students are now majority-minority, but its teachers are not. That’s why they need to be “culturally competent.”
Amy Davis teaches a second-grade class about parachutes at Manchester Avenue Elementary School.
LOS ANGELES—When she began teaching a class of second-graders in South Los Angeles in 2002, Amy Davis expected she’d occasionally hit snags with issues like lesson planning. But she figured she’d have little trouble relating to her mostly low-income black and Latino students. After all, she was raised nearby, in a household headed by a single mother who for years survived on welfare and food stamps. Like her students, Davis knew what it was like to grow up poor.
But Davis, who is white, struggled to connect with several of the children—particularly a 7-year-old black student named Patrick.
If Patrick came to school in good spirits, Davis’ day generally went smoothly. But if he showed up in a sullen or angry mood, Davis knew there was a good chance he would derail her plans for the class. She couldn’t control his meltdowns, which could be triggered by both his classmates and his schoolwork. On those days, she’d often end up crying throughout the car ride home.
It took months of worrying, and the advice of a veteran colleague in the classroom next door, for Davis to have an epiphany: Despite her own experiences as a child, she was now, unlike her students, a firmly established member of the middle class. The leap from economic insecurity to stability had created an inevitable chasm.
Davis, now 48, marks that moment as the beginning of her efforts to become a more “culturally competent” teacher, someone who strives to understand where her students are coming from—literally and metaphorically.
In the most basic terms, Davis represents the quintessential American teacher: white, middle-class, female. But where Davis approaches teaching as a social-justice mission, and has painstakingly worked to build influential relationships with her students, countless other well-intentioned educators never succeed in forging similar bonds. Yet they are charged with changing lives and boosting test scores in some of the nation’s poorest and most struggling schools.
It’s a disconnect that’s raising alarms for educators and parents alike at a time when minority children now account for more than half of all students in public schools and the teacher workforce remains more than 80 percent white. And so teacher-training programs are increasingly trying to figure out how to bridge this divide. The goal is to help make teachers more aware of their own biases and enable them to understandHow white teachers can become culturally competent.: