Five Symptoms of a Culturally Unconscious Educator

Suzanne  -  Jul 06, 2015  -  , , , , , ,  - 

Dragonfly recently came across an interesting post in the Educator’s Lounge group on LinkedIn. Co-authored by Kimberly McLeod, Academic Dean and Executive Director at Texas Southern University, and Wendy Mackey, School Administration Supervisor for the Halifax Regional School Board and adjunct faculty member for St. Francis Xavier University, the article discusses what happens when teachers are unaware that their own unconscious behaviours are a contributing factor in student outcomes.

According to McLeod and Mackey, teachers are “culturally unconscious” if they:

  • blame the student for poor outcomes
  • assume that they have the respect of students simply because they’re the teacher
  • are unaware that they employ a teaching practice that produces inequities
  • expect students to assimilate into dominant systemic “norms”
  • have low expectations for student achievement

These are all huge issues for teachers who work with Aboriginal learners. Aboriginal students are routinely blamed for poor outcomes, when the real problem is the systemic and institutional approach to teaching and learning. Teachers rarely understand the importance that relationship building has on Aboriginal student achievement – Aboriginal cultures are relational in nature, which means students are process-oriented and tend to be big-picture thinkers – and although many teachers come to Aboriginal schools or plan for their Aboriginal students with the best of intentions, they fail to see how their teaching practice contributes to the barriers faced by Aboriginal learners. They also tend to have low expectations of Aboriginal students, and when those expectations are confirmed by poor outcomes, they blame the student rather than their approach – which brings us right back around to symptom #1 in this list.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Aboriginal students – or students from any marginalized community – is the issue of behavioural expectations. Aboriginal students, whether on-reserve, rural, or urban, are socialized from a much different cultural perspective, and they tend to have different ways of being in the world. This may include a preference for experiential learning, a visual or tactile learning style, a strong connection to (and need for) oral tradition, and a need for reciprocal relationships based on respect. When those needs are not met, students will be disengaged, and will find other ways to occupy their time while in the classroom – activities that may not be seen as “learning” by the teacher.

Because Aboriginal peoples form their identities in relation to the group, education is seen as important when it allows a student to use their emerging gifts to be of service to the community. Educators working with Aboriginal students must know their students well and must understand that transformation is a central part of Aboriginal education.

Read the full text of Kimberly McLeod and Wendy Mackey’s article below.

Five Symptoms of a Culturally Unconscious Educator

By Kimberly McLeod and Wendy Mackey

Culturally unconscious teachers don’t know that they are in a state of cultural comatose. They are completely unaware that any deficits or biases exist in their world, including their teaching world. They are sweet, well-intentioned people that cause academic harm because they are completely unaware that their very own unconscious behaviours may be a contributing factor to teaching and learning achievement gaps.

Five symptoms of the culturally unconscious:

1. You blame the victim. Sign number one that you are culturally unconscious. “My student outcomes are not my fault. It’s the parent’s fault, it’s the administrator’s fault, it’s the fault of a weak system, it’s the student’s fault. It’s everyone else’s fault – but mine.” Or “Sure, I’ll take responsibility for 10 percent of the outcomes, but 90 percent is out of my control.” Culturally unconscious teachers are experts in the blame-shifting game. Experts.

2. A belief that a sparkle of glitter means you’ve hit student relationship gold. Just because students are in the same space with you doesn’t mean they are sharing their space with you. All glitter isn’t gold – so keep digging. Culturally unconscious teachers reveal their unconsciousness when they assume that by being the teacher, they have the respect of the students and a relationship. Culturally conscious teachers are aware that student relationships don’t come prepackaged; you have to build them. Relationships, once built, must also be sustained.

3. All children can learn. Yet in the classroom of the culturally unconscious, all children are not learning. There exists a gap between good intentions and execution. This is very common with culturally unconscious instruction. Culturally unconscious teachers say they believe all children can learn, but the result of their teaching practices produces inequities – so all children are not learning. Usually the reason they give for all children not learning is… see #1 of this list.

4. We have rules for a reason. If they do not follow our rules, and do as we expect, when we expect, as we expect, then something must be wrong with them. Culturally unconscious teaching practices expect students to assimilate into systemic, expected norms. Rather than creating a culture in which both the student and teacher are able to co-exist and experience success together, unconscious teachers operate under the belief that if students don’t fit into the teaching norm, then they don’t fit at all.

5. Low Expectations. If you have said or heard any of these phrases you or someone in your circle may be culturally unconscious and not know it:

  • “These poor children” (accompanied by a headshake of pity). “You can’t expect much from them.”
  • “The apple doesn’t fall from the tree.”
  • “These children are just not ready.”
  • “What do you expect? Their parents don’t value education.”
  • “These children don’t have the tools they need to be successful in school. They were born at a disadvantage.”
  • “They are already so far behind.”
  • “If they just knew how to behave, then we could teach them.”
  • “They can handle the assignment – just make it easier.”

Translation: why try? Or: try as you will, it won’t make a difference anyway. Followed by the headshake of pity and shame, or a shrugging of the shoulders that says, “Oh, well. Whatever. Whatever.”

So – what does culturally conscious teaching look like?

Culturally conscious teachers are those educators that believe in their student’s ability to learn regardless of race, culture, or socio-economic background. Culturally conscious teachers know that to understand their students, they must first know their students. They intentionally build relationships with students instead of hoping they will happen. They take students’ everyday life experiences and interests and use them as a catalyst to spark curricular engagement. In doing so they are being responsive to the students’ cultural learning styles. The classroom of a culturally conscious teacher becomes a shared learning space where every student feels valued and knows they’re intellectually capable and will succeed. In a culturally conscious classroom, the teacher understands it is the moral imperative to ensure that every student in his/her charge not only meets the academic benchmark but is also able to translate those benchmarks into positive real-life outcomes.