By Brett Novick
The school experience has changed remarkably from what students expected only a generation ago. Bullying is no longer considered a harmless rite of passage. Schools move at a frenzied pace and controversies around academic standards and standardized tests rage more than ever. Technology has become an integral part of every aspect of the academic landscape and has created a language that did not exist only a few decades ago. Technology has flattened our planet and put us in connection with those around the world with only a few clicks of the mouse. Education of our students is now, indeed, a global enterprise.
Recognizing culture and being culturally competent is no longer a nicety that allows one to appear “worldly” and engaging; it is now as integral and vital as understanding any other aspect of the school climate.
If we do not embrace and include parents and families of all cultures, we risk building walls rather than bridges between the people we serve. Worse yet, we miss out on the diversity that serves to enrich, enhance and enlighten the school system as a whole. Our communities are at a disadvantage when we don’t shine a light on the multicultural nature of our schools, particularly because working and living in a diverse environment is a valuable life skill that will benefit our students throughout their lives.
So how do we ensure that all families see themselves as a part of the whole school community? Here are some suggestions to invite families to weave their influence into the tapestry of the educational atmosphere—an atmosphere that serves as the backdrop for a school system.
This may seem obvious at first. However, if you don’t see the influence of your own culture on your worldview, you may not recognize that others’ outlooks are also developed from their cultural influences. This can be a particular challenge if you are a member of a majority culture and are not accustomed to your overarching perceptions and beliefs being questioned.
Be careful not to assume your opinion as “right” or a parent’s opinion as “wrong.” When you do so, you serve to isolate yourself, developing tunnel vision through which you cannot see another’s perspective and viewpoints. Listening to families is the best way to be sensitive to culture. In short, “you don’t know what you don’t know” regarding another’s culture, so tread lightly. Be ready to have your own unconscious biases and assumptions revealed to you in the process. Be humble and open to learning from those revelations.
Culture is a big word and defining it can be difficult. We must remember that cultures don’t come from one origin but from a number of different areas. Socioeconomic background, religion, race, region of the country, and a host of other aspects influence our cultural makeup.
If you are going to truly acknowledge culture, it is important to recognize the educational priorities and needs that are unique to the families in your school district. Conducting surveys to solicit ideas for how the school can do better is one way to continue to help build a better environment for all cultures. Such surveys should be created in conjunction with a diverse group of families, staff and administration.
While surveying is easier than ever with the advent of computer-based surveying programs, don’t go it alone. Such surveys should only be carried out with the express, written approval of school and district leadership.
The “Multicultural School Climate Inventory” developed by Utah State University Associate Professor Sherry Marx, Ph.D., and Professor Deborah Byrnes, Ph.D. is an example of a survey that has been used by educators to assess and determine cultural diversity within an educational setting. You can view it at bit.ly/marxbyrnes.
In addition, there are many programs and applications that allow you to create your own surveys, such as Survey Monkey, Survata, Snapsurveys.com, and a host of others.
The world moves at an ever more frenetic pace. Time is at a premium for everyone connected with a school. That being said, if you go to where the families are—cultural organizations, places of worship, and other gathering places—you have the best chance of understanding your community’s genuine needs. Do not assume that if you hear no complaints everyone is satisfied or that you are reaching your goals for multicultural involvement. Listen, be open to suggestions, and—most importantly—expect, accept and learn from criticism. Further, do not take lack of involvement for lack of interest in a child’s education.
If you draw in children for evening activities, they come with their families. If you want to open the doors to your school, develop events that reflect the diversity of the students and parents in the community. It is a win/win situation for all involved.
In recent years, parents are more often invited to be involved in school-based committees. But do those who serve on the committees represent community demographics? It is vital that we invite parents who are a voice for our community as a whole, not only those who are always involved because they always volunteer. Committees that are representative of the diversity of the community are vital in all areas. When addressing character education and issues of harassment, intimidation and bullying—where of intolerance are often explicitly addressed—diverse contributions are indispensable.
Having someone available to translate what you say may seem obvious when you have child study team or intervention and referral team meetings, but what about other times? If you have a parental enrichment activity, or celebrate American Education Week, do you have someone who can help make these times more meaningful to all involved or all who want to be involved? When you offer programs in a language that families can understand, you demonstrate that you genuinely welcome all families to your school.
It is important that you recognize, however, that the translator should be someone who respects the confidence of the family involved and, if at all possible, is a fellow faculty member.
Bringing outside cultural influences into the school setting enables students to recognize the importance of valuing cultural diversity as they make their way in the world. It also signals to families the importance of not only teaching tolerance but demonstrating its vital nature as well.
The American education system’s cultural diversity, like our country itself, is one of our most vital resources. Within our doors we have an opportunity to learn something from each other. We have the ability to educate students not only in academics, but also on how to be a citizen of the world. As boundaries around the world are blurred by the use of technology and global communication, we must recognize that our students’ families are a critical resource in preparing students for the next generation’s prerequisites of success.
Brett Novick, MA, LMFT, has been a school social worker in the Brick Township School District for 17 years. He holds a master’s degree in family therapy from Friends University in Wichita, Kansas, and certification in school social work from Monmouth University, West Long Branch. He has written two books, Parents and Teachers Working Together and Productive Educator, both published by Rowman and Littlefield.
Novick has been named his district’s Teacher of the Year and the New Jersey School Counselors Association Human Rights Advocate of the Year. In 2011, he was honored with the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities Inclusive Educator of the Year Award and Fellowship and in 2013 with a Community Advocate Award from the Ocean County Mental Health Association. He was the recipient of the 2016 NJEA Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Human and Civil Rights Award. Novick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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