Rules of Engagement
Teaching teachers about cultural competence
BY BRYAN ANDERSEN
White students majoring in education often complain they have no culture. This surprising statement is explored in a book co-authored by OSU's Jean Moule, assistant professor of early childhood/ elementary education.
Moule published Cultural Competence, A Primer for Educators, along with psychologist Jerry V. Diller, last year. The authors wrote the book because they wanted tomorrow's educators to be culturally competent.
"I needed this book for a course I was teaching. I was not happy with the books coming across my desk," Moule said in a recent interview at her office on the Corvallis campus.
Culture is a kind of inner programming that gives life structure and meaning, according to Moule and Diller. It provides rules on how individuals act towards each other. What is acceptable in one culture is not necessarily appropriate in another. That can create misunderstanding between people from different cultures, including between teachers and their students. A teacher who is culturally competent feels at ease with and understands people from other cultures, or at least can recognize warning signs indicating cultural miscommunication may be taking place.
A well-meaning public school teacher who corrects student papers using a red pen is an example presented in Moule's book. Korean parents are horrified to see their child's name written in red, since in their culture a person's name is only written in red when he or she dies. Moule says such incidents can happen frequently in classrooms of teachers not culturally competent.
A 2004 incident involving the UO College of Education, reported in the April 28, 2005 issue of Eugene Weekly, where a Native American student was advised at a career seminar to look potential employers in the eye and shake their hands, despite this being considered rude in Cherokee culture, illustrates how difficult it can be to be culturally competent.
The majority of education majors in Oregon's universities and in teacher preparation programs nationwide are white females. But the students they will teach are increasingly diverse, racially and culturally. This creates new challenges for educators.
"Many white students know nothing and feel nothing about where they came from. They lack the kind of connection to a cultural heritage and community that they see among people of color and white ethnics," the authors write.
When asked what white culture is, Moule expanded on the example of eye contact. In the white culture of European descent it is considered a sign of honesty and good character to look someone in the eye when addressing them, she said. In many non-white cultures, for instance in Vietnamese or Latino cultures, it is sometimes considered rude to look another person in the eye. This is particularly true if that person is an authority figure. Many of her white college students are unaware of this.
Moule said one reason some white students from Oregon towns feel they have no culture is that their parents and grandparent didn't talk openly about past conditions in the communities where they grew up.
"Many of our OSU students come from communities that are almost all white," Moule says. "They are almost all white on purpose, because of racist laws in Oregon, not in the 1890s, but we're talking about the 1930s and '40s. Most of the towns in Oregon were 'sundown towns.' Some towns had whistles that blew at sundown."
A book called Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism (2005) by James Loewen, says thousands of communities throughout the U.S. had rules openly enforced as late as the 1940's that required blacks to leave the city limits before 6 pm. Loewen's website lists 21 Oregon towns and cities as having been possible sundown towns, including Eugene and Salem.
Moule said some Oregon towns' whistles sounded nightly into the 1980s, and attitudes behind the practice continued at least into the '90s.
Whatever the truth about past conditions in some Oregon communities, classrooms in the state's public schools are expected to continue becoming increasingly diverse. William L. Bainbridge of Dayton University says "rising immigration and a baby boom echo will swell student populations to a peak of 50 million students in 2014." How will future educators, primarily white women, relate with students from different cultures?
Things are further complicated when one considers the scope of the issue beyond race. Currently 80 percent of U.S. public school teachers are female, according to an article published this year in the Boston Globe. The proportion of male teachers is at a 40-year low. This coincides with boys continuing to fall behind girls in many school subjects and comprising 70 percent of special education classes, says an article published in Instructor magazine (2004) by researchers Diane Cornell and Betsey Gunzelmann. Some are asking if cross-gender communication issues and the need for male role models are factors in boys' falling achievement.
Other issues between teachers and students include differences of class, age, urban and rural backgrounds, religion and sexual orientation, says OSU's Rich Shintaku, associate professor and department chair, Adult Education and Higher Education Leadership.
Moule and Dillar acknowledged these issues in the introduction of their book, but decided to focus on race and ethnicity because too broad a reach would lead to a superficial treatment.
Placing OSU education majors in bilingual schools in Salem or an inner city school in Portland for pre-service teaching experiences is a practical step, but a large part of learning to be culturally competent is having an open attitude.
"When I stand in front of my students on the first day of any quarter and look at a sea of faces — in the fall quarter sometimes they are freshmen — and I'm thinking, this is the first day of the first week of their classes at college. I'm going give them facts and tell them stories that are slowly going to open their minds to the fact that they have been raised almost totally, OSU students, in a very limited environment," she said.
Moule said teaching others to be culturally competent is difficult but important work. Her book contains exercises to help students work through complicated issues involved, and has chapters on working with Native Americans, Latino and Latina students, Asians, African Americans, and white ethnic students.
Commenting on the challenge, Moule said, "The more you see, the more you know, and the more you feel the need to act."