Supporting Teachers with Diversity-plus Competencies for Working With Culturally, Linguistically, and Racially Diverse Students, Families, and Communities

Guest Editors: Guofang Li, Jim Anderson, Wendy Carr, and Jan Hare 

The University of British Columbia


Currently, one in four children in K-12 schools in North America is from a minority language background. This diverse population includes native-born learners (both of Indigenous and immigrant families), foreign-born immigrant students, and refugees. In Metro Vancouver, these culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse students are now the majority (over 50%) at many elementary and secondary schools (B.C. Ministry of Education, 2014). Recent humanitarian efforts in both Canada and the U.S. have led to a surge in refugee populations, who usually have very different educational experiences and needs from native-born diverse learners and those who came as immigrants (Brown, 2015; Hyslop, 2015; Ireland, 2016).

These diverse groups of students are most at risk in mainstream schools. For example, in a longitudinal study that tracked 1300 refugee students in B.C., Gunderson (2007) found that refugees typically do worse in school than their immigrant or native-born peers and also have a very high “disappearance” or dropout rate from school. For Indigenous students in both the U.S. and Canada, there is a significant disparity in achievement compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. Scores of achievement for Native American students are lower than most ethnic and racial groups (Ninneman, Deaton, & Francis-Begay, 2017). Reports and scholarship continually advocate for culturally relevant learning environments for diverse learners.

One key factor contributing to diverse students’ under-achievement is teachers’ under-preparedness to teach them. Several U.S. studies have revealed that many teacher education programs do not sensitize pre-service teachers to the cultural and linguistic differences they will likely encounter in their future classrooms nor provide them with experiences, strategies, and pedagogical knowledge to address these disparities (Durgunoglu & Hughes, 2010; Li, Hinojosa, & Wexler, 2018). Once in their teaching positions, they also receive little professional development in teaching students from diverse backgrounds (Quintero & Hanson, 2017). Similarly, in Canada, few teacher education programs require coursework in cultural and linguistic diversity. Across Canada, we are only recently seeing the emergence of required course instruction in Indigenous education for teacher candidates. For example, in British Columbia, the University of British Columbia has the only teacher education program with a mandatory course on teaching English Language Learners.

It is, therefore, not surprising that many pre- and in-service teachers across Canada and the U.S. report that they lack effective strategies and tools and hence feel underprepared to address these children’s linguistic and cultural needs and work as partners with their parents and communities (Campbell, 2017; Webster & Valeo, 2011). In a comprehensive study of the status of teachers’ professional learning across Canada, Campbell (2017) found that teachers identified “understanding, teaching, and supporting diverse students [including Aboriginal students], as well as addressing inequities and engaging in complex learning for changing social, demographic, economic, political, and technological contexts” (p.10) as pressing professional learning needs.

Several provinces in Canada have begun to respond to these needs. The Ontario Ministry of Education has developed a policy framework so that school boards and schools can work together to improve academic achievement. Alberta and British Columbia have implemented new curricula that aim to promote 21st century career skills and critical thinking skills, inclusive of diverse languages, including Aboriginal languages, cultures, and histories at each grade level and within each subject area. As well, teacher-regulating bodies in both these provinces have imitated standards for the teaching profession whereby new teachers are expected to have competency to teach Indigenous perspectives and content, a trend likely to continue in other provinces.

The curricular and policy developments and the increasing diversity of children attending public schools in Canada and the U.S., and their overall underachievement, urgently call for teacher education programs and K-12 systems to prepare and support teachers to meet the needs of students more adequately than has been the case. It becomes imperative that teachers are supported in acquiring what Li (2018) calls “diversity plus competences”: specific knowledge and experiences related to working with culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse learners, communicating with their families, and engaging with their communities. While the need for the “diversity-plus competences” is inarguable, less clear is what this broad knowledge base is and how it can/should be systematically integrated into teacher education programs or teacher professional development (Li, 2018). In this issue, we showcase several approaches and directions for “diversity-plus” preparation, including becoming familiar with diverse communities, promoting academic-focused, curriculum-centered parental engagement, attention to students’ mental health, and developing family social capital through alternative programs.

As Faculties of Education engage in the foundational work of supporting pre-service teachers, as well as in-service educators through graduate programming, there is a need to understand wise and promising practices in teacher education programs and continuing teacher professional learning and how these practices can best be supported. The goal of this special issue is to address this pressing imperative in teacher learning by bringing together four perspectives from researchers and teacher educators with expertise in working with culturally, linguistically, and racially diverse children and families from the U.S. and Canada. The scholars share lessons learned from their teaching and research that are critical for preparing effective teachers to work with diverse learners, families and communities.

In Working with racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse students, families and communities: Strategies for preparing preservice teachers, Patricia Edwards and Kristen White first share lessons learned from their contrasting experiences working in local schools: the first author’s successful experience coordinating a Home Literacy Project at a Professional Development School that built on the “curriculum-centered parental involvement” model and the second author’s reflections on teaching in a low-SES school in a suburb serving predominantly minority students that perpetuated a culturally unresponsive curriculum. Based on their prior experiences, as well as their joint research on preparing teachers for working with diverse families, they offer a series of activities for teacher educators to incorporate the family as a focus throughout the graduate and teacher education courses they teach. The activities and strategies can be adapted across disciplines and focus on grade level (e.g., preK, elementary, middle, high school) and context (i.e., urban, rural, suburban).

Mehtap Kirmaci, Martha Allexsaht-Snider, and Cory Buxton provide an excellent example of curriculum-centered parental involvement in their study of two STEM teachers’ and two ESOL teachers’ lived experiences with Latino families in the LISELL-B project (Language-Rich Inquiry Science with English Language Learners through Biotechnology) that offered bilingual science workshops for families in two school districts in the Southeastern U.S. In their article, Teachers’ experiences with Spanish-speaking, bilingual families in a science learning context: Empowering teachers through home-school partnerships, the authors document how the teachers developed increased empathy toward Latino families, became more familiar with parents, and developed more meaningful relationships with them. The workshops helped teachers question their own prior assumptions about Latino students and their families. Based on the professional growth of the teachers in their project, the authors encourage teacher educators to design alternative contexts for teacher education and provide pre-service and in-service teachers with sustained community investigation projects and critical reflections on their own practices that can disrupt aspects of the current dominant discourse of standardization and accountability in U.S. schools.

In working with refugees, while curriculum-centered parental involvement is significant, it is not enough. Educators must also be educated about the impact of mental health issues related to trauma, which many refugees experience. In Educator perspectives on the social and academic integration of Syrian refugees in Canada, Antoinette Gagné and her research team report the perspectives of K-12 educators on the social and academic integration of Syrian refugee children and families in rural, urban, and suburban schools in Ontario, Canada. Through interviews and surveys with educators, Gagné et al. reveal that one of the greatest challenges that educators face is the high number of students who have experienced trauma before their arrival in Canada and how it significantly interferes with their learning. However, many teachers lack preparation for working with refugee populations and do not understand the effects of trauma, and there is an uneven provision of services for refugee families and support for teachers across different schools and districts. The authors conclude with concrete suggestions for policy, as well as for preparing trauma-informed teachers who are sensitive about the educational impacts of trauma and how these suggestions might be operationalized in different contexts.

One such important context is family literacy programs. In No peeing on the sidewalk! Family literacy programs in culturally, linguistically, and socially diverse communities, Jim Anderson and Ann Anderson reflect on their experiences in three decades of working in family literacy initiatives in diverse communities, including an Early Intervention program in a rural village in eastern Canada, a family literacy program in inner city neighborhoods in Western Canada, and the Parents as Literacy Supporters in Immigrant and Refugee Communities project in a large urban area of Canada. Since these different communities have different goals and needs, Anderson and Anderson share that the key lessons of ensuring community collaboration, being contextually responsive, conducting continuous assessment and evaluation of the programs to ensure impact, and focusing on developing social capital among adults to allow greater participation in their children’s education. Anderson and Anderson also outline several challenges of such work, including issues of recruitment, continuity and program fidelity, adequate resources, and long-term program sustainability. Finally, Anderson and Anderson provide concrete strategies for teachers when working with diverse families, highlighting the need for cultural familiarity with the families, linguistic affirmation, and greater flexibility to family needs and circumstances.

In addition to these research articles that focus on working with families in this issue, there are reviews of four books that offer additional approaches and perspectives to working with diverse learners. Ingrid Piller’s (2017) most recent volume, Linguistic diversity and social justice: An introduction to applied sociolinguistics, provides a foundational text for educators, promoting a critical understanding of contemporary multiculturalism by highlighting the role of English as the medium of global linguistic inequality. Choi and Ollerhead (2018) in their edited volume, Plurilingualism in teaching and learning: Complexities across contexts, extend this critique by showcasing, in their collection of studies of policies and practices from around the world, how plurilingual education (rather than the English-dominated multiculturalism above) can be achieved. The last two reviews focus on books that provide more concrete strategies for teachers for their classrooms. Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world (Paris & Alim, 2017) offers teachers strategies for developing critical perspectives, challenging inequities that schools (and other institutions) perpetuate; while Inclusive literacy teaching: Differentiating approaches in multilingual elementary classrooms (Helman et al., 2016) showcases an asset-based pedagogy. It provides ideas for classroom teachers on how to identify students’ language, sociocultural, and academic resources; decide what may be unknown for the students; and connect students’ funds of knowledge to the curricula in cross-linguistic teaching and learning contexts.



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Published: 2018-05-29