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Multicultural Awareness Helps Teachers Spur Students' Success, Says Study

Student teachers who report greater awareness of and comfort with issues of cultural diversity in the classroom are better at building more positive classroom environments that help every student succeed, according to a new study by New York University's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

The study, published in the Journal of Teacher Education, is based on surveys about the multicultural beliefs of 2,473 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in teacher certification programs at a private U.S. university between 2010 and 2015. The surveys were given to students in the first few months of their first semesters. Master teachers then observed and evaluated about 60 percent of these preservice candidates in their first semester of student teaching.

Researchers studying the surveys and student teaching observation reports found a correlation between higher levels of multicultural awareness and the ability to create more nurturing classroom environments.

"The punchline is this: 'Look, policymakers, this is not some fuzzy thing,'" said Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, assistant professor of international education at NYU Steinhardt and the study's lead author. "We're not hugging each other saying, 'It's great to have multicultural awareness.' Our paper shows that if you have this multicultural awareness, it's linked to better classroom practice. This is evidence that really matters."

Yet "multicultural awareness," according to the study, varies significantly among future teachers depending on their race and ethnicity. Black and Latino preservice teachers, for instance, report in their initial questionnaires greater multicultural awareness than their white counterparts. Asian-American preservice teachers report having the lowest levels of multicultural awareness.  

But preservice teachers, particularly Latinos and Asian Americans, who had some experience working with students of color report higher levels of multicultural awareness on questionnaires, suggesting that candidates may be able to develop a better understanding of diverse student populations over time and in the right settings.

Bottom line: Preservice teachers need better training in how to address cultural diversity in their classrooms so they can all help their students to succeed, and that training should address issues of race head on. (This blog shows how one such approach, the Double Check professional development program operating in 30 Maryland middle schools, aims to teach teachers how to address race and equity in the classroom.) 

But Cherng's own observations of multicultural courses for preservice teachers show there's a lot of room for improvement. In the courses Cherng observed for a different study, student teachers were often asked to reflect on their identity. The white students never addressed their race. Instead, they talked about socio-economic background. One student said she understood disadvantage because she had a single mother. Cherng said students of color might think, 'Did you just equate having a single mother with being Latina?'

The professor leading the class didn't question the preservice teachers' thinking, or open up the topic to discussion. The whole issue of race and its relation to identity, the purpose of the class, went without discussion.

"Teachers who lead classrooms with a lack of knowledge and skills in talking about issues that kids want to talk aboutrace, gender and sexualityare at a disadvantage," said Cherng. "They have no training so they end up silencing these conversations."

Cherng said the way he approaches these conversations in his own teaching is to frame privilege as something that isn't shameful. In a perfect world we would all have a lot of privilege, he said. So when white preservice teachers ask Cherng if they have a role in teaching diverse students, this is what he tells them: "You have privilege. So if you're not in this fight with us, when in some ways you have incredible power, that doesn't make sense."

These kinds of conversations should be brought into the teaching training program, said Cherng. As a middle school teacher in San Francisco, he wished he had been better prepared to teach in a school where the students did not reflect his Tawainese-American background. The majority of his students were black, and the rest were Samoan, Ecuadoran, Salvadoran, and one was Chinese. His first conversation with a student was about race.

"A student looks at me and says, 'Do you speak English? And I said, 'Don't worry about it because I teach math.'" Cherng said the students laughed. "That was their cue that I was willing to talk about race rather than shut down the conversation," he explained. "I wasn't going to be like, 'That's racist.'"

 "We need to do a better job of training teachers to enter classrooms and work with kids who may not reflect their identities," he said. "The number one thing new teachers are asking for is more multicultural training."

In addition to shaping multicultural awareness training for future teachers, Cherng hopes the study can inform future teacher-recruitment efforts. School districts might look for teacher candidates who volunteer at community organizations serving diverse youth, since the study found that prior experience working with youth of color is linked with more multicultural awareness.

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