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Cultural Identity and Teaching

The mission of the National Institute for Urban School Improvement
is to partner with Regional Resource Centers to develop powerful networks
of urban local education agencies and schools that embrace and implement a
data-based, continuous improvement approach for inclusive practices.
Embedded within this approach is a commitment to evidence-based practice
in early intervention, universal design, literacy and positive behavior supports.

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), of the U.S. Department of

Education, has funded NIUSI to facilitate the unification of current general and
special education reform efforts as these are implemented in the nations urban
school districts. NIUSIs creation reflects OSEPs long-standing commitment to
improving educational outcomes for all children, specifically those with
disabilities, in communities challenged and enriched by the urban experience.

Great Urban Schools: Learning Together Builds Strong Communities



Cultural Identity and Teaching

Kim Kennedy White, Metropolitan State College
Shelley Zion, University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center
Elizabeth Kozleski, Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, Arizona State University

October, 2005

This On Point is the second in a series of three On when they are with others. Other teachers are
Points that explore issues around culture and energetic and lively around their students, but
teaching. The first On Point operationalizes the need down time to refuel and ground themselves.
way in which NIUSI defines culture and how to Some teachers love routine and predictability,
think about educational settings and scenarios while other teachers become particularly
from the point of view of culture. While this On excited when routines are interrupted and
Point focuses on teachers identity, the third On they can act spontaneously. All of this is
Point in this series addresses how classrooms are shaped and reshaped by daily experiences in
enriched by the funds of knowledge and assets the classroom. The longer teachers teach, the
that children and their families bring with them more their beliefs and knowledge are
from their homes and communities. reorganized and sculpted by experience.

One thing becomes clear enough. Teaching Experience, culture, and personality are just part
as the direct delivery of some preplanned of who teachers are, and they go wherever
curriculum, teaching as the orderly and teachers goincluding their classrooms. For
scripted conveyance of information, teaching teachers from dominant cultural backgrounds
as clerking, is simply a myth. Teaching is (white, middle class teachers in the United
much larger and much more alive than that; it States), their own culture may not be something
contains more pain and conflict, more joy and they are immediately aware of because it fits
intelligence, more uncertainty and ambiguity. so seamlessly with prevailing opinions, beliefs,
It requires more judgment and energy and values, and expectations about behavior,
intensity than, on some days, seems humanly education, and life choices. Yet, many choices
possible. Teaching is spectacularly unlimited that teachers make are determined more from
(Ayres, 2001, p. 5). their cultural background than from individual
beliefs. The expectations that teachers hold for
teaching and learning are grounded in cultural
Culture matters beliefs that may be unfamiliar to students and
families from non-dominant cultures.
Teachers bring themselvestheir life
experiences, histories, and culturesinto the Teachers continually express their culture; the
classroom. They bring their assumptions and danger is being unaware of that expression.
beliefs about what a good teacher is and does, Coming to an understanding of the ways in
their knowledge of education theory, research, which ones beliefs, experiences, values, and
and human development, and their love and assumptions are linked to culture is an essential
knowledge of content areas. They bring their feature of culturally responsive practice. As
personalities and teaching styles that are Giroux (1992) says, Teachers need to find ways
shaped by social and cultural interactions. of creating a space for mutual engagement of
Some teachers are extroverted and come alive lived difference that does not require the

silencing of a multiplicity of voices by a single Teachers who understand and value their own
dominant discourse (p. 201). Cultural cultural identities recognize culture as a
responsiveness requires teachers to acknowledge complex construction. In doing so, they
and understand their own cultural values and create the possibility for deeper connections
how this impacts their own teaching practice. with their students and families. Cultural
responsivity comes from understanding self
Cultural disconnect can occur when individuals and others so that different values are
from different cultures interact. Schools in understood and respected, rather than one set
which the cultural backgrounds of teachers of values being imposed on all. Culturally
differ significantly from their students because responsive teachers can build robust learning
of ethnic, racial, linguistic, social, religious, or environments in which students and teachers
economic reasons are especially vulnerable to can build richer and deeper understandings of
cultural disconnect. For example, consider a themselves and each other as they investigate
situation in which both a teacher and the family and uncover the school curriculum.
of one of her students value education and
family. The teachers beliefs include a principle
that children should always attend school Variation in cultural
because of the learning and continuity that takes identity
place in the classroom. The family, however,
takes the student out of school for two weeks in Recognizing that everyone has unique traditions,
order to visit a grandmother who lives out of the values, and beliefs that are important to them
country. The family feels the trip is important (ethnic identity, language, religion and formal/
for the student to learn and connect with the informal community, neighborhood, and
familys elders. For them, this trip is part of their family connections) helps us to see how we are
childs education and does not hinder their connected. Researchers like Eleuterio (1997)
childs education. Conflict arises between the and Hoelscher (1999) observed that classrooms
teacher and the students family even though filled with teachers and students who openly
both value education and family. share their lives, their cultural identities, and
their life experiences build trust and foster
So, who is to say one is wrong and the other is stronger relationships. This climate leads to
right? The dominant cultural perspective will student engagement and excitement about
prevail unless teachers are able to create space learning together. Getting to this place requires
to discuss and explore a variety of values, beliefs, an understanding of the factors that influence
and expectations with the family. Teachers, individual cultural identity. Consider the
students, and families may disagree on the nature following three teachers.
and value of schoolwork; work ethics may differ
in definition; and the role of home, family, and Jane, Michael, and Frieda, are in their late
community may diverge in respect to school. twenties and work together in an urban middle

school. It would be easy to assume that Jane and became convinced that teaching was a way to
Michael share similar cultures, values, and beliefs unlock doors for other children like her. She
because both are white, while Frieda identifies prepared to be a teacher with a strong set of
herself as Latina; but teachers have particular personal beliefs about the value of education,
experiences and cultural traditionsin addition hard work, and persistence. As an adult, Jane
to their national identity. They may live in the actively participates in the Irish community;
same country, but their individual cultural she organizes activities for her local church and
identities connect them to various parts of the spends her free time studying genealogy and
world, languages, and family histories. Even teaching Irish step dancing.
cultures that seem related on the surface may
vary significantly. Think about Janes experience. Michaels cultural background is less clearly
defined. Michaels ancestors are a
Jane identifies herself as Irish American and combination of French, German, Dutch, and
grew up in a large Roman Catholic family. The English. Michaels parents were both
ancestors of both of her parents came to the professionals. His mother was a respected
United States during the Irish potato famine in architect in urban design and his father was a
the 1840s. As is common with many teachers, partner in a major law firm with a passion for
Jane is the first family member to have civil rights. Michael went to Mexico in fifth
attended college. Her father was a factory grade and developed a strong interest in
worker, subject to the unstable employment service learning to give back to the
conditions of the market, and her mother community. He graduated magna cum laude
stayed home to take care of her seven children. from a private liberal arts college in the
When Jane did well enough in school to think Midwest and is currently attending a masters
about college, her family was divided. On the program in social work. Since high school,
one hand, some members of her family felt that Michael has been a fluent Spanish speaker and
Jane had an obligation to earn money when she leads tours to Costa Rica in the summers. He
graduated from high school to support the is adept at helping his tour group to
family. Going to college seemed like a way to understand the local ecology, connect with
avoid that responsibility. On the other hand, local artisans, and explore the culture.
her father knew that Jane could have greater Growing up, he attended a Methodist church
opportunities if she went on to college. Her with his family, but currently, he is exploring
father prevailed, and Jane attended the local Eastern religions. He volunteers at a local
public college on a scholarship. There she environmental group and spends his weekends
learned to set her own goals, rather than always working in a community garden project.
defer to her familys needs. She learned to plan
for the future and create high expectations for Frieda is the first generation in her family to
herself. She was amazed at how her education grow up in the United States. Her parents
began to unlock doors in the community. Jane emigrated from El Salvador to escape political

persecution. Her family had extended roots in and Frieda share a socio-economic
El Salvador and remains connected to family background, and Michael and Jane share a
members that were left behind. Frieda prides racial background. They are all teachers, but
herself on an extensive art background that is their reasons for choosing that career path
particularly connected to pre-Columbian vary. Additionally, they have a variety of
sculpture. She took ballet and voice classes as a common interestsMichael and Frieda like to
child. Her father is a history professor at a garden and Frieda and Jane share an interest in
local college, and her mother is an elementary the arts. Getting to know them independently
school teacher. After long conversations with helps us to understand how individuals both
her mother and father, Frieda recently differ and share commonalities.
discovered that her grandparents were among
the first activists to promote pride in the We all participate in a variety of cultural
indigenous cultures of their homeland. This settings. Membership in communities,
creates some interesting conflicts for Frieda groups, and families can be a source of
who attended Catholic schools throughout her strength and promotes a sense of belonging;
schooling, including a four-year undergraduate they can also be a source of exclusion if we
Jesuit college. On the one hand, her religious are not aware of the impact that our various
background comes from the church that cultures and beliefs have on our actions.
helped to colonize her people. On the other Sharing our lives with others builds
hand, she celebrates the traditions of liberation self-esteem, self-confidence, and pride.
theology and social justice within the Catholic
Church. She chose teaching for the time
being while she continues to explore other How can teachers build
careers. Frieda aspires to a career in the awareness of their own
theater as a set designer but knows this is a culture, especially values
difficult commitment. In the meantime, she and beliefs?
leads school productions and serves as a
docent at the local botanical garden. Understanding your own cultural
background and connecting that background
As we think about these three teachers, we to the students in your classroom creates a
begin to notice shared spaces where their rich learning environment in which the
experiences and beliefs overlap and other teacher and students value each other. The
spaces in which they hold different following activities can deepen your
perspectives. The meanings that each teacher understanding of the ways in which your
has made from their individual life culture influences your practice as a teacher.
experiences may vary widely, while on the
surface they may appear similar. Frieda and Learn about your own history, heritage,
Jane share a religious background, Michael community, family, and culture, as well

as other groups to which you belong. that youd like to explore with your current
Talk to friends and family; share stories, students. Discipline yourself to journal your
and listen to the stories of others life observations; categorize some of the incidents
experiences and family histories. that happen as you move through your inquiry.
Write about your celebrations, Be sure to find someone with whom to share
traditions, beliefs, and cultural practices. your experience. Remember that learning is
Reflect on the things you value in your shaped through interaction with others.
life including significant artifacts,
customs, family events, and the ways in Write about and reflect on the current
which you celebrate them. culture in your classroom. Use the
List some characteristics of your questions as guidelines for reflecting on
culture. Consider your communication your own teaching practice:
style and other cultural norms.
Embark on a reading program. In the next Belonging How are students
few months, be purposeful about the topics greeted in my classroom? Who is silent
and authors that you select for reading. Try and who participates? What kinds of
to choose authors who represent cultures adult / student interaction patterns
that vary from your own. Read both occur? What about student to student?
fiction and nonfiction accounts of border To do this over time, you might want to
crossing, a term used to describe moving make a class list and begin to make
across racial and cultural groups. Join checks by students names as they enter
or start a reading club that engages your room. Review this information at
readers from multiple backgrounds. the end of the week, and record your
List the things that you do in your observations in a journal. Collect three
classroom that come from your cultural or four of these weekly observations
perspective. Check your list with a and share them with a colleague. Invite
teaching colleague. How are your lists a colleague to observe your classroom,
different and similar? and share notes. Are you observing
psychological or cultural differences?

How can teachers build Conduct What are the rules of

and present culture in conduct in the classroom? Who knows
their classrooms? what they are? How is following them
recognized? How are errors corrected?
Use reflection and inquiry as you explore What kinds of conduct are allowed, and
and examine how your own cultural identity what kinds are not acceptable? What
emerges and influences your professional prac- happens to students who follow the rules
tice. From the list below, choose some topics and to those who do not? How does this

affect their status in the classroom, everyone, including you, to tell or portray life
school, and their neighborhood? To stories. Work to build a strong culture outside of
answer these questions, take some data your classroom. Share plans and ideas with your
in your own classroom. You could ask peers, and seek out collaboration opportunities;
students to answer these questions in they are often where you least expect them!
small groups, and record their responses. Learn about the lives of the teachers,
Alternatively, you could observe your administrators, and staff in your building. Be
classroom carefully as you go about aware that an inclusive culture is not just about
teaching. Notice the number of times sharing cultural experiences, but about using the
that you reward and reprimand students. diverse backgrounds, values, and experiences
Write these numbers down. Also, you that individual students and teachers bring to
may begin to note the gender and race of the classroom to expand our understanding of
students. Is there a difference based on how our world works. Understanding our own
these characteristics? Watch for patterns and others culture is about creating spaces to
that emerge from your notes. Invite your not only recognize and value diverse culture,
colleague to observe your classroom, and but to support the inclusion of new values and
then discuss her observations. beliefs into our everyday lives and activities.

Learning Pay attention to these issues. Activities:

Who is earning the highest grades in your Create professional development
class? Who is engaged in learning? With opportunities that allow teachers time
whom do you spend time, and who gets to reflect on their cultural heritage with
little of your attention? How much time peers (memoir writing, artifact sharing,
do you spend giving feedback and to and shared cultural celebrations).
which students? Which students are Share your experiences, celebrations,
suggesting topics for learning and doing? and important events with your
Which students wait for you to lead students. Integrate storytelling (writing,
them? Notice patterns among boys and speaking, drawing, and creating) into
girls, among cultural and linguistic groups, your curriculum.
and among students with varying abilities. Bring in your cultural artifacts that may
or may not be familiar to students, and
have students hypothesize and discuss
Be conscious about their purpose, meaning, and value.
building an inclusive Create space that everyone in your
culture classroom can access. Together, make a
class quilt, student bulletin board, or
Share your stories about your life with students. family photo album.
Have time throughout the school year for Integrate celebrations into your classroom

in which everyone in the class can share

have the class make up their own!
Use conversations about your own
cultural background and experiences to
prompt students to share their own
backgrounds and heritage.


Ayers, W. (2001). To teach: The journey of a

teacher. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cole, M. (1996). Cultural Psychology: A once
and future discipline. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
Cultural Arts Resources for Teachers and Students
(C.A.R.T.S.). Retrieved March 10, 2005,
Eleuterio, S. (1997). Folk culture inspires writing
across the curriculum. C.A.R.T.S. Newsletter, 4.
Giroux, H. (1992). Border crossings: Cultural
workers and the politics of education. New
York: Routledge Press.
Haberman, M. (1995). Star teachers of children in
poverty. West Lafayette, IN: Kappa Delta Pi.
Haberman, M., & Post, L. (1998). Teachers for
multicultural schools: The power of selection.
Theory into Practice, 37(2), 96-104.
Hoelscher, K. J. (1999). Cultural watersheds:
Diagramming ones own experience of
culture. Social Studies & the Young Learner,
12(2), 12-14.
Library of Congress American Memory
Collection. Retrieved March 12, 2005, fro m
Teachers Guide to Folklife Resources for K-12
Classrooms. Retrieved February 24, 2005, fro

Produce high achieving students.

Construct education for
social justice, access and equity.

Expand students life opportunities,
available choices and community contributions.

Build on the extraordinary resources that
urban communities provide for life-long learning.

Use the valuable knowledge and experience that
children and their families bring to school learning.

Need individuals, family organizations and communities to
work together to create future generations of possibility.

Practice scholarship by creating partnerships
for action-based research and inquiry.

Shape their practice based on evidence of what
results in successful learning of each student.

Foster relationships based on care,
respect and responsibility.

Understand that people learn in different
ways throughout their lives.

Respond with learning
opportunities that work.

Great Urban Schools: Learning Together Builds Strong Communities


National Institute for

Urban School Improvement
PO BOX 872011
TemPe, ARIzONA 85287-2011

PhONe : 480.965.0391
FAX: 480.727.7012

EmAIL: NIusI @


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Office of Special Education Programs
Award No. H326B020002
Project Officer: Anne Smith

Great Urban Schools: Learning Together Builds Strong Communities