Teaching in a diverse classroom

Rohan from Iran, Hillary from Vietnam, Shoshana from The Philippines, and Sadie from Canada. They met in class, achieved considerable success as a supportive team and became friends for life.

Blinded by the white

“Of all the approaches mentioned in this chapter, I feel that team-teaching with colleagues who share different racial backgrounds, personalities and learning styles is the most helpful.” – Stephen Brookfield, author of The Skillful Teacher

My five years of teaching with Royal Roads University introduced me to students from around the world. Intercultural learning is a big part of that university’s offerings. In fact, their learning, teaching and research model is centred on students becoming “citizens of the world”.

International students comprised a large portion of my class population and, for many, English was a language these students were still learning. That said, many of the international students I taught spoke more than one language over and above English and their native language, an intellectual feat rare among North American white folk. Myself included.

The photo above is particularly dear to my heart as these four women from four different countries became a close, fierce foursome, modeling a way to make the most of their education by learning from and supporting one another in my English-speaking and writing classes.

I had the pleasure of teaching these women in two courses as they defined success on many levels including diversity. They delivered terrific work which made their bond stronger and influenced those around them. One was a published writer and therefore a stronger student, yet, she was so affable and generous, she helped and inspired the other three to do their best work.

I take no credit for their success; they found one another in class and figured things out for themselves. From time to time, they reached out to me for support, but the power of their friendship was truly a beautiful thing to behold as an instructor. They all wanted to do their very best work. And I believe their diversity was a contributing factor to that success.

As with Brookfield’s comments on teaching in a diverse classroom, these four were their own “team-teachers”. I was a facilitator who played back-up and I see now how I could not have provided them with the same learning experience as they found within their own group.

Empowering students to break away from people of their own cultural family, especially white students, is a keen desire of mine and yet something I have not tried in the classroom. I don’t speak about diversity, largely because I feel that I don’t know enough about cultural acumen.

Case in point: In my work at UVic, our faculty attracts a high number of Indigenous students and scholars due to the number of degrees and specializations available centred on Indigenous learning. Programs with Indigenous courses include public administration, governance, nursing, social work, child care, public health and social policy. We are also the only faculty on campus with an Indigenous Student Support Centre.

Years back, my Dean and I met with the centre’s two leads to discuss ways we could encourage a higher level of engagement with our Indigenous students. Bottom line: the centre was being under-used and its role and objectives were falling into question.

During this conversation, we proposed possible ways to heighten interest and participation in the centre’s services, when one of the leads said, and I am paraphrasing, “Look, we are not here to be your token Indians that you get to fix and celebrate as your success story. Leave us alone. We have the ability, thank you, to sort this out for ourselves.”

Strong language, to be sure, but the point this Indigenous graduate made was quite clear and one I will not forget.

“Becoming aware of whiteness is the beginning of creating an anti-racist identity for whites.” Brookfield writes in Helping Whites Become Aware of Whiteness. a forthcoming chapter posted to his website, Stephen Brookfield. ”This is because whiteness as an identity is connected to power; in particular, the way that a learned blindness to racial inequality helps maintain a system that exhibits structural exclusion and normalizes brutality.”

There are many examples of this exclusion and brutality in Canada and in the United States and our headlines today are chock full. Today’s New York Times features a story by Nelson D. Schwartz, titled, Working From Home Poses Hurdles for People of Colour, which explains how diversity is at risk in the online workplace.

“With fewer connections and less extensive networks than white colleagues to begin with, Black and Hispanic workers can find themselves more isolated than ever in a world of Zoom calls and virtual forums. Assignments end up flowing to people who look more like top managers — a longstanding issue — while workers of color hesitate to raise their voices during online meetings, said Sara Prince, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey.

“It’s a critical issue, and there is a real risk facing diversity and inclusion in the current environment,” said Ms. Prince, who is African American. “When the leader is looking for someone to take up the mantle, most of them go to the comfort zone of people who remind them of themselves. This is exacerbated by the virtual office.”

“The unmanaged outcome is more isolation, less advancement, more job losses, and a real retrenchment in the progress around diversity and inclusion,” Ms. Prince said.

With these thoughts in mind, I have genuine concern for how university students of colour will fare as they start school this fall, learning online in record numbers. Do educators have this level of understanding to nurture essential connections with and among their non-white students?

More on this issue in my next blog, next week.

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Brookfield, S. (2014) The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust and Responsiveness in the Classroom. Wiley.

Schwartz, N. (2020) Working From Home Poses Hurdles for People of Colour. New York Times, Economy section.

University of Victoria, (2020) Faculty of Human and Social Development, Indigenous Student Support Centre.

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