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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 7

Voices: The Teacher / Celebrating Diversity

      Like most first-year teachers, I entered my high school classroom thinking that my job was to mold students. I was to be the potter; they, the clay. It didn't take me long to realize that I faced a formidable challenge.
      It was 1969—but it might have been any other year. I was the teacher—they were teenagers. Looking into their cynical faces, I realized that more than just a few feet separated us. Their outrageous dress and undaunted expressions let me know that I had nothing new to tell them. It was a typical case of youth sizing up adults. But we faced not only a generational gap but a cultural one as well. When these South Bronx students spoke, their language reflected a mixture of Spanish (or Puerto Rican) with a generous sprinkling of profanity. Viewing myself as a missionary, I thought that, in due time, I could get through to them.
      On my third day of teaching remedial English, I had an experience that shattered my confidence. Armed with Warriner's English Grammar and Composition, I stood at the front of the classroom explaining the error of using dangling participles. The fact that no one seemed to be listening had no effect on me. As I wrote on the chalkboard, a book whizzed past my head. That did affect me. Struggling to appear composed and in charge, I asked, "Who threw the book?" Two students, then 5 students, then 25 students, then the entire class of 34 students raised their hands. I left my classroom that Friday and vowed never to return. But I did. Pride and sheer stubbornness would not let me give up without a fight.
      The following Monday, armed with still another lesson plan on dangling participles, I noticed that one of the most hostile students was actually reading something. The book that had captured his attention was a New York Driver's Manual. A light bulb went off in my head. Later, I headed for the Motor Vehicle Department. There I picked up 35 free copies of my new text, the New York Driver's Manual. By the end of the first week, I was feeling a sense of purpose and accomplishment. For the first time, my students seemed interested in learning.
      What did I learn from this experience? Lots of things. First, I learned the value of making learning meaningful to students. Because my students longed for that much coveted driver's license, they welcomed the opportunity to study the driver's manual in school. With a little creativity, I even discovered that I could to teach every reading and writing skill prescribed in the curriculum (including dangling participles).
      Second, I learned the importance of hanging in there and not giving up. As a new teacher in the school, I was fortunate to receive support from more experienced colleagues.
      After more than 26 years as an educator, I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been had I not returned to my classroom. Reflecting on that first week of teaching, however, I understand why many new teachers choose not to return. If we are to retain new teachers, schools must provide them with support. Teachers, especially those entering the field today, need mentors, experienced professionals who will help them through the difficult times.
      Perhaps the most important lesson I learned from my first week of teaching was the danger of narrow-mindedness. Teaching in a culturally diverse community, I advanced through four stages of responding to this unfamiliar diversity: rejection, tolerance, acceptance, and celebration. Entering my classroom with a preconceived notion of what students should look, act, and be like, I operated at stage one, rejection. I rejected my students and resolved to change them. The assumption from which I was operating was that if my students were not like me, then they were less than me. My job as their teacher was to make them as acceptable (as much like me) as I could. My efforts proved futile.
      On day three of my teaching experience, I advanced to stage two, tolerance. Having a book thrown at me forced me to realize that if I were going to survive in this alien, hostile environment, I would have to undergo an attitude adjustment or, at the very least, pretend to do so. My attitude at this stage was, "Ok, my students are not like me, and they can be who they are as long as they stay on their side of the world."
      As I began to relate to my students as capable and intelligent individuals, I slowly advanced to stage three, acceptance. I began to feel connected to my students. I found myself celebrating with students who passed the tests for their drivers' permits and commiserating with those who did not. Instead of trying to mold my students, I found myself wanting to learn more about who they were. Rather than rejecting their world or trying to make it over for them, I accepted their invitation to experience as much of it as I could.
      Once I began to experience their worlds, I entered the final stage of responding to diversity, celebration. It was at this stage that I began to appreciate the beauty of being different and realized the strength of diversity. I wanted my classroom to be a place where students could share differences as well as find common ground. In time, I came to realize that it is in finding that common ground that we discover our humanity.
      Since that first week of teaching 27 years ago, I have had many opportunities to interact with people different from me and with ideas different from mine. I would like to think that I continue to operate at stage four, but at times I find myself regressing. When that happens, I'm reminded of the book that whizzed past my head my third day of school. That memory usually keeps me in check.

      Aretha B. Pigford has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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