As I gave one of my international students feedback at my desk, I noticed he stood too close for my comfort. I inched away from him, and in response, he moved closer. We did this until I could move no further and had to ask him to step back. It was not the first time something like this had happened to me. I had worked with many students from other countries whose cultural rules of proximity were different from my own. This cultural difference was obvious, but what about when it is not so obvious, as in the case of subtle differences between people from the same country? The heterogeneity in the US means that students bring a variety of cultures, knowledge, and languages into the classroom. Do our approaches to our students and teaching fully appreciate this richness of diversity?
I have had the great fortune in the first part of my career to teach students, mainly ages 18 and up, as an ESL instructor and a first-year and graduate writing instructor. I am also an African American who went to predominantly white K–12 private schools and later came to see my own culture through African American studies. Through my teaching experience and positionality, I have come to understand ways of approaching education so that all students are valued.
The importance of seeing culture
From teaching ESL, I understand the importance of seeing culture. Students come into our classrooms and offices with their own knowledge, behaviors, and practices that come from their experiences and the cultural frameworks of their home communities. As Freire (1968/2018) said, students are not just empty receptacles for educators to deposit knowledge. There are great bodies of research, such as culturally relevant pedagogy, culturally responsive teaching, and Freire’s pedagogy of the oppressed, that purport that students learn better when the curriculum is relevant to their experiences and when their knowledges are acknowledged. In my teaching, I do this by learning who students are beyond the classroom—who is important to them, what do they enjoy doing, and what really matters to them? I can then draw on this as I create lessons, facilitate discussions, and make assignments.
Seeing culture also means reflecting on our experiences and recognizing how our beliefs and interactions are informed by culture. Culture is ingrained in our everyday lives, and it often becomes visible only when someone doesn’t adhere to our cultural norms. These moments are not always obvious, especially when they happen with those, such as other Americans, whom we expect to have the same values and practices we do. I went to a presentation where the speaker mentioned that it is common for medical students at HBCUs to support each other so that they all finish the program. I was surprised when someone asked whether the lack of competitiveness hindered these students. After reflection, I realized that the question surprised me because of my own cultural value of collaboration over competition. Reflection allowed me to understand the values informing how I viewed the interaction.
Once we see culture, we can also understand why some students choose not to wholeheartedly adopt academic values that do not align with their own. I worked with a PhD student who volunteered because she valued supporting her community. Thus, she chose to continue volunteering despite her advisor’s urging her to give it up to focus on her research. Was there a consequence for this decision? Yes. She would likely have a longer timeline to earning her degree. For students in other situations, it might be a lower grade or having a professor believe they don’t work hard enough. The trade-off for rejecting academic values may be negative, but students may be willing to make that exchange if it prioritizes their values.
Validating home languages
As part of seeing culture, it is also important to respect students’ home languages. Obviously, I could not escape seeing home language in an ESL classroom. But all educators deal with language as they give lectures, ask students to respond to questions, and give reading and writing assignments. Our classrooms are instructions in the standards of academic language, regardless of what subjects we teach.
Having changed my accent in secondary school so as not to be ridiculed by peers, I understand the potential consequences of adhering to the standard. I have often regretted changing my accent because it connected me to my community. When I changed it, adults complimented my “proper” English, but my grandfather, whom I love dearly, seemed embarrassed talking to me because of his “broken” English. Moreover, the messaging embedded in my peers’ ridicule was one of many messages in school that my community, where my so-called nonstandard language is in fact the standard, was inadequate and of little value.
By validating students’ home languages, educators change this negative messaging and show appreciation for the richness students bring from their communities. After all, language is part of what Yosso (2005) called community cultural wealth. My experience took place in a classroom of my peers, but I wish a teacher would have intervened indirectly by validating all language traditions in class. This teacher could have said what my history professor with a thick Southern accent told us: his accent was even more difficult to understand when he spoke with his family. His point was that he did not have to give up his home language just to be in an academic or professional space, and neither did we.
Why does it matter?
The most important lesson I learned working with international students, living in other countries, and reflecting on my own experiences is that mainstream American culture—including all the academic standards and values that are part of this culture’s educational system—is not the norm because there is no norm. There is a plethora of ways that students and their communities are seen as deficient because the so-called norm couples with all our social -isms to create systemic injustice. Too often, our educational system reinforces stereotypes and puts students onto negative pathways because they do not live in a certain neighborhood, they go to underserved schools, they come from marginalized backgrounds, and so on. As educators, we make and uphold the standards of our institutions. Let’s not do this blindly. Instead, we can choose to approach our work in ways that value the many cultures, forms of knowledge, and languages that all our students carry into the classroom.
Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed: 50th anniversary edition (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). Bloomsbury Academic. (Original work published 1968)
Yosso, T. J. (2005). Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. Race Ethnicity and Education, 8(1), 69–91. https://doi.org/10.1080/1361332052000341006
Teranda Donatto is an educator who has taught in the US, South Korea, and France. Currently, she is a PhD student studying higher education at the University of Houston. She holds master’s degrees in Africology and African American studies from Temple University and in English from the University of Alabama.