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Leading Edge Blog

Supporting Teachers to Support Diverse Learners

Guest blog by Josh Englehart, Ed.S., Ph.D., Superintendent, Painesville City Schools

A major point of pride in Painesville City Schools is our diversity. Fifty-three percent of our students are Hispanic, 20% are white, 18% are black, and 9% are multi-racial. One out of every four of our students is an English Language Learner. Our students come to us from a wide variety of backgrounds, with a vast array of different experiences.

While this kind of diversity brings irreplaceable richness and value to the district, it also presents challenges. Not unlike most districts, our instructional staff is very homogeneous, coming from predominantly white, middle-class backgrounds. While they are incredibly talented, caring, and dedicated professionals, a potential "cultural distance" between them and their students can present difficulties in forming impactful relationships and maximizing the effectiveness of their instruction. This is a notion which is becoming increasingly important to districts of ALL types; cultural differences between teachers and students are quite common (whether or not they are readily apparent on the surface), and those differences matter.

Faced with the challenge of teaching students from cultural backgrounds different from their own, teachers need more than broad, shallow guidance like "build relationships", "hold high expectations" and "maintain rigor". They need substantive engagement with thoughtful content which recognizes the depth and complexity of the role that diversity plays in teaching and learning. But with a topic as expansive and deep as diversity, it can be difficult for leaders to determine how and where to start.

Here's where OLAC can help. The Educational Equity: Understanding Why It’s So Important module seeks to translate the abstract notion of "holding high expectations for all" into more concrete, actionable terms. It builds real meaning around the impact of teacher expectations, supported by empirical research. The module goes on to speak to some actual practices which are indicative of high expectations in action. The content is applicable to all learners of all backgrounds. It illustrates that holding high expectations is not as simple of just "raising the bar" for achievement standards and stepping back to see whether or not students can "clear the bar". The expectations of us as educators in providing accessibility must be every bit as high as the achievement expectations we place before students.

Going deeper still, the OLAC Culturally Responsive Practices Program is a series of courses designed to guide educators through what it means in theory and practice to be culturally mindful in teaching and interacting with students. It is a well-defined program which makes potentially difficult concepts approachable and germane. The program gives a careful and thorough treatment of the meaning of cultural responsiveness and its significance to our professional practice. It proceeds from the conceptual to the granular, culminating in subject-specific strategies for culturally responsive teaching. Because it is organized in a progressive series, it provides multiple "jumping in" points and can be accessed in part or in whole, depending on the needs and the knowledge base of the individual/school/district. Each course is accompanied by a facilitator guide, making delivery of the content more manageable and less intimidating.

This content across these resources has been instrumental in our consciously and purposely closing the teacher-student cultural distance, thereby increasing our capacity to serve our students and community. It has helped us to understand that making proper connections for and with our students requires us to truly know ourselves as educators in addition to knowing our students as individuals. It has led us to more clearly conceptualize our roles as public servants in addition to our roles as educators.

In pursuit of being more effective with student diversity and becoming more culturally responsive, there is not really a "destination" at which one can arrive. It is a duty which requires continual discussion, critical analysis of practices, and profound reflection, purposely keeping questions of equity and access at the forefront. In a pursuit as consequential as this, resources such as those provided by OLAC are invaluable.