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Finding diversity in a rural classroom

4 min read

Voice of the Educator

Reading Todd Finley’s recent article, Helping Diverse Learners Succeed, I was struck by the power of the argument concerning characteristics of the cultural deficit model and what this means in small rural communities. For years now, here in the heartland, we have struggled to grasp the real impact of a lack of “cultural capital” on student learning, often associating it as a symptom of urban chaos, and therefore less relevant in a rural setting.

Adequately preparing pre-service teachers to work effectively with a diverse student population is a sizable challenge when you work in western Kansas! Students tend to come from small rural towns in this part of the state. Many of them have every intention to leave home for just enough time to earn their degree but then return to their roots and teach in the same school system just as soon as a suitable opening presents itself.

Relaying the need for them to become culturally responsive teachers can be a stretch at best, with many simply not seeing the relevance of such training to their particular circumstance. “Besides,” they tell me with a knowing smile, “there’s not too much diversity in a town of 1,000 people, all of whom have known each other’s families for generations!”

They may have a point. Certainly cultural diversity looks very different in rural Kansas than it does in a larger metropolis. Yet I still sense an overwhelming surge of inadequacy when I read on student teacher lesson plans: “The class does not really have much diversity, all of the students except one are white!” With the natural tendency to focus all energy towards the most obvious racial, ethnic, socio-economic or gender manifestations of diversity, other, more subtle dimensions, such as religious or political values, physical ability, sexual orientation or health status can easily be forgotten. This is especially true in close-knit rural communities where such differences can often be hidden well.

For years, motivated and talented educators have wrestled with the responsibility of raising the performance of marginalized students, based upon the intense complexity of the issues that surround them. Comforted by the notion that “my classroom is color blind,” or “I treat all kids the same,” teachers rest well, assured that their responsibility is met at the point of equal opportunity. In reality, this approach is far from adequate. It is understandable that good teachers – good people – feel that they are meeting the diversity standard if they welcome all children into their class and are willing to give everyone the same chance and the same support. However, as with so many situations, equity is not always fair.

For so many of our pre-service teachers (and perhaps for many already in the field) this is a particularly difficult concept to become comfortable with. When diversity is not always readily apparent, when it cannot be seen or is not openly declared, regardless of the reason, it becomes far more complex to resolve. And even when obvious, it can still be a challenge. While it is easy to acknowledge that not all students go home to the support and environment necessary for successful learning, it is far more challenging to accept that it might be necessary to change the entire role that homework should play in a classroom. Such a bold move takes a level of fortitude the system rarely rewards.

The challenge will not be resolved until we invert the premise. We can no longer discuss diversity in terms of equity of access – though this remains a critical issue throughout the nation’s schools – we must, instead, begin to discuss it in terms of equity of outcome. Only then can we genuinely address the problem. The measure of diverse learners’ success in our schools should be based upon how the students exit each classroom rather than how they enter them. As uncomfortable and as difficult as it will be to accomplish such a paradigm shift, if we genuinely seek to meet the needs of a diverse student population, it must become our single-minded vision.

Adam Holden has been a school administrator in both the private and public education systems of Europe and the United States for more than 25 years. Adam is a two-time recipient of the National Blue Ribbon of Excellence, is a qualified IBO Head of School, an authorized Google Education Trainer and now heads the, nationally ranked, Department of Teacher Education at Fort Hays State University. Adam is a proponent of innovative, creative, culturally diverse, and blended educational experiences.

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