MANCHESTER — Staff and faculty for the Manchester School District attended a professional development session on cultural diversity Tuesday. It was the last day of the school year in the district, as they were challenged to have the humility and strength to examine their attitudes on race and class and culture and “learn to see the things we are conditioned not to see.”
That was an important part of the message delivered by Dr. Paul Gorski, an associate professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who spoke about cultural diversity awareness.
Gorski acknowledged the red shirts worn by many members of the Manchester Education Association in the Practical Arts building auditorium at Manchester High School Central. “What we need in the schools today is that sense of solidarity,” Gorski said.
A consultant, presenter and trainer who provides guidance to schools and communities committed to equity and diversity, Gorski sympathized with the job of teachers whose students are constantly tested. “There’s a lot of pressure ... to close those achievement gaps,” he said.
But instead of resorting to stereotypes or looking for scapegoats, he urged his listeners not to pass down pressures they are feeling to students and not to teach to the tests.
Gorski cautioned against accepting deficit ideology. Saying parents don’t care or that students don’t want to learn are examples of deficit ideology, he said, and it’s important to get rid of passing the blame down the line.
But he admitted: “There is no silver bullet ... no simple set of strategies.” One of the problems is that most inequity is implicit, he said: “The stereotype is programmed into us.”
For example, he said, when students are complimented, boys are usually praised for their intelligence. What are girls most complimented on? Members of the audience called out and he agreed. “Yes, appearance,” he said. So why do we wonder, he said, why some girls dress the way they do when they get to middle school?
He asked: “Do we have the humility to reflect on that?”
Gorski asked the audience to remember a time when a teacher made us feel part of the group and supported, and then to remember a time when we felt excluded and humiliated. He said we remember those times, but, if asked, the teachers wouldn’t. He gave two such examples in his life, saying they had a lasting effect. He urged those in the audience to examine their assumptions about individual students, assumptions that are sometimes based on color or country of origin or economic status.
“Every family in this district wants their kids to succeed in school,” he said. “Your goals are the same as parents,” he said, despite occasional clashes.
He acknowledged that teachers sometimes feel beaten down and that’s when they are likely fall into reciting examples of deficit ideology. “Diversity is not the issue,” he said. Too often, we assign differences to students based on stereotypes that are not valid, he said.
Having said there are not 10 strategies for ensuring success for all students, Gorski offered a number of suggestions, suggesting audience members could pick and choose.
One of the simplest, but very important strategies is to learn to pronounce a student’s full name correctly, even if it requires repeated help from the student. “Children shouldn’t have to check their identities at the door,” he said, and use an Anglicized name for the teacher’s benefit.
Among the others: review learning materials for subtle bias, because using it is an endorsement; incorporate arts and movement into teaching, because studies show it has the biggest impact on marginalized students; have high expectations for all students, because they will work up to the curriculum; create opportunities for involving families, including those who work multiple jobs and/or lack transportation during normal meeting times; reach out to low income, English Language Learner and other families for whom school sometimes has been a hostile place.
Gorski urged those in the audience to remember that we think of “our group” as very diverse, but we often think of other groups as monolithic.
When it comes to making those changes necessary to ensure all children reach their full potential, Gorski assured his audience: “Nobody can do this better than educators. We are built for this.”
After Gorski’s speech, attendees broke into groups to discuss what they had heard.