Why is it important for teachers to understand students' culture and backgrounds in an effort to address challenging behaviors?

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There are several reasons why it is important for a teacher to understand his or her students.  First of all, culture and background are generalities.  They are shared experiences, traditions, and deeply held beliefs that make a person who he or she is.  However, just because a person belongs to...

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There are several reasons why it is important for a teacher to understand his or her students.  First of all, culture and background are generalities.  They are shared experiences, traditions, and deeply held beliefs that make a person who he or she is.  However, just because a person belongs to a particular religion or ethnic group does not mean that generalities can be attributed to him or her.

What teachers need to understand is the neighborhood their students are from, including the socioeconomic and political landscape.  Is this a place where the housekeeper does the laundry, or where you will get jumped if you don’t have a gang affiliation?  Teachers also need to know how closely their students buy those stereotypes.  Do they believe them? Do they see themselves as trapped or entitled?

When a child exhibits “problem behaviors” toward a teacher, they rarely originate in that moment.  In other words, there is usually a pattern of behavior that sometimes goes back years.  Sometimes the problem is that the teacher views the behavior as a problem, and the student does not.  Does the child belong to a household where everyone talks at once, and this is accepted?  The child will continue to act this way at school.  Does the child come from a culture where teachers are considered the help, and looked down on and ordered around?  This child is not going to listen to you.

Even if it’s not a mindset, consider that what happens at home affects school.  Was there a fight last night?  Was there a shooting?  How long has Dad been away on business?  Are the kids raised by nannies more than parents?  What happens in life influences the way a child acts just as much as the culture.  Background is important too.  As Eric Jensen notes in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, “faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront” (Ch. 2).  These challenges include not knowing where the next meal is going to come from, of course, but they also include less definable sensation of not having a future. 

Kids in middle class and affluent households will tell you they want to go to college.  Kids in poverty will tell you this when they are small, but by middle and high school most of them have stopped believing it can happen.  This is an attitude that can lead to conflict, and behavior problems with teachers.  The teacher stops being the window to the future and becomes another barrier to it.  Unfortunately, for too many of them school is just about posturing and saving face, and more for socializing until they drop out.

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