Reflections on the Impact of Culture in the Classroom
Gunston Middle School
Arlington County (VA) Public Schools
Submitted June 2000
A year of teaching 8th graders at Gunston Middle School provided me with many lessons on the impact of cultural differences and communication styles on the teaching-learning process. I discovered that my communication style was so different from that of my students that it led to many unpleasant and conflictive moments in the classroom. Additionally, I became more aware of my personal identity and more appreciative of the diverse cultural backgrounds of my students. This paper summarizes some observations and reflections ...view middle of the document...
As a recent migrant to the United States from Costa Rica, this fact became abundantly clear to me. I came with 14 years of teaching experience and a solid knowledge of science. I felt confident and prepared for my first teaching job. This job, however, proved to be puzzling and difficult. Besides issues of classroom management, loads of paper work, school administration and general expectations, the single most important challenge I faced was coping with the enormous culture shock I experience in the classroom. Following are my reflections on how culture and communication impacted my experience at Gunston.
What were the main cultural challenges I faced as a teacher? What were some of the areas in which my teaching style was in conflict with the learning styles of the majority of my students? To what extent did cultural differences result in class management problems?
I used entries from my personal diary, conversations with colleagues and friends, evaluations of my administrators, and copies of my disciplinary referrals of students to the principal's office to identify the major conflictive moments of this year. For most of these moments, I analyzed whether they were partially or completely based on cultural differences between my students and me. I also interpreted the results of the Questionnaire on Teacher Interaction relevant to whether differences in communication styles were partly responsible for continual conflicts between my students and me.
Findings and Reflections: Sources of Cultural Conflict
The major sources of cultural conflict I identified in my interaction with my students can be separated into two categories. One relates to the development of scientific concepts and to ways in which we see the world and try to understand it. I called these "conceptual conflicts". The other category I called "behavioral conflicts". These conflicts were related to interpersonal interactions and had to do with general expectations, attitudes and behaviors.
Conceptual conflicts. Conceptual conflicts with my Gunston students arose mainly because I approached teaching science by facilitating learning based on cognitive patterns and generalities. I tried teaching science and the world around us more by looking at and explaining patterns than by concentrating on the details. I had never experienced difficulties with this approach when teaching in my country. I found that the majority of my students in Gunston preferred to “see the trees before they saw the forest.” They were more comfortable understanding components, facts and specifics of an idea than thinking and talking about general concepts. I lost them easily because they got impatient and wanted "the bottom line." They complained that I talked "too big." I discovered the majority of my students learned through linear logic and I had to adapt my teaching style accordingly.
Another source of conceptual conflict arose from the fact that students...