How Can We Better Understand Our Students? Build a Cultural Bridge

By Verona Holder, Hawaii Hope Street Group State Fellow

I have been teaching for a total of 14 years and every year has been a learning experience for me both professionally and personally. I do my best each day to respect others’ thoughts and feelings and to always take them seriously. I believe it is important for every teacher to do the same, especially when teaching in an area where the cultures of their students may be different than their own.

My interest in other people’s cultures started when I was very young. For as long as I can remember, culture has been an integral part of my daily life. Although I was born in the United States, both of my parents and all of their families are from the Caribbean islands. They were intentional about embedding their culture into our daily lives. Their family members were constant guests in our house throughout our childhood. I always enjoyed listening to their beautiful accents and stories about our other family members and the way they lived their lives now. I savored the foods that were part of our heritage and watched and listened carefully, hoping to replicate the same meals when I grew up. I took delight in the traditional celebrations that were special to my family and planned how my future family would carry them on.

I grew up in an area of South Florida that was extremely diverse. My classmates came from all areas of South America, the Caribbean, and the United States. I couldn’t wait for each school year to roll around so I could have another opportunity to meet people from a different culture than mine. Once I made a new friend, I made a point to learn more about their culture. This was natural for us.

We shared with each other by spending time together during school and engaging in conversations. I spent much time with my closest friends’ families, listening to the beautiful accents and languages of their parents and savoring their delicious foods. I was honored when I was included in the traditional celebrations that were special to their families and was always honored when they would share time with me and my family.

When I married my husband, again I was ready to be immersed in a new culture. I had never met a person from Europe, and now I was married to an Englishman. Throughout our 18 years of marriage, I’ve been able to meet his family members, listen to their beautiful accents, and hear the stories about the places they have lived. He shares the food of his culture through the delicious meals that he prepares for our family. I have learned about his traditions and our celebrations have been meshed into one.

As a teacher, I engage in learning about the cultures of my students. I’m amazed not only at the differences, but the many similarities between my culture, the culture of my childhood friends, my husband’s culture, and the multiple cultures of my students. I believe that it is my job as a teacher to facilitate the exchange of cultures between myself and my students.

Each year, my new set of students become members of my family. When they walk into my classroom, I let them know “You are now not only my students, you are my children. I intend to treat you like my children. I am here to support you, to encourage you, and to help you become a better version of yourself. I want you to treat your classmates like they are a part of your family, as well. You may have disagreements, but I expect you to respect each other, and do all that you can to work them out.”

Moving from Georgia, to California, and now to Hawaii, I have been able to learn so much from my students and my co-workers. I am honored to share in their cultures through discussions, social gatherings, and the sharing of celebrations and traditions. It has added to the depth and breadth of my knowledge as a person and as an educator. I am open and willing to understand where they are coming from and to adapt to their expectations and cultural norms. I am always happy to share what I have learned with others, and I do believe that it helps us to build a special bond.

As teachers, we should all do our best to learn and grow with our students. It can be as in-depth as an “All About Me” that includes pictures and descriptions about their favorite foods, cultural celebrations, and countries of origin. Or, it can be as simple as 10 minute structured daily discussions where we engage with each other and share information about our lives. Hopefully, when students leave our classrooms, they will be one step closer to learning how to immerse themselves in the cultures of others in order to grow as individuals. This is my goal as a teacher, and my hope is to one day pass on my passion for learning about cultures to other teachers.

Verona Holder is a fifth grade teacher at Mililani Waena Elementary School on the island of Oahu. She enjoys traveling and learning about people. She hopes to spread her love of learning about cultures. Find her @holder_verona on Twitter!

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