Kids from immigrant families must navigate influences from a variety of sources as they form their self identity. Known as “cultural straddling,” these influences include family background, ethnicity, and socio economic status. As they enter public school, they usually find themselves in a system grounded in white, middle class norms, which adds another layer of complexity.
Immigrant students have unique social and emotional needs. They may experience conflict and violence in their neighborhood, live in impoverished circumstances or suffer the effects of the trauma from an unstable home life.
Researchers have found a link between hidden biases and behavior. Unconscious beliefs and attitudes reveal themselves in choice of language, amount of eye contact, blinking rates, smiles and other behaviors. In the classroom students pick up on these cues from educators, if only on an unconscious level.
Not supporting healthy identity formation in students from challenging backgrounds is costly. In cities like New York, many inner city youth face institutional bias and experience punitive rather than restorative measures at school far more often than their middle class peers. This sets up a dangerous trajectory that can feed the infamous “school to prison” pipeline.
Teaching is, at its core, a relational profession. If a teacher does not know how to connect with a student, they cannot teach, and the child will not learn. At the same time, teachers in urban, overcrowded classrooms cannot be expected to meaningfully “mentor” students while helping them gain ground academically.
There is hope. Professional development for teachers that includes bias assessments or methods for being more culturally inclusive in the classroom can help. Community youth organizations that have the flexibility to create culturally sensitive programming and utilize multiple forms of communication can also improve student outcomes.
However, we cannot expect to make progress toward a more equitable education system if we simply rely on public discourse. Real change requires action. Volunteering, mentoring, or otherwise supporting organizations that are striving to be culturally inclusive is critical.